Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.10
D.N. Maronitis, Homeric Megathemes: War - Homilia - Homecoming.
Originally published as Hom?rika megathemata: polemos - homilia -
nostos (Athens 1999). Translated by David Connolly. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Pp. xiii, 186. ISBN 0-7391-0883-2. $70.00.
Reviewed by James P. Holoka, Foreign Language Department, Eastern Michigan University (email@example.com)
Word count: 1467 words
This volume collects ten essays, spanning the period 1978-1998, by
the distinguished Hellenist Dimitris N. Maronitis [M.], emeritus
professor at the University of Thessaloniki. Six dealing mainly with
the Iliad form Part One, four dealing mostly with the Odyssey form Part Two.
In his Introduction (1-7), M. prepares the ground by defining his
critical vocabulary and offering brief pr?cis of the ten essays with a
(quite cogent) rationale for their arrangement. The term "megatheme" is
coined "to highlight fundamental themes of major importance and
compositional scope in the Homeric epics" by contrast to "formulaic
themes or subthemes of a secondary order and extent used to compose the
now established type-scenes." M.'s overarching goal is to reveal the
artistry of the poets of the Iliad and the Odyssey through a comparative study of the deployment and interrelations of his chosen megathemes in the epics.1
Chapter 1, "The Iliadic War"  (11-28), begins with the
observation that, despite the "Greeks-Barbarians" antithesis so
familiar from later Greek literature, "the Homeric Iliad does
not legitimize any form of evaluative distinction between Achaeans and
Trojans." In fact, M. finds that the poet "stresses the tragedy of war
-- its futility, sometimes even its absurdity." He then illustrates
this emphasis by a close reading of Il. 4.422-544, "the first
collective battle" in the epic. M. broadens the relevance of his
conclusions about the passage by arguing that it "foreshadows the
outcome of the Iliadic war" as a whole. This is in line with M.'s
position on the "reconciliatory conclusion" of the poem in Book 24.
Chapter 2, "The Space of Homilia and Its Signs in the Iliad and the Odyssey"
(29-45; orig. in Ho Hom?rikos Oikos, ed. M. Pa?zi-Apostolopoulou
[Ithaca 1990] 105-123), introduces the second of M.'s megathemes, that
of homilia or social intercourse. M. is particularly concerned, first, to delineate and relate the nature of the interplay of the war and homilia
themes in each epic. Next, he identifies and assesses the contributory
significance of the spaces within which social interactions occur. M.
proceeds by distinguishing, explicating, and comparing three types of homilia -- conjugal, extra-conjugal, and companionate -- focusing chiefly on Hector-Andromache and Diomedes-Glaucus in Iliad 6 and Odysseus-Penelope in Odyssey 16, 19, and 23.
Chapter 3, "The Theme of Conjugal Homilia in the Odyssey" (47-62; orig. in EEThess
17  191-212), examines several homiletic scenes between Odysseus
and Penelope. M. demonstrates a threefold scale of organization:
"indirect dialogue between the couple; their direct prerecognition
dialogue; recognition dialogue - erotic union - accounts." He reveals
how this theme dovetails with and parallels "kindred themes" in the Mn?st?rophonia and the recognition of Odysseus. While the Iliadic conjugal homilia also evinces a progressive threefold configuration, in the Odyssey, the movement is toward reunion and joy rather than separation and ultimate death.
Chapter 4, "The Theme of Homecoming in the Iliad:
Signification -- Variations -- Function"  (63-76), asks whether
the earlier epic's "manifest warring or, more precisely, intra-warring
content allow[s] for the presentation of the theme of homecoming [so
crucial in the Odyssey], albeit on the fringes of its own
framework, or ... exclude[s] it as being a competing theme." M. proves
that the theme of homecoming is in fact operative in both positive
(that is, realized) and negative (unrealized) forms in the Iliad.
Negatively, the poet plays on the cherished but elusive prospect of a
safe return from the war in the thoughts of combatants. Positively, he
fuses return and death in a "funeral homecoming" in the two exceptional
cases of Sarpedon in Book 16 and Hector in Book 24.
In Chapter 5, "The Heroic Myth and Its Lyrical Reconstruction"
(77-88; first in Diabaz? 107  20-26), M. explicates "a poetic
contest between the epic and lyric worlds at the center of a
mythological poem [Alcaeus 74 D / 42 P], with archaic lyricism
achieving a clear victory." In particular, he shows how Alcaeus inserts
a kind of anti-epic evocation of conjugal homilia between
Peleus and Thetis in contrast to the illicit love of Paris and Helen
with its disastrous consequences. M. detects telling differences in
content, imagery, and vocabulary that heighten our sense of the
collision of convention and innovation in this poem.
