Homer’s Hidden Muse and Related Questions: a conversation with classicist Douglas Frame

douglas frame
Mindful of hidden and absent signifiers, classicist Douglas Frame brings new light to Nestor, nostos, and the Homeric question.

We are especially pleased to share the following conversation with CHS author and classicist Douglas Frame about his innovative approach to Homer, the non-traditional path of his career, and his influential publications.


CHS: You’ve authored two important books on Homer that are closely related but separated by almost 30 years. Your first book, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic, was published in 1978, and examines the relationship between noos, “mind” and nostos, “return home”. Through careful analysis focused on the root *nes– you show that nostos in Homer conveys the latent meaning “return to light and life.” Why is this meaning so crucial to our understanding of the character of Odysseus, his wanderings, and the Odyssey in general.

Frame: Odysseus of course returns home; it’s the story of the Odyssey, and there isn’t any question about that. Nor is Odysseus the only hero who returns home from Troy. But Odysseus leaves the real world in the course of his nostos, and his experiences beyond the real world have the quality of an initiation. They set the hero apart, at least in the Odyssey‘s own terms, where only Menelaus has a similar kind of experience when he is blown off course to Egypt—and Egypt, exotic though it may be, is still in the real world. When I say initiation I don’t mean anything specific in Greek terms. I like to compare Mozart’s Magic Flute, where initiation sets two of the characters apart from the rest, and trials, however symbolic, lead to enlightenment. These trials are again outside the real world, in an alternate world of freemasonry, where the hero and heroine undergo initiation together. In the case of the Odyssey there is much that points to a deep tradition of solar myth as the context that sets the solitary hero apart in terms of initiation and enlightenment. As for the nature of the hero’s enlightenment, perhaps it’s enough to say that, having been where he’s been, and having been able to return from there to the real world and home, the hero has a wider than normal view of human existence. He knows something about the ultimate mystery of human existence, namely death.

CHS: The final chapter in The Myth of the Return explores the meaning of the Indo-European root *nes– in greater detail. Part of this chapter deals with the Indo-European twin myth and the Vedic twins. Can you summarize this myth and say a few words about how it relates to the concepts of mind and nostos?

Frame: A close correspondence exists between the Greek Dioscuri and the twin gods of the Vedic pantheon, so close that these two pairs of divine twins must derive from the same Indo-European myth. But the Greek twin gods preserve a basic feature of the Indo-European myth that is not as directly preserved in the case of the Vedic twin gods, namely oppositions between the two twins themselves. The opposition between the immortal Polydeuces and the mortal Castor sets the terms for their central myth in Greek, in which the mortal Castor dies and the immortal Polydeuces brings him back to life, and from then on they alternate between life and death together. In Vedic, oppositions between the twins are mostly suppressed, but such oppositions come to the fore in Sanskrit epic in the sons of the Vedic twins, a pair of epic heroes. Distinctions between these two epic twins match distinctions between the Greek Dioscuri, specifically with respect to the warlike nature of Castor and the intelligence of Polydeuces. Intelligence is integral to the Indo-European immortal twin and is linked directly, I argue, with his function of bringing his mortal twin brother back to life. This bears on the meaning of Greek noos, “mind,” in relation to Greek nostos, “return.”  The original context for the connection between these two Greek words seems to be the Indo-European twin myth. Indeed, if nostos is a “return to life and light,” noos is a related “bringing back to life and light.” These two, noos and nostos, are in a sense the twins. More needs to be said to relate this to the Odyssey (something I had to postpone in The Myth of Return), but this is the basic idea.

CHS: In the very last footnote to that chapter you note a comparison between hippóta Néstōr and the Vedic twins Nā́satyā/Aśvínā and you suggest that Nestor’s origins are related to Indo-European twin mythology. You ask “Has the Greek Nestor, like the Avestan Nā̊ŋhaiθya, become separated from a twin brother?” The nuanced and beautiful answer to that question is found in the 900 pages of Hippota Nestor. When did you first have this realization about Nestor’s twin? Can you share a bit about the 30 year journey that resulted in the publication of this second book.

