Thursday, January 23, 2014


Egbert J. Bakker, The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the Odyssey. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 191. ISBN 9780521111201. $90.00.

Reviewed by Jeremy McInerney, University of Pennsylvania (

Version at BMCR home site


This is a wonderful book. Concise and succinct (barely 200 pages cover to cover), it manages to use the matrix of sacrifice, feasting, division of meat and consumption as a lens through which to examine the entire complex range of ideas and values that constitute the world of epic. Rather than reducing the Iliad and Odyssey to poems about cattle, Bakker deftly employs the relentless presence of cattle episodes to reveal the nuances lying within the poem. Arguing for the centrality of the feast, not only in relation to the internal world of the Odyssey but to the poem's realization as a work of poetry, he argues that 'the poem comes to encompass its own setting, making the banquet itself one of its important themes.' (xi) The first chapter demonstrates quickly but conclusively that meat is central to the culture of the heroic world, and the resonances between sacrifices and feasts, from Pylos to Ithaca, emerge as both a leitmotif and a central organizing principle of the Odyssey. Some of this material will strike knowledgeable readers as familiar, especially since Suzanne Saïd's work of the late 70s, but any scholar building an argument has to do due diligence, as it were, and Bakker has a genius for distilling the major trends of recent scholarship.

An early highlight, and the subject of chapter 1, is Bakker's beautifully lucid treatment of the tension between epos and aoidê. Exploring this creative tension, Bakker presents the hero of the epos becoming, notably in the Phaeacian episode, the aoidos. The result is a striking example of shifting narrative viewpoints with the result that "the hero becomes a poet, epos is posing as aoidê, and the poem's extended audience merges with the Phaeacians in Alkinoos' hall." Since the chapter also treats oral composition and considers the importance of formulas echoing other episodes, such as the invocation of the Muses in the Catalogue of Ships, what emerges in this chapter is a subtle reading of a poem in which there are really two threads of narration taking place, recursively informing each other and our reading of both.

Chapter 2 again covers some familiar territory. Here Bakker treats the nostos as a type of quest. Along the way the reader is introduced to discussions of oral composition, as well as analytical approaches. Bakker reveals a firm grasp of folkloric and narratological studies, yet, as in the first chapter there is nothing mechanical or clumsy about his use of Aarne–Thompson or Propp. Instead, this should be read by anyone interested in seeing how an original thesis can profit from engaging with theoretical discourses from other fields. What Bakker produces is a reading that moves well beyond seeing repetition as simply the result of Parry and Lord's 'formulaic necessity.' Bakker's own words put it beautifully: 'The numerous narrative sequences function as transparent sheets placed on top of each other in a diaphanous layering that allows not only to see the considerable overlap between the various tales, but also the ways in which each multiform can highlight or shade over a given feature or theme.' (34)

The third chapter represents a slight but understandable digression, as Bakker develops his case for the centrality of the feast. This involves dealing with empirical studies of meat production and feasting, as well as discussions of feasting as a social institution. Recent work, such as James Wright's superb collection of essays, The Mycenaean Feast, are duly noted, and armed with this material Bakker is able to revisit some familiar topics: the feast as a channel of communication between the human and divine, the consumption of meat as a test of heroic manhood, and the juxtaposition of 'near economic reality' (of scarcity) and 'far paradisiacal abundance', a tension which Bakker sees as a source of 'narrative energy.' (51) Some quibbles suggest themselves at this point. Bakker's discussion of heroic feasting does not consider Andrew Dalby's nice suggestion that the emphasis on heroic meat-eating is an instance of wish- fulfillment aimed at an audience of subsistence farmers, and the long afterlife of heroic feasting as a subject of derision (think of the gluttony of Herakles) may shed some light on the hold of this idea on the imagination of the audience. This section might have been enriched by a fuller discussion of Euboulos fr. 120: the fragment as cited in the chapter's epigraph is relatively anodyne, noting only that Homer never has the heroes eat fish, but the rest of the fragment fairly explicitly links their gargantuan taste for meat with similarly outré sexual appetites.

Chapter 4, 'Of Hunters and Herders', sees Bakker continuing to walk the tightrope between an analysis of the poem that is tightly focused on recurring narratological patterns and linguistic repetition, and a wider frame of reference that incorporates the dichotomies of hunting and pastoralism as well as the contrasting realms of the wild and the domesticated. Here the influence of Walter Burkert is pronounced, but Bakker is in a creative dialogue rather than following slavishly. He recognizes that Odysseus is a type of Master of the Animals, but also explores the apparent contradiction of a figure whose domain is usually in the wild now appearing as the master of domestic resources, firmly situated in the world of human culture. Juxtaposing the Cyclops episode to Odysseus' confrontation with the Suitors, Bakker analyses both and brings them into alignment as matching explorations of themes of justice, consumption and the obligations of hospitality and reciprocity. At the level of close reading this works very well: Odysseus, who has entered another man's dwelling (the Cyclops' cave) and plundered his goods will make his escape tied under the ram's belly; the Suitors, who have also entered another man's house (Odysseus' palace) and plundered his goods will not escape but are bound by the 'cable of destruction.' There is still room for a broader investigation of shifting Iron Age and Archaic conceptions of, and anxieties over, the intersection of wealth, consumption and the social institutions that manage these, and this results in a couple of surprising omissions (Kurt Raaflaub, Leslie Kurke), but the discussion is still energetic and informative.