In Chapter 6, "Conjugal Homilia: From the Iliad to Sophocles' Ajax"
 (89-97), M., noting that "so-called intertextuality, the subject
of so much discussion by literary theorists, is an old, fundamental and
decisive principle in poetry," offers a comparison of a tragic conjugal
triangle, Ajax -- Tecmessa -- Eurysaces, with a famous epic archetype,
Hector -- Andromache -- Astyanax. Sophocles is shown to be masterfully
controlling resonances and dissonances between his own and Iliadic
characters: the tragedian "transcribed the theme of conjugal homilia,
in its entirety and in its parts, and with all the basic attributes,
including the motifs of discord, of burial, and of the funeral
Chapter 7, "Bard -- Narrator -- Poet: Internal Poetics in the Odyssey"
(101-115; orig. in Ho Hom?rika, ed. M. Pa?zi-Apostolopoulou [Ithaca
1998], 57-75), examines scenes of narrative performance in the epic for
evidence of the poet's conception of his own function and position,
with particular attention to Demodocus, Nestor, Menelaus, and
pre-eminently Odysseus himself. In his scrutiny of internal narratives,
M. discerns telling commonalities in setting, occasion, structure,
central themes, as well as audience make-up and reaction. "It is this
internal narrator [Odysseus] who is chosen by the external narrator,
the poet of the Odyssey, in order to reflect himself. Given
that the prevailing conventions do not allow him to reveal his face, he
expresses himself through the persona of the central character in his
In Chapter 8, "Problems of the Homeric Helen" (117-132; orig. in
Euch?n Odussei, ed. M. Pa?zi-Apostolopoulou [Ithaca 1995] 55-73), M.
revisits a matter -- the enigma of Helen's culpability -- to which his
mentor, J.T. Kakridis, devoted an important article.2
Canvassing the testimony of witnesses other than herself (viz., the
poet-narrator, the gods, and the Achaeans and Trojans themselves), he
observes a remarkable absence of negative judgments of Helen in the
epics. Insisting on the distinction between the Helen of the Homeric
poems and the Helen of the larger Troy myth, he argues that "the issue
of Helen's guilt or innocence is presented in the Homeric epics more as
a rhetorical device." A device that makes the unfathomable ambiguity of
Helen's blameworthiness a function of her overawing beauty, which
forestalls us (like the elders on the walls in Iliad 3) from applying such labels as "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong."
Chapter 9, "Latent References to the Iliad in the Odyssey" (133-146; orig. "R?f?rences latentes de l'Odyss?e ? l'Iliade," in M?langes ?douard Delebecque
[Aix-en-Provence 1983] 279-291), attempts to prove a very precise
referential linkage between elements in the lying story told by
Odysseus to Penelope in Od. 19.221-248 and passages in the Iliad, specifically 2.183-184 (Eurybates and Odysseus' mantle) and 3.156-158 (the remarks of the old men in the Teichoscopia).
His principal conclusion is that "The imagination of the careful
listener may be activated, in order to recognize in an apparent gap
(the stranger only 'appears' not to answer Penelope's question
concerning Odysseus' build and facial features) the reflection of an
incomparable radiance, in which the Helen of the Iliad and the Odysseus of the Odyssey become akin." If so, we are dealing with a very careful listener attuned to very latent references indeed.
Chapter 10, "Odysseus' First False Account in the Odyssey: Model and Variations" (147-163; orig. "Die erste Trugrede des Odysseus in die Odyssee: Vorbild und Variationen," in Gnomosyne: Festschrift f?r Walter Marg,
ed. G. Kurg et al. [Munich 1981] 117-134), is actually two separate
essays only exiguously related to each other. The first is devoted to a
careful scrutiny of Odysseus' lying story told to Athena in Od.
13.256-286. M. expands his focus to include the immediately preceding
and succeeding passages, showing how they contribute to the
paradigmatic quality of the false story in relation to its many
subsequent variants. He then, in what amounts to a second essay
tenuously connected to the topic of the False Account, compares the
interlocked themes of homecoming and sleep in Book 13 and Book 5, when
Odysseus arrives on Scheria, a sort of surrogate Ithaca for M.'s
purposes. Though interesting points are made in both parts, the chapter
lacks overall coherence and does not well reflect its title.
Taken together, the essays in this book are a thematically
interrelated series of incisive and meticulous forays into the poetics
of the Homeric epics. Since most of them were previously available only
in modern Greek and in rather inaccessible publications, we should be
very grateful for their collection and translation in this volume,
which an Index Locorum renders still more useful. M. is a discerning
and veteran Homeric scholar whose work deserves to be better known.
1. M. was a student of Walter Marg
and Johannes Kakridis. His interpretive orientation to the Homeric
epics reflects their tutelage in (a) a preoccupation with major themes
as units of composition, (b) a generally "neoanalytical" concern to
discriminate pre-existing elements of the Troy myth and to evaluate
their use in the Homeric epics, (c) a belief in the unity of the epics,
but (d) a conviction that they are the work of different authors
(hence, the consistent designations "poet of the Iliad" and "poet of the Odyssey," in place of "Homer").
2. "Probl?mata t?s hom?rik?s Helen?s," Hellenica 13 (1954) 205-220.