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“Easily He Wielded It”: Paronomasia in Homer’s Lexical Ring Structures

Megan O'Donald

University of Washington

This paper explores the intersection of structure and paronomasia in Homer as a vehicle for poetic self-reflexivity by arguing that small-scale lexical ring structures in the Iliad and Odyssey can be used to identify and substantiate sound-based wordplay. Lexical patterns consisting of words or roots repeated in an annular arrangement provide a framework such that when phonetically/phonologically similar but etymologically unrelated words occur in corresponding positions in the overarching structure, this positioning increases the likelihood that the correspondence was both intended by the poet and perceptible to the audience. In the ring structure ὄφελ’-τέκε μήτηρ-κακὴ-κῦμα-κῦμ’-κακὰ-τεκμήραντο-ὤφελλον (Il. 6.345-350, ABCDDCBA), for example, the corresponding positions of τέκε μήτηρ and τεκμήραντο suggest that the latter echoes the former in spite of four lines of separation. This approach provides a basis for exploring the parameters of what “counts” as paronomasia in Homer; it can thus supplement important discussions of Homeric wordplay and etymologizing that have focused on classification over identification (e.g. Louden, Rank).

            Despite their pervasive presence in the Iliad and Odyssey, small-scale lexical structures are often overlooked or explicitly downplayed in scholarship on Homeric ring composition (e.g. Lohmann; Steinrück is an exception). The frequency of paronomasia in lexical ring structures indicates that the Homeric poet and audience were keenly attentive to repetitions of  phonemic sequences, which in turn bolsters the case for the importance of lexical patterns as repetitions of sound, consistent with the oral-poetic context in which the poems developed. At the same time, paronomasia can create associations of meaning between words not overtly semantically related. I focus on three passages that display poetic self-awareness in the arrangement of speech as sound.

            In the first, Polyphemus frames a lexically ring-composed address to Odysseus with the words ὢ πόποι (‘alas!’) and ὀπωπῆς (‘sight’) (πόποι-με παλαίφατα-…-μοι ἔφη-ὀπωπῆς, Od. 9.507-512). This frame forges a paronomastic connection between the Cyclops’ grief and his loss of sight that underscores the explicit connection between the two elements in his speech. Further, the presence of the syllables ωπ/οπ in Κυκλώπεσσιν and ὀπίσσω in the two lines preceding ὀπωπῆς suggests the thematization of these syllables and a pun on the name Cyclops: Polyphemus is a Cyclops not only in the sense that he has a round eye, as the usual etymology holds, but in the fact that his speech “circles” back to the syllables ωπ/οπ.

            A lexical ring structure likewise spans the passage in which Hector prepares to hurl a boulder through the Achaean gate at the end of Iliad Book 12; the poet compares the ease with which Hector lifts the stone to that of a shepherd lifting a sheep’s fleece. The interior of the ring structure consists of the sequence ῥηϊδίως-οἷοι (‘such’)-ῥέα-οἶος (‘alone’)-ῥεῖα-οἰὸς (‘sheep’) (Il. 12.448-451). In light of this pattern, the clause ‘ὃ δέ μιν ῥέα πάλλε καὶ οἶος’ (“[Hector] easily wielded [the boulder] even alone,” 449) lends itself to interpretation as a self-annotation of the poet’s lexical deployment: “[the poet] easily wielded ῥέα and οἶος,” that is, the variants of the adverb “easily” and the sound οἰ(ος). The ease with which Hector lifts the boulder becomes, metapoetically, the ease with which the poet deploys these units in the construction of the passage.

            In the final example, Nestor addresses a ring-composed speech to his son in Iliad Book 23 that imitates the chariot race it describes (Lohmann). The midpoint of the speech is the description of the marker designated as the race’s turning point, but commentators (Lohmann, Forte and Smith) have overlooked a paronomastic ring structure within this description that enacts the marker itself at the narrowest point in the path (συνοχή): καταπύθεται-ὄμβρῳ-λᾶε-δύο-(ξυνοχῇσιν) ὁδοῦ-λεῖος-βροτοῖο-κατατεθνηῶτος, etc. (Il. 23.328-331). The passage’s emphasis on the skilled production and reception of signs favors the intentionality of the poet and the receptiveness of the audience.

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