Homeric Book Divisions.

Joel Christensen of Brandeis has a post Where Did Homeric Book Divisions Come From? that discusses “questions about design and the relationship between the parts of the Iliad and the whole”; I’m just going to reproduce a chunk of the conclusion (follow the link for the bulk of the post). He quotes Bruce Heiden as follows:

The analysis will first consider the placement of the twenty-three ‘book divisions’. It will show that all the scenes that immediately precede a ‘book division’ manifest a common feature, namely that they scarcely affect forthcoming events in the story. All the scenes that follow a book division’ likewise display a common characteristic: these scenes have consequences that are immediately felt and continue to be felt at least 400 lines further into the story. Therefore, all of the twenty-three ‘book divisions’ occur at junctures of low-consequence and high consequence scenes. Moreover, every such juncture in the epic is the site of a ‘book division’.

The second stage of the analysis will examine the textual segments that lie between ‘book divisions’, i.e., the ‘books’ of the Iliad. It will show that in each ‘book’ the last event narrated is caused by the first, as are most of the events narrated in between. But the last event seldom completes a program implied by the first. Thus the ‘books’ of the Iliad display internal coherence, but only up to a point. They do not furnish a strong sense of closure. Instead their outline is marked by a sense of diversion in the narrative at the beginning of each.

Then comes this, from Steve Reece:

We may acknowledge the orality of Homeric epic, we may refer to it as performance, we may pay obeisance to the study of comparative oral traditions, but we remain addicted to our printed texts, our book divisions and line numbers, our apparatus critici, our concordances and lexica. We rarely try to reconstruct or even imagine a production of an epic performance.

Joel himself then says:

[My] take on the major issues presented here is that the final three approaches are reconcilable from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary model for the creation of the Homeric epics (on which, see Nagy 2004 and Dué 2018), posits a movement from greater flexibility to greater fixity over time. If we imagine Homeric epic already existing notionally between episodic performances and monumental events involving multiple singers, we can see these episodes more or less coalescing around smaller performance units that could be stitched together in grander performance contexts. Any process of textualization would necessarily include stages of dictation and transcription providing performance units that were largely coherent as a whole and which would present different levels of internal coherency based in the individual performance. As the whole cultural phenomenon was transferred from performance contexts around the Greek speaking world to the libraries of the Hellenistic cities, they would achieve a textual fixity and polish that would harden, where possible, the joins between books.

We’ll never know for sure, of course, but I find that take on it reasonably convincing. (For those who care about such things, I note that apparatus critici is plural and thus the -u- in apparatus is long.)


  1. fascinating!

    to me, the structure that heiden describes is itself quite a strong argument for the book divisions emerging from performance. if you’re doing an extended piece broken into episodes – in the mode of a hakawati, say, to keep it regional – what he describes is just what you want: a high-impact start, and an ending that gives a certain amount of wrap-up without mattering much to the next episode (part of your next audience will have missed it; part of your hopefully-returning audience may well be a bit worse for wear). that way you can keep up momentum without relying on cliff-hangers, or on more intrusive formal gestures like a return to a frame story.

  2. Seconded. I was going to say exactly that about the relationship with performance. @rozele has put it much better.

    Is there also some memory-prompting going on? I can’t finish reciting this ‘Chapter’ until I’ve connected back to the first event.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    The evolution-driven-by-functionality account here contrasts interestingly with the now-traditional division into chapters of the various Biblical books, where we know historically when and where it happened and we are able to assess from our own vantage point that … sometimes the chapter breaks make good sense in terms of “natural” division points in a given book’s narrative structure, and other times eh, not so much. It would not have surprised me had someone explained that the traditional subdivision of the Homeric epics into books is the result of scribal/editorial decisions X centuries later of somewhat variable aesthetic quality, but … that’s not this argument.

  4. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    apparatus critici: Latinity is not quite dead when this guy assumes that his readers will know the number of apparatus from that of critici.

  5. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Compare and contrast with apparati critici: a dreadful false friend to the Italian reader, but surely a more plausibly classical formation.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I have a soft spot for the Latin fourth declension plural in -ūs on the grounds that it corresponds exactly from a comparative standpoint to the single most productive Welsh plural ending, -au (as in siopau, a loanword of unknown origin meaning “retail outlets.”)

