The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epics

  Tsagalis, Christos. 2008. The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 29. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


Homeric studies have shown a remarkable dynamism as they still stand (more than 200 years after Wolf’s seminal Prolegomena ad Homerum) at the forefront of scholarly research in the field of Classics. During the second half of the last century, the evolution of Homeric studies has been primarily, though not solely, boosted by the exploration of the oral nature of archaic epic and the subsequent study of orality as a phenomenon opposed to literacy. The study of oral poetics has opened the door to the world of oral or oral-based cultures and has subsequently paved the way for understanding and appreciating a new form of Poetics, long needed in order to glance into a culture so different, and yet so similar to our own.

The title of this Book (The Oral Palimpsest) is based on a deliberately employed oxymoron. Notwithstanding the fact that the word palimpsest [1] (codex rescriptus) belongs to the realm of manuscript and not oral tradition, I regard it as an apt metaphor for describing the scope of this work. During a long process of shaping, the Homeric tradition has absorbed, altered, disguised, and reappropriated mythical, dictional, and thematic material of various sorts and from different sources. In that sense it is like an oral palimpsest, “to be ‘erased’ and re-‘written’ in accordance with traditional structure and within the limits of the multiform idiom.” [2] Mythical fragmentation and dictional ellipsis [3] constitute two useful gateways leading to multiple other traditions that need to be retrieved in order to comprehend, evaluate, and appreciate the level of sophistication epic song-traditions display. Muellner’s powerful insights about the interlocking of Homeric (Iliadic) and Hesiodic (Theogonic) narratives with respect to the patterning of ‘wrath’ (μῆνις) have opened the way for a redefinition of intertextuality in oral traditions. [4] More recently, Burgess has convincingly argued that the individual poems that later became parts of the Epic Cycle “would have been continually re-created and eventually crystallized in performance traditions of the Archaic Age.” [5] Within this framework, cross-references and some form of quoting must have been possible, the more so since ‘Theogonic’, ‘Theban’, and ‘Trojan’ material formed integral phases of what we might call ‘the past’. Oral epic traditions grew out of a continuous interaction and reshaping of traditional material, which had already been arranged by consistent bardic performance.

In fact, the very idea of the classical author is intricately connected to the idea of the poet as maker, a concept directly relevant to the emergence of the medium of writing that is responsible for the transmission of Homeric poetry in later times. Conversely, in an ancient song-culture the person who weaves the song, the bard or the singer, does not have complete control of the various pathways opened by unraveling the mythical fabric he uses. Like internet-oriented browsing on the web, ancient listeners are able to exercise their control over the multiple paths emerging as the song is expressed. This result stems from the very nature of the web of myth, whose decentralization and multifariousness invites the audience to create their own referential avenues, beyond the control of the singer. Such an evaluative process is an inherent part of the very performance of epic song, since there is no almighty author but an omnipotent song-tradition weaving its own nexus of associations, evoking other traditions or versions at will, immersing its listeners to an intertext of mythical cross-references.

By exploring intertextuality, I attempt to map out and discuss (a) relations between recognizable song-traditions, (b) epic self-reflexive tendencies, i.e. meta-traditional intertextuality, (c) diachronically diffused associations between ‘Homer’ and non-identifiable traditions reconstructed by the exploration of older Indo-European strata, and (d) intertextual allusions which explain intratextual ‘sequences’, i.e. combinations of interacting parts acquiring their full meaning only when placed within a wider intertext.

In Part One of this book, I engage in an examination of intertextual relations between recognizable song-traditions. All four chapters of this first part focus on female figures in both the Iliad and Odyssey. The search for a general female reading of Homer is bound to bear all the interpretive extremities its analogous male-centered approach has reached in the past. Instead of suggesting an alternative female-based pattern for an overall analysis of the poems, I explore one of the ways the Homeric tradition uses principal female characters—to conjure up other rival traditions whose vagaries it overcomes by interweaving them into its own song. Bearing the mythological armature of the male protagonists but not necessarily their epic Weltanschauung, women allow the epic to complete, enrich, and even redetermine its cross-textual relations with other song-traditions. They open intertextual windows by which bard and audience can temporarily glance at other mythical versions, whose varied fabrics have been stitched up by the poikilia of Homeric song-making. In this light, the Iliadic and Odyssean song-traditions have surpassed an initial gender-based scissiparity between male and female heroes based on plot-requirements, only to turn it into a sophisticated mechanism of inter-textual ‘play’.