Frame: I’ll start an answer here and continue it in the next question. My Harvard doctoral thesis, which was accepted in 1970 for a degree awarded in 1971, turned into the book published by Yale University Press in 1978. I completely reworked only one part of the thesis for the book, namely the discussion of the Vedic twins. In my thesis I drew attention to the double etymological connection between the Homeric epithet and name hippóta Néstōr, “the horseman Nestor,” and the two dual names of the Vedic twins, Aśvínā Nā́satyā. I was interested in the name Nasatya as having to do with the Vedic twins’ function of “bringing back to life and light,” a function which they, like the Greek Dioscuri, perform for distressed mortals. Although I made the case for the correspondence between the names Nestor and Nasatya in terms of both the verbal root and the active meaning of this root in both names, I did not push the comparison between a solitary figure in Greek and a pair of twins in Vedic. In 1973, in the course of reading Sanskrit epic, I came upon the work of the Swedish scholar Stig Wikander, as publicized and expanded in the work of Georges Dumézil, on the heroes of the Mahabharata, including the two sons of the Vedic twin gods. Wikander’s work solved the problem of the solitary figure Nestor for me. I was able to correlate distinctions between the two epic heroes in Sanskrit, as detailed by Wikander, with the two dual names of their divine fathers in the Rig-Veda. Formulaic patterns in the diction of the Rig-Veda showed that each dual name properly designated a different twin, a “horseman” on the one hand, and a “savior” on the other hand, exactly as in the myth of the Greek Dioscuri. This suggested the answer to the problem of hippota Nestor: unlike Polydeuces, who brings Castor back to life, Nestor has a twin whose place he takes as a warrior, and more specifically as a “horseman”, when his brother dies. It struck me at once that this was the myth of “the horseman Nestor,” and there was immediate confirmation in Nestor’s oldest lore, the two stories about his youth that he tells as part of the story of Patroclus in the Iliad. In both of these stories Nestor is confronted with the same pair of twins, and these twins are the keys to the relevance of Nestor’s stories to Patroclus and Achilles. Nestor has a twin myth, but unlike Polydeuces, who brings Castor back to life, Nestor takes the place of his brother, the warrior Periclymenos, whom even Heracles was barely able to defeat. This much suggested itself at once in 1973, but I could only hint at this new direction when The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic was published in 1978. I did so in the footnote that you quoted.

CHS: Your story shows the possibility of taking a less traditional academic route and still contributing some of the most important work in the field. How did your alternative academic path help to shape your research? Do you feel like it was an advantage given the breadth of the material you needed to undertake?

The Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC

Frame: I’m not sure whether my alternative academic path shaped my research or vice versa. Perhaps both. I benefited from elements of a mainstream academic career when they made a real difference to me. In 1973–74, when I came upon Wikander’s study, I had just begun a junior leave of absence from Wellesley College. I spent the year exploring the new terrain that that study opened up to me, which was extremely exciting, but also frustrating when the year ended. I of course had no idea how far in the future the end of this project lay, and I was still at the stage of trying to rework my thesis for publication. In hindsight it seems that this whole period was perfectly suited to my purposes, however unplanned it was by me. In graduate school I studied Sanskrit for two years, including a year of Rig-Veda, which led to the section in my thesis on the Vedic twins. In the semester before my leave from Wellesley College I again read Sanskrit in a Harvard course, this time on Sanskrit epic, which led me to the work of Dumézil and Wikander. My idea had been to spend the year of leave in Paris doing new Homeric research, but in the end, given the unexpected turn back again to my earlier subject, I spent only the winter months in Paris. I had some limited contact there with Dumézil, but the real benefit of Paris was reading carefully through Homer on my own, and noticing something about Odysseus’s trip to the underworld. The catalogue of heroines met by Odysseus in the underworld is not what it seems, and this was a central point to me from then on, as it continues to be to this day. My next stab at completing the larger project, or so I hoped, was another spell of academic support in the early ‘eighties. On the strength of my thesis publication in 1978 I spent two years at Columbia University as a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities. In the summer between the two years, as I somewhat feverishly tried to get the whole story down on the page, I fell far short of that, and I also began to see the outlines of a new part of the problem, the location of Pylos, Nestor’s city, in the Iliad. When my time at Columbia ended all I had to show for it was two unpublished papers, delivered two years apart at the APA, and this was not enough to keep me afloat academically. I left academia soon after that. In the long run the work I did at Columbia on Pylos took on larger proportions, becoming one of five parts of my 2009 book. It was many years after I left academia that I received a phone call from Greg Nagy one Saturday morning in the spring of 2000 inviting me to become associate director at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, and it was at the Center that I finished the project nine years later. During my prior two decades in New York I wasn’t able to accomplish very much when I worked in business, although I became familiar with the New York Public Library during that time, and when I switched to secondary school teaching in the ‘nineties I started spending summers there as well. It took a few years before I returned to my project, but I finally began writing up large sections of it that had been in my mind for more than twenty years, and I sensed that I was at last beginning to get it into a fixed form. But I also began thinking about another part of the larger project, namely the role of early Athens, to which the resources of the NYPL gave me access. This was a complex subject, and, as had happened twice before with this project, it slowed me down, and available time seemed to contract as the summers went by. After four summers spent this way my appointment as associate director at the Center for Hellenic Studies was a godsend, and when I arrived I had substantially worked out all the parts of my argument and needed only the time and place to put it together, and the library resources to do it properly. This turn of events was hardly less timely than what I had experienced in Boston in 1973–74 and New York in 1980–82. To reflect a bit about all of this in Homeric terms, one of the marvelous things about the Odyssey is the beautifully structured sequence of adventures that Odysseus himself narrates once they are past, and the contrast between this ordered structure and the disorder of the experiences themselves as each one is lived through. The order appears only in hindsight. This aspect of Odysseus’s experience has a strong attraction for me, as it does for many. Much as I’ve thought about Nestor, Odysseus is my “main man” in terms of life experience.

