The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and Meaning. By BRUCE LOUDEN. Baltimore: The 
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Pp. vii + 337. Cloth, $55.00. ISBN 

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[Projected: CJ 103.3: 306–9]

Although we comparativists hate to admit this, the identification of 
literary parallels is an undertaking that can run from shamanism to 
science, and the line between is often blurry. This is partially a matter 
of necessity—if the parallels were obvious, we would not still need to 
point them out after all these centuries. It takes a specialized instinct 
to home in on unnoticed verbal or structural similarities, and the 
unfortunate fact is that instincts are often wrong, and that the process 
(and its results) can be disconcertingly opaque to outsiders. In terms of 
credibility, therefore, the search for literary parallels falls somewhere 
between dowsing and truffle-sniffing: there are jackpots out there, but 
crackpots as well, and all too often it is unclear why someone is digging 
so hard in a spot—until they pull up a delicious treat. The process should 
not be paranormal, but the cues the comparativist responds to may lie below 
the radar of readers unfamiliar with both canons, and may be difficult to 
clarify and quantify.

Making the transition from a powerful yet indefinable understanding of two 
texts to a compelling exposition of the relationship between them is 
difficult. Comparative work must have a leg in two fields, and it demands 
that separate disciplines be brought into alignment in such a way that 
their shared qualities are highlighted without being dwarfed by their 
differences. This brings a host of questions: Should one conduct the 
discourse in the language of field A or field B? And how much of each 
narrative should one recap, when too much will bore half the audience, but 
too little will frustrate the rest? That the process is difficult from 
start to finish is demonstrated by the paucity of book-length offerings. It 
is therefore a pleasure to welcome Bruce Louden’s The Iliad: Structure, 
Myth, and Meaning, a companion to his 1999 book on the structure of the 
Odyssey. Though only half the volume deals directly with borrowing and 
cultural influence, all of it addresses issues that are as fundamental to 
the comparative process as they are to understanding Homer in isolation. 
The complaints and concerns about each part that follow should accordingly 
be taken as evidence of the engagement and interest Louden’s work provokes.

Chapters 1–4 treat L.’s vision of a structural framework upon which the 
Iliad is composed and represent an attempt to answer fundamental questions 
about the nature of the individual units of which oral poetry is composed. 
In L.’s analysis, the Iliad has three major movements: two roughly 
analogous 20-part segments (expressions of the “principal narrative 
pattern”) in Books 4–7 and 20–4, bracketing a “parodic” or inverted version 
of the pattern in Books 8 and 11–17. The motifs within the principal 
narrative pattern concern the cycle of activity leading up to and through 
one aristeia by a “best of the Acheans,” as Diomedes and Achilles take 
their turns in the role. The Books that introduce each iteration of the 
cycle (1–2, 9–10, 18–19) are handled separately as an “introductory” 
pattern. Finally, motifs from the principal narrative pattern appear in 
Book 3 in a reduced form, serving as an “overture.”

That the Iliad divides into three movements has been argued before (as L. 
acknowledges, though he draws his divisions differently than his 
predecessors), and cross-culturally most tales break into three phases of 
action. Beyond this, L.’s analysis is not simple or unencumbered. Without 
question, L. has seized on symmetries I had never noticed, and he may have 
hit upon a significant chunk of the narrative-generation matrix of the 
Iliad. But stripping a complex piece of literature down to a skeleton 
requires over-simplifications, glossings-over, substitutions and 
acknowledged deviations, and for L.’s reader, absorbing these and their 
implications is a slow process. Doubtless, oral poets kept a checklist like 
the one L. describes in their minds as they composed, using it as a 
template that allowed them to follow the established tale, while remaining 
free to elaborate some elements and abbreviate or eliminate others. But 
where L. sees the Homeric narrative as something approaching a Near Eastern 
cylinder-seal rolling over and over on wet clay, I lean toward a vision of 
it as a Hindu mandala, with interlocking rings of meaning, a labyrinth of 
forking paths and doublets facing one another at the compass points. Others 
may well see a temple frieze of stylized and variable repetition. Within 
the larger picture, there can also be disagreement as to what are 
significant elements in the narrative, and what is padding or filler; a 
pivotal moment in the narrative to some is a throw-away scene in the eyes 
of others. In any case, L. has an eagle-eye for philological comparanda, 
and a rare willingness to address the poem simultaneously on the large and 
the small scale. Whether he has uncovered the poets’ secret compositional 
tool, or merely an intriguing set of artifacts of its construction, his 
schema is an intriguing exposition of the patterns and variations on a 
theme that run through the epics.

