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Homer’s Mimetic Poetics in the Iliad's Exegetical Scholia

Bill Beck

Indiana University

The Iliad’s ancient scholia, and in particular the exegetical scholia, are remarkable for the degree of intentionality that they typically ascribe to the poet of the Iliad. While many twenty-first century readers hesitate to attach special significance to language produced under by the constraints of the hexameter and the formulaic nature of the poem’s composition, the exegetical critic sought to extract as much meaning from Homer’s language as possible. This paper examines one aspect of this anonymous critic’s confidence in the purposiveness of Homer’s versification. Specifically, it explores critic’s appreciation for Homer’s mimetic poetics—that is, for the way that the poet matches form (the sound, order, and rhythm of the language) to content. Reading Homer from the point of view of the exegetical scholia not only illuminates a fascinating chapter in the varied history of Homeric reception, it also reminds us—even if we are not convinced by these interpretations—to remain open to the depth and complexity of the Homeric poems, which have meant so much, and communicated such widely divergent messages, to so many readers.

The first part of this paper examines exegetical comments pertaining to Homer’s syntactic mimesis: that is, language whose arrangement within the hexameter is said to imitate the content of the story. Thus, the hyperbatic separation of διά from ἔβησαν at Il. 8.343 and Il. 15.1 is interpreted as a verbal imitation of the disorder of the Trojans in flight (Σ T Il. 8.343-4; Σ bT Il. 15.1b). The separation of σύν from χύτο at Il. 24.358 is said to “imitate the disorder of [Priam’s] thought” (Σ T Il. 24.358-60). Similarly, the tmesis (or διακοπή, in ancient critical terminology) of διατάμῃ at Il. 17.522 is said to graphically reproduce the ‘cutting’ that is being described there (Σ bT Il. 17.522a).

The second part of the paper considers exegetical comments that pertain to Homer’s sonic mimesis: that is, words or phrases taken to have onomatopoetic qualities. The critic commented on instances of sonic mimesis of war (bows breaking (Σ bT Il. 5.216a), shields grazed by spears (Σ bT Il. 13.409-10), and breastplates splitting apart (Σ bT Il. 13.409-10)), of the natural environment (falling branches (Σ T Il. 16.769b), rushing rivers (Σ bT Il. 4.452), and the foaming sea (Σ bT Il. 15.624)), and of animals (sheep bleating (Σ T Il. 11.383b), wolves lapping (Σ AbT Il. 16.161b), and lions eating (Σ A Il. 17.64)).

The final part of the paper examines exegetical comments that pertain to Homer’s rhythmic mimesis: that is, words or phrases whose rhythm is said to reproduce the action they describe. Thus, according to the exegetical critic, Homer’s rhythms vividly recreated the trembling of mountains (Σ AbT Il. 1.530c), the whizzing of an arrow in flight (Σ bT Il. 4.222b), the smallness of a child (Σ AbT Il. 22.503), and the size of a meadow (Σ bT Il. 2.463c).

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Ancient Scholarship

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