Research in France on Homeric εὔχομαι since the publication of Leonard Muellner, The Meaning of Homeric EYXOMAI Through its Formulas, 1976

2021.01.23 | By Leonard Muellner

§1. My revised doctoral dissertation (degree awarded in June, 1973) was published under the above title with revisions in January, 1976, and has been available online since 2017. Before it was written in 1972-1973, five detailed studies of the word had appeared, each of them taking and defending a different point of view on the meaning of the word in Homeric poetry and on its etymology and the evolution of its meaning over time. In the introduction to my work, I said that such a divergence of opinion “points to a crisis in methodology,” given that the methodology of all of five studies was more or less the same, with the exception of the last one, by Jean-Louis Perpillou (“La signification du verbe εὔχομαι dans l’épopée,” Mélanges de linguistique et de philologie grecque offerts à Pierre Chantraine, Paris, 1972, pp. 169-182). Perpillou took the important and otherwise unexampled step of classifying all the attestations of the verb into three “groupes, selon les circonstances dans lesquelles se trouve le sujet au moment où il accomplit l’action signalée par le verbe” [“groups, according to the circumstances in which the subject finds himself at the moment when he accomplishes the action signaled by the verb”]. The definition of the groups is somewhat circular, since it requires that a determination of “the action signaled by the verb”, the very thing that is in question, be part of what determines the “circumstances in which the subject finds himself.” The method of previous researchers had been either to use the dictionary definitions as a classification scheme, another circular procedure, or to make intuitive hypotheses about the word’s meaning and then verify them in a selection of examples. With such a methodology, there is no objective way to arrive at a preference for one set of results as against another, if philological methods are reasonably well-applied in all of them.

§2. I chose to do something different, namely, to take into consideration the research undertaken by Milman Parry and Albert Lord from 1928 to the 1950s on the diction and composition of Homeric poetry. First was Parry’s internal analysis, in his doctoral dissertation, of Homeric diction, of name + epithet combinations functioning in an economic, extensive system; then fieldwork by Parry and his student, Lord, in the former Yugoslavia and Albania, collecting songs composed in performance by illiterate singers in peasant communities. Their research started from the notion that the language of epic was “entirely composed of formulae handed down from poet to poet”.[1] This fundamental insight was quoted by Parry in 1923 from Indo-European linguist Antoine Meillet, who had been the president of the jury that judged Parry’s dissertation in 1928 and who wrote the first review of Parry’s dissertations in that year (Bulletin de la société de linguistique, 29, fasc. 2, pp. 100-102; see Charles de Lamberterie, “Milman Parry et Antoine Meillet,” Hommage à Milman Parry, ed. F. Létoublon, Amsterdam, 1997). What Parry and Lord demonstrated through their fieldwork is that poetry composed in performance is the product of a poetic language based on the spoken language for the composition of metrically correct lines in performance and learned like any language by young people from an early age who try and try again: in other words, it is a system, to use the term that Meillet and his friend, Ferdinand de Saussure, had described, a self-contained system like any other language, but one that functions to produce poetry in a traditional style and rhythm.

Antoine Meillet, Milman Parry, and Albert Lord.

§3. Instead of trying to figure out the meaning of εὔχομαι by classifying its usage contexts into groups defined by the situation of the subject or by a lexicographer’s criteria, I began by classifying the attestations of εὔχομαι by their metrical position and phraseological context, by formal criteria that are a function of the poetry’s compositional system, or, to put it more simply and in the words of the title of my work, “through its formulas.” The formulas, contexts, and contents of the attestations fell into three groups, one sacral, to introduce or conclude prayers; a second secular, consisting of self-identifying or self-asserting statements by a subject in introducing oneself to strangers or asserting oneself on the field of battle; and lastly, describing the dispute in the legal scene on Achilles’ shield, the only attestation in a legal context that survives in Homeric Greek, Iliad 18.499. The analysis of these groups demonstrates unequivocally that the formulas for the verb εὔχομαι are distinct in meter, phraseology, and even syntax when it comes to the sacred as against the secular usages. For instance, the verb only takes a dative indirect object when it is being used in a sacred context, to designate the god or gods to whom a prayer is addressed; in the secular context, the formulas never specify an addressee in the dative, even though battlefield boasts and self-identifying statements are always addressed to at least one other individual. Furthermore, it turns out that there are only five instances when an expression that falls into the secular or the sacred category migrates into the context of the other category, and, in all but one of these, the manuscripts record a multiform that replaces the word εὔχομαι, usually with the compound verb ἐπεύχομαι or a form of the verb εὐχετάω, so as to mitigate the anomaly. Why create such a variant form unless the tradition was sensitive to the otherwise strict separation of the formulas’ contexts, a separation that no critic has even known of before my work? The sole exception to the generation of a mitigating multiform in such a case occurs in an attestation of what is demonstrably the oldest of the word’s formulas, εὐχόμενος ἔπος, an expression with precise cognates in Sanskrit and Avestan (see Muellner, pp. 127-130; Émile Benveniste, Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, v.2, Paris, 1969, p. 236, discovered the Sanskrit and Avestan cognates but not the Greek one). That formula always introduces battlefield self-assertions, except once (IIiad 10.461) where it is attested introducing a prayer. In that case, it must be an archaism that predates the separation of the sacred/secular formulas in Homeric diction (Muellner, pp. 133-134).[2] None of these constraints against the crossover of formulas from sacred to secular makes any sense unless there was a semantic difference between the words for the singers in these contexts.