To ascertain its poetic supremacy over rival ‘Return-songs’, the Odyssey skillfully invents an intertextual metalanguage. To this end, Agamemnon, hero of the Nostoi, ironically becomes the very mouthpiece of the Odyssey’s declaration of its poetic status. Here, as in the aforementioned cases, the process of reconstructing the whole mythical nexus is effectuated by understanding that the Iliad is using female figures not only as plot agents but also as intertextual pathways leading to the retrieval of necessary information. Using a suitable analogy from the field of textual criticism and transposing it to the field of the study of myth in an oral tradition, we can see how epic poetry encapsulates material from other mythical traditions. Deprived of the means available to a modern editor (the printed page, the footnoted text, the character and font variations), oral epic traditions create their own referential avenues. Under this scope, Penelope’s positive evaluation through her loyalty to Odysseus is emphatically opposed to Clytaemestra’s negative coloring through her paragonal betrayal of Agamemnon. These two female figures emblematize the sophisticated vocabulary of the Odyssean intertextual metalanguage, which is further strengthened by heavy-loaded metapoetic terminology such as ‘pleasing song’ (χαρίεσσα ἀοιδή) and ‘hateful song’ (στυγερὴ ἀοιδή). In this way, intertextual cross-referencing becomes the metonymical vehicle through which the Odyssey bolsters its self-referential encomium.

In Chapter Three, I apply this approach to the Nausicaa-Odysseus episode in Odyssey vi and show how the Odyssean visualization of their meeting in Scheria reflects the poem’s ‘treatment’ of a rival poetic tradition, reflected later on in the epic poem Cypria. When Odysseus compares Nausicaa to a shoot (ἔρνος) he had seen in Delos (Odyssey vi 163), the Odyssey is alluding to the episode of his visit to Apollo’s sacred island, in order to bring to Troy the daughters of Anius. These are called Oinotropoi, since they have received from their ancestor Dionysus the gift of producing olive-oil (Elais), wine (Oino), and seed (Spermo). By scrutinizing the entire mythical intertext upon which this cross-reference is based, I suggest that we should rethink the function of mythical allusion and broaden the range of its application. Under the light of these observations, I attempt (a) to explore how the Odyssey might not have erased all traces of the version offered by the Cypria-tradition and (b) to show how the Nausicaa-Odysseus episode represents a fusion of the Cypria-oriented episode of the Oinotropoi with features pertaining to an Odyssean visualization of Odysseus.

Chapter Four is a study of a different kind of cross-reference. After the meeting between Odysseus and Penelope at the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus informs his wife about his desire to leave her once more, in order to fulfill a prophecy given to him by Teiresias. Given that ancient audiences would have been familiar with Odysseus’ ‘post-Odyssean’ adventures, I suggest that the song-tradition of the Odyssey, at a point when its song has almost been completed, avails its main hero, the very trademark of Odyssean poetics, of a rather ‘provocative’ statement threatening the very tradition he typically emblematizes. By alluding to another song-tradition where Odysseus travels to foreign lands and is married again, the Odyssey engages its audience in a profound intertextual game, allowing Odysseus to ‘menace’ the very tradition that has made him the great hero of Return. At this crucial juncture, a female figure, Penelope, takes the floor and becomes the mouthpiece of Odyssean poetics. Odysseus may well ‘entertain’ the thought of extending his poetic life to another tradition, but he is fooling himself if he thinks that he will remain in that tradition, Odyssey-like, the great hero of Return. Penelope’s ironical coda is both a covert cross-reference to a rival song-tradition, later reflected in the Telegony, and an expression of the Odyssey’s ultimate ruse: this time, its ‘victim’ will be Odysseus himself, and Penelope the very means for her husband’s ‘duping’.

In Chapter Five, [16] I offer a thorough examination of a rather brief reference made by Proclus to a meeting between Achilles and Helen in the Cypria. By reconstructing the particulars of this episode, one can also discover and subsequently evaluate the reasons for which such an episode could have never featured in the plot of the Iliad. Achilles and Helen seem to be ‘incompatible’ given the Iliadic perception of the critical turning point at which the world of heroes is placed. This ‘mutual exclusion’ endorsed by the Iliad may be seen as a stylized technique of mythical selection. The romantic episode of a rival song-tradition between Achilles and Helen, later reflected in the post-Homeric Cypria, may well explain why the Iliad refuses to reconcile itself with the idea of a meeting between the ‘best of the Achaeans’ and the ‘best of women’. Instead, it avails itself of a dramatic encounter between Andromache and Hector in Iliad VI. Romance is thus replaced by tragedy, female beauty and male might by deep love and care. The Iliad invites its audience to experience a profound transformation of Achilles’ desire to stop the Achaeans from returning to Greece (featured in a rival Cypria-tradition) into Hector’s willingness to ‘return’ to the battlefield from which he will never ‘return’ to Troy. By allowing Achilles to refer to Helen only once (XIX 325), the Iliad deftly accepts his and, by inference, its own ‘personal’, dramatic glance at the heroic world. In this light, Helen’s emblematic status as the καλλίστη γυναικῶν becomes the stepping-stone for a bold manifestation of the Iliadic credo: Achilles, the tradition’s greatest hero, fights a doomed war against the Trojans for the sake of ‘accursed Helen’. The stark rejection of a rival tradition’s viewpoint acquires its full interpretive potential through a female-oriented cross-reference.

