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Heroic Action and Exogamy in Homeric Catalogues of Women

Goda Thangada

My paper examines the formal and thematic aspects of catalogues of women in Homeric epic to account for the genesis of the Hesiodic Gunaikon Katalogos (GK), a comprehensive genealogy structured as a list of mortal women. I show that catalogues of women appear in epic because they feature exogamous marriage as an instantiation of heroic action; exogamy and heroic action are both exceptions to the course of nature. A Panhellenic genealogical project like the GK preserved accounts of exogamy to avoid the repetitive nature of genealogy.   

My argument departs from Hannah Arendt's distinction between the singularity of heroic action and the cyclicality of genealogy. Arendt observes that time appeared to the Greeks to unfold cyclically in nature while mortal life, with its finite linear motion, could claim immortality only if it were committed to the memory of future generations (Arendt 42-43). The heroic action that constitutes epic enables man to break out of the natural cycle of birth, decline, and renewal. I argue that genealogical events found in the Homeric catalogues of women and the GK are similarly singular events. I define exogamy as a union between a god and mortal or between mortals of different poleis, often the result of a marriage contest. Because exogamy represents a break from monotonous lineages, it has a natural affinity with heroic action.

I consider the following Homeric catalogues of women: Zeus' conquests (Iliad 14.315-28), Antinoos’ catalogue (Odyssey 2.115-20), the Nekuia (Odyssey 9), and Agamemnon's catalogue (Odyssey 24.192-203). I begin with a formal analysis of catalogues of women in epic and those of the GK. Formally, the typical entry in the GK consists of the formula e hoie (“or such as”) and name followed by a relative clause. Sammons suggests that paradigms in a catalogue format emphasize the repetitive pattern of history and situate the main narrative in a broader mythical framework (56). Instead, I argue that that accounts of exogamy emphasize ruptures in patterns. While my focus is on catalogues of women, I also consider the form of select independent accounts of exogamy.  Further, I argue that exogamy is the equivalent of heroic action in a sphere separate from the battlefield. The formal structure of accounts of exogamy resembles the structure of the simile, which transposes heroic action to the natural world.

After establishing the formal equivalence of the simile and the episode of exogamous courtship, I consider the thematic function of catalogues of women in epic. Felson and Slatkin suggest that the Homeric epics exhibit different attitudes towards marriage. In the Iliad,  war is the “violent counterpart” of marriage in the Iliad by (95) and the oikos is in competition with the military fraternity (101). In contrast, the Odyssey exalts marriage by depicting the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus as the outcome of heroic actions on both their parts (112). I argue that even in the Iliad, marriage and war are not antithetical, but that a certain type of marriage, exogamy, constitutes a type of characteristically heroic action.

Finally, I gesture towards the genesis of the catalogue of women as an independent genre. Rutherford observes a contradiction between the comprehensive outlook of the GK and the random effect of the ehoie formula (83). As a possible trajectory for the formation of the genre of ehoiai, he suggests a fusion of a genealogical genre and a genre detailing female trysts with gods. However, Rutherford does not explain why genealogy became fused with anecdotes of courtship. My argument that exogamy represents an interruption of the genealogical cycle analogous to heroic action is a step towards such an explanation. My account gives a crucial and distinct role to the courtship episode.

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Gender and Identity

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