A Californian Hymn to Homer

  Pepper, Timothy, ed. 2011. A Californian Hymn to Homer. Hellenic Studies Series 41. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_PepperT_ed.A_Californian_Hymn_to_Homer.2011.


Timothy Pepper

Not unlike ancient Greek hymns, Α Californian Hymn to Homer begins with the origins of its subject: the contributors to this volume first came together for a seminar given by Gregory Nagy during his Sather Professorship at the University of California at Berkeley in the spring of 2002. The essays here grew from our collaboration in that seminar, our discussions of Nagy’s Sather lectures [1] within and without the classroom, and our later exchange of papers and ideas with Nagy’s enthusiastic encouragement. Though one may read the title of this volume as a statement of our collective interest in and admiration for the insights Homeric poetry and its scholarship provide, it is significant in another sense as well. All of the contributions engage in some way with Homeric material; most comment on the poems directly, while others find approaches in the study of Homer to apply to other aspects of Mediterranean cultures.

At the end of the first, “Delian” part of the hymn, Delian maidens are introduced as an archetypical chorus [4] performing within a timeless festival. [5] When they are asked, “Which singer is it of men wandering hither / who is the sweetest in song, and by whom you most are delighted?” they are exhorted to reply, “It is a blind man dwelling in Chios, rugged and rocky, / whose songs, every one, are the best both now and hereafter” (169–170, 172–173). [6] The poet then says that he will spread the kleos of the maidens by means of his performance (“Yours is a fame, in turn, I will carry around as I wander / over the earth to the well-inhabited cities of mankind”); the future tense here is not a promise but rather a signal that the present poem itself is a manifestation and instantiation of that praise, following the conventions of hymnic form. [7] The Delian maidens’ role as a foil hinges on the word aoidos, which in choral lyric refers to a choral song and dance performer, [8] of which the maidens are presented as archetypes. But the term is applied within hexameter to the solo performer, just as the poet here has appropriated their speech to proclaim himself the paradigmatic aoidos. Further, the anachronistic description—only within this imagined dialogue and not in the poet’s further description of himself—of his singing rather than reciting the performance recasts the traditional role of the rhapsode through “diachronic skewing.” [9] The poet thus realigns the tradition in a way integral to shaping the collective identity of performers of Homer, specifically the Homeridai. [10] This realignment finds its historical expression in antiquity in the literary judgment of Thucydides (III 104), who unequivocally reads the poet in this passage as a singing Homer. Just as the poet here shows a sensitivity to the interlocking of performance and tradition that allows him to recast both, the essays in this volume deal with the complex unfolding and changing of traditions within time, sensitive to the insights that the various branches of Homeric scholarship provide, yet still rooted in the particularity of each of their subjects.

By utilizing a comparative approach, David Larsen highlights both the differences between early Islam’s and Homeric poetry’s incorporation of mantic speech—a demonstration to any Homerist that the hexameter epic’s relationship to prophecy is not a cultural inevitability—and the constitutive repurposing of the speech of the seer to the words of the Prophet. Curtis Dozier and Charles Stocking present a different side of the understanding and adaptation of traditional styles of speech in the formula. Both argue that even if we cannot attribute an intellectual understanding of the workings of oral-formulaic theory either to the Roman poet Virgil or to the character Achilles, each shows a practical mastery of the formula not only within the context in which they need it, but for deeper poetic and narrative needs as well. Dan Sofaer and I organize our essays around the repurposing of objects, birds and wine respectively, within culture, and how their reuses and transformations within texts act as tokens of traditions. Many more such correspondences can be drawn across these essays; now, however, it will be worthwhile to run through each of them in turn.

The first three essays examine the opposition and conjunction of prophetic and poetic speech in the performance of authority. David Larsen’s “Signs, Omens, and Semiological Regimes in Early Islamic Texts” examines the Qurʾān’s preemption of the pre-Islamic oracular tradition—a confrontation that is as formative for early Islam, Larsen argues, as its encounter with Judaism and Christianity. Making a comparison with the emblematic use of oracular vocabulary within Homer, he notes that while both the Qurʾān and Homeric poetry use divinatory language to stage interpretation by their audience, that appropriation within the Qurʾān discredits and is hostile to divination. The interrelation of performance and tradition is constituted through the historical, generative struggle within the appropriation of the semiological concepts and poetics of sajʿ, the performative medium of the kāhin or pre-Islamic soothsayer. Within the Qurʾān, the soothsayer’s omen is sublated by Prophetic demonstration of evidence of the power of God. Thus, without access to correct belief through the medium of the Prophet, interpretation of the signs is bound to fail: divination has gone from a method for interpreting signs to fully being contained by them. The one type of divination not rejected by Islam, a sign of confirmation (faʾl) roughly analogous to the Homeric phēmē, is the exception that proves the rule, as it lends itself to the semiological hegemony of the Prophet, available without interpretive mediation and controlled at the level of language by Prophetic fiat. In an appendix, Larsen illustrates the shifting polarities of traditional Arabian oracular signage with two translated entries from the Lisān al-ʿarab of Ibn Manẓūr (d. 711/1311 CE).