Helen’s apostrophes of self-blame emotionally punctuate her Iliadic presence. Her language bears the mark of a personal vocal timbre that lays special emphasis on her inner upheaval. At the same time, her fragmented speech allows the poem to explore part of her mythical landscape and, without attempting the complete effacement of a rival tradition of her defamation, to avail itself of certain chronological detours [18] pointing to her past life. In view of the fact that discontinuities or irregularities that accommodate mythical material stemming from other epic traditions may result in narrative hiatuses, the Iliad manages to skip the annoying spot of another abduction of Helen and linger over the fertile soil of Menelaus’ and Odysseus’ past visit to Troy. To this end, this visit is narratively unfolded not by Helen but by Antenor, one of the Trojan elders. Through Helen’s rebus-like speech, coupled with her genre-mixing syntax and formulaic misuse, the poem indulges in a profound game with the traditional dilemma of her innocence or guilt. Helen refuses to abide by the epic rules and pigeonhole herself in Iliadic or Odyssean nomenclature. The deliberate dysfluencies of her language, being by-products of her intertextual filtering, have a significant effect on shaping her exceptional Iliadic cast. Socially displaced, marginalized and confused, oscillating between past and present, Sparta and Troy, Menelaus and Paris, Helen is at the same time a dictional outsider and a poetic immigrant of the main action. By guilefully exploiting her idiosyncratic use of layered language and intertextual allusions, the Iliad achieves the unthinkable: it elevates her from the status of a character of the plot to that of an internal commentator on the tradition.

Part Three focuses attention on the intertextual pathways created by the formula, an exclusive trademark of Homeric diction standing at the very heart of epic song-making. The formula is not an external characteristic of epic language but a symbiotic feature operating on multiple levels and guiding us into a labyrinthine path of associations and interconnections. Formulaic diction is a mechanism whose surviving traces in Homeric epic cannot be attributed to recognizable traditions but to a diachronically diffused set of relations going back to Indo-European strata. The reconstruction of this framework helps us explore the deep structure of the epics by looking beyond the elliptical shape into which originally complex imagery has been crystallized during the process of shaping epic song.

In Part Four, I argue that intertextuality is stimulated not only by associations with extra-Homeric complementary material but also by the activation of intratextual sequences. In this form of intertextuality, the referential character of Homeric epic entails a renegotiation of alternative versions or possibilities generated or at least enhanced by ‘Homeric’ (Iliadic or Odyssean) thematic arrangement. Fragmented parts or disiecta membra are subsequently organized by the Homeric tradition into chains representing or reflecting aberrant intertextual variants. Under this scope, one can see that Homeric epic gives interpretive clues or hints to its audience, for whom foreknowledge of alternative and complementary versions must be taken for granted, by turning allusions into intratextual series, whether proximal (Thetis’ two consecutive appeals to Zeus in Iliad I) or distal (personal laments scattered throughout the entire poem). In this type of intertextuality, the important notion is that of thematically associated parts forming a chain and emphasizing performance sequences. This form of intertextuality is effectuated between orderly combinations of interacting parts creating a meaningful whole. These syntagmatic relations stress the sequential associations between traditions. They may at times have to do with a recognizable tradition, but the emphasis is on the revelation of rules or conventions underlying the production of an epic scene.

Thetis’ appeal to Zeus has another, figurative dimension. Achilles’ proximity to the divine culminates in a second, this time dramatic, paradox: his immortal mother (Thetis) asks Zeus to grant her mortal son time (honor), the one thing that will lead to his death. By requesting Zeus to ‘kill’ Achilles in terms of mortality, she figuratively asks him to make Achilles the hero of the Iliad, to allow the poem to create its own subject-matter. It is clear that the Iliad is using Thetis as a poetic vehicle in order not to sidestep the vexed paradox of her request but to tailor it to its needs. By creating a profound narrative tease, the epic renegotiates its audience’s familiarity with rival epic traditions through abbreviated mythical tatters creeping up in the plot. Thetis is thus rebaptized in the Iliadic narrative pool, concocting, in fact, an Achillean plan. The divine ruse of Zeus will be devised upon female connivance, harking back to an earlier mythical phase which the Iliad will narratively exploit through a masterful analeptical ploy.