§4. On the other hand, the central thesis of Perpillou is that a secular and quasi-legal sense (assertion of a “droit revendiqué” [“a right laid claim to”]) of the verb εὔχομαι was primary and that the two others, the ones thought to be sacral as against those that can be grouped together as secular, are not derivatives from the secular/legal one but simply manifestations of it: “rien ne distingue alors de façon décisive les deux emplois” (p. 175). As a result, he concludes (p. 177) that the word “n’est [pas] un terme religieux” and that there is no formal or functional distinction between any of the three contexts in which it appears. In its use to introduce or conclude prayers in Homer, “l’important n’est finalement pas le dieu en tant que tel, mais la reconnaissance du droit revendiqué par le sujet et de son point de vue” [“The important thing in the end is not the god as such but the recognition of the right claimed by the subject and his point of view”], p. 176. But the view espoused by Perpillou that nothing distinguishes the word’s meanings in the secular from the sacral contexts is incompatible with the result of my formulaic analysis, which, to repeat, demonstrates unequivocally that the formulas for the verb εὔχομαι are distinct in meter, phraseology, and even syntax when it comes to the sacred as distinct from the secular usages (there is only one attestation in a legal context, and so specifying it as a formulaic model for the others is not possible). If the point of view of Perpillou about the meaning of the word being uniform across all its attestations were correct, there would be none of the formal distinctions that are clearly in force for the formulas of this word.

§5. Without taking account of this argument, Perpillou wrote a generous and complimentary review of my own work on eukhomai (Revue de philologie, de littérature et de l’histoire anciennes, v.53, 1979, pp. 311-312). In it, he offers a collegial response to my remarks on his work, alike in spirit to my response to his. Although the publication date of my monograph was 1976 (January), I had written my dissertation and was about to submit it in the spring of 1973, which is exactly when the work of Perpillou came to my attention, as I explained in footnote 10 on p. 11 of my monograph. There I state that the bulk of the chapters in the dissertation was complete by then, and that I had added responses to the work of Perpillou in my monograph, which was a revision of my dissertation. So, I dispute at least the first part of the contention by Danièle Aubriot-Sévin (p. 206) that Perpillou wrote his work “avant Muellner et avec plus de précision.” Perpillou and I wrote our works at about the same time and unbeknownst to each other.