CHS: Let’s return to Hippota Nestor. In that book you argue that irony is a key aspect of Nestor’s function in Homeric epic. What do you mean by that and why do you think irony came to be so crucial?

Frame: The irony that manifests itself in Nestor’s case is extensive, in fact pervasive. As a result there are two levels to his role, each of which is whole and complete in itself, on its own terms. We can take the old man simply at face value in both poems, and his role on that level is clear and consistent. But when Nestor starts talking about the past the floor drops out. By that I mean that his oldest traditions come into play, and silences then become signifiers. To be specific, Nestor’s oldest traditions have an Indo-European heritage, as the comparison with Vedic shows. This Indo-European heritage turns up, significantly, when Nestor talks about the earliest stage in his three-generation lifespan. It’s in that first generation that the myth of hippota Nestor is played out. The old man Nestor is a secondary figure in terms of epic tradition. He belongs to the Trojan War. To be part of the epic extravaganza that is that war Nestor has to be old because he has such a deep past. There is a real separation between the young Nestor and the old man, and I see that as the point of the middle generation in his lifespan, when nothing apparently occurred, at least nothing that has been passed down to us. The second generation simply marks the separation between the young Nestor and the old. As a young man Nestor was not the balanced figure who counsels the army at Troy. His twin myth is precisely about a loss of balance that had to be restored. The young Nestor’s lack of balance is treated ironically, which is to say it isn’t made explicit, and it thereby becomes a silent signifier, and a potent and pervasive one extending from the Iliad to the Odyssey. The silent (or absent) signifier doesn’t undercut the character and status of the old Nestor, but it plays against the old Nestor’s apparent balance. Like all of us, Nestor was once young and impetuous, and this had its dangerous aspect. The danger plays beneath the surface even in the old Nestor. Why this issue is not made explicit, but is instead treated ironically, is a bigger question. Nestor was given a myth that competed with his twin myth, which made him one of twelve sons of Neleus. This myth fits with Nestor’s significance to the member cities of the Ionian dodecapolis, whose common festival, the Panionia, I see as the context in which the Homeric poems were developed on a monumental scale. Compared with Nestor’s twin myth the myth of twelve sons was, so to speak, born yesterday, as was the dodecapolis. This myth again has to do with bringing Nestor up to date and fitting him into the Homeric context at Troy, which is the setting for the epic performed at the Panionia. Although it does not explain the irony of Nestor’s role completely, the myth of twelve sons, which is explicit in Homer, necessitates that Nestor’s twin myth remain implicit, i.e. that it exist only in an ironic form.

