Homeric Formalism in The Iliad and The Odyssey
"Much that is terrible takes place in the Homeric poems, but it seldom takes place wordlessly... no speech is so filled with anger or scorn that the particles which express logical and grammatical connections are lacking or out of place." (from "Odysseus' Scar" by Erich Auerbach)
In his immaculately detailed study comparing the narrative styles of Homer to those of the Bible, Erich Auerbach hits upon one of the most notable intrigues of reading Homer, namely his unrelenting sense of epic form and rhythm. The stories that unfold in the works of Homer are filled with passion and fury, but this never effects the meticulous regulation of his narrative. One of the chief questions regarding the works of Homer is to what effectual end he follows this formula so explicitly. In both The Iliad and The Odyssey, the reader recognizes patterns and formulae that combine to make up the Homeric template.
The reader can first recognize Homer's formulaic style on a specific scale in the repetition of phrases and epithets. Odysseus, throughout both The Iliad and The Odyssey is almost never mentioned without a reference to his cunning or "many designs". Likewise, throughout The Iliad the city of Troy is almost never mentioned without reference to it being "strong-walled" or "wide-wayed". As Richard Lattimore writes in the introduction to his translation, much of this particular kind of repetition was dictated by the metric needs of the poem. Above and beyond this strictly mechanical function however, recurring descriptions serve to ground the story in a cast of recognizable characters, thus creating a sense of familiarity for the reader.
Studying an example of Homer's form on a slightly grander scale, each individual death in The Iliad becomes discernible as a minor variation on an established sequential structure. To take the death of Phereklos as an illustration: first, we are told "Meriones in turn killed Phereklos..."(Bk V. ln. 59). Then we are given a description of his death:
"... Meriones pursued [Phereklos] and overtaking him struck in the right buttock, and the spearhead drove straight on and passing under the bone went into the bladder. He dropped, screaming, to his knees, and death was a mist about him." (Book V, lns. 65-68)
Although the deaths of major characters are more elaborate and detailed, the basic structural pattern remains the same. The death of Patroklos for example is much embellished, but the basic formula--approach, attack, wound, and finally 'the mist of death'--remains recognizable. The use of what is essentially a template for the description of death in battle could serve one of two purposes. The fact that the deaths in The Iliad and the final battle scene of The Odyssey become so many carbon copies of one another, predictable almost to the point of absurdity, perhaps reflects a poet's judgment of...