Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Olga Levaniouk, Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies, 46. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2010. Pp. x, 368. ISBN 9780674053359. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site

This successfully revised Harvard dissertation, already mined for several papers, delivers an engagingly (if less than perfectly) presented reading of the image-packed negotiations between Odysseus and Penelope on the eve before crunch time. These elaborated up-close exchanges challenge every succeeding dialogue in narrative ever produced; book-length study needs no apology. Levaniouk signs up as confirmed 'oral poetics of myth' Gregorian Nagyar devotee (her supervisor, now editor), with quotes and references studding her text at most every turn; but the thrust of her book is surely to valorize Penelope's corner in the interactive rhetorical bidding between queen and bum.

True, introductory and concluding chapters stake out the return of myth-ritual analysis (in Burkert style) and oral- traditional 'parallels' fringe the exposition passim (to the usual suspects of Vedic through Irish epic and modern Greek folksong, add Uzbek saga), but Levaniouk deploys a bunch of disarming modifiers to keep us all in the frame⎯even when she is treating us to resurrected/revenant 'solar myth' ('Be that as it may …' is particularly effective). But for most readers her main score is over Archery at the Dark of the Moon (Norman Austin's classic targetting of the Odyssey on the same Eve) and comes from her handling of 'recognition' as foregrounded cooperative-competitive interaction of intimate gendered powerplay calling on micro-contextual tactics within the frame of envisaged outcomes.

Levaniouk herself shows no interest in the stakes of narrative theory, but her respectably self-aware position comes close to recognizing that 're-cognizing' is in the air for both protagonists and for readers (if not to re-cognizing 'reading' as the appropriate name for this venture). As the couple take turns to get together through speechifying they dare progressively less covert pledges which will however require a successful outcome on the morrow for them to obtain: with the armature of topoi possessing 'resonance' in the culture imaged for an Ithaka storied for Greeks, the couple play at allusive myth-making short of avowal, charging up the grand story for imminent detonation. The story that follows here picks out the rhetoric in the mythopoeia, indicating the chief Odyssey topics and Eve's lines of interpretation, interspersed with comment.

Part I inspects Odysseus' input (pp.21-189). The 'Third Cretan Lie' is contextualised within Books 17-19 (and counting) in fine detail. Except that Levaniouk first allows her king-in-rags to 'talk straight' because as a king he can bespeak 'ruler's truth' when he butters up the queen by not not saying he is a, and her, king, and back, here, now; whereas the Odyssey always lies with truth as much as it tells true with lies (pace pp. 26-7). Penelope's 'meltdown' reaction signals chelidonism associatively⎯a slushy note of lament plus a tingling touch of eroticism, and dab of runny song (p.29).

The choice of speaking name 'Aithon', for heat, appetite, stop-at-nothing, returning exile/guest out for revenge, takes a chapter; so too all three components of the iD as 'Idomeneus' younger brother from Crete', dubbing into the mix Zeus, kingship, lightning, justice, plus overtones of disinheritance, Odyssean 'sliding of age-markers', a touch of Hermes, rival suitoring, and rejuvenation. The net of pertinence stretches wide to admit 'Apollo', youth who destroys youths, in reckoning with 'the strange re-doubling of Odysseus' coming of age' (pp.79-80) ⎯as if it can! So to 'Minos', Zeus' oaristus and the mythotopia of Crete in the poetics of renewal: (re-)birth caves, Odysseus' delivery by Leucothea⎯to Scherie, roving past Kouretes and roaming on to Theseus, with temporary respite before (so many signs of spring about to be sprung) all debouches in the decisive showdown.

