Bernardo Ballesteros, Jonathan L. Ready: The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives. Oral Traditions from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. in:

Gnomon, page 193 - 196

GNO, Volume 93 (2021), Issue 3, ISSN: 0017-1417, ISSN online: 0017-1417,

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Bibliographic information
Jonathan L. Ready: The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives. Oral Traditions from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. Oxford: Oxford UP 2018. XV, 315 S. 70 £. This dense book offers an important comparative study of Homeric similes in respect to contemporary oral poetry.1 It seeks to overcome the tradition/innovation hermeneutics largely adopted by Homerists, regardless of their views on the epics’ oral status, at least since H. Fränkel, ‘Die homerischen Gleichnisse’ (Göttingen 1921). The author decidedly stands on the oralist side and, contrary to general scholarly practice and his own 2011 monograph, is not concerned with the similes’ narrative context or aesthetics.2 Ready argues that in constructing and performing similes the Greek epic singer «ranges across a figurative spectrum of distribution»: like modern oral poets, he displays his ability to audiences by using similes he shares with his fellow composers no less than he does with those of his own property. Beyond similes, the model is generally relevant to the compositional techniques of Homeric epic. The «spectrum of distribution» emerges as R. applies to oral poetry a geographic-linguistic terminology current in folklore studies. Following J. M. Foley among others, R. distinguishes between ‘idiolectal’ (individual), ‘dialectal’ (regional) and ‘pan-traditional’ poetic features. When the latter two categories are difficult to distinguish, as in early Greek epic, R. adopts the neutral term ‘shared’. The simile’s tenor and vehicle are strictly divided in this analysis. Based on their respective position in the spectrum, he identifies six types of similes (four for Homer). For R., if the tenor is unique but the vehicle section shared, the poet displays his use of shared material; vice versa, he displays his use of idiolectal material. In either case, the audience is generally assumed to perceive the composer’s endeavour. The Introduction justifies the comparative approach to Homerists of any persuasion, presents the sources unfamiliar to the Classicist, and defines similes. The monograph’s first half, in three chapters, presents the model drawing on five oral traditions recorded in the twentieth century: epics from Kyrgyzstan, Rajasthan, South Sumatra, and former Yugoslavia, and the short lays from the Najdi desert in Saudi Arabia. Ch. 1 illustrates that Homeric similes are formally comparable to those in the chosen corpora in length, duration («the runs of similes frequent in other oral poetries parallel the long Homeric simile» [37]), arrangement (clusters of similes), and position (of tenor and vehicle). Though discussion of the perceptible differences (e.g. Homeric similes often present more complex ‘position’ patterns) is limited – including those among the contemporary corpora – and the distinct status of each tradition concerning the orality/literacy interface is not treated, the chapter sets the stage for the subsequent analysis with clarity. 1 Notable acknowledged precedents include C. M. Bowra, ‘Heroic Poetry’, Oxford 1952: 266–80, J. A. Notopoulos, ‘Homeric Similes in the Light of Oral Poetry’, CJ 52 (1957), 323– 8, and R. P. Martin, ‘Similes and Performance’, in E. J. Bakker and A. Kahane (eds), ‘Written Voices, Spoken Signs: Tradition, Performance, and the Epic Text’, Cambridge, MA 1997: 138–66. 2 J. L. Ready, ‘Character, Narrator, and Simile in the Iliad’, Cambridge 2011. The new book expands on R.’s ‘Comparative perspectives on the composition of the Homeric simile’, in E. Minchin (ed), ‘Orality, Literacy and Performance in the Ancient World’, Leiden–Boston 2012: 55–87. GNOMON 3/93/2021 B. Ballesteros: Ready, The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives 194 Ch. 2 makes the fundamental point: it is important to focus on the traditional poet’s conscious agency as he uses shared material. Critics should neither reify the concept of a tradition acting through the poet, nor reduce it to a mere backdrop for discovering innovation. The «spectrum of distribution» framework to this approach is backed by numerous quotations from scholarship on an impressive variety of contemporary epic and non-epic ‘oral poetic’ contexts, extending to rap, Blues song, and Basque verbal duelling (bertsolaritza). This material is brought in as it fits the argument, though the traditions differ widely in the degree and purpose to which composers use shared and idiolectal items. The point is established convincingly, albeit in abstract terms. One gem extracted from folklorist mines is that the tendency to foster the community’s social ties helps to explain why artists and audiences