CHS: By focusing on irony, Nestor’s role, and the conflict over the location of Pylos, you were also able to develop important arguments about the Homeric Question. What do you see as the likely context for the development of the Homeric poems? How is that context reflected in the poems we have today?

Frame: Like many others I see a festival—a panegyris—as the context for the development of the Homeric poems on a monumental scale. The example of the Panathenaia in Athens, where the poems were performed in a strictly regulated way, points in this direction. In the absence of any historical account of when, where, how, and why the two Homeric poems came into being, the Athenian festival of the mid and late sixth century BC is itself sometimes pressed into service, with the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons somehow bringing about the poems’ monumentality through competitive performances by rhapsodes. To go back earlier than the Panathenaic festival, which was organized on a Panhellenic scale only in 566 BC, is to enter the unknown. It is true that Panhellenic festivals developed earlier in such other places as Olympia and Delphi. Did the Homeric poems come into being at those and similar sites? This would account for the poems’ Panhellenic character, as others have argued. I propose something like this, but I do not think that development at several sites simultaneously meets the case. Not only the poems’ size, but also their unity, is better accounted for if there was only one venue, especially if that venue was itself in the process of development. The common festival of the Ionian dodecapolis, the Panionia, seems to have originated in the late eighth century BC, when the Panionic league itself most likely reached its canonical size of twelve cities. Something is known of the circumstances that may have brought the league into existence, but not much is known about the early league itself. Soon enough, with the rise of the Lydians, conditions became hostile to the continued celebration of a festival which, as I imagine it, had given the Ionians their common identity during an early period of relative calm. The Ionians of the dodecapolis had very diverse origins in the Greek mainland before their migrations to Asia Minor, and their common identity as Ionians was by no means a given, but the result of a deliberate process. I think that the two Homeric poems are best explained as part of this process, their development occurring in step with the development of the Panionic league, and the Panhellenism of the poems being accounted for by the Panionians’ diversity of origins. The number twelve is structural in both the league and the Homeric poems. The twenty-four books of each poem preserve this basic structural element, and if four-book performance units are recognized as the building blocks of both poems, the performance units of the two poems together number twelve. As at the Panathenaia a century and a half later, more than one poet would have taken part in performances at the Panionia, but unlike the later venue, the earlier venue saw the composition of the poems on a monumental scale as well as their ongoing performance. I propose that these poems, created by a group of oral poets from the various Panionic cities, survived the catastrophic circumstances that affected the site of the festival, Panionion, and the rest of the Ionian mainland about the middle of the seventh century BC, by being moved offshore to Chios, where the same group of poets who created the poems became the guild of rhapsodes who preserved them. These were the historical Homeridai, who continued in existence as a guild into the archaic and classical period. It was most likely through Chios that the poems reached Athens in some controlled process of transmission, whatever less controlled processes may also have taken place. This is my model, and I should perhaps say that I came to it unintentionally. I was not looking for an anwer to the Homeric Question. My interest was Nestor, whom I recognized as a special figure to the Ionian Greeks, and to the city of Miletus in particular, where the ruling family in the Homeric era and before that were, like Nestor, called descendents of Neleus, “Neleidai.” Miletus seems to have played the leading part in the development of the Panionic league, and Nestor’s role in the Homeric poems, where he is made one of twelve sons of Neleus, fits this model of Miletus as promoter and organizer of the dodecapolis. But the real argument for Miletus and the Panionic league as the context for the Homeric poems goes beyond Nestor’s role in the Iliad and Odyssey and includes the Phaeacians’ role in the Odyssey. The argument is a complex one (I cite my article in the Festschrift for Gregory Nagy for a fuller version of it), but it comes down to recognizing the royal family of the Phaeacians as imitating the royal family of Miletus in its history and in its Panionic aspirations. The most salient point is the relationship between Nestor, the “homebringer,” and the Phaeacian king Alcinous, who actually brings Odysseus home.

