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Reviewed by:
  • Epic and History
  • Aislinn Melchior
David Konstan and Kurt A. Raaflaub (eds.). Epic and History. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pp. xiii, 442. $149.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-9307-8.

The volume under review might be better called "Epic and the Past." It does not show how epic influenced the genre of history, but instead explores the interaction of epic with many different types of past. Among the issues discussed are the conditions of creation, redaction, and performance, of historicity, and of the way that the poet's creation of the epic past can promote or challenge political power in his own period.

Different pieces exhibit the sometimes contradictory uses of the genre. Grethlein's piece on Homer, for instance, describes how the characters in [End Page 277] the Iliad interact with a plu-past.a preceding time when men were greater. This is most often manifested by interaction with some object, and Grethlein posits, in line with Patzek, that the epics of this period may have been attempting to explain Mycenaean remains and "reflect a newly awakened historical awareness guided by material leftovers" (137 n.67). Goldberg, on the other hand, shows convincing parallels between Saturnian verse.the meter of Naevius' Bellum Punicum.and inscriptions such as the epitaph on the sarcophagus of L. Cornelius Scipio. He suggests that the language of the poet "recording Roman deeds" may have "informed the language of the noble Romans who took credit for them" (175). Thus, in one essay, epic poets rationalize monumental remains, while in the other, the poet influences the fashioning of such monuments.

Some of the most exciting offerings have to do with epics that the scholars have seen performed. The Mayan epic Rabinal Achi, still performed yearly in Guatemala, is a fascinating palimpsest of influences. Tedlock enumerates traditional indigenous elements such as its references to the Mayan calendar, its costumes, and its debt to earlier dance dramas. Rabinal Achi also shows the effects of conquest by paralleling and inverting many scenes in the Spanish play Carlo Magno. Whitaker's essay discusses Nguni praise poetry. He describes how the Xhosa poet Manisi, in a performance at the University of Natal, moved on the stage like a secretary bird hunting food and how the poet's modest clothes highlighted the affluence of the academic audience around him. This is a theatrical aspect of performed epic that words on a page cannot reveal.

The power and authority of the epic genre is displayed throughout this collection. Many of the works described draw heavily from the natural world for their imagery. The presence of poetic techniques creates in place of history's political sphere a more universal sphere of action. Symbol and simile replace process. By writing human beings into the larger world of nature, epic creates a grander stage for action than the transitory world of human alliances. Despite a stress throughout the collection on the temporal conditions that affected these works, I found myself impressed by the way that poetry—to paraphrase Cicero—plants an oak in one's imagination in a way that history cannot. Symbol transcends fact and the poetic tree will outlast the historical tree that inspired it.

The twenty-three essays in this book move from Sumerian Gilgamesh to South African izibongo, from the Mahabharata through Beowulf and Roland to Rabinal Achi, from the third millennium b.c.e. to the near present. These essays will provide comparanda for students of mythology or epic. But more importantly, they tease the comfortable assumptions that one can acquire by working within too narrow a slice of the genre. I left this volume with some of my former certainties shaken, which is a mark of an exciting collection.

Aislinn Melchior
University of Puget Sound