Friday, July 1, 2016

Poetry in Stone: The Poetics of Iliad 24

Statue of Niobe and her youngest daughter from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
This year's Homer Multitext summer seminar has focused on book 24 of the Homeric Iliad, with teams of faculty and students creating a complete edition of the text and scholia of the Venetus A manuscript for that book. An additional goal for the seminar has been to explore the poetics of the book from an oralist perspective, which is to say, we wanted to explore how the fact that the Iliad is a work composed within an oral tradition affects our understanding of the poetry of Iliad 24. Olga Levaniouk from the University of Washington and Casey Dué from the University of Houston led the discussion. Among the topics we discussed were how to interpret the simile in which Priam is compared (as he arrives within the tent of Achilles, to the astonishment of all) to an exiled murderer, and its resonance in the wider epic tradition. Olga showed that Achilles' father Peleus has a history of taking in such figures, and in some traditions was such a figure himself. For a traditional audience familiar with Peleus' backstory, the simile reveals Achilles to be like his father by taking Priam in and treating him with dignity in Iliad 24.

Olga also showed how Achilles' telling of the story of Niobe ("Even Niobe remembered food..." 24.602) comments on the nature of poetic tradition. Building on the arguments of Gregory Nagy in Homer the Classic, in which he discusses petrification as a metaphor for the notional unchangeability of epic poetry, Olga discussed how Niobe's transformation into a weeping rock is a metaphor for the still living nature of the poetic tradition even after it has achieved the status of "monument" (or stone).

Niobe will weep for all time, her sorrow is eternal. So too will Achilles be mourned for all time, as we learn in Odyssey 24, not only by his immortal mother and her sisters, but also by the Muses, and by extension, the audience of epic poetry. But even though Achilles' death is constantly foreshadowed in the Iliad, the poem ends not with his own glorious death, laments for that death, and his funeral, but with Hektor's, his greatest enemy. As Casey Dué has written, the laments of Andromache and the other women of the Iliad therefore have a dual function. On the level of narrative they are laments for the dead, the warrior husbands and sons who inevitably fall in battle. They protest the cruel fate of the women left behind, and narrate the very personal sorrows of each woman in war. The grief expressed by these women is raw and real. But for the audience of ancient epic the laments for these husbands and sons are also the prototypical laments of heroes, who, for them, continue to be lamented and mourned on a seasonally recurring basis. The poetry of epic collapses the boundaries between the two forms of song.

In the Iliad, grief spreads quickly from individual to community. As each lament comes to a close, the immediately surrounding community of mourners antiphonally responds with their own cries and tears. It is not insignificant then that the final lament of the Iliad and indeed the final lines of the poem, sung by Helen (who is the cause of the war), ends not with the antiphonal wailing of the women (as at Iliad 6.499, 19.301, 22.515, and 24.746), but of the people: “So she spoke lamenting, and the people wailed in response” (Iliad 24.776).

The Iliad looks at humanity without ethnic or any other distinctions that make people want to kill each other. It is not a poem that is anti-war: war was a fundamental and even sacred part of Greek culture. But it is poem that can transcend ethnicity and lament the death of heroes in battle, whether they are Greek or Trojan, and it can even lament the death of the greatest Greek hero of them all, Achilles, by lamenting the death of his greatest enemy. It is a poem that can view Achilles through the eyes of his victims, through the sorrow that he generates, and at the same time experience and appreciate his own never-ending sorrow.

Dué, C. 2007. “Learning Lessons From The Trojan War: Briseis and the Theme of Force.” College Literature 34: 229-262.

Nagy, G. 2008. Homer the Classic. Washington, DC.