Homer between East and West
Between Turkey and Germany
Between East and West
Halliwell’s complaint is not entirely unjustified. To this day, the quest for non-Greek sources has yielded plenty of material but little by way of a theoretically informed debate. Why should it matter if Achilles and Patroclus have their counterpart in Gilgamesh and Enkidu? Why do we need to know that the gods in Atrahasis cast lots just as they do in Iliad XV? One answer to these questions might be that non-Greek parallels help us deconstruct the myth of Greek epic, and Homer in particular, as the origin of ‘Western literature’. The idea that Homer marks an absolute beginning is memorably formulated by Jasper Griffin:
Homer as the ‘Big Bang’ of European literature accounts for everything that follows, while blotting out anything that may have gone before. It was this idea of an absolute beginning that scholars increasingly challenged in the wake of Burkert’s and West’s magisterial works. As Barry Powell observes:
Powell goes on to ascribe to the Greek alphabet the power of “enabling highly refined forms of thought”; and then suggests that the alphabet was in fact invented so as to record the Homeric epics. Homeric poetry is thus superior to the Bible and other Levantine texts by virtue of the very script that was used to record it. By implication, Homer also compares favourably to the Babylonian poems written in cuneiform, a script that, according to Powell, renders human thought “simpler than thought common in speech,”  and thus makes it incapable of expressing “novel thoughts.” 
Like Powell, Morris surprises her readers merely to reassure them that the difference between Greek epic and non-Greek literature is what really matters: Homer did inherit from the East, but “reconstituted” what he took from elsewhere in a unique way. This time, the decisive criterion is not literary atmosphere or vividness born of alphabetic writing, but what Morris calls the ‘heroic dimensions’ of Greek epic. This is an interesting proposition which deserves to be examined in some more detail.
It is not my aim here to assess the validity of Griffin’s judgement. What interests me is the way in which he contrasts the “consistently heroic interpretation” of the Iliad with an earlier tradition that is “still content with monsters, miracles, metamorphoses” and lacks the Iliad’s tragic outlook on life. The suggestion here is that ‘heroic’ equals ‘more advanced’; and that the achievement of a consistently heroic vision (as opposed to an intermittently heroic one?) marks a decisive stage in the development of human literature and civilization. If we now ask what exactly Griffin means by ‘heroic’, it appears from the contrast he draws with ‘monsters, miracles’ and ‘metamorphoses’ that he has in mind human beings who take decisions and act of their own free will very much like ourselves. Homer is superior because his characters are less “exotic” [sic] than those of the Cyclic poets. And that means, in turn, that they inhabit a world which is, if not fully secularised, then certainly dominated by human planning and human thought. Griffin’s position may seem extreme, but he does in fact express a widely held view. Thus, James Redfield writes towards the end of his influential analysis of Homeric heroism:
Redfield is not concerned to draw a distinction between Homer and non-Greek narrative poetry, but such a distinction is strongly suggested by his view of the Iliad as a “founding document of Greek secularism.” If we combine Redfield’s view of Homeric secularism with Morris’ view of the “uniquely heroic dimensions” of the Greek epic tradition we may begin to understand why the invention of the secular Western self as a heroic self is today so firmly associated with the poetry of Homer. In this sense too, his texts set the standards which earlier ‘Eastern’ authors – a few exceptions notwithstanding – cannot hope to match.
A Shared Tradition
Pulleyn is by no means alone in comparing the ‘reception’ of non-Greek material by Greek epic with that of Greek material by Roman authors. Not uncharacteristically, he introduces it as perfectly natural, although it does in fact beg a number of obvious questions. As Glenn Most has recently pointed out, Greek and Latin authors adopt very different attitudes towards the texts of other cultures.  Roman authors started imitating Greek texts and adopting Greek literary habits from at least the third century BCE onward. Epic poets in particular – Ennius and Virgil among others – engaged in a conscious game of allusion, forever adopting and transmuting Greek literary habits. That this was so was well understood by their contemporaries and was indeed an important part of their enjoyment as readers. Imitation of Greek texts is not accidental to Latin epic but the necessary corollary of a poetics of allusion (imitatio). It is therefore entirely appropriate that Latin commentators spend much time discussing Greek models of Latin epic, carefully pointing out the ways in which those models have been employed in each case. We look in vain for similar discussions in the surviving commentaries on Greek epic. The Homeric scholia, for example, are silent about possible connections with non-Greek texts. Even such glaring parallels as the famous simile of the grieving lion in Gilgamesh and the Iliad go without comment.  One gets the impression that Greek readers of all times either did not know of these parallels or did not care about them. To quote from Glenn Most’s discussion of this phenomenon:
Most’s observation raises an obvious question: if the Greeks themselves were uninterested in the literatures of their neighbours, why should we be?
for his is the festival you have come to on your arrival;
but when you have poured to him and prayed, according to custom,
then give this man also a cup of the sweet wine, so that
he too can pour, for I think that he also will make his prayer
to the immortals. All humans need the gods. 
In order to know who someone is, at the most fundamental level, we need to know whether they too are human. And that question is bound up with the more specific one whether they, like other human beings, respect the gods. In Pylus, those who worship Athena and those who worship Poseidon unproblematically share a global vision of who the gods are and how we as humans relate to them. Things are not always so harmonious – we may only think of the savage Polyphemus; but throughout Homeric epic there is an expectation that anthrōpoi, ‘human beings’, of all cultures inhabit fundamentally the same divinely ordered universe.
Settis does not pursue the question of Homer’s place between East and West, though he may have found it useful. For here, it seems to me, we have a fundamental test case for his intuition that the classical past, as conceived in the twenty-first century, needs to be understood primarily in a dialogue across cultural boundaries.