Chapter 5 is largely devoted to the Circe episode and the Nekyia. It is no surprise to find catabatic elements in other sections of the poem, but Bakker's analysis is bold. He lays out the Neoplatonic reading of the transformation of the Companions as an allegory for the failure of reborn souls to progress towards a greater degree of enlightenment, but instead of looking back to the Odyssey from later antiquity, he proposes looking back from the Odyssey to the other, earlier societies on the edge of the Greek world, specifically in the Black Sea region. He suggests that, '… instead of the Odyssey foreshadowing the tenets of the philosophers of late antiquity, we may want to look at some of the ways in which the poem reflects belief systems of societies that preceded it.' (80) What follows is a rich discussion of the web of themes—abundance, meat-eating, cannibalism, solar and astronomical associations, the Master of Animals, mystical marriage—that Bakker sees as evidence not of casual similarities between the Odyssey and the epichoric myths of the Black Sea region, notably centred on Dæl and Samzidari, but of direct borrowings. This is teased out in sections on the yearlong feast and a comparison of Circe's treatment of the Companions and the fate of the Suitors. The poem, in Bakker's hands, is revealed to be a delicate fugue of recurring motifs, each instantiation of which enriches our reading of the episodes before and after.

The following chapter explores these substrates more fully. Astronomical references relating to Odysseus' departure from Ogygia and his return to Ithaca are followed up, revealing a layer of associations involving festivals of the new moon, and suggestions that the voyage of Telemachus reflects a journey of initiation. Bakker is mercifully free of the literal-mindedness that marred such approaches one hundred years ago, and instead we encounter what Bakker rightly calls the 'complex semantics' of Odysseus' return. His Odyssey is not a hodge-podge of misremembered references to forgotten rituals (or non-existent in the case of Robert Graves' feverishly imaginative reconstructions of early Greece) but an enormously rich meditation on the complexity of consumption and the anxieties that shape the human experience of meat as commodity, product, food and medium of exchange. The figures of Helios and Circe emerge as variations of the Master of Animals, figures around whom the poem structures its treatment of domestication and pastoralism and the associated ideas of fertility and abundance. Bakker notes the interesting relationship of real world and mythical conditions—50 cows make up the ideal herd dependent on a bull in both epic and modern breeding manuals—but he never pushes these details reductively. Instead, they add to the richness of the poem's reality. In chapter 7 Bakker focuses on atasthalia, and teases out further the structural similarities of the fate of the Companions and that of the Suitors. Here Bakker must engage with a century of scholarship confronting the apparently unfair punishment of the Companions who are pushed to the edge of starvation and virtually compelled to their act of impiety. Bakker's approach is to perform a meticulous close reading of various imprecations addressed to the gods, revealing that our knowledge of whether justice has been distributed and our prayers answered is always post factum. A signal contribution here is the distinction Bakker draws between the punishments inflicted by Zeus and the wrath of Poseidon. Exploring the two gods and their impact on the plot he finds two visions of the divine in conflict, with a more primitive set of values derived from the Epic Cycle and centred on the guileful and scheming Odysseus being ameliorated by the treatment of the Homeric figure. As Bakker sees it, the poem plays out this tension by pitting Zeus against Poseidon in a struggle never fully resolved. Chapter 8 covers material familiar to readers of Bakker's scholarship, who will recognize a reworking (fully acknowledged) of Bakker's 2010 article on the gastêr in the Odyssey. Using the associations of the gastêr not only with consumption and appetite but also disguise, Bakker teases these out to reveal yet more fruitful tensions in the poem: cunning versus force, generosity versus deception, gastêr versus thumos. Once again, dichotomies invite reduction; Bakker resists the temptation. Instead we find the heroic code being juxtaposed to and supplemented by the prosaic, belly-driven demands of heroes as 'real' men. This complex nexus of associations is especially fertile when applied to the parallels between Odysseus and Achilles.

Bakker's entire work relies upon a series of finely observed repetitions and allusions. Since this necessarily demands that the analysis stake a position in relation to the work of Parry and Lord and more recent studies formularity and metre by Nagy (among others), Bakker has decided to write a separate methodological statement in the epilogue, entitled 'On Interformularity.' It is succinct, detailed and successfully articulates a view of the poems that blends the best of the oral tradition and the literary. Bakker finds that "the reality of Homeric composition and transmission seems to be better captured by the idea of recomposition in performance, which turns each new performance of the poem into a conscious quote of the previous one." (169) All in all, a splendid book and a significant contribution to our understanding of the poems Bakker admirably describes as 'unique and best.'

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