Next disguised Odysseus' pretend identikit for Odysseus, the 'Cloak', gets personal, in that (only) husband and wife will both recognize what description of his guise would amount to revelation/re-veiling; and heavy, in that implicit resentment at usurped status elicits the explicit pledge of return 'this very lukabas' which provokes a premature offer from his braggart wife to re-dress the guest to look his finest in an uncool and unrepeated 'lapse' (19.324-6) that he must refuse, out loud so they can both hear, so she can coolly read him as worth recognizing, 'pepnumenos'⎯after he proves it by regaining his status and then accepting bath, bed, dinner- jacket, son, wife and throne. Levaniouk weaves bright dress-code patterns, the niceties of pharos, chlaina, chiton, from Nestorian 'purple and woolly', through fit prizes at maturation games (à la Jason), to kit for tests of manhood and wedding-party-festival costume (and so to…Apollo). A tailpiece tag-on dilates on Burkert at Lemnos, starring the Odyssean pilos of Hermes and the Cabiri. Still more insistently close-up is the tell-tale 'Pin': golden, and sporting the dog who's got the fawn, as our beggar in deerskin topicalizes the image-repertoire of hunting, hitching and switching hunter to hunted through suggestive similes, dangled microthemes and duck-rabbit tableaux. Get it, she gets it, must she not? Some keepsake.

Odysseus makes an obiter point of, and by, supplying 'Eurybates' for his fictive self's herald, after Agamemnon's. Along with a string of 'wide boy' connotations, of Kerkopian roving robber jokesterism and (Odyssean) escapology, come cues a-plenty to follow up on riddling ephebic Peter Pan with ree Autolycan Hermes roguery.

Finally, beyond the Cretan Lie, recognition by Eurycleia features the 'Boar Hunt on Parnassus' saga, as incapsulatory mise en abyme and as active agent moving along congruence between Odysseus and Penelope. The insulted 'piggy' in the midden beggar, who wore the boar's tusk helmet at Troy and along with Idomeneus bagged the boar simile there, will turn at bay from the thicket/hiding upon the swinish huntsmen suitors currently hogging his herd. As adolescent initiand Odysseus apes the Meleagers, the Adonises, but in re-claiming manhood and wife, the latter turns to broach the topic of her marriage, and takes over.

Part II rustles up Penelope's web of wiles (pp.193-318). Do the pair's dialogic performances dovetail as a parade of bardlike inventiveness duetting in responsive versatility for the intimate moment back home on Ithaca capping the foil of the male self-heroization monologue in company away out in Scherie? Sure they do. Levaniouk's chapter on their 'Conversation' spots alteration in the tenor of the exchanges after the incident at the footbath. Winkling him out and tipping him the wink, Penelope's double whammy emphatically befriends her vagabond visitor, then roundly denies that Odysseus will ever return. He obliges by moving his king into strike position: close, alive, begging, i.e. hoovering up a killing, riches to fill their chest, soon as maybe⎯ 'this month', indeed, 'this interlunium', even, this 'Eve''s shoot for Apollo's tomorrow, and…Geronimo! (If this book entertains any punning play anywhere with Eden's Eve, it beat me.)

But tonight's only the Eve, so (I submit) this can only crank up pressure into stark stalling stale-mate: Levaniouk shows exactly how Penelope's threefold refusal of the mouthing of 'prediction oaths' establishes for us that, for the run-in, both of them now know he must mean to go all-out for the 'impossible' revenge-return we are here for; and so she must no way mistake words for deeds, however felicitous the conditions met by this hombre's speech-acts: Nursey can swear it's him, point at the scarry guy for all she's worth, but Penny can't look in case she's seen seeing for certain and forfeits her reserve by talking straight, by blowing it. Still later, in Book 23, Penelope does look long and hard at Odysseus, but in unquestioning silence, before bidding Nursey to make up Odysseus' bed outside…(pp.210-11). Crucially, before the shoot-out, it does neither of them any good to hook up.

So Levaniouk reads Penelope as by now definitely assuming this is Odysseus; their 'second conversation' gets past melodramatics and onto a deviously buried programme of practical suggestions that end the book. First, she brings on 'Aedon' for her quizzical mythic analogue, in either story we know the dangerously crazed mother of a single son, at snapping point, ready to kill (even if that does for) her boy (too). More howl than dirge, this impro nightingale's song pledges do-or-die powerplay at hand. As before (4.812-13), 'cares' drive⎯goad⎯her into action; but no call this time for a ruse through Laertes: Odysseus is back (p.228)!

