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What is the importance of formulaic language and type-scenes for the appreciation of Homeric epic?

What is the importance of formulaic language and type-scenes for the appreciation of Homeric epic?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Georgy Medvedev. Originally submitted for Traditions of Epic at Durham University, with lecturer Dr. Sarah Mile in the category of Ancient & Classical Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Georgy Medvedev. Originally submitted for Traditions of Epic at Durham University, with lecturer Dr. Sarah Mile in the category of Ancient & Classical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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What is the importance of formulaic language and type-scenes for the appreciation of Homeric epic?
The essay focuses on Milman Parry’s theory of oral poetry, which proved to be definitive for Homeric
scholarship in the 20
century. In our days Parry’s name entered every text
-book and preamble to
Homer, accompanied by praise, critique, corrections and additions. As usual Parry’s original idea became
rather blurred in the process, and I felt it important to go back and confro
nt Parry’s surviving writings
themselves. I was struck by how radical was the shift of perspective Parry actually proposed, and thedrastic consequences for Homeric aesthetics it entailed. After a short introduction to the history of Homeric aesthetics, the essay concentrates on the core idea of oral poetry as a self-contained techniqueof improvisation, governed first and foremost by metrical convention, rather than by considerations of meaningfulness and style. The discussion takes cue, as Parry did, from Homeric epithet, and then moveson to whole-line formulas and type-scenes. Performing a close reading of two formulaic dinner-sequences (
1.458-469 and
432), I argue that albeit Parry’s theory helps to explain someprocesses in Homer’s text,
it completely leaves out others, which cannot be discarded as mere
‘anachronistic subtleties of thought’ or a matter of pure coincidence. I argue that both formulas in my
example are in fact aware of their surrounding context, and interact with it, each in its own way, ratherthan being inserted blocks of formulaic language. This procedure helps to form a bridge to more recentAnglo-American scholarship with a fuller understanding of the Parrian agenda that it builds on.
The two features of our title
the use of set expressions, the use of stock scenes
are the most obviousidiosyncrasies of what we may call Homeric
. Style of course, by the very etymology of the word (L.
), refers to the writing habits of an author, the symptoms of his
. To discuss (and appreciate)literature without the notion of style, seems difficult. Style unifies
author’s output
as a manifestation of his human nature; style is the man. The style of Homeric epic, however, aroused questions in Europeanreaders (and threw a shadow on their supposed author). Why use the same adjectives
ad nauseam
?Why repeat the same scene over and over with only slight variations? Why catalogue names, oftenmeaningless? Why the constant delays of action, the monotony, the contradictions in plot?Understandably, Moderns felt somewhat helpless when comparing the style of Homer to that of othergeniuses in their literary Canon: say Virgil or Ovid or Dante. How could the Chian bard commit all thesecrimes against form, in his right mind? To European critics like
d’Aubignac, Homer’s fame was
ill-deserved, inexplicable even. On the other hand the defenders of Homer like Pope in his famous Preface,appealed, again, to the concept of Nature.
Homer’s genius
is so exuberant, that it borders on becomingNature, bursting through the confines of art
. ‘Our author’s work, in the words of Pope, is a wild
Paradise, a nursery which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind [of poetry]
It is a kindof 
where opposites co-exist.As time drew on the distrusting vein of Homeric cri
ticism (d’Aubignac) found its expression
in GermanHigher Criticism
, which did little, as it seems, to help us appreciate Homer’s artistry
(rather proved itsvirtual absence); whereas blithe enthusiasts
of Homer’s poetry
(Pope) took the guise of the Unitarians.For both parties, as it seems, the ultimate reality of Homer was still in his
, or at least in the
 of those who put together various sources that constituted Homer (as the analysts would have it).
In the 20
century a whole new light on the problem was thrown by an American scholar Milman Parry.
Contemplating Homer’s
own formulaic diction, and Serbo-Croatian living traditions, Parry becameconvinced that Homer had no
in his hand to start with
. It was not literature in the first place. Itwas improvised singing, with its special language suited to the structure of hexameter and heroicsubjects. No single man could handle such a language to express his private thoughts, but learnt it, asone learns carpentry, and thought-patterns that go with it.
slaves, not geniuses; in the hurryof improvisation they had no time to conceive an attitude to what they were doing; they were onlycombining, recycling, expanding a range of ageless phrases and motifs. The oral and traditional (i.e. non-authorial) nature of the poems was the answer to all our misgivings about their aesthetics. Or rather awhole new aesthetics had to be invented now in the hope of appreciating them. As Adam Parry (the sonof M. Parry)
saw it, his father has ‘…
taken Homer out of the convention
al context of ‘Greek Literature’,
and placed him in the context of other, new and old, oral traditions
.To secure his point, Milman Parry had to emphasize that gulf between pen-and-paper poetry and oralversification.