value traditional features (114–20). Texts come in Ch. 3. R. works on translations, but aided by experts of Kyrgyz, South-Slavic and Najdi poetry. While Rajasthani and South-Sumatran epics attest to ‘shared’ similes, the spectrum of idiolectal, dialectal, and pan-traditional similes materialises in the remaining traditions. This is a sober and clear synthesis of a truly remarkable effort. Evaluating R.’s contribution to other disciplines is beyond this reviewer. Yet it is noticeable that the lack of attention to the similes’ contexts forecloses treating their function beyond their position in the «spectrum». Consequently, the arguable effects the poet is after, and therefore the audience, remain largely unexplored by this chapter. Homeric similes occupy the book’s second part (Chs. 4–6). Ch. 4 offers a theoretical introduction, first concentrating on «the vision of poetic competence» emerging from early Greek epic. This fine discussion makes up, in part, for the absence of ethnographic records. However, the evidence has little to say on compositional shifts between shared and individual features, nor is it illuminating on audience perspectives on the matter. R. then discusses the practice of R. Martin, D. Beck, and J. M. Foley. Their tradition/innovation distinction can be aligned to R.’s shared/idiolectal. But the shared was, for R., at least as important as the idiolectal for displaying poetic competence. The monograph’s core is Ch. 5, on ‘shared’ similes in early Greek epic. Listing several examples, R. interprets as ‘shared’ the (nearly-)verbatim recurrence of short vehicle portions in different poems (including archaic lyric), or in the same one. This is often plausible given the comparative evidence, but methodologically problematic. When two similar items are attested only once in each of our poems, there is nothing to exclude, in principle, an inter-textual mechanism – or an intra-textual one if in the same work.1 A deeper engagement with alternative views (rapidly dismissed, 190 n. 2, 201–2), would have enriched and possibly strengthened the argument. R. is perhaps too confident in his use of similes taken from lyric poetry as if they were in epic texts. Assumptions about the Aspis’s independence from the Iliad and the textual problems surrounding the Aspis’s similes deserved 1 As recently argued by B. Currie, ‘Homer’s Allusive Art’, Oxford 2016. Cf. also E. J. Bakker, ‘The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the Odyssey’, Cambridge 2013: especially 157–69. On intra-textual connections between similes see e.g. C. Moulton, ‘Similes in the Homeric Poems’, Göttingen 1977, R. Friedrich, ‘On the compositional use of similes in the Odyssey’, AJPh 102 (1981), 120–137, V. Di Benedetto, ‘Nel Laboratorio di Omero’, Torino 1994: 141–54; W. C. Scott, ‘The Artistry of the Homeric Simile’, Hanover, NH 2009. GNOMON 3/93/2021 B. Ballesteros: Ready, The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives 195 discussion too. Some connections may appear overly loose to comply with the notion of a ‘shared’ simile inherited traditionally and independently. Teukros seeks Ajax’s protection πάϊς ὣς ὑπὸ μητέρα (Il. 8.271): this is considered ‘shared’ in the light of ὠς δὲ πάις πεδὰ μάτερα πεπτερύγωμαι (Fr. 25 L.-P.). So is the ψυχὴ (δ’) ἠΰτ’ ὄνειρος ποπταμένη of Od. 11.222 because of the ὥσπερ ὄναρ / ἥβη at Theogn. 1020–1 West. Conversely, other similarities may be thought to be sufficiently striking and unique to classify as imitation (Aspis 405–6 and Il. 16.428– 9, cf. Il. 13.471–5 and Aspis 386–91, R. 195–6). Intra-texts: on present evidence, there is no way to exclude that the two Iliadic vehicle-portions featuring insects attacking mortals to defend their ‘children’ and having ‘homes off the main road’ (Il. 12.167–70, 16.259–65, p. 216) show the poet displaying a simile ‘template’ of his own devising and taste twice. There are reasonable chances of long-distance reuse at Il. 5.597–9 and 21.282–3, which belong to the several connections between Diomedes’ and Achilles’ aristeiai. For R. (216) they exemplify one of the two ‘River’ vehicle-scenarios: helpless person tries and fails to cross a river – see just below on R.’s «scenarios». Most «long shared vehicle portions» are not repeated verbatim. Common diction, though frequent, is not diagnostically necessary: to qualify as ‘shared’, similes should reflect the same mental template. Following M. Nagler’s vision of a ‘preverbal Gestalt’ underlying poetic instantiations, W. C. Scott has grouped conventional similes into ‘families’ based on the vehicle’s main subject (e.g. tree); ‘similemes’ supply categories (species, locale, etc.).1 R. deepens this model’s capacity by defining the templates poets were trained in and drew on as integral narrative «scenarios» comprising the subject and actions involved, which can be studied as «features». His analysis includes vehicles about birds, wild fire, celestial phenomena, rivers, trees, wind, and lions, each with at least two «scenarios» defined by «features». Though two instances are frequently deemed enough to identify a scenario, R. convincingly accounts for many of the long similes pertaining to each subject. The subsequent section on tenors shows that, like modern poets, Greek singers generally connected shared vehicle portions to a customary tenor. Occasionally they adopted uncustomary tenors, again highlighting their use of traditional material. How are we to understand these phenomena? R. maintains that ancient audiences and poets considered shared similes (and vehicle portions) the same. We should not «fixate on the variation between vehicle portions descended from the same scenario», for «doing so keeps us from acknowledging that our Homeric poets likely had a, to our mind, looser conception of what constitutes the ‘same’» (228). However, no parallel appears to convincingly support this extreme position. Much cross-cultural evidence is mustered that aligns to the Bosniac emic concept of ‘word for word, line by line’. Yet this material (74–6), mostly referring to the perceived sameness of entire songs across performances, hardly implies that competent singers and audiences lacked attentiveness to detail; for such concepts of ‘sameness’ do accommodate differences. R. himself cites examples of performers and public noticing and judging variations (Ch. 2 passim, esp. 77–8, 90–6). In fact, the alleged perceptual uniformity is at odds with the idea that competitiveness and proof of ability mattered. To be sure, to approximate the 1 W. C. Scott, ‘The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile’, Leiden 1974; id., op. cit. 2009. GNOMON 3/93/2021 B. Ballesteros: Ready, The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives 196 competence of expert ancient audiences we need exactly the kind of meticulous work that R. has done. His approach does not diminish the thrust of the proposed generative model, but prevents applying it to the contextual task of interpretation. The inclusion of Frame Semantics is valuable and gives a strong background in cognitive linguistics to Traditional Referentiality. But it reinforces the impression that the radical model proposed by the author for shared similes is problematic. One example: in Frame Semantics, invigorate and restore are ‘lexical units’ that belong to the frame Rejuvenation. They «evoke and depend on the conceptual backgrounds associated with individual frames» (here Rejuvenation: C.J. Fillmore in R. 234). Yet no competent English speaker would fail to grasp the semantic and syntagmatic difference between the two verbs. Equally (somewhat twisting R.’s alignments ‘Frame’/‘scenario’ and ‘lexical unit’/‘feature’) it is quite plausible that ancient audiences and poets would recognise the template and appreciate its contextual deployments. The final chapter advances knowledge of Homeric technique by discussing idiolectal similes: unique vehicles can join unique tenors, or unparalleled vehicle portions can join customary tenors. Idiolects are best understood against the background of what is shared, and each discussion brings us closer to the expectations of ancient audiences. The Conclusion advocates the comparative method, with a coda on R.’s next monograph, where comparative evidence will help to assess the Homeric epics’ written tradition. Despite deliberate avoidance of contextual hermeneutics (192, 208), this thoughtprovoking and carefully produced book will be fruitful reading for Homerists. Some might feel disturbed by Fränkel’s absence from the 38-page bibliography, but the comparatist will find a hoard of suggestions thanks to the author’s wide-ranging engagement with contemporary oral poetry. R.’s recasting of the importance of tradition in the light of the composer’s agency demands very serious consideration. München/London Bernardo Ballesteros * Shaul Tor: Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology. A Study of Hesiod, Xenophanes and Parmenides. Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2017. XIII, 406 S. (Cambridge Classical Studies.). This study developing the author’s Cambridge doctoral thesis approaches the emergence of systematic epistemology in early Greek thought by focusing on Hesiod, Xenophanes, and Parmenides. Its broad thesis is that their conceptions of the gods, mortals, and their relations and interactions are prior to epistemology as such. An introductory chapter on rationality and irrationality, philosophy, and religion interrogates the scholarly attitudes and expectations underwriting the tension typically perceived between reason and revelation in Parmenides in order to advocate a more integrated approach. The focus of the chapter soon expands to a treatment of some of the ways in which the relations between rational/philosophical and irrational/religious elements throughout early Greek thought have been conceptualized and how they resist dichotomization and easy GNOMON 3/93/2021

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