Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Summer 2017: Iliad 20, Multiformity, and Tradition

Ajax (Aias) fights Glaukos over the dead body of Achilles, while Paris and Aeneas look on. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
How many ways are there to tell the story of Troy? A passage from Iliad 20 makes me wonder just how flexible the Homeric tradition might be. At the beginning of book 20, Zeus calls the gods to an assembly. He tells them that they may now join the battle taking place before the walls of Troy on whatever side they wish, something that he had expressly forbidden the gods to do at the beginning of book 8. The reason he has changed his mind, he explains, is that Achilles is now preparing to return to battle for the first time since his withdrawal in book 1, and he is afraid that the Trojans will not be able to withstand him even for a little while:
καὶ δέ τέ μιν καὶ πρόσθεν ὑποτρομέεσκον ὁρῶντες·
νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ καὶ θυμὸν ἑταίρου χώεται αἰνῶς
δείδω μὴ καὶ τεῖχος ὑπερ μόρον ἐξαλαπάξῃ. (Iliad 20.28-30)

Even before now they would tremble before him when they saw him.
And now when he is terribly angry in his heart because of [the death of] his companion
I fear lest the wall [of Troy] will be sacked beyond [i.e., contrary to] fate.
Apollo, the god of prophesy and the one besides Zeus most often associated with seeing into the future, likewise fears that the Trojan walls will come down too soon at Achilles’ hands: μέμβλετο γάρ οἱ τεῖχος ἐϋδμήτοιο πόληος/μὴ Δαναοὶ πέρσειαν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἤματι κείνῳ (“For he was concerned about the wall of the well-built city, lest the Danaans destroy it on that day beyond fate” Iliad 21.516–517). Zeus’ and Apollo’s fear in these passages is remarkable, and begs questions that anyone who has read the Iliad with undergraduates will be familiar with. If the walls of Troy are destined to fall at a particular moment, how could they fall before that? Is fate something that can be changed? Is Zeus subject to fate or can Zeus alter it? But we could could also reframe these questions in terms of narrative. If the Iliad tells a traditional story, shouldn’t Zeus and Apollo know how the story ends? Would it really be possible to change the story now, and have Troy fall while Achilles is still alive, and indeed at his hands?

In his 1979 book The Best of the Achaeans, Gregory Nagy argued that the first song of Demodokos in Odyssey 8, in which the Phaeacian bard narrates a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles, is in fact a compressed reference to an epic tradition in which Achilles and Odysseus quarreled over whether Troy would be taken by cunning [mētis] or by force [biē]. Nagy reads the scholia preserved in the manuscripts at Odyssey 8.75 and 77 as likewise pointing to such a tradition, which is otherwise not attested in our surviving sources (Nagy 1979:46). Might we find here in the fears of Zeus and Apollo another glimpse of these two rival possibilities for the fall of Troy? If so, we have to wonder if the Iliadic tradition is indeed so multiform, so flexible, that such a radically different ending could be possible. Is there (or was there) an alternative epic universe, in which Achilles really did take Troy by force? And if not, why does Zeus entertain the idea?

As it turns out, ancient commentators on the Iliad were concerned about these same questions. And so the scholia in the margins of the so-called Townley manuscript (Burney 86, folio 220v) record for us a fascinating variation on these verses from book 20:
τινὲς γράφουσιν ἀντὶ τοῦ <δείδω, μὴ καὶ τεῖχος>

οὐ μέντοι μοῖρ’ ἐστὶν ἔτι ζῳοῦ Ἀχιλῆος
Ἰλίου ἐκπέρσαι εὖ ναιόμενον πτολίεθρον.
πέρσει δουράτεός <θ’> ἵππος καὶ μῆτις Ἐπειοῦ.

πῶς γὰρ ὁ εἰδὼς “μοῖράν τ’ ἀμμορίην τε” [= Odyssey 20.76] νῦν διστάζει;

Some write instead of “I fear lest the wall”

It is not fated, however, with Achilles still alive
to sack the well-inhabited citadel of Ilium.
A wooden horse will destroy it and the craftiness [mētis] of Epeios.

