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“Intraformularity” in epos

Adrian Kelly

Balliol College, University of Oxford, UK

The semantic potential of the ‘formula’ in early Greek epic poetry has been a principal and problematic area of research since the seminal work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. Most Homerists do not accept without qualification their claim that the formula had limited semantic potential, but structure and semantics – i.e. metrical utility and meaning – were not fully reunited in Homeric oralist scholarship until Foley’s ‘traditional referentiality’ (e.g. 1999), the idea that a formula invoked or ‘resonated’ with previous contexts and their associations.

Recently, new potential has been claimed for formularity – one where the formula does not simply resonate with the generic association of such expressions in the audience’s total experience, but instead with a marked appearance in a specific, single circumstance. Bakker (2013) has recently argued for ‘interformularity’, a dynamic in which the restriction of formulae to certain contexts is designed to activate the memory of that specific context: thus, e.g., Bakker links the Cyclops and the suitors in the Odyssey by suggesting that Antinoos’ anger at Odysseus (17.458 ἐχολώσατο κηρόθι μᾶλλον) is intended to recall Polyphemos’ fury (9.480) at Odysseus’ claim that ‘Zeus and the other gods’ have wrought vengeance for the eating of Odysseus’ men. Currie (2016) has even more recently extended this argument to ‘individual’ or ‘unusual’ usages of formulae to suggest allusions across textual and even language barriers. So the old scholarly game of deliberate connections between verbal repetition is being played out once more, with those repetitions used to connect not only passages within a text, but passages in other texts and other traditions as well.

This approach, by itself, is obviously insufficient, because it ignores the central fact that a formular expression is typical. Typicality must affect the audience’s ability to ‘hear’ a marked usage in the way suggested from different perspectives by both Currie and Bakker. But the possibility that a repeated expression could function as a marker, to which the poet could refer his readers later in the performance, is worth considering in a more nuanced way. Many studies have convincingly shown that the poet deliberately links examples of his larger thematic structures: e.g. Reece (1993) on the hospitality scenes in the Odyssey, Fenik (1974) on doublets of character and motif in the same poem, and Barker and Christensen (2014) on the stories of Herakles in the Iliad. We should expect this also to be possible for the smallest typical elements. That is, as nodes of textual stability, formulae may have a specific referential function as well as the generic one advanced by traditional referentiality. What I intend to do in this paper, then, is to re-orient Bakker’s principle of ‘interformularity’ into ‘intraformularity’ in the first instance, to test the ability of formulae to sustain or activate specific inter-reference whilst retaining their traditional resonance.

The study will focus on the κῆροθι μᾶλλον || expressions in the Iliad and Odyssey (9x). It will demonstrate that Homeric formularity is semantically dynamic, a system in which each usage of a familiar phrase adds to a living, inherited associative web surrounding that individual example, but may also suggest connections within different examples in the text itself, undergirding its thematic progression. Thus, the ability of those nodes to allude to other examples in the text is always to be filtered first through the traditional resonance. My purpose here, in sum, is to modify an increasingly popular approach to Homeric language, one which looks solely and simply for specific links between formulae, by showing that the generic association of the formular expression is the audience’s first port of call in the interpretative encounter, followed by its references to other examples of the expression within the same text or performance. Extra-textual resonance remains something of a final step, one which relies on a certain textual or performative integrity, and one which should never be taken too lightly nor considered as the scholar’s first resort.

Session/Panel Title

New Approaches to the Homeric Formula

Session/Paper Number


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