§6. The large and detailed work of Aubriot-Sévin, entitled Prière et conceptions religieuses: en Grèce ancienne jusqu’à la fin du Ve siècle av. J.-C., was published in Lyon in 1992 and contains a thirty-page discussion of the verb eukhomai in Homer. It features a heated defense of the work by Perpillou and an attack on mine that goes far beyond the “disagreements” between us, as Perpillou had called them in his review. Aubriot bases her study of prayer on the theoretical approach of Jean Rudhardt, a Swiss scholar of the history of Greek religion who took a radically sceptical view of the possibility of understanding Greek religion (Notions fondamentales de la pensée religieuse et actes constitutifs du culte dans la Grèce antique, Genève, 1957), on the grounds that the possibility of understanding a polytheistic system from the point of view of a monotheistic one is next to impossible. As a result, Aubriot discusses the concept of prayer in ancient Greece expressing serious doubt (p. 251) about the notion of reciprocal exchange, on the grounds that it is appropriate to Roman but not to Greek religion. What to make of such a refusal? Reciprocal exchange is a world-wide as well as an Indo-European phenomenon, described in a classic work of anthropology by Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le don: forme et raison d’échanges dans les sociétés archaïques, Paris, 1951 (translated by W.D. Hall and published in English as The Gift, London, 1990). On the centrality of this work by Mauss for the study of all Indo-European cultures, I can refer to Émile Benveniste, “Don et échange dans le vocabulaire indo-européen,” in Problèmes de linguistique générale, Paris, 1966 (pp. 315-326). In a striking example, Aubriot goes so far as to call the reciprocal exchange transactions (all of which feature the word ἄποινα) in Iliad 1, 9, and 24 as ‘rachats’ (‘buy-backs, ransoms’), p. 206 and n.29, instead of exchanges, the term that Mauss uses for economic activity that predates the creation of money, of the existence of a medium of exchange. “Rachat”, on the other hand, is a term that brings with it an ethnocentricity all its own. And Aubriot never mentions the research of Parry or Lord in connection with her research or mine, though she does so, and with scepticism, in regard to the earlier relevant work of André Corlu, asserting in a footnote that the words she is examining have “escaped” formulaic composition (p. 302) and that, in any case, the work of Parry does not suppress “la liberté du poète … au moins dans certains cas” (p. 303, n. 23), a point of view that she shares in fact with Perpillou, who speaks of formulas as encumbrances that the poet needs to break free from (p. 172, “le moins sujet à l’expression formulaire,” “encombrée de répétitions formuaires,” etc.). I should note that the distinction that Perpillou and Aubriot both make between formulaic composition and poetic “freedom” is a questionable assumption, as the work of Parry has systematically and explicitly shown, starting with his doctoral dissertation. 

Marcel Mauss. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§7. In view of the skepticism on the part of Aubriot about what are, in my opinion, the ubiquitous institutions of reciprocity in Homeric epic, and also in view of the fundamental misunderstandings that she and Perpillou entertain about formulaic language, it is not surprising that her extended critique conveys errors of understanding on her part rather than genuine or constructive critiques of my viewpoint.

§8. For instance, from the beginning of her work and in the critique that stretches from page 200 to page 230, she claims that my concept of prayer in Homeric epic is based on a mistake: in her words, my work “insists” on the “lien consubstantiel” (p. 18, p. 200) between the three elements “prétendus canoniques” of prayers that are either introduced or concluded by εὔχομαι. Aubriot attributes their “consubstantiality” to me because she wants to demonstrate that there are many prayers in Homeric poetry that are missing the elements that she claims I consider “canonical” and “consubstantial.” In the five pages that I devoted to this subject (Muellner, pp. 27-31), I described Homeric prayers as examples of composition by theme, citing (Muellner, p. 27, n. 21) the terminology and examples in Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, Cambridge 1960, pp. 68-98. I showed that there are three standard elements in prayers introduced by εὔχομαι, but, as is typical of oral traditional poetry, the presence or absence of these elements are conventions that can be manipulated for expressive purposes. I treat examples of one-line prayers and prayers that are missing each of the elements, and I tried to demonstrate that the changes being rung are always for expressive purposes.

§9. Here is another example, having to do with reciprocity, where Aubriot attributes to me a notion that, in prayers, the person praying is in an adversarial relationship to the divinity, something that she claims does not really exist (p. 211-212, “attenué au point qu’on ne le discerne guère”). I make no such claim; I stated that prayers usually include a statement that the person praying has a claim to be heard by the god because interaction with divinity is based on the assumptions of reciprocity: accordingly, the person praying claims to be either doing something for the god at the present moment (like sacrificing animals) that merits an exchange from the god, or promises (=vows) to do something of the same nature in the future that merits an exchange, or has in the past done something that merits an exchange. Any of these three justifies asking for a gift (often using the verb ‘to give’ in any of these cases) in exchange. The assumption of a reciprocal basis for prayer makes sense of the existence of the three elements of the prayer without favoring any one of them. As a result, I contend that the verb εὔχομαι does not mean ‘invoke a god’ or ‘offer a favor to a god’ or ‘make a vow to a god’ or even ‘make a request to a god,’ but it does designates the sacral speech addressed to a divinity as an ensemble that conventionally includes all three. Perhaps that is what Aubriot has misconstrued into a statement about elements that are “consubstantial” to each other, like the elements of the Holy Trinity, but my intention was to be inclusive rather than rigid. The work of Lord that I cited might have clarified the situation for her. I do entertain the possibility that praying could be agonistic speech in Indo-European, in that the person praying is competing with others for attention from the gods, and in this connection I cite (p. 135) four Rig-Vedic hymns and the studies of Louis Renou on Vedic prayers that exhibit a competitive character on the part of the poets, all of which use the noun vāghát– for the poet, which is cognate with εὔχομαι (Theme II of the root, according Benveniste’s Indo-European morphology). So my point in this area was about the Indic tradition and the etymology of the Greek term and is not even relevant to the discussion of Homeric prayers in which Aubriot introduces it. 