The other point raised in your question concerns Pylos and its location. (See map below.) From the perspective of the Ionian Iliad and Odyssey the location of Pylos was mythic and vague, both in Nestor’s story to Patroclus in the Iliad and in Telemachus’s voyage from Pylos to Ithaca in the Odyssey. But the Ionian Iliad and Odyssey did not remain in Ionia. Mainland Greece became highly invested in these poems once they were transmitted beyond their cradle at Panionion and foster home in Chios. Sparta, which in the Second Messenian War annexed the land including and surrounding Nestor’s kingdom in Messenia, was in an awkward position with respect to the Homeric poems, and it is possible to trace the obfuscation of Pylos’s true location to an ingenious Spartan effort to relocate Pylos in the Homeric poems from Messenia to Elis such that the fate of Nestor’s homeland was no longer on Spartan hands but on Elean hands, and the smallest of changes in the Odyssey (the addition of a single phoneme—letter—in one proper name) was enough to do this. I refer to another article of mine in which the argument for this, Jwhich is based largely on the Pythian section of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, is presented succinctly. The Spartan obfuscation of Pylos’s location was successful enough to make the location of the Homeric city a riddle down to the fifth century, when a more serious intervention into the text of the Iliad, and precisely in Nestor’s story to Patroclus in Iliad 11, became part of the textual tradition from then on, to the detriment of the original intent of that story. The point here is that the Homeric poems became contested cultural patrimony over time and in different places after the period of their formation. This was happening in the late seventh century BC, the time of the second Messenian War, and again in the fifth century, when the context is the second half of the Peloponnesian War. Let me round out this discussion of the Homeric Question from the perspective of tradition after Ionia by returning to a point in an earlier question concerning the Odyssey. I mentioned that the catalogue of heroines in Odyssey 11 isn’t what it seems. What I meant by that is that the Ionian version of that catalogue, which had everything to do with Nestor and his significance for the Ionians and for the Ionian dodecapolis, has been expanded in an Athenian context, and this context can be identified as the sixth century BC Panathenaia and Peisistratid influence. The Ionian version of the catalogue can be isolated from this later expansion, and its remarkable structure tells the whole story that I wished to tell about Nestor and his twin myth in a nutshell. But in terms of the Homeric Question, the Athenian expansion of the catalogue goes with the two other mainland Greek receptions of the Homeric poems, one in the seventh century and the other in the fifth century, that left detectable traces.

CHS: You also suggest that this context allows for the possibility that the development of the poems might have been greatly influenced by one or two master poets. That seems like a surprising argument given your support of the role of multiformity in the poems. How did you come to this conclusion and how might your position help to promote dialogue within the field?

Frame: In the past Homeric studies were split between unitarians, who believed that a single poet, Homer, was responsible for the poems’ unity, and analysts, who thought that the poems were the work of a multiplicity of poets, who built up the poems through time. The basis of the unitarian view, namely the structural unity of the poems, weighs heavily with me. The essential point of the four-book performance units that I propose is that each unit has a beginning, middle, and end within the overall action of the poems, and that such a structure could only have resulted from a particular process in a particular set of circumstances. Once the poems acquired the status that they did in mainland Greece they would have become subject to additions and changes, as in the three examples I mentioned above. When it comes to such additions and changes I am a minimalist. In my book Hippota Nestor I argue in detail for the three instances in question, and for two others besides, but I see all of these as the exception rather than the rule. I do not claim that there aren’t other such additions and changes in Homer after the Ionian phase, only that there should be a heavy burden of proof when any such are proposed. Such things are not the structural principle of the poems, and this is where I think the analysts go wrong. The unitarians’ belief in a single poet Homer also has to be modified in view of the nature of oral poetry, which I think the Homeric poems most certainly were. To explain the unity of the Homeric poems in terms of oral poetry what is needed is not a single literate poet, or a single dictating poet, but an organic process which could produce two unified poems on a monumental scale. This process happened only once in Greek epic tradition, unless there were other pairs of poems on the same scale and of the same quality as the Homeric poems which disappeared without trace, and this does not seem at all likely. If the Homeric poems are in this sense unique, we should allow for a unique process in their creation. There had to be more than one poet performing the two poems in sequence before a festival audience. To perform even four books of Homer would have required four poets to judge by modern parallels. If one performance unit could be delivered by four poets, and if these poets  had enough time between performances, four poets would have sufficed for a performance of the whole. I propose that the ideal number of poets was in fact twelve, matching both the number of cities in the dodecapolis and the number of performance units in the two poems. This is a nearly untestable hypothesis, because it depends entirely on a set of historical circumstances that can’t be reproduced. But the key to the process is that more than one poet participated in the simultaneous composition and performance of the poems. Any such collaborative process must have started from small beginnings, say a pair of poets. I don’t know what models we might find for a creative poetic effort on this reduced scale, but if the process worked for two poets, it could also be made to work for more. I’m now coming to the question about one or two master poets as occupying a special place in this model. In a sense the whole model involves one-off occurrences, given the degree of historical contingency that it posits. Within this unrepeatable set of circumstances I don’t see a logical problem with imagining special talent on the part of some of the poets. Rather I imagine a scale of creativity, with those at the lower end still playing a vital role with respect to performance, and those at the higher end contributing more to the ongoing development of the poems. I would also say that if this model corresponds to reality, I do see in it a special place for Miletus, and for a poet from Miletus. This is because of Nestor’s role in the poems, which is central to the model itself. The poet who knew Nestor’s traditions must have had a leading role in the creative process. To venture a step further, if there was a second poet who collaborated in the process from the start, Priene, which had a particularly close relationship with Miletus, and which played a central role at the Panionia, could be imagined as providing this collaborator. I don’t deny that ideas like these betray a unitarian bias, which, as your question suggests, don’t quite square with how oral epic is generally viewed. I certainly don’t want to have anything to do with the old unitarian model of a solitary literate genius wandering the countryside. Whether I succeed in defining circumstances in which the notions of oral poetry and individual genius both make sense is, I think, a good question, and one which I hope will be taken up and, as you say, promote dialogue in the field.