Homer, Hesiod’s Theogony, early Homeric hymns are on this side of the fence, Attic
tragedy, Apollonius, Virgil e.t.c.
on the other. To some extent he was able to demonstrate thedifference he looked for from the texts themselves. In his Parisian thesis he showed, for example, thatApollonius and Virgil use epithets in a wholly different way. The majority of their epithets are
(appropriate to a particular situation, like
, whereas Homer’s epithets
are almost always
‘ornamental’, i.e. independent of 
their surroundings, and used first and foremost formetrical convenience
According to the principle of ‘economy’
that Parry postulated, Homericdialect seldom retained epithets of the same metrical value, if one epithet was enough to do the job of filling the required space in a hexameter line. Virgil, on the other hand, uses metrically equivalent
 pater, bonus
; this is because he was genuinely interested in their meaning in context
, whereasneither Homer, nor his audience, says Parry, were not
. And here we reach the most pregnant (and themost controversial) pa
rt of Parry’s
teaching that prompted H.T. Wade-
Gery to call him ‘the
Darwin of 
Homeric scholarship’
.Again and again Parry emphasized that mere metrical convenience is all that matters to an improvising
under the pressure of performance. Calling
a ship ‘black’ (
), or
‘even’ (
), or
), or a hero divine (
) or blameless (
) or the son of Peleus (
), all singer
caredabout was to fill the hexameter line before or after the main caesura or bucolic diaeresis; he did notcare, says Parry, how appropriate the title blameless may be to the adulterous Aegisthus. What he caredabout was that
amymonos Aigisthoio
.1.29), in the genitive, fitted perfectly well after a weak caesurain the third foot; and
the ‘thrifty’ epic dialect
left singer no other choice, except
. If we
take Homer’s
epithets at face value we have to admit that ‘...the poet has
actually falsified our
conception of the heroes’
(so we must forsake studying their character!)
. Even if we do find
Parry 1971, p.137
Ibid., Introduction, p.xxxv
Argonautica, 2.1128
Parry 1971, p. 24ff.
‘The expressions
 pius Aeneas
 pater Aeneas
derive from the most profoundly original aspect of Virgil’s
(Parry 1971, p.31)
Ibid., pp. 137, 305
Ibid., Introduction, p.xxvi
The noun-
epithet phrase ‘blameless Aegisthus’ became a hot point in the whole controversy. Milman Parry’s
opinion on it was challenged by another member of his family, Parry, A.A. (1973).
Blameless Aegisthus
, Leiden
Parry 1971, p.136 It is noteworthy that ‘the characters of Homer’s persons’, their ‘judicious and astonishingdiversity’, their ‘liveliness and affection’, was a point of special praise in Pope’s Preface.
all Homeric epithets (and similies, and the rest) appropriate, we may well be deceived: it is simplybecause we are eag
erly searching for anachronistic ‘subtleties of thought’
. The possibility of anornamental epithet having a resonance in particular
context is ‘fortuitous’ and a matter of ‘purechance’.
Pure chance is responsible both for the unexpected beauties of thought (like
‘the murderoushands’ of Achilles that Priam kisses in
for the jarring usages that border on absurdity, likethe blameless Aegisthus, the god-like Cyclops (
1.70), the divine swine-herd, the awe-inspiring major-domo (
.1.139); we also have a furious shield,
aspis thouris
, in
;examples can be multiplied. All that the Homeric adjectives achieve is to add to the general atmosphere
of heroic song, where everything has to be gleamingly perfect. ‘Indeed poetry thus approaches musicmost closely, when the words have rather a mood than a meaning’
, such is the pronouncement of newaesthetics of oral literature.
If Parry’s theory of formulaic versification works well to explain the puzzling absurdities, it is evident
what barbarous consequences such a view can have for our appreciation of what seemed like beauties.In many ways
s procedure was even more radical than that of the analysts. For them Homer was a jumble of disparate sources, but those sources, at least, corresponded to some solid external reality andwere in theory datable.
Parry’s Homer
, on the other hand, is entirely self-contained mechanism thatuses and re-uses the stock of ancient formulas to create endless heroic poems in hexameter (we wouldsee it more clearly if only more of Greek epic survived on paper). The
and the
stand in thesame relation to outside world as a chair or a table do as products of the self-
contained ‘formulaic’ art of 
(if I may be allowed this rather Socratic simily); just as they, Homer’s poems are very poor
mirrors of reality and poor mediums
for express an artists’ thought
.Now apart from epithets Parrian school recognizes formulas that take only two or three words
(‘he wentto go’)
, half-line and whole-line formulas
(‘the yout
hs crowned the craters with drink
, and, lastly,sequences of whole-line formulas that re-appear unchanged or with additions, subtractions andvariations. These lengthy formulas are crucial for the make-up of 
what came to be known as ‘themes’
Lord) or ‘type
scenes’ (W. Arend)
. Type-scenes include arming, fighting, assembly, sacrifice, meal,hospitality, arrival, departure etc. Here the stakes of adhering to the theory of formulaic language growhigher: a decorative epithet can be shown to be unaware of the surrounding context, can a whole scenebe proved to be like that as well? Was there any difference for an oral poet when he described thesacrificial meal that Odysseus has on Chrysa after returning Chryseis to her father (
.1.446-474), and theone that, for instance, Agamemnon gives to the select elders, when urged to battle by a deceitful dream(
. 2.410-432)? Let us look closer at these two dinners, especially at the 12-line formulaic part repeatedverbatim (
1.458-469 and
2.421-432).In the scheme of W. Arend this sequence would correspond to stages two and three of the genericmeal-offering type-
scene, that is ‘animal slaying and preparation of sacrificial meat’ and then ‘meatpreparation for the meal’
. With one important exception
, the 12-line formula contains no specificreferences to heroes or gods. All the verbs and participles are set in 3
person plural aorist andimperfect.
Ibid., p. 137
Ibid., p. 132
I appreciate the fact that what some scholars perceive as absurdities may be explained by others as pearls of wisdom.
Ibid., p. 374
As explained by Tsagarakis
who discusses Arend’s views at
some length (Tasgarakis 1982, p. 80)
Except ‘
ho gerō
’ (the old man), in 1.461, but not in 2, see below. Hephaistos in 2. 426 stands simply for ‘fire’

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