§10. Another overall point of the critique of my work by Aubriot and her defense of the position taken by Perpillou is that there are secular speeches in Homeric poetry that contain the three elements that she claims I consider obligatory in prayers and that are not introduced or concluded by the verb εὔχομαι, citing as an example Iliad 2.157-165, in which Hera addresses Athena and orders her to restrain the Achaeans from leaving in their ships. But the speech of Hera is a speech made by one goddess to another, whereas all the prayers designated by the verb εὔχομαι are made by a mortal to a divinity or would-be divinity. Moreover, the speech by Hera is just an example of the regular interaction between these two goddesses, who often work together, with Hera giving orders and Athena carrying them out, so although Hera ‘invokes’ Athena, she does not request anything of her and there is no reference whatever to reciprocal obligations; in a way, they are two sides of the same coin. There is no real parallel here, in other words, to the structure of a prayer introduced or concluded by εὔχομαι. Aubriot (p. 215), speaking on behalf of Perpillou, claims that, if she can find a speech with the structure of a prayer that is actually a secular utterance yet is not designated by the verb, that proves that utterances that are actually designated by the verb εὔχομαι are secular as well. Her example simply does not support it, and it would not be a strong argument even if the speech was more like a prayer. She also points to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, lines 92-106, Anchises’s speech to Aphrodite, which is a much closer approximation of a prayer in terms of its contents, except that the divinity is actually present and being addressed face-to-face — at line 91, the speech introduction specifies it: ἔπος τε μιν ἄντιον ηὔδα ‘he spoke a word to her face-to-face’, and the speech is presented as an expression of his desire for her, an effort at seduction, not a prayer. I know of no example of a prayer to a god who is physically present before the petitioner; the closest thing is the “prayer” of Achilles to his mother in Iliad 1.352-357, but, as I showed and as Aubriot apparently approves (p. 144, n. 70), the usual εὔχομαι formula to conclude his speech is removed in favor of an expression of grief, ὣς φάτο δάκρυ χέων ‘so he spoke shedding a tear’. So hers are interesting examples, but they are examples that prove the rule rather than counterexamples of secular content identical to prayers that are somehow or randomly not designated by εὔχομαι.

§11. One last example will suffice to make clear the sometimes heated tenor of Aubriot in her vigorous defense of Perpillou in her treatment of my analysis of the legal attestation of εὔχομαι in the description of Achilles’ shield, Iliad 18.499-500:

499      …ὁ μὲν εὔχετο παντ᾽ ἀποδοῦναι
500      δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὁ δ᾽ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι

500 πιφάσκων is attested in place of πιφαύσκων in some manuscripts

She qualifies my translation of Iliad 18.499-500 as “une solution ambiguë” (p. 205), offering a translation of it into French, “L’un déclarait avoir tout payé … l’autre refusait de rien recevoir.” What I wrote is “One man was saying he paid [the ποινή for a killing] in full, the other [the victim’s kinsman] was refusing to take anything” (Muellner, p. 106). I had stressed the translation of ἑλέσθαι as “to take anything” as opposed to the translation “to receive anything” (Muellner, p. 102), but at least she cites my English in her footnote. Aubriot also relegates to the footnotes a crucial point in my exegesis, regarding the word μηδέν in line 500, namely, that it is the only instance of that word in the whole Homeric corpus, so it is to be understood as an unspeakable and therefore very disturbing and expressive word. The second party to the dispute wants no part of any compensation. The translation that she chose to provide is an abbreviated one in that it omits my translation of the phrase δήμῳ πιφαύσκων in the Greek text. Right before providing the translation that she cites, I had been explaining that the verb πιφαύσκων here and everywhere that it occurs is in free variation with πιφάσκων, an iterative/factitive form of the verb φημί ‘to say’, so a full and correct translation of what I actually provided is “One man was saying he paid [the ποινή for a killing] in full, speaking/making a show to the dēmos, the other was refusing to take anything whatsoever.” I explained that the “dispute is whether the relative of a murdered person specifically must take the compensation offered” in exchange for the life lost, and that this is a legal version, if you will, of Achilles’ rejection of the ἄποινα ‘compensation’ offered to him by Agamemnon in Iliad 9. I cited the difficulty about accepting such compensation expressed by Ajax, who says how one must “restrain one’s manly kradiē (‘heart’) and thūmos (‘spirit’)” (Iliad 9.635) to do so, but he also stresses that Achilles is refusing to accept the compensation even though it is “merely for a girl” (Iliad 9.638-639) — this despite the fact that Achilles had earlier made clear that Briseis is a woman whom he loves and cherishes (Iliad 9.342-343) the way that any decent and prudent man loves his wife, even though he won her with his spear. At this point, Aubriot compliments me for seeing that the passage has a relationship to the poem as a whole, but then says that “on a la surprise de voir la traduction infirmée en quelque sort par le commentaire” [‘one is surprised to see that the translation is in some sense weakened by the commentary’] … comme il (= Muellner) a bien senti les limites de l’interpretation ainsi impliquée et aperçu les liens qui unissent cette scene au thème entier de l’Iliade, [‘since he sensed the limits of the implications of his translation and perceived the links that tie this scene to the entire Iliad’], il a biaisé et mis en relief grâce à son commentaire ce que sa traduction eût pour le moins caché, c’est-à-dire qu’il s’agit non pas de declarer avoir tout payé, mais de prétendre régler la question en payant tout” [‘he played a trick and made clear thanks to his commentary what his translation had at the very least hidden, namely that it’s not about declaring to have paid everything, but about affirming that he ended the problem by paying everything.’]. In fact I had in mind no such deceptive thought process: taking my cue from the Linear B parallel, the only parallel to this legal context of εὔχομαι, in which the first party to a dispute about land tenure /eukhetoi/ while the second /phāsi/ ‘says’, and in which the Homeric text’s εὔχετο is immediately glossed by πιφάσκων/πιφαύσκων ‘saying/showing’, my goal was to translate strictly on the basis of the evidence before me, although it might not be as clear as one might hope. One last point: I am in total disagreement with the interpretation that Aubriot and Perpillou offer of this text. Achilles is utterly refusing to accept compensation for a life — his own, in this case — in a way that deserves profound respect, whereas Perpillou and Aubriot think that Ajax’s point is that Achilles’ rejection of the embassy is “scandaleuse”. This is because they believe that the poem is not about the problems of an economy based upon reciprocal exchange — despite passages like Iliad 9.406-409, an exemplary text on the nature of exchange value, where Achilles makes it clear that no compensation, no matter how huge, can retrieve one’s psukhē once it escapes the barrier of one’s teeth — but for them, instead, it is all about rachats, about buy-backs, indemnisation, and about what they claim should have been a negotiation about financial compensation for a life (Aubriot, p. 207). I find this mercantile interpretation to be inaccurate, anachronistic, and chilling.


[1] Milman Parry, The Traditional Epithet in Homer, in The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. A. Parry, Oxford, 1971, p. 9 (=L’epithète traditionelle dans Homère, Paris, 1928, p. 10), citing A. Meillet, Les Origines indo-européennes des mètres grecs, Paris, 1923, p. 61. The passage continues, “An examination of any passage will quickly reveal that it is made up of lines and fragments of lines which are reproduced word for word in one or several other passages. And even lines, parts of which are not found in another passage, have the character of formulae, and it is doubtless pure chance that they are not attested elsewhere.”

[2] Some might object to this interpretation of the exception on the grounds that Iliad 10 is “spurious” or “late,” but it contains otherwise unattested archaisms, like the description of the boar’s tusk helmet, and see in general the commentary by M. Ebbott and C. Dué, Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush, Cambridge, 2010. I also found previously unnoticed intertextual links between the Homeric Odyssey and Iliad 10 (Muellner, pp. 96-97 and n. 43 on Odyssey 14.463).



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