The 'Dream' dreamed up by Penelope smartly buries that desperado bird with a gaggle of geese eating up her housekeeping before the eagle has landed to wipe them out: she will now question Odysseus⎯but only on how to read this; then instead she keeps the lead by actualizing her hypotyposed substitute Odysseus to tell them both 'he's here right now, and no that's not dreaming' (hupar, yet not yet clear daylight, p.244). Winged words indeed! And vagrant Odysseus's job is just to 'get it'. Levaniouk explores both accipitrid fabulation and Traumwerk reportage as performed ruse, muthos, and poesie; and plumps for twenty geese as one for every year away and now one suitor to peck tomorrow 'and counting' (Od. 19.484 etc. + 16.246: pp.231-4). Parabolic glee when Odysseus joins in by joining in with (the eagle's) Odysseus telling them both it's in the bag, down to the last suitor (19.554-8).

This decides the 'Decision' to go ballistic now Odysseus is (he says 'will be') back in time to take a bow. Penny won't be drawn to break cover (maids may always be snooping) but completes her book of lonesome lament wishing the lady and her tramp could stay put all night together, and skip bed, hers, his…, their bed. Taking a leaf out of Homer's Proppian 'Delay' function, Levaniouk steps in, to jam the narrative at battle stations by 'Back' tracking 'to the Loom' (this pun intended) and dealing with Penelope's most substantial contribution. Back, that is, in Odysseus' stretch, where we came in: 'No, I do not like my king likening me to a king'. This womban is, then, ruling her roost⎯as heroic webmistress of fort-da renewal-undoing imaged as 'shroud'. Here Levaniouk resists promotion of a specially 'Penelopean' poetics (on disappointing grounds: p.261n.11) but, spot on, bigs up the success-component within the concept of 'weaving' a work (p.267, tolopeuo, of war, of honour).

With the 'Pandareids and Festival of Apollo', Levaniouk spans between Aedon 'daughter of Pandareos' and Penelope's elaborately mythotherapeutic prayer to Artemis that she headline in a remake of those other 'daughters of Pandareos', orphaned, vengeful, about to make divinely-blessed brides when blown away to serve the Furies. This must figure the brink on which she is excruciatingly poised⎯dreaming, she says, of sleeping beside her, exactly as back before he left. The moment, this, to track all leads from these gods and heroines towards Apollo, cult and ritual.

And to press 'Penelope and the Penelops', too, for divers 'divers' among bird myths and beyond: Alcyone, Aedon, Meleagrides, Pleiads, so Ceyx, Phaethon, and…Apollo. For the 'Conclusion' was always bent on 'the festival… position[ing] within a larger system of mythic and religious thought the very themes that are fundamental to Penelope and Odysseus' (p.318). All comes to a head when this Apollo festival gets to warrant proposal of a performative setting for the epic at some vernal coming together⎯agonistic prelude to a wedding? Somewhen marked 'ritual' anyhow⎯in further Nagyland.

Let's see: as the filmscore climax acts out, that loud-as-Bollywood trumpeted heliotropic saga the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel certainly stages the (Indo-Aryan) Rajasthani festival of Gan-gaur celebrating (the) marital bliss (of Gan and Gaur) between the Jaipur and Udaipur local variations, but it also brings together at package- destination 'Marriage' a multiverse of Neuropean dreams of a Second Lease of Life; it uses the setting: accordingly, what this reviewer finds special about the Odyssey are its differential specifics (esp. all that follows from plugging like nobody's business the paradox that nobody can marry their wife/husband) rather than that it can be fitted within any galaxy ('symphony', p.18) of tales/rites the world over. There may be sense, or sport, in shooting for 'fundamental and pervasive patterns present in some rituals and some-myth-ritual complexes', but 'not only shar[ing] some socio-biological origins with various mythic complexes, but also enter[ing] into contact with them' (ibid.) is, let's say, strictly for Levaniouk's birds.

1 comment:

  1. Would the Learnéd Gentleman from King's College, Cambridge, entertain the respectfully offered suggestion that he refrain from reviewing for BMCR when he has been smoking whatever he was smoking when he reviewed Ms. Olganiouk's book. I further suggest, respectfully, that the LG from King's College get a copy of Richard A. Lanham's "Revising Prose" and (re)read it until he has internalized Lanham's prescription for writing clear and readable English.


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