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  • Style and Construction, Sound and Rhythm:Thetis' Supplication to Zeus (Iliad 1.493-516)
  • Christos C. Tsagalis

The present study aims to explicate the style of a specific passage in Book 1 of the Iliad with the intention of offering a model for a close reading of Homeric poetry that is also suitable for the classroom. I should make it clear from the outset that I am not proposing new ways of reading epic but rather applying some of the rich harvest of recent scholarship to illuminate a specific passage, namely Thetis' supplication to Zeus in Iliad 1. The importance of this scene for Iliad 1 and, subsequently, for the poem as a whole makes it an ideal place to begin.

Although the Iliad moves on various levels and rotates between different poles,1 one set of boundaries is Thetis' supplication to Zeus (forming the last part of the scene that begins with the meeting between herself and Achilles in Book 1), and Priam's supplication to Achilles in Book 24 (which brings the epic to a close). Thetis' supplication also functions as a nucleus, introducing themes that run through the entire epic. Its importance lies in its hybrid nature since it operates as a miniature model or paradigm, presenting for the first time themes which continue to evolve and create larger units. Some of these themes are Achilles' short life span, his liminality [End Page 1] as a hero, the antithesis between honor and life, and the fulfillment of the Dios boulê.

Before I embark on a detailed stylistic analysis of Iliad 1.496-516, I would like to summarize the findings of some recent scholarship on Homer which are relevant to my study. These remarks are drawn from the wealth of secondary literature on Homer with a specific aim in mind: to show anyone teaching Homer that, in order to offer the most fruitful appreciation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, he or she has to combine different approaches and interpretive methods in order to reveal to the student the multifariousness of Homeric poetry. The following observations attempt to offer an outline of modern approaches to Homer and are representative of the three more fruitful schools in twentieth-century Homeric scholarship: neoanalysis (comparison of the way the Iliad presupposes but also deviates from the Aethiopis), speech-act theory (examination of supplication as a rhetorical sub-genre), and oral-formulaic theory (detailed analysis of specific structural devices of the Homeric text). By making students aware of these three interpretive approaches, the instructor can alert them to the following: 1) the role of myth in the shaping of Greek poetry in general, with emphasis on the conflicting versions offered by the tradition about the same story (neo-analysis); 2) the importance of distinguishing different sub-genres within a supra-genre such as epic (speech-act theory); and 3) the function of localization, meter, and verse-structure as semantic markers creating a "meaning" that extends and often interacts with context-specific semantic features.

The following points should be used by the instructor as examples of the ways he or she connects a more general introduction to modern approaches to Homer (as outlined above) with the Thetis passage that will be discussed in class.

1) "The plot of the Iliad traces a development between two successful supplications: Thetis' supplication to Zeus in Book 1, in which she bids Zeus to honor her son (), and Priam's supplication of Achilles, by means of which Zeus conclusively honors Achilles and guarantees that he will have glory, or kudos" (Crotty 1994.94). This is the way Crotty describes the importance of the supplication scene between Thetis and Zeus in Book 1; he traces a poetics of supplication in the evolution of a deliberate contrast between the fate of Thetis and that of her son. The beginning of the Dios boulê is inaugurated with a prayer which expresses the goddess' confidence "in her power to bring about her wishes (by offering an exchange of goods)" (Crotty 1994.96), but is capped (after the interval of 24 books) by an old man's hikesía, "which expresses the indifference of the world to the suppliant's wishes...


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