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Poetically Packed: πυκ[ι]νός in the Iliad

Kaitlyn Boulding

The University of Washington

At the end of her lament for Hector in Book 24 of the Iliad, Andromache grieves that Hector has not left her a πυκινὸν ἔπος, “a wise word.” In this paper I examine the range of contexts in which πυκ[ι]νός appears to show how this word provides a backdrop of density that applies to disparate aspects of a scene. Moreover, since πυκ[ι]νός acts as a hypertextual link between different sections of the poem (Dué 2010, Purves 2013), it reminds the audience listening to Andromache’s lament of the other instances where “closely-packed” objects, phenomena, and feelings occur, thus adding poetic resonance to her speech. Accordingly, for ancient audiences, πυκ[ι]νός connotes the intimacy and protection of which Andromache is now bereft.

At the most concrete level, the adjective πυκ[ι]νός means ‘closely packed,’ a quality that applies to both space and time. The word as used in the Iliad describes a variety of natural phenomena, built objects, military strategies, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Casey Dué argues that for an ancient audience, this “single word, πυκ[ι]νός, with its complex and varying imagery, could serve as a narrative signal” (2010). Alex Purves builds on Dué’s work to show how the word indicates metapoetic texture in Homeric poetry (2013). Moreover, John Foley has shown that the phrase πυκινὸν ἔπος connotes “a message… of great importance, one that if properly delivered and received would change the present course of events profoundly” (1991:155-156). But what exactly is the narrative signal conveyed in Andromache’s speech and does “wise” or “momentous” fully capture the connotations of πυκ[ι]νός?” Throughout this paper I argue that the primary meaning of πυκ[ι]νός, “dense,” is more relevant to Andromache’s words than was formerly understood.

In the first section of my paper, I survey examples of where πυκ[ι]νός carries concrete physical associations in relation to natural phenomena, such as underbrush, plumage and tree branches, as well as craft objects, such as beds, doors, houses, and armour. These objects frequently provide protection or are sites of intimacy because of their density. For example, dense underbrush (δρυμὰ πυκνὰ, 11.118, or ῥωπήϊα πυκνά 13.99, 23.122) provides hiding places for animals just as walls with closely packed stones (πυκινοῖσι λίθοισι 12.212), well-fitted doors (πυκινὰς θύρας, 14.167, 14.339), and stout-built houses (πυκινὸν δόμον 12.301) provide the protection needed to allow a thick bed (πυκινὸν λέχος 9.622 = 9.661) to be a site of intimacy.

Second, to illustrate the association between the close packed nature of physical density and the intensity of dense thoughts and feelings, I analyse how πυκ[ι]νός describes emotional and intellectual density throughout the Iliad. For example, Achilles’ thick groaning (πυκνὰ στενάχων) after Patroklos’ death is compared to a lion’s deep groaning (βαρὺ στενάχων) when she returns to her lair to find that her cubs had been away by a hunter (18.318-323). Moreover, although Achilles’ frequent groans, πυκνὰ στενάχων, are compared to the lion’s deep groans, βαρὺ στενάχων, it is the forest that is dense (ὕλης πυκινῆς) in the simile. This case illustrates the way that the Homeric poet employs the word πυκ[ι]νός to provide a backdrop of density that sets the tone on both the poetic and metapoetic levels. I argue that this dense poetic texture also occurs with other uses of πυκ[ι]νός, such as in Andromache’s’ lament. Finally, I return to re-examine Andromache’s use of the phrase πυκινὸν ἔπος with this in mind, ultimately showing that it reverberates with echoes of the protection and intimacy that Andromache mourns while mourning her husband.

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