Jack Mitchell provides a complementary analysis of the intersection of prophetic and performative authority in “Theoclymenus and the Poetics of Disbelief: Prophecy and Its Audience in the Odyssey.” Mitchell’s goal is to understand the portrayal of the seer Theoclymenus, a seemingly minor figure who nevertheless has a prodigiously long narrative introduction, the longest of any figure in Homer. The three prophecies of Theoclymenus provoke different reactions from Telemachus, Penelope, and the suitors, depending on the degree to which the magical power of formal language manipulates the understanding of audiences through their receptivity to the truths of the narrative. Theoclymenus as a hexameter performer of events in the present has strong commonalities with the epic reimagining of its performance through the aoidos, and at one significant point he reveals that a narrative description has provided a focalized sign seen only by him, a “perspective zeugma” that provides the basis of his prophecy to the suitors. Theoclymenus colludes with the narrator to perform the story for his own interest, as a well- and ill-treated guest.

Dan Sofaer looks at the significance of Aristophanes’ bird-chorus in musical performance in “The Places of Song in Aristophanes’ Birds.” Observing that birds in Greek poetic traditions are the quintessential intermediaries, whether on the metaphorical level of poetic performance or the metonymic level of carriers of the gods’ will through signs of mantic significance, yet are not authorities in themselves, Sofaer reads the lyric passages of Birds as performances of comedy under scrutiny. The birds’ transformation to active agents correspondingly transforms comedy’s relation to other traditions of song. He argues that there is something fundamentally novel in the birds’ creating a community through song, from the first lyric in which a performing group is forged from a disparate set of voices and styles. They go on to lay claim to a sacred, musical authority from Phrynichus, and reject epinician and dithyramb in the intruder scenes because they are too dependent on the institutions of the human city. The birds, together with their city, thus construct a music divorced from civic or divine dependency, a music connected explicitly with the Muses, a music, Sofaer suggests, that may have implicitly provided the model for the “birdcage of the Muses,” the Library of Alexandria.

Both Thomas Walsh’s “Some Refractions of Homeric Anger in Athenian Drama” and Charles Stocking’s “Language about Achilles: Linguistic Frame Theory and the Formula in Homeric Poetics” address the construction of cultural memory by building on Walsh’s earlier work on the ideology of Homeric anger (Walsh 2002). Walsh looks at the uses of κότος as a term for anger in Aeschylus and argues that the term is central for his portrayal of conflict and emotion, and even more thematically significant in his tragedies than in Homeric epic. For Aeschylus, kotos retains its Homeric cultural framework, yet is “refracted” through contemporary public politics to provide an ethical center for archaic values that would otherwise fade. It acts out two interrelated problems: a political one of allegiances and acts of violence that persist even beyond death and a poetic one of the continuity of cultural memory. Walsh notes that, ironically, for all the rhetoric of permanence around archaic kotos, it is marginalized and virtually ignored in later Athenian drama. This word not only shows its potential for structuring the institutions of society but also reveals the ultimately fictive nature of such institutions.

Stocking takes the insights of Walsh’s work and of frame theory semantics to argue that the narrative associations of the anger term χόλος imply a potential script, or a socially stabilized series of events bound to speech-act(s). He applies his model to a speech by Achilles to his Myrmidons in Iliad XVI, and argues that it depicts a practical understanding of the semantics of formulaic language. Achilles projects an imagined, distributed complaint against him through an act of poetic mimesis framing a series of formulaic speech-events that use the conventional language of Homeric poetry. Yet when we look to the context of that imagined complaint, we see Achilles not only creating grammatical and metrical structures not represented elsewhere in the corpus, but also framing the language about his anger with the same formal structures the poet(s) use for his exceptionalism. Stocking illustrates how an exceptional character such as Achilles can be represented as reacting to and recreating generic structures even from within Homeric poetry.