For how is he [= Zeus], knowing “what is fated and not fated” [= Odyssey 20.76], now in doubt?
These alternative verses make clear that Troy is not going to fall at the hands of Achilles, but rather as a result of the mētis of the wooden horse. Problem solved. But the commentator, in seeking to solve a narratological, mythological, and indeed existential problem, now presents us with a textual one. What is the source of these verses that “some write,” and how do we reconcile them with our received text?


Iliad 20 is a book that seems fixated on the danger of things happening at the wrong time, i.e. "beyond fate." In verses that were athetized (that is, deemed "not Homeric") by Aristrachus, Poseidon stated:
πάντες δ᾽ Οὐλύμποιο κατήλθομεν ἀντιόωντες
τῆσδε μάχης, ἵνα μή τι μετὰ Τρώεσσι πάθῃσι
σήμερον: ὕστερον αὖτε τὰ πείσεται ἅσσά οἱ αἶσα
γιγνομένῳ ἐπένησε λίνῳ ὅτε μιν τέκε μήτηρ. (20.125–128)

We all have come down from Olympus to participate
in this battle, in order that he not suffer anything among the Trojans
today. Later he will suffer in turn whatever things fate
spun for him with her thread as he was born, when his mother gave birth to him.
Poseidon seems to be suggesting that without their intervention, Achilles might have had died too soon. These verses still today bear Aristarchus' editorial condemnation: they are marked with the obelos in the Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad.

Later in the book, the two great heroes of Greek and Roman epic tradition, Achilles and Aeneas, come face to face on the battlefield, and once again, Poseidon is concerned that the mythological and poetic tradition will go awry:
ἔνθά κεν Αἰνείας μὲν ἐπεσσύμενον βάλε πέτρῳ
ἢ κόρυθ᾽ ἠὲ σάκος, τό οἱ ἤρκεσε λυγρὸν ὄλεθρον,
τὸν δέ κε Πηλεΐδης σχεδὸν ἄορι θυμὸν ἀπηύρα,
εἰ μὴ ἄρ᾽ ὀξὺ νόησε Ποσειδάων ἐνοσίχθων:
αὐτίκα δ᾽ ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖς μετὰ μῦθον ἔειπεν:
ὢ πόποι ἦ μοι ἄχος μεγαλήτορος Αἰνείαο,
ὃς τάχα Πηλεΐωνι δαμεὶς Ἄϊδος δὲ κάτεισι
πειθόμενος μύθοισιν Ἀπόλλωνος ἑκάτοιο
νήπιος, οὐδέ τί οἱ χραισμήσει λυγρὸν ὄλεθρον.
ἀλλὰ τί ἢ νῦν οὗτος ἀναίτιος ἄλγεα πάσχει
μὰψ ἕνεκ᾽ ἀλλοτρίων ἀχέων, κεχαρισμένα δ᾽ αἰεὶ
δῶρα θεοῖσι δίδωσι τοὶ οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἔχουσιν;
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγεθ᾽ ἡμεῖς πέρ μιν ὑπὲκ θανάτου ἀγάγωμεν,
μή πως καὶ Κρονίδης κεχολώσεται, αἴ κεν Ἀχιλλεὺς
τόνδε κατακτείνῃ: μόριμον δέ οἵ ἐστ᾽ ἀλέασθαι,
ὄφρα μὴ ἄσπερμος γενεὴ καὶ ἄφαντος ὄληται
Δαρδάνου, ὃν Κρονίδης περὶ πάντων φίλατο παίδων
οἳ ἕθεν ἐξεγένοντο γυναικῶν τε θνητάων.
ἤδη γὰρ Πριάμου γενεὴν ἔχθηρε Κρονίων:
νῦν δὲ δὴ Αἰνείαο βίη Τρώεσσιν ἀνάξει
καὶ παίδων παῖδες, τοί κεν μετόπισθε γένωνται. (Iliad 20.288-308)
Aeneas would then have struck Achilles as he was springing towards him, either on the helmet, or on the shield that covered him, and Achilles would have closed with him and dispatched him with his sword, had not Poseidon lord of the earthquake been quick to mark, and said forthwith to the immortals, “Alas, I feel grief for great Aeneas, who will now go down to the house of Hades, vanquished by the son of Peleus. Fool that he was to give ear to the counsel of Apollo. Apollo will never save him from destruction. Why should this man have grief when he is guiltless, to no purpose, and in another's quarrel? Has he not at all times offered acceptable sacrifice to the gods that dwell in heaven? Let us then snatch him from death's jaws, lest the son of Kronos be angry should Achilles slay him. It is fated, moreover, that he should escape, and that the race of Dardanos, whom Zeus loved above all the sons born to him of mortal women, shall not perish utterly without seed or sign. For now indeed has Zeus hated the blood of Priam, while Aeneas shall reign over the Trojans, he and his children's children that shall be born hereafter.” (translation adapted from that of Samuel Butler)
It is clear that Aeneas cannot be allowed to die at this moment. So much of the poetic tradition will be ruined if he does! The passage reminds me of another in Odyssey 8, where Odysseus specifically requests that Demodokos sing the song of the sack of Troy by means of the wooden horse. Odysseus says to Demodokos:
αἴ κεν δή μοι ταῦτα κατὰ μοῖραν καταλέξῃς,
αὐτίκ᾽ ἐγὼ πᾶσιν μυθήσομαι ἀνθρώποισιν,
ὡς ἄρα τοι πρόφρων θεὸς ὤπασε θέσπιν ἀοιδήν. (Odyssey 8.496-498)