In Chapter Twelve, I explore the extended Homeric simile as a form of imagery performed on a special rhythmic register. The interpretation of similes stands at the crossroads between two conflicting approaches. On the one hand, the singer or storyteller aims at guiding his listeners to a specific interpretation of the similes according to his narrative blueprint. He, therefore, creates a ‘narrative indexing’ of the similes by such means as intratextual sequencing. On the other hand, since similes refer to the physical world and not to the epic past, they conjure up, in the listeners’ minds, multiple mental image-mappings. The condensed or abbreviated form of Homeric similes engages the audience in an active interplay, since the mental template of each listener will allow him to visualize the simile’s short story according to his own experiential storage. Similes reactivate mental images in such a vivid manner that they enable listeners to explore a deeper meaning, especially a meaning in the making, located not just within the simile’s framework but also in connection to their own mental world. Under this scope, similes function on a hypertextual level, directing the audience to multiple conceptual strata from which they can easily ‘return’ to the main narrative. It is exactly at the juncture between the mental multiformity of the audience’s image-mappings on the one hand, and the storyteller’s attempt to help his listeners visualize similes in a way consonant to his narrative blueprint on the other that the special nature of the Homeric simile lies. To this extent, similes are imbued with an endless intertextuality, which is neither tradition-dependent nor diachronically activated. In fact, this form of hypertextuality leads Homeric listeners through conceptual pathways to the mentally reconstructed hyper-world of image-mappings and, once the simile is completed, back again to the main narrative.


[ back ] 1. See OCD s.v. palimpsest; Reynolds and Wilson 1991:85–86, 192–195.

[ back ] 2. Foley 1990:31.

[ back ] 3. For ellipsis as both a ‘metaphor’ and a ‘metonym’ not only of “specific stylistic conventions,” but also of “the deep structure of meanings constantly at reactivation at all linguistic levels,” see Nagy 2004:157–175.

[ back ] 4. So Nagy in his foreword to Muellner 1996. For intertextuality in general, see Allen 2000 and Fowler, D. 2000.

[ back ] 5. Burgess 2001:172.

[ back ] 6. Burgess 2006:148–149.

[ back ] 7. See Finkelberg 1998:154–155; 2002:160; 2003:79.

[ back ] 8. See Pucci 1987.

[ back ] 9. See Bakker 2001c:149–160. See also Burgess 2006:148–189, who rightly argues for an oral, intertextual neoanalysis. According to his view, which I fully endorse, “motif transference can be understood as a type of intertextuality … not between texts but between the Homeric poems and pre-Homeric oral traditions” (177).

[ back ] 10. See Bakker 2001c:149–160.

[ back ] 11. See Nagy 1996a.

[ back ] 12. Foucault 1979:141–160.

[ back ] 13. Originally published as “Ἀνδρομάχη μαινομένη: το διονυσιακό στοιχείο στην Ιλιάδα.” Hellenika 52 (2002): 199–225. Permission to reprint from the Society of Macedonian Studies.

[ back ] 14. Originally published as “Odyssey 24.191–202: A Reconsideration.” WS 116 (2003): 43–56. Permission to reprint from the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften.

[ back ] 15. Danek 1998.

[ back ] 16. Originally published as “Ἀχιλλεὺς Ἑλένην ἐπιθυμεῖ θεάσασθαι: από τα Κύπρια στην Ιλιάδα.” Hellenika 54 (2004): 7–26. Permission to reprint from the Society of Macedonian Studies.

[ back ] 17. Originally published as “Viewing from the Walls, Viewing Helen: Language and Indeterminacy in the ‘Teichoscopia’.” EEAth 34 (2002–2003): 167–193. Permission granted from the Scientific Annual of the School of Philosophy of the University of Athens.

[ back ] 18. On ancient sources discussing chronological inconsistency in Greek epic, see Else 1957:586; Rengakos 2004:277–304.

[ back ] 19. Originally published as “Time Games: Helen, Odysseus, and Intertextuality.” EEAth 35 (2003–2004): 109–125. Permission granted from the Scientific Annual of the School of Philosophy of the University of Athens.

[ back ] 20. On diachronic changes of different performance traditions engaged in agonistic rivalry, see Aloni 1986; Burgess 2002:234–245; Marks 2002:1–24; 2003:209–226.

[ back ] 21. See Tsagarakis 1982:61–72.

[ back ] 22. Originally published as “The Homeric Formula νυκτὸς ἀμολγῷ.” Classica et mediaevalia 54 (2003): 5–40. Permission to reprint from Museum Tusculanum Press.

[ back ] 23. Originally published as “Πεφυζότες ἠΰτε νεβροί: Genealogy and Poetic Imagery of a Homeric Formula.” Symbolae Osloenses 76 (2001): 113–129. Permission to reprint from Taylor & Francis.

[ back ] 24. Originally published as “Construction, Sound and Rhythm: Thetis’ Supplication to Zeus (Iliad 1.493–516).” Arethusa 34.1 (2001): 1-29. Permission to reprint from Johns Hopkins University Press.

[ back ] 25. Originally published as “The Poetics of Sorrow: Thetis’ Lament in Iliad 18.52-64.” QUCC 76 (2004): 9–32. Permission to reprint from Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali.