Laura Slatkin, The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays: Part I. Introduction

Part I. Introduction

The Homeric poems, as I hope to show, constitute acts of interpretation as well as acts of creation. The elucidation of their oral nature has taught us to look at Homeric composition not as a matter of rigidly prescribed transmission of inviolate requirements, but as a choice among alternative arrangements of fundamental compositional elements—formulas, diction, “themes,” type-scenes—that allow for modification within established contours. [1]
The process of participating in a poetic tradition, far from being a simple matter of inflexible dependence on antecedents, has emerged, on the contrary, as a process of selection at every stage.
On another level, but analogously, I propose, the Iliad and the Odyssey interpret the mythological material they inherit. As we shall see, they select not only from among different myths—combining those chosen into a narrative within which certain central concerns illustrated by the myths are allowed full development—but also from among different variants and aspects of a single myth. As with rearrangements of formulas or themes, alternative combinations of the features of a myth are possible and equally legitimate, the choices serving to reveal the framework imposed on its subject matter by traditional genre requirements of heroic epic. [2]
But just as an individual formula implies a system of formulaic usage—in each instance expresses not only its individual “essential idea” but a principle of “formularity” [3] —and just as any type-scene involves a recognized pattern, so, I will argue, a particular version of a myth is part of a larger whole that invites shaping, focusing, and integrating within a narrative structure, but that, however partially represented, can be invoked in all its dimensions. The epic audience’s knowledge of the alternative possibilities allows the poet to build his narrative by deriving meaning not only from what the poem includes but also from what it conspicuously excludes. A telling instance of this is the Iliad’s treatment of the Judgment of Paris. Presupposed by the poem and implicit in its plot, where it underlies divine as well as human alignments, [4] the Judgment of Paris would, however, remain an obscure reference, occurring as it does in a single allusion at the end of the poem (24.25–30)—if we were not able to look to sources outside Homer to recover the content of the myth and thus to appreciate the Iliad’s particular use and placement of it. [5] The epic can highlight or suppress attributes associated with a particular character, allowing their meaning to be colored by the specific narrative context, thus revising or manipulating its audience’s expectations. And, in a complementary movement, it can appropriate the resonance of mythological variants that the narrative context may not explicitly accommodate. In adapting specific features in this way, the poem acts traditionally; it does not violate tradition (although it may be violating one particular tradition) but remains within it, exploiting its possibilities and using traditionality as an instrument of meaning. [6]
The discovery that the dynamics of selection and combination, modification and revision, are intrinsic to participation in an oral poetic tradition—that is, are traditional operations themselves—applies, as I will argue in the present study, to the relationship the epic has with the mythology that is its medium, from which it derives both its identity as part of a system and its distinctive individuality. But if one suggests that modifications of formula, phrase, or type-scene find an analogy in the poem’s handling of mythological variants, it is important to stress that no aboriginal prototype of a myth exists that can claim priority over other versions. [7]
This study will examine the processes by which Homeric epic draws on the full mythological range of each character in the development of that character’s role and its relation to the poem’s central ideas. An especially revealing example is the figure of Thetis. Her role in the Iliad (which has not previously been the subject of any special critical scrutiny) presents a number of enduringly enigmatic and apparently contradictory features that need to be considered in any interpretive approach to the poem, especially because the poem’s use of her has important implications for its view of its principal character, Achilles, and hence of its dominant themes. The Iliad’s treatment of Thetis offers a crucial instance of the way in which its narrative incorporates traditional material from mythology that does not overtly reflect the subject matter of heroic poetry. To what end does it do so? How does the resonance of this material contribute a wider context and meaning to the Iliad’s central themes? Such a study thus aims to make a contribution to Homeric poetics, in that unraveling the functional identity of a figure like Thetis leads necessarily to the larger enterprise of determining what is and is not compatible with Homeric epic’s definition of its subject matter and realm of function—its boundaries as a genre. In pursuing this inquiry, it will be useful to compare how features of Thetis’s mythology are exploited by independently inherited poetic traditions, such as those of lyric poetry and the Epic Cycle.
In defining Thetis through a selective presentation of her mythology, the Iliad makes explicit, emphatic use of her attributes as a nurturing mother—a kourotrophos—and protector. To put it another way, this aspect of Thetis’s mythology—her maternal, protective power—which is adapted by the Iliad, makes possible one of the poem’s central ideas: the vulnerability of even the greatest of the heroes. Semidivine as Achilles is, death is inevitable even for him. At the same time, as we shall see, the Iliad returns us to Thetis’s role in the theogonic myth of succession. In its superbly overdetermined economy, the Iliad shapes Thetis as thoroughly from the perspective of its hero’s response and ultimate mortal concerns as it delineates his human dilemma against the dimension of a particular divine genealogy. The formal accommodation of Thetis’s mythology within epic is recapitulated in the shape of the Homeric Iliad. In defining Thetis, therefore, the poem defines itself.
The discovery of the oral and traditional nature of the Homeric poems, and our increased grasp of the extraordinary complexity and refinement of their oral evolution, has prompted the suggestion that we need a new poetics in order to read them. J. A. Notopoulos, for example, whose work represented an important contribution to the early discussion of oral epic, urged the founding of a new, “non-Aristotelian” criticism of Homer. In fact, what may be called for, as Richard Janko has argued, is a more complete appreciation of the old poetics. [8]
What we need is not to produce our own new basis for reading Homer, but to recover as much as possible what an ancient “reading” might have been based on; or rather we might say that to gain greater access to what Homer’s audience heard in the epics—that is, to return to the oldest way of hearing Homer—would be, paradoxically, to achieve for ourselves new grounds for interpreting the Iliad and Odyssey. Just as basic etymological studies of single words (using modern tools of linguistic reconstruction) have brought us closer to the meaning of traditional diction, and finally of Homeric themes, [9] similarly, by uncovering the constituent components of a single Iliadic character we may come closer to understanding how the Iliad conjoined these elements and what the Homeric audience recognized in the depiction of that character.
In our pursuit of the poetic archaeology of Homer, small fragments of evidence will prove indispensable. If careful excavation and comparative analysis of relevant testimony outside the Iliad can show us how to fit together disparate pieces of a mythopoeic entity like Thetis—as we proceed on the assumption that they were once intact, and recognizably so—then even a single successful linkage can show us where to look for further interlocking connections. It can help us to see the shape of the whole structure; it may even turn out to be a cornerstone.
The Epic Cycle has emerged as our most productive (if controversial) resource for understanding the “uniqueness of Homer.” [10] The search for the sources of the Iliad, as it was pursued, with exceptional imagination and industry, by scholars in the middle decades of this century, focused attention on the lost poems of the Epic Cycle—whose contents are known to us only indirectly, in a summary dating to the second century A.D. [11] —as the crucial clue to finding “das Homerische in Homer.” [12] This goal remained elusive to those concerned with specifying the Iliad’s literary origins within the Cycle poems’ sequence of narratives, as sketched by Proclus’s summary, from the genesis of the Trojan War to its aftermath; but their scholarly investigations were stimulating in the scrutiny to which they subjected puzzling and obscure passages of the Iliad. [13] And although their efforts to reconstruct the Iliad’s specific literary prototypes were inconclusive, their discussions of the common features shared by the Iliad and the Cycle poems were fruitful, because in attempting to establish which work constituted model and which transformation or revision the “neoanalyst” approach gave important consideration to the general question of the Iliad’s adaptation of preexisting traditional material, such as that inherited by the Cycle poems and (despite their later date) embedded in them. [14]
Especially illuminating along these lines was the work of J. Th. Kakridis, whose studies in the morphology and transformation of story patterns are grounded in solid ethnographic empiricism. [15] Subsequent researches showed in detail that the Cycle poems inherit traditions contingent to our Iliad and Odyssey and preserve story patterns, motifs, and type-scenes that are as archaic as the material in the Homeric poems, to which they are related collaterally, rather than by descent. [16] The Cycle poems and the Iliad offer invaluable mutual perspective on the recombination of elements deriving from a common source in myth, which makes possible the continuous evolution of themes and characters appropriate to individual epic treatments—a dynamic process that must be understood as a function not only of the individual genius of a given practitioner of oral poetry, but of the “many centuries of what must have been the most refined sort of elite performer/audience interaction,” [17] through which the focus and central concerns of poetic entities like the Iliad and the Odyssey could develop, reflecting the developing consciousness of their culture.
Similarly, as we shall see, an important source of comparative evidence offering insight into the themes of the Iliad is choral lyric poetry, where treatment of closely related mythic material provides the possibility of recovering archaic poetic traditions not overtly employed by Homer. [18] As Emile Benveniste has demonstrated, we may even see preserved in Pindar poetic traditions whose Indo-European provenance is clearly discernible. [19] On a similar basis, evidence from Hesiodic poetry proves indispensable. [20]
Because the contents of myth must necessarily be adapted to the restrictions and demands of poetic form, such apparently disparate evidence can shed valuable light on the criteria involved in heroic epic’s generic regulation of its content. It may illuminate, moreover, any given epic’s idiosyncratic handling of content, beyond the first level of adaptation to the formal conventions of epic, to convey the particular ideas and themes of a particular composition—a process that comparison with epic other than the Iliad also shows us. It is essential to bear in mind these two operative levels of selection in order to escape the automatic conclusion that traditional material that does not have an overt role in the Iliad was “not known” to Homer, and, rather, to perceive that either the genre did not encompass it or the thematic development of a particular epic composition did not appropriate it as directly functional. From the latter perspective, as we shall see, the Aethiopis is especially interesting for the student of the Iliad, featuring as it does an alternative development of the theme of the hero’s acquisition of immortality through his mother.
Thus, as noted above, the Iliad all but ignores that not inconsequential piece of Iliadic prehistory, the Judgment of Paris; and yet, as we discover in Book 24—although not until then—the Judgment of Paris is indeed known to Homer, but carefully contained in a brief reference.
Similarly, we may note that neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey overtly includes or elaborates theogonic mythology, although the myth of the struggle for divine sovereignty is a fundamental and pervasive one. [21] But the poems’ references to “Zeus, son of Kronos” (as well as to other divine relations) make clear that the Iliad and the Odyssey assume a divine order dependent upon the myth of succession in heaven. We owe our familiarity with the content of that myth to Hesiod’s Theogony; without it we would be unaware of the developed “history” of the Olympians implicit in the Iliad’s use of Zeus’s patronymic. [22] Comparably, it has been shown that the reference to the wall built by the Achaeans in Iliad 12 evokes a complex myth of destruction to which even the myth of the Flood has been assimilated; yet we would have no awareness of such a myth without the Cypria and the Hesiodic Catalogue, as well as comparative evidence from the Near East. [23] In such instances, without a knowledge of mythological material from outside the Iliad and the Odyssey, not only would we not be able to identify what lies behind the allusions, but we would not even recognize that they are allusions.
For a clearer understanding of Homeric poetics we need to see that the exclusion of such traditional mythological material, or its displacement into more or less oblique references (rather than overt exposition), including its subordination within digressions, is a defining principle by which the Iliad demarcates its subject and orients the audience toward its treatment of its themes. Consider the vivid example of this illustrated by the observation known as Monro’s Law, so called after the editor who formulated it in his 1901 edition of the Odyssey: that the Odyssey “never repeats or refers to any incident related in the Iliad.” [24] It is scarcely possible to imagine that the Odyssey was composed without the slightest knowledge of the Iliad and its tradition, given its reliance throughout on the Trojan story for its own background. [25] It is certainly more likely that this “exclusion” of the Iliad is part of a deliberate narrative strategy that serves the Odyssey’s goal of staking out its own poetic territory in relation to the Iliad, according to its own bearings.
It is a reasonable surmise, then, that numerous allusions to traditional material may go unidentified by the modern reader unless special effort is made to locate them. If we make the effort, we will be able to discern both foreground and background in the poems’ use of mythology and gain a clearer picture of how that mythology is integrated or subsumed. In this way, we will be able to avoid not only denying to Homer knowledge that we did not realize he possessed, but also—and just as importantly—ascribing to him supposed “inventions” that are in fact part of a received heritage and have been employed to be recognized as such. Thus we may achieve a fuller sense of how the epics’ specific relation to tradition informs their self-definition.


[ back ] 1. Milman Parry’s pioneering studies of the oral nature of the poems are reprinted and translated in Adam Parry’s edition of his father’s collected papers, published as The Making of Homeric Verse (Oxford, 1971); the fullest exposition of M. Parry and Albert Lord’s seminal discoveries based on their fieldwork in Yugoslavia on living oral epic is in Lord’s The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960; reprint, New York, 1965). On “theme,” the term by which Lord, following Parry, designated “the groups of ideas regularly used in telling a tale,” see Lord’s “Composition by Theme in Homer and Southslavic Epos,” TAPA 82 (1951): 71–80, and his Singer of Tales, 68–98. On the dynamics of the oral poet’s choice, Lord’s writings are fundamental; see Singer of Tales, 13–29, esp. 98–123. Significant contributions to an understanding of particular aspects of the process have been numerous. Among them one might cite, as a sample, the studies of A. Hoekstra, Homeric Modifications of Formulaic Prototypes: Studies in the Development of Greek Epic Diction (Amsterdam, 1964); J. Russo, “The Structural Formula in Homeric Verse,” YCS 20 (1966): 217–40; J. B. Hainsworth, The Flexibility of the Homeric Formula (Oxford, 1968); M. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer (Berkeley, 1974); M. Edwards, “Some Stylistic Notes on Iliad XVIII,” AJP 89 (1968): 257–83; N. Postlethwaite, “Formula and Formulaic: Some Evidence from the Homeric Hymns,” Phoenix 33 (1979): 1–18; R. Janko, Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: Diachronic Development in Epic Diction (Cambridge, 1982); and M. Cantilena, Ricerche sulla dizione epica (Rome, 1982). R. Sacks, The Traditional Phrase in Homer: Two Studies in Form, Meaning, and Interpretation (Leiden, 1987), contributes an important discussion of the significance of context as a factor in the adaptability of traditional phraseology. On the modification of structural elements beyond the epithet system—motifs, “themes,” or type-scenes (first examined in detail by W. Arend, Die typischen Szenen bei Homer [Berlin, 1933])—instructive works are many, including (in addition to those of Lord) B. Fenik, Typical Battle Scenes in the Iliad: Studies in the Narrative Technique of Homeric Battle Description, Hermes Einzelschriften 21 (Wiesbaden, 1968); D. Lohmann, Die Komposition der Reden in der Ilias (Berlin, 1970); T. Krischer, Formale Konventionen der homerischen Epik (Munich, 1971); C. P. Segal, The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad (Leiden, 1971); M. Edwards, “Type-scenes and Homeric Hospitality,” TAPA 105 (1975): 51–72; as well as Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition.
[ back ] 2. Homeric epic, in its pan-Hellenic ambition, tends, for example, to exclude overt reference to distinctly local religious phenomena. As G. Nagy has shown in The Best of the Achaeans (Baltimore, 1979), elements in myth that refer to hero-cult are abridged or suppressed in the epic narrative. See D. Sinos, Achilles, Patroklos, and the Meaning of Philos (Innsbruck, 1980), esp. 13–36, 47–52, for further elucidation of the consequences of this restriction in the Iliad and for the manner in which Homeric poetry “offers us clear proof by way of dictional analysis that its epic tradition does indeed contain elemental vestiges of cult and references to the heroes of cult in a manner necessarily modified to fit the strict generic ordering of the language of epic” (15).
[ back ] 3. M. Parry’s definition of the formula, given first in L’épithète traditionelle dans Homère (Paris, 1928), was restated in “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Versemaking,” HSCP 41 (1930) as “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions, to express a given essential idea” (80). See Cantilena, Dizione epica, 36–73, for a balanced recent appraisal of the major contributions to the debate about the nature of the formula. For evaluations of the limitations of Parry’s definition, with discussion of the general problem of definition and terminology, see the papers in B. Stolz and R. Shannon, eds., Oral Theory and the Formula (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1976) by P. Kiparsky (pp. 73–104), J. Russo (pp. 31–54), and G. Nagy (pp. 239–257, now rewritten in id., Greek Mythology and Poetics [Ithaca, N.Y., 1990], 18–35); also A. Parry’s introduction to The Making of Homeric Verse, esp. xxii–lxii. M. Edwards, “Homer and the Oral Tradition: The Formula, Part I,” Oral Tradition 1/2 (1986): 171–230, and “Part II,” Oral Tradition 3/1–2 (1988): 11–60, provide a judicious survey of the vast bibliography on the formula. For fundamental considerations of the relationship of a given formula to the larger compositional system, see Lord, Singer of Tales, 30–67, esp. 36–45 and 65–66; and the far-reaching generative approach of M. Nagler, “Towards a Generative View of the Oral Formula,” TAPA 98 (1967): 269–311; as well as id., Spontaneity and Tradition, esp. chaps. 1 and 2.
[ back ] 4. See M. Davies, “The Judgement of Paris and Iliad XXIV,” JHS 101 (1981): 56–62.
[ back ] 5. See K. Reinhardt’s important “Das Parisurteil” in Tradition und Geist (Göttingen, 1960), 16–36, first published as vol. 11 of Wissenschaft und Gegenwart (Frankfurt, 1938).
[ back ] 6. How enlightening an awareness of this process can be is powerfully demonstrated by the work of J. Th. Kakridis, Homeric Researches (Lund, 1949), whose analyses of the adaptation of motifs are informed by close familiarity with modern Greek folktale and song-making traditions; see in particular pp. 1–42, 106–48.
[ back ] 7. As has been most effectively illustrated by Claude Lévi-Strauss’s meticulous analyses; in The Raw and the Cooked (New York, 1969; reprint, 1975), see especially his discussion of the essential “multiplicity” of myths at pp. 12ff., 199ff., 332ff. See as well M. Detienne, Dionysus mis à mort (Paris, 1977), 23ff.
[ back ] 8. J. A. Notopoulos, “Studies in Early Greek Poetry,” HSCP 68 (1964): 1–77, esp. 54–65. See now the discussion in R. Janko, The Iliad: A Commentary, Vol. IV: Books 13–16 (Cambridge, 1992), xi, for the most recent statement of his view.
[ back ] 9. In particular the exemplary studies by E. Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes I, II (Paris, 1969); also R. Schmitt, Dichtung und Dichtersprache in indogermanischer Zeit (Wiesbaden, 1967). See the notable contributions of D. Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic (New Haven, 1978); A. L. Bergren, The Etymology and Usage of ΠΕΙΡΑΡ in Early Greek Poetry, American Classical Studies 2, American Philological Association (New York, 1975); as well as L. C. Muellner, The Meaning of Homeric ΕΥΧΟΜΑΙ through its Formulas (Innsbruck, 1976); F. Mawet, Le vocabulaire homérique de la douleur (Brussels, 1979); Sacks, Traditional Phrase in Homer; and S. Edmunds, Homeric N?pios (New York, 1990), all of which develop a careful analysis of semantic field and contextual restrictions to supplement etymological reconstruction.
[ back ] 10. The phrase is J. Griffin’s; see his article “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer,” JHS 97 (1977): 39–53.
[ back ] 11. For the plot summaries of the Cycle poems contained in Proclus’s Chrestomathia, and testimonia and fragments, see T. W. Allen, ed., Hymns, Epic Cycle, vol. 5 of Homeri Opera (Oxford, 1912), 93–143.
[ back ] 12. Georg Schoeck, Ilias und Aethiopis: Kyklische Motive in homerischer Brechung (Zurich, 1961), 10.
[ back ] 13. In fact, the “neoanalyst” approach could have been indispensable in sidestepping debates that equated originality with pure invention, had it not been concerned with pinning down specific textual prototypes for the Iliad. The principal exponents of “neoanalysis” include H. Pestalozzi, Die Achilleis als Quelle der Ilias (Erlenbach-Zurich, 1945); W. Kullmann, Die Quellen der Ilias, Hermes Einzelschriften 14 (Wiesbaden, 1960); W. Schadewaldt, Von Homers Welt und Werk, 2d ed. (Stuttgart, 1952), 155ff.; as well as Kakridis, Homeric Researches; and Schoeck, Ilias und Aethiopis. A discussion of some of the results of the neoanalytic method is contained in K. Reinhardt, Die Ilias und ihr Dichter (Götingen, 1961), 349ff. For recent expositions of the approach as a whole, see A. Heubeck, Die homerische Frage (Darmstadt, 1974; reprint, 1988), 40ff.; and W. Kullmann, “Zur Methode der Neoanalyse in der Homerforschung,” Wiener Studien n.s. 15 (1981): 5–42; a critical assessment is offered by A. Dihle, Homer-Probleme (Opladen, 1970); see esp. pp. 19–44 in the latter.
[ back ] 14. A. Severyns, Le cycle épique dans l’école d’Aristarque (Liège, 1928), 313, dates the Aethiopis to the eighth century, but even an approximate dating for the Cycle cannot be secure. See Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 42–43. The Cycle exhibits linguistic and stylistic features that indicate that it is in certain respects less developed, or more primitive, than the Iliad and Odyssey (the enthen phenomenon, for example); similarly, the composition of the Cycle poems was not monumental (so the interlocking of their stories suggests). On these features, see the useful contribution of Notopoulos, “Early Greek Oral Poetry,” esp. 27–41, which demonstrates the orality of the Cycle poems and arrives independently at the same conclusions as Kakridis, Homeric Researches, esp. 90. See as well the discussion in C. H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), 181–82.
[ back ] 15. See note 6 above.
[ back ] 16. Most important is the early research of Bernard Fenik; see especially his Iliad X and the Rhesus: The Myth (Brussels, 1964) and Typical Battle Scenes; also Kullman, Quellen der Ilias.
[ back ] 17. Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 79. For a discussion of the relationship between the Iliad and the Cycle poems in the realm of character development, see Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition, 154–80.
[ back ] 18. See the discussion of traces of the kourotrophos, as confirmed by Pindar, in Sinos, Meaning of Philos.
[ back ] 19. See Benveniste’s discussion of Pythian 3.40–55 in “La doctrine médicale des Indo-Européens,” RHR 130 (1945): 5–12.
[ back ] 20. See G. P. Edwards, The Language of Hesiod in Its Traditional Context (Oxford, 1971); and H. Koller, “Das kitharodische Prooimion: Eine formgeschichtliche Untersuchung,” Philologus 100 (1956): 159–206.
[ back ] 21. See S. Littleton, “The Kingship in Heaven Theme,” in Myth and Law among the Indo-Europeans, ed. J. Puhvel (Berkeley, 1970), 83–121, esp. 85–93.
[ back ] 22. See L. M. Slatkin, “Genre and Generation in the Odyssey,” in Part Two, Chapter Four.
[ back ] 23. See R. Scodel, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction,” HSCP 86 (1982): 33–50. For further discussion, see pp93–94.
[ back ] 24. D. B. Monro, ed., Homer’s Odyssey, vol. 2, books 13–24 (Oxford, 1901), 325.
[ back ] 25. D. L. Page imagined this, however. See The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford, 1955), 158. For a perspective that refutes Page’s argument, see Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, chap. 1, esp. 20ff.