The last two essays treat what might be called the “genre memories” [12] preserved in later traditions: the discourse of hero cult in Homer and archaic lyric, and of Homeric poetry itself within Virgil’s Aeneid. My own essay, “Skillful Symposia: Odyssey ix, Archilochus Fr. 2 West, and the Οἶνος Ἰσμαρικός,” examines the legendary Ismaric wine, which surprisingly is directly mentioned only twice in extant archaic and classical Greek literature. To appreciate its appearances within Odyssey ix and Archilochus fr. 2 West, I suggest, we must understand the cultural significance of both wine in general and specifically named wines in ancient Greek discourse. Wine, a potential holder of symbolic capital as well as an item of exchange, figures prominently within the construction of social and political identity. Within the Odyssey, Ismaric wine operates as a marker of order within divinely sanctioned proto-sympotic rituals of com-mensality, and its characterization as an item of gift-exchange between Odysseus and Maron reflects Maron’s suppressed role in cultic worship. This talismanic wine transfers Maron’s connection with civilized cultivation and especially colonization, and wine’s power to define the city is channeled into an implicit narrative of colony foundation. Turning to Archilochus fr. 2 West, I argue that Archilochus appropriates the heroic and cultic background of Maron and his Ismaric wine within a self-personification as a spokesman of a “middling” ideology, and he adapts language associated with an elite founder of a city to the hoplite tactics of a colonist moving for a better life. His success in this repurposing is perhaps reflected in his Nachleben as the object of hero-cult. We thus see two separate strands of archaic Greek poetics transforming material from cult for ideologically very different ends.

Curtis Dozier’s “Homeric Poetics and the Aeneid” opens with several questions: to what extent can we characterize Virgil’s understanding of the oral poetics of Homeric epic and, more particularly, the workings of the formula within Homer? If he does not fully understand the formula, how does he imitate formulaic language? Or if he does, how can he imitate that language within a work that is decidedly not formulaic? Dozier seeks an answer to this query by running an “experiment.” By studying the occurrences and variants of the programmatic phrase arma virum, he reconstitutes within their contexts their “networks of meaning”—the whirl of intra- and intertexts that the phrase/formula calls forth and doubles back on. In this analysis, then, we see the Aeneid operating as a performance within a larger system. Using a linguistic model to characterize the differentiation of the synchronic and the diachronic, Dozier likens the Aeneid to a parole operating within the larger langue of Homer. [13] He sees in Virgil’s adaptations of similar formulae within Homer a surprisingly multifarious thematic resonance between their contexts, their often wide-ranging analogues in Homer, and even further themes and formulae elsewhere within the Aeneid that the Homeric passages foreground. For instance, the famous occurrence of arma viri in Dido’s death speech in Aeneid IV, already recognized by Ovid to have strong intratextual resonance with the beginning of the poem (Tristia II 534), gains its full thematic force only when we consider its formulaic analogues in Homer. Dozier traces them through the Aeneid and the Iliad to the lyre with which Achilles sings the κλέα ἀνδρῶν, a reference that moves us back again to the first line of the Aeneid. Dozier concludes that the use of formula can, at least for certain phrases, stand up to the same scrutiny as in a traditional, oral-poetic framework. Even if it remains an open question whether Virgil was “the most attentive . . . audience Homer ever had,” his imitation is so skilled that the Aeneid functions as if he were.

Concluding the volume, Rodney Merrill presents a translation of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. Beyond the thematic resonances of this hymn, Merrill’s use of English hexameter and consistent English-language rendering of Homeric formulae provides the closest possible experience in English to the actual audition of Homeric poetry in Greek. And, in a real sense, Merrill provides an artistic analogue to the scholarly project of the essays here, that of making the often subtle and complex effects of Greek verse perceptible to contemporary readers.

I would like to extend my thanks to Gregory Nagy for setting us on this journey and for his help throughout this project; to Curtis Dozier and Wilson Shearin for their input at various stages of the editing process; to Olga Levaniouk, Jill Curry Robbins, and Leonard Muellner at the Center for Hellenic Studies for their invaluable assistance and patient guidance; and to Mary Bellino for her superb, vigilant copyediting.

“And about some other song I will be thinking …”


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis.

Bundy, Elroy L. 1962. Studia Pindarica. Berkeley.

Burkert, Walter. 1987. “The Making of Homer in the Sixth Century B.C.: Rhapsodes versus Stesichoros.” Papers on the Amasis Painter and His World (ed. Marion True) 43–62. Malibu, CA.

De Vet, Thérèse. 2005. “Parry in Paris: Structuralism, Historical Linguistics, and the Oral Theory.” Classical Antiquity 24.2:257–284.

Durante, Marcello. 1976. Sulla preistoria della tradizione poetica greca. Vol. 2. Rome.

Dyer, Robert. 1975. “The Blind Bard of Chios (Hymn. Hom. Ap. 171–76).” Classical Philology 70.2:119–121.

Morson, Gary Saul, and Emerson, Caryl. 1990. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford.

Maslov, Boris. 2009. “The Semantics of ἀοιδός and Related Compounds: Towards a Historical Poetics of Solo Performance in Archaic Greece.” Classical Antiquity 28.1:1–38.

Nagy, Gregory. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.

———. 1992. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca.

———. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge.

Peponi, Anastasia-Erasmia. 2009. “Choreia and Aesthetics in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo: The Performance of the Delian Maidens (Lines 156–64).” Classical Antiquity 28.1:39–70.