    (I honour my Brythonic forbears as the only Indo-Europeans to see the full potential of u-stems.)

  7. Slavic hasn’t neglected them, though of course they haven’t flourished as floridly as in the land of Flewellen.

  8. Doubtless the Holy Trinity has other functions, but from my perspective it serves neatly to teach Latin declensions to my fellow choristers–well, in the singular at least. Throw in the Virgin Mary as well to cover the first declension and we have everything but the fifth.

  9. Among my favorite Slavic u-stem morphophonemic alterations is the Czech for “blood”—the nominative is “krev,” a monosyllable; the genitive is “krve,” a bisyllable with syllabic R.

  10. Czech krev is cognate with English raw and (via Latin) crude. And also, W-ary tells me, Gothic hraiwadūbō ‘turtledove’, lit. ‘carcass dove’. Why?

  11. @JWB: yes, i’d’ve expected that kind of argument more, to be honest! but it does also show how different the two texts are, functionally as well as otherwise, and what that means for their possible histories.

    @AntC: i’d think so! you want people to feel like what they heard held together solidly, but it also does help you stay on track. i’m thinking about the ways that ballads will use a phrase or a word from the last line of a verse in the first line of the next one (or echo it even more directly: “…un mayn lebn oystsushraybn / keyn tint un feder volt nit klekn. / / oyb tint un feder volt shoyn yo klekn / dan voltn mayne hent nit stayenen…”)

  12. ‘turtledove’, lit. ‘carcass dove’. Why?

    There is an etymological summary in Lehmann, A Gothic Etymological Dictionary, p. 190, available here.

    I would like to see Ernst A. Ebbinghaus (1976) ‘Gotica XIII’ in General Linguistics 16, p. 9–13, but I can’t get to it right now. Maybe someone else can.

    (Luke 2:24 here. The sacrificial context is interesting. The markings on the neck like the cut made in a sacrificial victim?)

  13. Lehmann’s conclusion:

    Association with death and corpses scarcely credible; folk etymological adaptation of a borrowed word possible, though source is not accessible; or based on onomatopoeic words, as by Ebbinghaus 1976 GL 16:9-13.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Slavic hasn’t neglected them

    Not shown there: most Slavic languages have extended the u-stem gen. pl. ending to all masculines, Polish has also extended the u-stem dat. sg. ending to all masculines…

  15. IIRC, Sorbian has extended the old u-stem gen. pl. to all genders.

  16. Trond Engen says

    I stem, you stem, everybody wants u-stems!
    Rock, rock my *bʰébʰrus, rock!

  17. Some guys out exercising their tumbler pigeons reminded me of this thread. Lehmann (linked to above) on Gothic hraiwadubo:

    According to Schrader 1906–07 II:141–42, ‘the dove of death’, since it was the IE bird with this reputation.

    Schrader’s discussion is here. The Vedic nírr̥ti mentioned there is ‘dissolution, destruction, calamity, evil, adversity, also personified as the goddess of death and corruption and often associated with mr̥tyu, death’. The whole hymn Rig Veda X.165 is addressed to the Vishvedevas (“all the gods”), asking them to drive away the dove of nírr̥ti:

    dévāḥ kapóta iṣitó yád ichán
    dūtó nírr̥tyā idám ājagā́ma
    tásmā arcāma kr̥ṇávāma níṣkr̥tiṃ
    śáṃ no astu dvipáde śáṃ cátuṣpade

    śiváḥ kapóta iṣitó no astu
    anāgā́ devāḥ śakunó gr̥héṣu
    agnír hí vípro juṣátāṃ havír naḥ
    pári hetíḥ pakṣíṇī no vr̥ṇaktu

    hetíḥ pakṣíṇī ná dabhāti asmā́n
    āṣṭryā́m padáṃ kr̥ṇute agnidhā́ne
    śáṃ no góbhyaś ca púruṣebhyaś cāstu
    mā́ no hiṃsīd ihá devāḥ kapótaḥ

    yád úlūko vádati moghám etád
    yát kapótaḥ padám agnaú kr̥ṇóti
    yásya dūtáḥ práhita eṣá etát
    tásmai yamā́ya námo astu mr̥tyáve

    r̥cā́ kapótaṃ nudata praṇódam
    íṣam mádantaḥ pári gā́ṃ nayadhvam
    saṃyopáyanto duritā́ni víśvā
    hitvā́ na ū́rjam prá patāt pátiṣṭhaḥ

    O gods, when the dove, sent as a messenger of Dissolution, has come here to seek,
    we will chant to it, and we will perform expulsion. Let there be weal for our two-footed, weal for our four-footed.

