Saturday, September 20, 2014

TFBT: Jasper Griffin’s “The Epic Cycle”

On a long flight after a great get-away weekend with my wife, I delighted in re-reading The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer by Jasper Griffin.  I found this fourteen page essay somewhere on my Nook.  You can find it at JSTOR by clicking the link above.  (If you do not have institutional access to JSTOR you can read it on line simply by registering at MyJSTOR.) 

If you take the glory of Homer for granted, here is the place to renew your sense of awe and appreciation for “the exceptional genius which went into the creation of …the Iliad.   

Griffin insists that between Homeric and Cyclic a distinction did exist. “The strict, radical, and consistently heroic interpretation” of the Iliadic world made it quite different from the Cycle, with its miracles, un-tragic attitude towards mortality, exoticism, romance and flattering, flowery, less-dense style of composition.   If you need proof of his opinion; the second half of the essay is a careful analysis, stylistically of Cyclic fragments.  

He observes “The Iliad is notably more cautious with the fantastic.” Then uses Aristotle to point “out that Homer puts many things into the mouths of his characters, when he himself does not wish to vouch for their truth, most notably in the stories told by Odysseus… The fantastic, the miraculous, and the romantic, all exceeded in the Cycle the austere limits to which the Iliad confines them.” 

“Even more, in the accommodating world of the Cycle death itself can be evaded.”  My friend Maya M1 refers to this phenomena as “scholia as savior”.   Griffin then summons Patroclus’ ghost, (Iliad 23. 69) to expound that in Homeric epic “the dead do not return”.  “For the Iliad, human life is defined by the double inevitability of age and death; for the gods, men's opposite, immortality and eternal youth are inseparable.  Men must die:” 

Just a sampling of contrasts he notes are that The Iliad 
  • excludes low human types and motives.
  • knew and suppressed the story about Achilles’ impenetrable armor.  Hence the reason Apollo knocked it off Patroclus (Iliad xvi) so Hector can kill him. 
  • Fragments xviii and xix of the Cypria explain Chryseis was captured by the Achaeans when her city of Chryse was not because she was visiting Thebe at the time.
  • In the Cycle, but not in Homer, homicides need to be purified; Griffin suggests this is due to the influence of Delphi.

The contrasts help to bring out the greatness and the uniqueness that is Homer.



1 Maya M is the blogger at Maya Corner  where  “ I write about things that interest me, in as politically incorrect style as I like.”  She is a frequent contributer to Bill’s Classical Studies.  She writes “ I had some interest in mythology as a child, and "Ancient Greek Legends and Myths" by Nikolay Kun was among my favorite books. However, this interest was nothing out of the ordinary. My education had no leaning to classics, except for the mandatory review of ancient Greek literature in 9th grade. I was truly engaged only about 2 years ago, when a kid to whom I am a teaching aide got to the above mentioned 9th grade. My student seemed just bored by mythology and ancient literature, but I looked at them with new eyes and was fascinated. My background in biology naturally predisposed me to science-fiction rewriting of some myths, but I try also to understand what they meant to their original audience in the pre-scientific, "daimon-haunted" world.





  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Maya,

    I dont know what your note said, but my fat thumb accidently deleted it before I could read it. Sorry


  3. I was just thanking you and agreeing that the Iliad would not be so great without its tragic realism - mortals dying young without even leaving behind a meaningful legacy, and an entire civilization dying.