If you relate these things to me in accordance with destiny
Straightaway I will speak words before all men,
saying how a god readily bestowed upon you a wondrous song.
Odysseus’ words imply that there is a correct or authoritative way to perform this song, but also that other singers might perform it differently. Here again we find competing epic traditions evaluated in terms of fate or destiny (moira). What is “fated” is the traditional and hence authoritative version of the story. What is tradition for the external audience of the epic and even for the internal audience, the Phaeacians, is in fact, for Odysseus, his own life experiences, which took place only ten years prior to the current occasion of performance. He is therefore uniquely qualified to judge the authoritativeness of the current performance. His reaction, namely his tears, reveals to us that Demodokos has succeeded.


It is the nexus of multiformity and tradition in Iliad 20 that we will explore at this year's undergraduate summer seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies. As we will see, the mythological and narratological questions being grappled with by the scholars of Alexandria and the later authors whose comments survive in the scholia of our medieval manuscripts can sometimes have profound implications for the textual transmission of the Iliad and Odyssey. The scholion on Iliad 20.30 with which I began is a perfect example of the interdependence of the two. In this one comment, not only can we possibly catch a glimpse of a now lost epic tradition in which Achilles and Odysseus contend to be the sacker of Troy and the “best of the Achaeans,” we also learn about three verses that do not survive in our medieval manuscripts of the poem. All we are told, in the typically compressed way of the scholia, is that some (presumably editors) write these verses (presumably in their editions). They are not a seamless replacement for Iliad 20.30, however. If we replaced 20.30 with the verses that “some write,” we would get this:
20.28 καὶ δέ τέ μιν καὶ πρόσθεν ὑποτρομέεσκον ὁρῶντες·
20.29 νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ καὶ θυμὸν ἑταίρου χώεται αἰνῶς
20.30a οὐ μέντοι μοῖρ’ ἐστὶν ἔτι ζῳοῦ Ἀχιλῆος
20.30b Ἰλίου ἐκπέρσαι εὖ ναιόμενον πτολίεθρον.
20.30c πέρσει δουράτεός <θ’> ἵππος καὶ μῆτις Ἐπειοῦ.

Even before now they would tremble before him when they saw him.
And now when he is terribly angry in his heart because of [the death of] his companion…
It is not fated, however, with Achilles still alive
to sack the well-inhabited citadel of Ilium.
A wooden horse will destroy it and the craftiness [mētis] of Epeios.
If we assume an ellipsis here (as sometimes occurs, as at Iliad 1.135-136), we can make it work, but it is more likely that the scholia here are quoting from an edition where the entire passage was substantially different from what we find in the medieval manuscripts of the Iliad. But these verses are in no way objectionable beyond the fact that they don’t survive elsewhere. There is nothing “un-Homeric” about them, they are simply an attested multiform of the verses transmitted by our medieval manuscripts.