    Let the dove that has been sent be kindly to us; o gods, let the omen-bird be without offense in our house.
    Let Agni, the inspired poet, take pleasure in our oblation, and so let the winged missile avoid us.

    The winged missile will not take us by deception. In the corner[?] it sets its footprint in the fireplace.
    Let there be weal for our cattle and for our humans. Let the dove not harm us here, o gods.

    When the owl screeches, that comes to nothing; likewise when the dove set its footprint in the fire.
    The one for whom it was sent forth as messenger–to that one let there be reverence: to Yama, (who is) Death.

    With (this) verse give the dove a push. Rejoicing in refreshment, lead your cow around,
    effacing all difficulties. Having left for us our strengthening nourishment, it will fly away the fastest in flight.

    Translation from Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton (2014) The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India.

    The following is the passage from Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum (book 5, chapter 34) that Schrader refers to:

    Qui ut regni iura suscepit, in loco illo qui a parte fluminis Ticini est, unde ipse olim fugerat, monasterium quod Novum appellatur Domino et liberatori suo in honore sanctae virginis et martyris Agathae construxit. In quo multas virgines adgregavit rebusque et diversis pariter eundem locum ornamentis ditavit. Regina vero eius Rodelinda basilicam sanctae Dei genitricis extra muros eiusdem civitatis Ticinensis, quae Ad Perticas appellatur, opere mirabili condidit ornamentisque mirificis decoravit. Ad Perticas autem locus ipse ideo dicitur, quia ibi olim perticae, id est trabes, erectae steterant, quae ob hanc causam iuxta morem Langobardorum poni solebant: si quis enim in aliqua parte aut in bello aut quomodocumque extinctus fuisset, consanguinei eius intra sepulchra sua perticam figebant, in cuius summitate columbam ex ligno factam ponebant, quae illuc versa esset, ubi illorum dilectus obisset, scilicet ut sciri possit, in quam partem is qui defunctus fuerat quiesceret.

    And as soon as he had taken upon himself the rights of sovereignty, he built in that place which is on the side of the river Ticinus (Ticino) whence he himself had previously escaped, a convent called the New one, to his Lord and Deliverer in honor of the Holy Virgin and Martyr Agatha.’ In it he gathered together many virgins, and he also endowed this place with possessions and ornaments of many kinds. His queen Rodelinda indeed built with wonderful workmanship outside the walls of this city of Ticinum a church of the Holy Mother of God which is called “At the Poles,” and adorned it with marvelous decorations. This place moreover was called “At the Poles” because formerly poles, that is beams, had stood there upright which were wont to be planted according to the custom of the Langobards for the following reason : if any one were killed in any place either in war or in any other way, his relatives fixed a pole within their burial ground upon the top of which they placed a dove made of wood that was turned in that direction where their beloved had expired so that it might be known in what place he who had died was sleeping.

    Translation (not the best…) quickly taken from here. I wonder if the Langobard custom had anything to do with the homing abilities of doves.

    (Now Rodelinda, my favorite of Handel’s operas, is in my head.)

  18. A pole makes a lot more sense than a gravestone over an empty plot, particularly when there are many bodies and no guarantees that they will be buried respectfully. (Personally I hold marked graves to be superstitious. Gale wanted her ashes to be buried with my parents and various (unashed) cats between two feral apple trees on the Austerlitz property, but when Dorian and I and a few friends went there to do so, the weather was very adverse (a cold downpour), so I reserved some for a few friends who had requested them and then dropped the rest into a seasonal stream.

    I have now sold the house.

  19. I would like to see Ernst A. Ebbinghaus (1976) ‘Gotica XIII’ in General Linguistics 16, p. 9–13, but I can’t get to it right now. Maybe someone else can.

    For *dūbōn, he prefers Suolahti’s “onomatopoietische Bildung,” here.

    For *hraiwa-, Pokorny’s *(s)ker-/kor-/kr-, “Schallnachahmung für heisere, rauhe Töne,” here.

    There are several pages of details, of course, but at least some of it is covering the “time-honored theory,” and yeah-but for it.

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