CHS: You’ve also written three articles. The first is titled “The Homeric Poems after Ionia: A Case in Point” and presents arguments about the reception and development of the Homeric poems after their development in Ionia. The second article titled “New Light on the Homeric Question: the Phaeacians Unmasked” was published just this October in the Gregory Nagy festschrift. That paper summarizes and develops arguments you make in Hippota Nestor about the relationship between Nestor and the Phaeacians. You are also awaiting publication of an article titled “Achilles and Patroclus as Indo-European Twins: Homer’s Take,” which has already been made available on the CHS website. This third paper summarizes your work on the Indo-European twin myth. Why was it important to you to summarize these particular key points from your books? If someone is new to your work, where should they start?

Frame: I would suggest reading the article about Achilles and Patroclus first. It summarizes Nestor’s background in the Indo-European twin myth and shows how his “back story,” in terms of this myth, is the basis of his role in the story of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. The article about the Phaeacians, as the title indicates, concerns the Homeric Question, and I would suggest that next. It fills in what I didn’t say above about members of the Phaeacian royal family, showing how the Homeric audience—Panionians in the mold of Miletus—is identified by the Phaeacian king, queen, and royal prince as an ensemble. The article about the Homeric poems “after Ionia” concerns Homeric transmission and makes the case that the Homeric poems were essentially fixed in form by the time of the Pythian Hymn to Apollo, which “quotes” both poems very specifically in order to “correct” them on the matter of the location of Nestor’s city. The article covers the same ground as Chapter 13 of Hippota Nestor, but it doesn’t presuppose all the earlier parts of that book, as the chapter does. All three articles have this in common, that they isolate particular questions from the larger study that led to them, and thus provide easier access to these questions. The questions are basic ones for the study, namely, Nestor’s unspoken myth, the consequences of this for the Homeric Question, and fixation of the Homeric poems at an early period. One question not addressed in a separate article is the irony of Nestor’s Homeric role. Since this irony is deep and pervasive, it needs to be approached in a connected way, and I don’t know that a more concise treatment of it wouldn’t be more harm than help.

donum cover
The Festschrift for Gregory Nagy contains over 80 original pieces including Frame’s “New Light on the Homeric Question: The Phaeacians Unmasked”

CHS: Finally, the use of the word “unmasked” in your festschrift article seems to express a truth about your overall approach to this poetry. On some level, all of your research seems to be focused on seeing what’s not shown and hearing what’s unsaid. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, why do you think this approach appeals to you?