When we understand the Iliad and Odyssey to have been composed in a dynamic process of composition-in-performance over many centuries, we have no reason to necessarily privilege one formulaic variation over another, even if one is well attested in our medieval manuscripts and one is known only from another source. Both are at least potentially authentically generated performance multiforms, and both have something to teach us about the compositional process and the poetics of the system in which they were generated. Not all surviving multiforms would have been known to all singers at all times and in all places, but each has the potential to reveal something about the poetics of the tradition in the time and place in which that multiform is attested.

But just how fluid, how multiform, was the Greek epic tradition? If the tradition was, as I have claimed in my research, quite fluid in its early phases, why do our medieval manuscripts present us with a relatively uniform text? How do we get from a creative and vibrant oral epic song tradition like that which Albert Lord describes in The Singer of Tales to the seemingly fixed text of the more than 500 manuscripts of the Iliad that survive from medieval times? Conversely, when we accept that earlier forms of the Iliad were mulitform, what poetic possibilities open up for us?

Aristarchus athetized at least seven passages of three verses or more in book 20 alone. Each athetesis gives us insight into an editor who was struggling to account for a mythological and poetic tradition that was multiform and at times contradictory. But where he wanted to take away, we will take back. Building on the work of earlier scholars who have demonstrated why we should expect the Iliad to be multiform (especially Lord 1960 and Nagy 1996), our seminar will explore two basic questions: First, what kinds of multiformity are attested in our surviving sources? And secondly, what are the implications of multiformity for our interpretation of the reception and transmission of Homeric poetry? These questions and our preliminary answers to them have emerged from fifteen years of collaborative work and discussion. I have often joked that the aim of the Homer Multitext is to “unedit” the Iliad. But the joke is serious in that a central goal of the project is to present the historical witnesses of the Iliad unmediated by the interventions of editors seeking to reconstruct an hypothesized “original.” Only in this way can we gain a clear picture of the multiformity with which the Iliad has been transmitted to us. In our experience, it can be incredibly difficult, sometimes impossible, to ascertain what our historical sources actually transmit if one relies on existing publications of the scholia in print or the cryptic reporting of an apparatus criticus. The Homer Multitext allows each document to be viewed and considered on its own terms.

This summer, as we do every summer, we'll remove the bindings so to speak from the medieval manuscripts and fully examine their contents, study surviving papyrus fragments in all their multiform messiness, and try to visualize without judgment the Iliad known to Plato and Aeschines. The attested multiforms of the Iliad give us an opportunity to know and appreciate a wider range of performance traditions for this remarkable poem than most of us have been taught to do. Although our attested multiforms derive from the later stages of the evolution of the poem, even so I submit that they give us a glimpse of the very long history of the text, access to even earlier Iliads, and a greater awareness of the mechanisms by which such a poem could be composed in performance.

Works cited

Lord, A. B. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA, 1960.
Nagy, G. The Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore, 1979.
–––. Poetry as Performance. Cambridge, 1996.


  1. Casey,

    Great blogpost. You asked,"If the Iliad tells a traditional story, shouldn’t Zeus and Apollo know how the story ends?" I would like to suggest another answer beyond multiformity, rather that what the Olympians fear is the real possibility that a demi-god can alter fate.

    When Capaneus stood upon the wall of Thebes at the siege of Thebes and shouted that Zeus himself could not stop him from invading it, he didn't get the thunderbolt for blasphemy against the will of Zeus, but rather because he had already entered the city.

    The giants would have defeated the Olympians except for the intercession of the demi-gods Heracles and Dionysus (according to some reliefs several others besides) That means that the demi-gods were greater than the Giants, who were greater than the gods.

    In fact, demi-gods could change fate, hence the immortals constant fear we might do something beyond destiny.


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