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Kata Moiran: Ideology and Style in the Odyssey

Ben Radcliffe

Department of Classics, UCLA

This paper investigates a stylistic oddity in several scenes of the Odyssey from a sociological perspective. The scenes in question involve precise manual practices: Polyphemus milks his sheep and goats (Od. 9.244ff., 309ff., 342ff.); sailors equip their ships for sea (Od. 4.783ff., 8.54ff.); and Nestor sacrifices a bull at Pylos (Od. 3.457ff.). Each activity is construed as a sequence of contrasting objects, colors, and directions densely packed into three or four lines. The milking scene, for instance, adds a new polarity in each line: it distinguishes between goats and sheep (Od. 9.244), adult animals and their young (245), milk and cheese (246), and, more implicitly, between the black wool of the sheep and their white milk. The sailing and sacrifice scenes follow the same pattern, and various poetic devices render the use of dichotomy more conspicuous. The style is “dichotomous.”

I make sense of this peculiar verbal texture by exploring the political stakes of everyday work in Homer. In particular, the activities in each of the aforementioned scenes are said to be performed kata moiran (“according to portion,” “correctly”). This formula frequently expresses a sense of ideological correctness. Characters speak kata moiran when they affirm the authority of kings over subjects (Il. 1.286), gods over mortals (Il. 1.278), and elders over the young (Il. 10.169, 15.206). Dichotomies of this sort (“X over Y”) constitute a style of social authority in Homer. The scenes of milking, sailing, and sacrifice, I argue, are performed kata moiran precisely because, on a formal level, they exhibit the dichotomous style of more overt affirmations of social authority.

In the second part of the paper, I refer to a sociological theory advanced by Pierre Bourdieu to understand why dichotomy, as an ideologically-operative style, is embedded in the gestures and comportments of certain manual activities in the Odyssey. Previous scholarship has illuminated stylistic variations in Homer by approaching the represented practices in ethnographic terms: the stylistics of heroic speech in the Iliad mirrors speech practices in oral societies (Martin 1989); similar work has addressed the language of bathing rituals (Grethlein 2007) and commensal sacrifice (Stallings 1984, Kitts 2011). I extend this line of scholarship through the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his Logic of Practice (1990), Bourdieu draws on fieldwork in French and Berber agrarian communities to show that deeply-engrained, embodied habits (“habitus”) play a central role in a number of sociological phenomena. Subjects rely on these habits, which operate without conscious reflection, to perform practical tasks, from handicrafts to rituals to formulaic speech. Such habits may involve, for instance, a propensity to structure words and gestures into dichotomous series. Diverse aspects of social existence—including traditional discourses about political authority—exhibit traces of these underlying habits and therefore take on a certain stylistic consistency.

Bourdieu’s arguments shed light on our Homeric example. The formula kata moiran designates a dichotomous style of speaking, gesturing, and tool-use that is at once practical and ideological. Homeric characters deploy this style when they affirm traditional social authority (of kings, gods, elders) and when they perform rote activities that require a degree of technical know-how, i.e. milking, sailing, and sacrifice. An engrained habit, a kind of muscle memory, engenders the same style in these disparate contexts. This perspective, I argue, allows us to read style in certain Homeric scenes as a nexus of corporeal and ideological forces. 

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