Frame: I can’t disagree. In my earlier book I argued that conservative Greek epic diction preserved ideas no longer fully understood when the Homeric poems were composed. I used linguistic reconstruction to show what these ideas were and how the diction expressing them had evolved into something semantically different by the Homeric era. In my later book my starting point was again linguistic reconstruction, namely the comparison of hippota Nestor with the Asvina Nasatya, but my new approach to this linguistic comparison based on Wikander’s study had made me see from the start something I hadn’t expected in Homer, namely conscious irony in the deployment of Nestor’s myth. The more I pursued Nestor’s Homeric role the more widespread and consistent the irony seemed, and that made me look for the reason behind it and see that it had to do with the Homeric Question. To illustrate the conscious irony of Nestor’s Homeric role there is no better example than the chariot race for Patroclus in Iliad 23, which is very much Nestor’s own episode from beginning to end. I won’t go into what the irony is, only how it is deliberately signaled with the formula “it will not escape your notice” that occurs fully four times in the episode in one form or another. The formula, which couldn’t be more insistent or more clear, is a signal to look beneath the surface of the narrative. The verb “escape notice,” which occurs after the negative “not” in this formula, is the root of the Greek word for “truth,” in which the root is again preceded by a negative. Nestor’s Homeric role, to put it simply, plays with the Greek notion that truth is hidden and must be discovered or uncovered. His role seems designed to illustrate this notion. The realization that the irony of Nestor’s role is deliberate made me reconsider one aspect of an argument I made about his name in my earlier book. I argued there that the root of Nestor’s name, which occurs in the Greek verb “return,” does not mean “return” in his name, but “bring back”, and I supported this by showing that the active verb “bring back” actually occurs once in the Odyssey, but disguised as something else. To restore the verb requires the change of a single letter in the manuscript tradition. I was confident of the change, which was supported by formulaic analysis of the diction surrounding the verb in Homer, but I thought the verb itself must have been no longer understood by the Homeric poets, and that it was they who distorted its form and meaning. This went with my assumption that the meaning of Nestor’s name was a linguistic relic without real valence in the Homeric poems. My new understanding of Nestor’s twin myth made me see that the meaning of his name is still very much alive in Homer, particularly in the Odyssey, and that the one occurrence of a verb that explains his name must also have been crystal clear to the Homeric poets. My analysis of the verb’s existence at one time in Greek epic diction did not change in the least, but my understanding of what this verb meant for the Homeric poems changed radically. On the existential question as to why I’m attracted to finding meaning in what isn’t there, I’d like to think that Homer taught me that, but there is probably more to it. It may be relevant to mention that I wrote a senior thesis at Harvard College on Book V of Thucydides, and that as I worked with the text in the vein of the German analyst Eduard Schwartz the figure of Alcibiades began to emerge more and more clearly as the answer that Thucydides came to in hindsight and then began to insert into an earlier draft of his narrative to show the unity of the Peloponnesian War even during the years of apparent peace in Book V. I hadn’t intended to concern myself with Alcibiades in this study, although I had written a paper on Alcibiades when I read Thucydides for the first time, but that’s what happened. Years later, when I began to focus on the geography of Nestor’s story in Iliad 11, which I had already become convinced from the work of another scholar could not belong to the Ionian version of the Iliad, this geography looked more and more like it belonged to the late fifth century, and that the only coherent explanation of its place in the Homeric text pointed to Alcibiades. This became the argument of the last chapter of my book. Both episodes in my scholarly life seem to bear out a penchant for “absent signifiers,” although I mean this more loosely than in the case of conscious Homeric irony. Why Alcibiades should figure twice like this in my rather limited scholarly output takes the existential question to a different level, which I sometimes ponder but will have to leave at that.


Richard Martin of Stanford University recently reviewed Douglas Frame’s Hippota Nestor for the American Journal of Philology. He begins his review with the following summation: “This magisterial volume achieves a remarkable new synthesis of work on the deep roots of the Homeric poems in Indo-European antiquity with fine-grained historical analyses of the period when the text was crystallizing (eighth–fifth centuries B.C.E.).” Visit project Muse to learn more about Martin’s review. For more on the poetics of Homer, read Martins’ The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad, available as an open access publication through CHS. Those interested in Indo-European poetics might also enjoy Todd Compton’s, Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History and Indo-European Language and Society by Emile Benveniste, both available now as open access publications on the CHS website. To find an extensive selection of research on ancient Greek civilization and literature, visit the CHS online at chs.harvard.edu.