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  • From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic by Mary R. Bachvarova
  • David F. Elmer
Mary R. Bachvarova. From Hittite to Homer: The Anatolian Background of Ancient Greek Epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xxxix, 649. $160.00. ISBN 978-0-521-50979-4.

Building on well over a decade of research and publications, Mary R. Bach-varova’s From Hittite to Homer presents a definitive synthesis of the author’s [End Page 590] investigations into connections between the Homeric poems and Anatolian narrative traditions. Generously supplemented with maps, tables, an appendix on the history of the dactylic hexameter, and a 100-page bibliography, the book is a major work of scholarship. It will easily take its place beside such earlier landmark studies as Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Cambridge, Mass., and London 1992) and Martin West’s The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (Oxford 1997), with both of which the author is in (occasionally critical) dialogue as she outlines a new model for the relationship between Greek epic and Near Eastern narrative and song traditions.

As the title of the book suggests, the Bronze Age Empire of the Hittites figures prominently in that model. In the multilingual libraries and archives of the Hittites’ polyglot capital, Hattusa, Bachvarova finds important evidence not just for the role of the Hittite empire in the transmission of narratives from Mesopotamia to the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, including ultimately the Greeks, but also for the specific mechanisms and vectors of that transmission. One of Bachvarova’s major contributions is her consistent emphasis on orality in her account of this process. Fully versed in the work of Milman Parry, Albert Lord, Gregory Nagy, John Miles Foley, and Paul Zumthor (but acknowledging the need for conscientious adaptation of their ideas), she discovers in the Boğazköy tablets signs of multiformity that suggest the ongoing vitality of an oral tradition even for such classics of the scribal schools as the Gilgamesh epic. (That is not to say, however, that the tablets are transcriptions from oral performance; Bachvarova speaks cautiously of “oral-derived” texts.) Rather than looking to merchants or itinerant craftsmen as the agents of dissemination, Bachvarova makes the bilingual singer the hero of her tale, reconstructing a series of bilingual traditions as the primary mechanism by which narratives—often embedded in specific ritual practices—moved west.

Bachvarova lays out her argument in two broad arcs. In the first half of the book, she argues for the existence of “a unified genre of Syro-Anatolian narrative song very similar to that found at Hattusa” that “was responsible for the major storylines of Homeric and Hesiodic epic” (198). For example, she traces the Iliadic motif of a city destroyed by its leaders’ refusal to release a captive to a tradition represented at Hattusa by the Hurro-Hittite Song of Release, the discovery of which she hails as “the most momentous event in the last fifty years for those who study ancient epic” (111). The second half of the book explores a variety of possible contexts for the westward transmission of narratives, focusing especially on ritual practice and festivals in Late Bronze Age Anatolia and Early Iron Age Cyprus. It is in these chapters especially that Bachvarova displays her mastery of the archaeological evidence; this is no mere study of texts.

In accounting for the origins of the Homeric Iliad, Bachvarova eventually concludes that the earliest Greek settlers in the region of the Troad found there an already established, native Anatolian tradition about the fall of Troy, which they subsequently adapted. This native tradition was itself shaped by Near Eastern traditions mediated by the Hittite Empire. Bachvarova develops a detailed stratigraphy of the Iliad, involving an early Luwian “Wilusiad,” a later Phrygian tradition about the fall of Troy, various possible Greco-Anatolian bilingual traditions, and rivalry between Aeolic and Ionic singers in Anatolia (summary on 453–57). This is a complex model, open to question in some particulars, but the reality must surely have been at least as complex, if not more...


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pp. 590-592
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