Sunday, July 15, 2012

TFBT: Gleanings of Jørgensen’s Law

I have been an independent researcher of Greek Mythology my entire life. Hence, it was with great surprise that I learned about “Jørgensen’s Law” in J. Marks excellent “Zeus in the Odyssey”. I quote the definition that Marks provides.
“Jørgensen’s Law” That is; the Homeric narrator and divine characters are as a rule aware of the divine agent responsible for any given act or circumstances in the narrative. Human characters by contrast, remain ignorant of the actions of the specific gods unless they are informed by a divine character or, in the case of seers and singers, possess special powers.”
I performed a Google-search and found Jørgensen’s Law much quoted and referenced. Erwin F Cook invokes the law five times.[i] De Jong a dozen.[ii) Ruth Scodel refers to it as a “rule”. [iii]However, I could find no biography for Ove Jørgensen nor a translation of his article establishing the law. I have gathered what little information I could find below.
Ove Jørgensen a friend to Carl Nielsen; Denmark’s greatest composer and Frederick Poulsen an archaeologist and competitor wrote an article in [iv] in 1904. Hermes, founded in 1866, is a German peer-reviewed journal, focusing on classical studies. Jørgensen’s article, which George M. Calhoun [v] refers to as “a very acute study” and PV Jones (1985) calls “eye-opening” was entitled “Das Auftreten der Gotter in den Buechern i-m der Odyssey”. Which translates as “The Occurrence of the Gods in the Books 9-12 of the Odyssey”.
The Odyssey, of course, is the account of the return home from the Trojan war of the Greek hero Odysseus. Traditionally, the (possibly blind) singer Homer is credited with creating the story; or more accurately weaving it together from various traditions. Books 9-12 cover the recital by Odysseus of the many wiles of his adventures;
  • His fateful encounter with a one-eyed, giant cannibal called a cyclops and named Polypheus;
  • stay with the sorceress Circe,
  • visit to the Underworld,
  • the subsequent disaster when his men ate the sacred cattle of the sun-god Helios
  • finally his long stay with the goddess Calypso.
The actual returning home part happens after these books.
Ove Jørgensen showed, that in the Odyssey Homer carefully distinguishes between his own knowledge of divine affairs and that of the poem’s mortal characters. His voice and the gods themselves always name the specific god responsible for an event, the poem’s mortal characters use the general terms daimon (spirit), theos (the gods) or “Zeus,” unless they are acting on specific knowledge.  [vi] Odysseus for example, can only recount an exchange between Helios and King Zeus because, “I heard these things from fair-haired Calypso: and she said that she had heard them herself from the guide Hermes”.[vii] Homer seldom uses the term daimon when speaking for himself, though it is frequent in the mouths of his mortal characters.[viii]

The fact that Zeus is the only god regularly named by mortals “explains another recurrent phenomenon in the Odyssey; humans regularly blame Zeus for their troubles when they know that another god is in fact responsible.” [ix] The habit on the part of mortal men might also explain the use of Dios (the God) for Zeus in the Iliad. Some scholars have extended this “law” to include the Iliad [x Of specific interest to me upon contemplation of Jørgensen’s Law is a comment made by Prof. Kevin McGrath during a lecture at Harvard. McGrath suggested that around 80% of the Odyssey is narrated by Odysseus rather than Homer. It strikes me as odd that even a notorious liar like Odysseus would comply with Jørgensen’s Law even during his narration of the tale. That is some powerful law!

 [i]The Odyssey in Athens; Myths of Cultural Origins. (2006)
[ii] A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey, Irene J F de Jong (2001)
[iii] Ruth Scodel review of “Staged Narrative” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.05
[iv] Hermes volume 39 pages 357-382 (1904)
[v]  George M. Calhoun “The Divine Entourage in Homer” American Journal of Philology Vol. LXI, 3
[vi] Erwin F. Cook, Odyssey in Athens.
 [vii]  Jonathan L. Ready in Character Narrator and Simile in the Iliad.(2011)
 [viii]Aufstieg und Nieergang der Romischen Welt, Part 2, Volume 18 edited by Hildegard Temporini
[ix] Erwin F. Cook Odyssey in Athens.
[x]Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Volume 52, page 53 1972

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