The second section of L.’s book (Chapters 5–7) treats a variety of Homeric 
themes and elements that seem to have been adopted from Near Eastern 
literature. Many of these are dead-on. I require little further convincing 
that the Iliad contains some reflex of Old Testa-ment siege myths (pp. 
149–54), wrathful gods bringing down an apocalypse on a city (pp. 226–35), 
or the NE “one just man” figure (pp. 235–9), or that the Destructive Dream 
from Iliad 2 may have ties to similar Old Testament tales (pp. 163–7). 
Chapter 7 is also wholly convincing that Athena was shaped in part by 
characteristics imported from the Ugaritic goddess Anat (pp. 240–85), and 
that Ares may have been similarly shaped by elements originating with Baal 
(pp. 251–7).

But while some of the elements L. identifies in Homer may have been 
tempered by exposure to Near Eastern tales, there is no getting around the 
fact that Indo-European proto-epic is just as likely a source for many of 
them. These include divine councils (pp. 207–9), most of the 
characteristics of the hero (pp. 167–82), and warrior-priestly-caste 
conflict (pp. 158–60). While story-pattern borrowing in the ancient world 
was widespread, the epics of Greece have Indo-European ancestors as well, 
and when themes or motifs are shared with other Indo-European epics, an 
inherited tradition is a more straightforward source than a borrowing. And, 
as always, many of these motifs may simply be universal—a quick look at 
British history, for example, makes it clear that a poet probably never 
needed to look far for inspiration about warrior and priestly caste 

It is unfortunate that for reasons of space L. was unable to include an 
expanded proposal of the path/pattern/timetable of transmission for myths 
and story-patterns from the Ancient Near East to Greece (restricting his 
discussion to a few paragraphs on pp. 12–13, and another on p. 289). The 
ample evidence of contact between Ugarit and Mycenae, both at the height of 
their powers between 1400–1200 BCE, is comfortable for Ugaritic borrowings, 
but expanded discussion regarding the timeline and nature of transmission 
would be interesting and worthwhile. L. also does not systematically 
address the import of the various similarities he details between the Iliad 
and Old Testament mythology. Particularly welcome would be discussion of 
how the similarities came to be; presumably the OT parallels under 
consideration are relics of earlier NE literature that survive in no other 
form, and that this earlier form was passed to the Greeks as well. While it 
is worthwhile to merely note the correspondences, the really difficult work 
of putting them into a historical context is a large part of making them 
useful to other scholars.

Also welcome would be more discussion of the nature of the contact that led 
to the borrowings and its relationship to the possible timelines for 
borrowing. It is hard to imagine the cultural transfer required to get 
these motifs into Homer as a speedy process, as L. acknowledges (p. 289). 
Story-patterns usually evolve slowly, and there is an enormous resistance 
to alteration of a beloved tale, particularly when it is bound up with 
national identity. But perhaps the process need not always be so slow. 
Cultures do not borrow objects or technologies without a powerful innate 
attraction towards them: Thailand and India have only had the chili pepper 
since the 1500s, but chilis are now the hallmark of their cuisines. Thus it 
may have been with the epics. If the Homeric epics retained an 
Indo-European element, adopted a Near Eastern one, or incorporated a 
folktale, this happened because the poets felt that that element belonged 
in the story, and if their audience disagreed, the element would surely 
have disappeared again. Understanding how these various threads formed the 
version of the Iliad we have will contribute to our understanding not only 
of the epic itself, but of the world in which it was shaped, and the 
oral-poetic processes that formed it. The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and 
Meaning takes us another generous step forward on that path.

College of St. Catherine

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