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Reviewed by:
  • Indo-European Poetry and Myth
  • Lowell Edmunds
M. L. West . Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 525. $145.00. ISBN 978-0-19-928075-9.

One must read this book. Because it lacks an index locorum, classicists (to whom, and not to Indo-Europeanists, this review is addressed) cannot simply look things up. The analytical table of contents at the front helps, but it only roughly describes this book's riches. The index of names and things (511–525) is lengthy, but not lengthy enough. The lemma "Pindar," for example, omits the pages (126, 178) on which West suggestively cites Nem. 6.1.

Classicists understand the comparative method, based on correspondences of sound in Indo-European (IE) languages, by which the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) vocabulary is reconstructed. Classicists specializing in archaic epic are likely to be aware of the reconstructed phrases meaning "imperishable fame," "holy force," and "weaver of words" and of the IE origin of Greek meters. As for IE poetry, what else has a Greek reflex? It is surprising how much there is. West covers in chapter 1 ("Poet and Poesy") the terms for the poet, his métier, concepts of poetry, meter, occasions, and various kinds of poetry. chapter 2 ("Phrase and Figure") includes similes, the priamel, and Behaghel's Law, or what West calls the "augmented triad" of three names. West often returns to poetry en passant in his final three chapters, on "Mortality and Fame" (10) and the hero (11–12). On the last page, he ends with a poem of his own, "Elegy on an Indo-European Hero."

What about IE myth? Classicists who have bothered to wonder about the comparative IE dimension of Greek myth probably still take the view expressed twenty years ago by Jan Puhvel in Comparative Mythology (1987). The Greek pantheon, he said, "affords rather slim pickings for comparative Indo-European mythology" (138). West does not disagree (24–25), but finds much beside the pantheon to discuss. In a multitude of often dazzling congeries of evidence, he shows that many elements of Greek myth have some degree or other of IE depth. After a chapter on "Gods and Goddesses" (3), he takes his reader on a "theological tour" (280) of the universe, starting with the pair "Sky and Earth" (4) and proceeding to "Sun and Daughter" (5), "Storm and Stream" (6), and "Nymphs and Gnomes" (7), of whom there are even more than one had already assumed. He then returns to genres of [End Page 270] expression in chapter 8 ("Hymns and Spells") and also, despite its title, in chapter 9 ("Cosmos and Canon").

Already in chapter 3 we hear of Helen as having "an intimate connection with the Dawn-goddess" (186) and of the divine twins, the ancestors of Helen's brothers, the Dioscuri, about whom "there is a rare consensus among comparativists" (187). In chapter 4, Helen receives much attention as the daughter of the sun (229–32). The comparative evidence, on the Sanskrit side, is Vedic. Helen returns toward the end of the book in one of the heroic chapters. Now the evidence comes from Sanskrit epic (437–38), and the comparandum is Draupadi. Has the Vedic dawn goddess somehow become an epic heroine? For a different take on all this evidence see my "Helen's Divine Origins," Electronic Antiquity 10.2 (2007) 1–45. West's notion that Helen "in Laconia was worshipped as a goddess, and so she was on Rhodes" seems to me extravagant. West has boarded the Indo-Europeanist's carousel, on which one rides from the reconstruction around to the individual traditions from which one started. To use Helen in reconstructing an IE dawn goddess is one thing. To use the dawn goddess to explain Helen is another.

But this tendency is not pervasive in West, who in reconstructing myth aims to be more rigorous than the average Indo-Europeanist. He establishes three historical levels. Oldest is PIE, which splits at the next level into MIE ("Mature IE") and Hittite, the earliest attested dialect, with Luwian and Palaic (all together "Anatolian"). At the third and most recent level, MIE has branched into a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9234
Print ISSN
0009-8418
Pages
pp. 270-271
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-18
Open Access
No
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