Walsh, Thomas. 2002. Feuding Words and Fighting Words: Anger and the Homeric Poems. Lanham, MD.

West, M. L. 1999. “The Invention of Homer.” Classical Quarterly NS 49.2:64–382.


[ back ] 1. Nagy’s Sather lectures themselves are forthcoming in a pair of volumes published by the University of California Press (Homer the Preclassic) and the Center for Hellenic Studies (Homer the Classic).

[ back ] 2. Most overtly through the self-identification of the poet’s persona; see Nagy 1992:54.

[ back ] 3. De Vet 2005:277 suggests the image of a living holiday tree, on which each year old ornaments are shifted or fall off, and new ornaments in the same traditional style are added. As hundreds of years pass, some of those ornaments may even incorporate themselves into the trunk of that tree. Similarly, an epic Kunstsprache can also relate to a process of composition through writing, with the accretion, falling off, and invention of traditional elements (the ornaments) forming a system. A synchronic “slice” of epic language, much like a cross section of the tree, provides a mixture of different moments in the tradition, with the result that purely linguistic approaches become problematic.

[ back ] 4. See Peponi 2009:65–67. We find further support in Peponi’s parallels with the Delian maidens as choral archetype in Euripides Heracles 685–690, and with Iliad II 485 (Muses) and Odyssey xii 39–40, 189–190 (Sirens). Though Nagy 1996:56 also reads the maidens as choral archetypes, he takes those archetypes as being set against dance performance on Delos rather than the poet.

[ back ] 5. As is clear from the series of general and modal clauses in 149–163. The transition from the maidens with a concluding hymnal khai rete (‘farewell’) in 166 makes the distinction from the here and now of the present performance of the hymn even clearer: see Bundy 1962:46, 66. The command that the maidens recall “me” in the second half of line 166 (just as the “I” in 177) is a version of the similar hymnic transition to first person noted in Bundy 1962:46n34, contra Dyer 1975:120. Placing from internal evidence the performance context in Delos in 522 BCE, as independently suggested by Burkert and Janko (see Burkert 1987:54 with 61–62n61 and references) or as revised to possibly 523 by West 2007:368–370n17, thus misses the fundamental point of the Delian maidens: they are the foil to the poet rather than part of a report of the festival at which the poet intends to perform.

[ back ] 6. All translations from the Hymn to Apollo are by Rodney Merrill and are taken from his translation of the complete hymn elsewhere in this volume.

[ back ] 7. Bundy 1962:21–22, contra Dyer 1975:121; Thucydides understands the convention here: he precedes his quotation of lines 165–172 with ἐτελεύτα τοῦ ἐπαίνου ἐς τάδε τὰ ἔπη (“he makes an end of his praise with the following words”; III 104.5).

[ back ] 8. Not only has the formulation anēr hēdistos aoidōn (169) been the primary source for the misconception that aoidos is the normative Greek term for a poet-performer (Maslov 2009:5), but it has obscured its historically developed meaning of “[instructed] performer/member of the chorus” in choral poetry, separate from its meaning in hexameter of “professional solo performer” (Maslov 2009:17–19, esp. with table 2).

[ back ] 9. Nagy 1990:21–24. We perhaps should be a little more cautious at reading the internal evidence of this poetry as testimony rather than presentation of poetic practice in light of Maslov 2009.

[ back ] 10. Cf. Durante 1976:197–198, who connects the creation of this poem with the Homeridai, the Chian guild of rhapsodes, whose name he derives from *ὅμᾱρος or *ὅμᾱρις, which he calls a “missing link.” From Greek cultic epithet (176), Sanskrit evidence (198–201), and a gloss in Hesychius on the name Thamuris, Durante deduces its meaning as an assembly of the people at which contests are performed, and he connects these to the assembly of the Ionians in 147–148. West 2007 calls Durante’s reconstruction the “most coherent that has been offered” (376), but draws on a Pindaric scholium (7.1c Drachmann) for the identification of the poet with Cynaethus (368–369). See, however, Nagy 2000:99n6 for doubts about the historical reliability of that scholion. Note that if we accept the etymology for Homer proposed by Nagy 1996:74–75n45 of homo- ‘together’ + the root of arariskō ‘fit, join’, we find almost an exact analogue in 164: sunarēren (< sun ‘together’ + arariskō).

[ back ] 11. Maslov 2009:21–33 reconstructs ἀοιδός as a backformation from ἐπαοιδός “performer of incantations.ˮ

[ back ] 12. Cf. Bakhtin1984:159. The formulation comes from Morson and Emerson 1990:294–299.

[ back ] 13. For the application of these terms, ultimately from Saussure and Levi-Strauss, to denote the manifestations (= parole) of specific epics within the system of the performance of epic (= langue), see Nagy 1990:17n2 and 1996:1.