Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Variations on Briseis: Special Homeric Poetics Edition

In June the Center for Hellenic Studies will once again host the Homer Multitext Summer Seminar. Each year the seminar introduces a new generation of student researchers to the principles that underly the Homer Multitext project via a particular book of the Iliad. By the end of the seminar the students will not only have created their own edition of the text and scholia for that book as represented in the Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad, they will also know a great deal about how the Iliad was composed and the poetics of a work that was composed in performance.

Attic  red-figure skyphos (Louvre G 146) showing
the taking of Briseis by Agamemnon
This year's book is Iliad 19, which happens to feature the only words spoken in the poem by Briseis, the woman whose seizure by Agamemnon in book 1 initiates the entire plot of the Iliad. In my 2002 book, Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis, I used the character of Briseis as an entry point for discussing the multiformity of the epic tradition and how that affects our understanding of the poetics of the Iliad. Because Briseis only speaks ten verses in the Iliad, one might be tempted to think that she is not a traditional character, or to put it another way, that she does not have her own story. Briseis’ role in the Iliad is indeed enormously compressed from the standpoint of both the Iliad as a whole and the entire tradition of the Epic Cycle. In the Iliad she does not even have a name—her name means simply “daughter of Brises.” Yet elsewhere there are hints that her name was Hippodameia, and that she was part of another story—or other stories.  She is named Hippodameia by the A scholia at 1.392 and in Dictys of Crete. Here is what the Venetus A scholia say about her:
κούρην Βρισῆος: ἐοικεν πατρωνυμικῶς τὰ ὀνόματα αὐτῶν σχηματίζειν ὁ ποιητὴς καὶ οὐ κυρίως ὡς γὰρ ἄλλοι ἀρχαῖοι ἱστοροῦσιν. ἡ μὲν Ἀστυνόμη ἐκαλεῖτο· ἡ δὲ Ἱπποδάμεια. ὁ δὲ τρόπος ἀντωνομασία 
It is likely that the poet forms their names patronymically and not precisely. For as the other arkhaioi [poets] tell it, the one [Chryseis] was called Astynome and the other [Briseis] was called Hippodameia. The trope is antonomasia [i.e., using one name for another]. 
While it is not certain which poets or song traditions are meant by arkhaioi here, the work of Albert Henrichs has shown that the term arkhaioi in the scholia generally refers to Homer and earlier poets in contrast with more recent poets (hoi neôteroi), who include Hesiod, the archaic poets, the tragedians, and Alexandrian poets like Callimachus. The comment suggests then that in some early epic narratives Briseis had a personal name, and by extension, a story to go with it.

It is important to understand that the Iliad is a narrative about the anger of Achilles in the tenth year of the Trojan War. Much earlier as well as much later events are woven into a story that takes place in only a few days’ time. Even though at over 15,000 verses it might take as many as three days to perform, the Iliad is nevertheless a compression of the potentially full extent of epic poetry about Troy—what we might call the ultimate expansion of the Iliad. I suggest that one result of this compression is that the Iliad only gives us a glimpse of the figure of Briseis, whose role in the larger epic tradition must have been much greater.

It seems likely that there were at least two variations on the story of Briseis in antiquity, because of the two-fold pattern she fulfills in the surviving ancient references. In at least one tradition she is very much a young (or at least unmarried) girl, the daughter of King Brises of Pedasos, whom Achilles receives as a prize along with Diomedeia, the daughter of King Phorbas of Lesbos (see Chapter 3 in Dué 2002). But according to Iliad 2.688-694, 19.295-296, and elsewhere she was captured by Achilles in the sack of Lyrnessos, and in her lament for Patroklos (Iliad 19.292-302) Briseis says that she was married, and that Achilles killed her husband, who may have been King Mynes. Our Iliad alludes to multiple variations on these two basic themes.

Briseis is featured in a number of ancient vase paintings, which are similarly multiform in their depiction of Briseis' story. (See Chapter 1 of Dué 2002.) The one included above shows her being taken by Agamemnon from the tent of Achilles (a variation on the Iliad, where two heralds come to take Briseis). This event is narrated in book 1 of the Iliad, where the text says, tantalizingly, that she went “unwillingly.” In Iliad 9 Achilles proclaims that he loves her as a man loves his wife, even though he won her in war (ἐκ θυμοῦ φίλεον δουρικτητήν περ ἐοῦσαν 9.343). In Briseis’ lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19 we learn of her hope to become Achilles’ wedded wife in Phthia. And so we see that compressed but not entirely hidden within the Iliad there is also a love story. (See also Fantuzzi 2012.)

A multitextual approach to the Iliad allows us to appreciate the long history and multiformity of the tradition from which poets and vase painters told their stories. As I write in my 2002 book, Archaic vase-paintings can even make it possible for us to reconstruct variant poetic traditions to which the Iliad alludes (see Muellner 2012 for another example). It is important, however, to make a distinction between the Iliad—the fixed text as we now know it—and Iliadic or Cyclic traditional narratives. n our Iliad Agamemnon sends two heralds to take Briseis, but, according to another way of telling the story, Agamemnon comes in person. The archaic artists knew both variants of the tale, and “told the story” both ways, choosing between them like an epic poet in performance.

Because of the nature of what survives, we have only a narrow window into the larger tradition from which painters and poets composed their narratives. Reconstruction of the larger tradition can be difficult and sometimes impossible, but an examination of the sources that do survive show us that the ancient Greek artistic and epic traditions were at one time very fluid. The Iliad is one way of telling the tale of Troy, but it is by no means the only way, as the example of Briseis makes clear.

Works Cited

Dué, C. 2002. Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham, MD.

Fantuzzi, M. 2012. Achilles in Love. Oxford.

Henrichs, A. 1993. “Response.” In Images and Ideologies: Self-definition in the Hellenistic World, eds. A. W. Bulloch, E. S. Gruen, A.A. Long, and A. Stewart. Berkeley.

Muellner, L. 2012. "Grieving Achilles." In Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry, eds. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, C. Tsagalis, pp.197-220. Berlin.

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