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Remembering Odysseus: Line-initial Memory in the Odyssey

Stephen Sansom

This paper argues for the significance of a particular formulaic tendency in the Odyssey, namely that Odysseus is an implied referent whenever a verb of remembering, e.g. mimnêskō, occurs at the beginning of the hexameter line. Kahane (1992; 1994, 43-79) makes a similar argument for the co-occurrence of the word andra and line-initial position. This patterning, which Kahane refers to as 'pattern deixis,' anaphorically refers to Odysseus even when andra may have other, more immediate referents. By doing so, the poet creates an interaction between semantic markers in the narrative. While other recent approaches to memory in Homeric poetry have focused on memory's cognitive or social aspects (e.g. Minchin 2011, 2008; Bakker 2008; Nikkanen 2012), the goal of this paper is to expand Kahane's notion of line-initial patterning of particular words with Odysseus to include verbs of remembering. I begin by outlining the high frequency of associations between Odysseus and memory in line-initial position in contrast to their infrequent association elsewhere in the line. I then suggest that this pattern helps interpret meaning not only in the story, e.g. at Od. 24.122, but also in the semantically complex relationship between mimnêskō and the more specialized mnaomai.

It is noteworthy that of the forty-nine occurrences of the verb mimnêskō in the Odyssey, the thirteen that fall in line-initial position almost always relate to Odysseus, either as their explicit object (5.6; 20.205), implicit object (7.192; 14.169), subject (8.462), or as spoken by Odysseus himself (10.177; 10.199; 12.309; 18.267; 19.118). Furthermore, the high frequency of an Odyssean association with first position mimnêsko is paralleled by the infrequent association of Odysseus with the verb when it occurs elsewhere in the line, with twenty-seven referring to something unrelated to Odysseus, e.g. 'sleep' (7.138) or 'food' (4.213). The nine occurrences that are associated with Odysseus, moreover, do not consistently coincide with any metrical position (1.343, 2.233, 4.151, 4.118, 5.11, 14.170, 19.581, 22.208, 24.195).

The strong association of Odysseus with line-initial memory is significant for at least two reasons. First, it adds an additional layer of interpretation to instances where Odysseus is not explicitly mentioned. For example, at Od. 24.121-2, Agamemnon asks Amphimedon, the recently slain suitor, why he is in the underworld. Amphimedon replies “noble son of Atreus, Agamemnon leader of men, / I recall all these things as you say, Zeus-nourished one.” The 'pattern deixis' of the line-initial position of mimnêskō provides an explanation for the suitor's presence in the underworld before he gives one himself: “why are we here? Odysseus.” Second, this trend reveals a significant commonality between mimnêskō and the semantically distinct mnaomai. Variously defined as 'recall to memory,' 'make mention' or more often 'to woo,' mnaomai likely shares an etymological origin with mimnêskō (Beekes 2010, 953-4; Chantraine 1974, 702-3; Frisk 1960, 239-40). Yet despite their proposed common origin, mnaomai developed a highly specialized definition in a 'wooing' context (Benveniste 1954). Although this specialized semantics may seem to move the verb away from the possibly related mimnêskō, in fact metrical study shows the patterning of line-initial memory with Odysseus also applies to mnaomai. Of the fifteen instances of mnaomai with Penelope as its object, whenever Penelope is mentioned with reference to Odysseus, e.g. as a wife or 'wife of Odysseus,' mnaomai always falls at the beginning of the line (11.117, 13.378, 20.290, 21.36, 24.125). Elsewhere in the line, she is referred to as 'mother' (e.g. 1.248) or on her own (e.g. 11.288). A 'pattern deixis' of memory thus provides additional insight not only into the narrative of the Odyssey; it establishes an important relationship between mimnêskō and mnaomai within poetic usage.

Session/Panel Title

Homer, Odyssey: Speech and Ritual

Session/Paper Number

77.1

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