Academic journal article Western Folklore

Keens from the Absent Chorus: Troy to Ulster

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Keens from the Absent Chorus: Troy to Ulster

Article excerpt


What experimentation is to science, comparison should be to philology-a way to test hypotheses and produce new ones that account for more of the data, more economically. What one chooses to compare, of course, will affect the results. On one end of the spectrum lies the tracing of curious resemblances among otherwise isolated words, motifs or customs, and the urge to weave around these an intriguing narrative, either of primitive origins, long-distance cultural contact, or deep genetic relationship.1 The nineteenth century's fascination with atomistic and often obscure comparanda gave way in the twentieth century to a more dependable tendency to compare total structures, linguistics leading the way to the other end of the spectrum, with anthropology trailing some decades later.2 Neither method was specifically designed for the study of verbal art, although Frazer's great work was prompted by a scene in Vergil's Aeneid and Levi-Strauss's best-known article starts with the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles. Yet the philologist studying ancient or medieval texts has much to gain from a controlled use of ethnographic comparisons of both types-those based on telling Frazerian detail (now once again in fashion) as well as those concerned with global structures.3 In fact, a twenty-first-century philology without strong affiliations to social anthropology, folkloristics, and performance study is increasingly untenable and in danger of exhausting itself on hermetic quests into the endlessly inter textual.4

An explication of two puzzling passages, one ancient Greek, the other medieval Irish, can illustrate the advantages of comparing old texts and modern cultures. My approach in this paper will be quadrilateral: modern Greek evidence illumines the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; ancient Greek social practices can shed light on the medieval Irish Scela Muicce Meic Datho; and a famous modern Irish poem might be fruitfully reconsidered along the way. Underlying this approach is one key assumption: that typologically similar institutions often generate similar rhetoric and poetics.5 That is to say, the details of the individual document or performance (the object of one sort of ethnography) can be brought into touch with larger structures (objects of a different sort of anthropology) so that we do not lose sight of either end of the data spectrum and we end up clarifying both in the process. Where our evidence from premodern periods is patchy and unsure, as is often the case with Greek and Irish materials, we can still look to mutually illuminating models for performances, ancient, medieval, and modern.6 Such models do not "prove" anything about the texts in question, but might provide better hypotheses-all that one can ask of most investigations.

First, the ancient Greek conundrum, a passage that was controversial already in the third century BCE.7 In Book Four of the Odyssey, the hero Menelaus, now safely home from the Trojan War, reminisces, for the benefit of his young guest Telemachus, about the exploits of Odysseus in the final days of the siege. He recalls how his own wife, the exquisite Helen, nearly ruined Odysseus's plan of the Trojan Horse through a strange feat of ventriloquism-or so it seemed-enacted on the night that the Greek heroes lay hidden inside, waiting to make their sneak attack.

Three times you walked around, handling the hollow ambush;

You called by name the best of the Danaans,

In voice resembling all the Argives's wives.8

Only the determination of Odysseus, claims his old friend, prevented the warriors with him inside the Horse from crying out in response to Helen's near-fatal provocation. This extremely odd behavior by the Spartan queen has usually been connected with Helen's alleged resemblance to a sorceress, as scholars attempt to translate her adeptness at drug administration into something more sinister. Yet there is no other evidence to point the audience in that direction. …

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