Monday, February 29, 2016


M. L. West, Hellenica: Selected Papers on Greek Literature and Thought. Volume III: Philosophy, Music and Metre, Literary Byways, Varia. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 513. ISBN 9780199605033. $150.00.

Reviewed by Edith Hall, King's College London (

Version at BMCR home site


Martin West died very suddenly on July 13th 2015, leaving a hole in the lives not only of his family but of countless former students, colleagues, and academic correspondents all over the world. There can't be a reader of BMCR who has not used his editions of Hesiod and archaic Greek poetry, his work on the Ancient Near Eastern elements in Greek culture, or (my personal favourite) his readable and breathtakingly learned Ancient Greek Music (1992). He was a kind and helpful examiner of my doctoral thesis in 1988 and ever afterwards found time for a coffee and help with the latest on musical papyri, enhanced by punning conversation. I had asked to do the BMCR review of this book before his death, and apologise for the delay in writing it.

It is the final volume in the three-book set Hellenica, containing a 'selection of ninety or so of his most notable papers relating to Greek literature or thought'. It is an index of his productiveness that this last volume contains a list of dozens of other articles he published that have not been included. Volume I was devoted to early epic and Volume II to epic and tragedy. Volume III assembles thirty-five pieces—eleven on broadly philosophical topics, ten on 'Music and Metre', and fourteen under the heading 'Literary Byways, Varia.' They are of different lengths, ranging between two and thirty pages. They have been published over a period of four decades. It is remarkably difficult to tell from the prose and argumentation how old most of them are, so distinctive and consistent were West's lucid prose, common-sense approach to all cultural artefacts, and lack of interest in ephemerally fashionable theory. Given that almost all the articles reproduced here are available elsewhere, the Hellenica project, with its reams of unapologetically untranslated ancient Greek and high price tag, does prompt reflection on the whole tradition of the publication by elite University Presses of Great Men's Opera Minora. But in this case, the author's personality and sheer intellectual versatility, as well as the inclusion of some hard-to-access pieces, makes it enjoyable to read the volume straight through from beginning to end.

Although the first article in the 'Music and Metre' section, 'The Transmission of Ancient Greek Music: Then and Now', has been supplemented since its first publication in Classica 2004-5, and West made small changes and corrections in other chapters, the only article in the volume that has never been published before is 'The Date of Zoroaster' (ch. 5). Here he attempts to date the commencement of the Zoroastrian religion practised by Darius I and his descendants. Some scholars have pushed the life of the eponymous founder of the religion, Zoroaster himself, back to as early as 1000 BCE. Yet it is not possible to be certain even that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian. West's linguistic comparison of texts in Old Avestan with Vedic hymns reveals that Zoroaster's 'own' prose style was strikingly replete with abstract nouns and complex subordinate clauses, making it unlikely that his date can be pushed back earlier than the eight century BCE; West prefers the seventh. Since this fits with both what we known about the Achaemenids and the Jewish identification of Zoroaster with Ezekiel, West's finding here is unlikely to prove controversial. But, as ever with this dazzling polyglot, ordinary classical Hellenists unskilled in Avestan etc. are ill equipped to do more than admire his erudition and accept his findings.

West was aware that identifying a single unifying theme amongst the contents of this volume was hopeless. In his Preface, he admitted that it had caused pain to his 'artistic spirit to have to give a volume so limp and sprawling a subtitle as this one has', but that it was the result of not having channelled his work 'more purposefully and into fewer fields.' For those of us who like reading West, however, the very diversity, the fascination with esoteric philosophical ideas, the attraction to eccentric and bizarre or even absurd detail, are part of the charm. Reading this volume sometimes feels like reading a far more rigorous Athenaeus: good examples are chapter 8, in which we learn about the obscure Petron of Himera (known to us only through Plutarch's de Defectu Oraculorum), who believed that there were one hundred and eighty-three universes, chapter 9, which argues about how Plato spelt katoptron ('mirror'), and ch.10, which alters just one word (albeit an important one) in Aristotle's On Coming to be and Passing Away. Best of all for the lover of arcana is West's text and analysis of the Hebdomadibus attributed to Hippocrates, which sees the number seven in almost everything, from the structure of the material world to the seven ages of man. The volume is worth acquiring for this excellent text and commentary alone.

West's classic and relatively conventional survey of the Presocratics (ch. 2, originally published in The Oxford History of the Classical World (1986), rubs shoulders with his riveting argument in ch. 4 that the Greek Orphics got the idea of the Cosmic Egg, parodied so beautifully in Aristophanes' Birds, from the Phoenicians; he offers us a wonderful picture of Eudemos sitting in a Rhodian port talking to 'Sidonian' sailors about such eggs, and takes seriously Eusebius' accounts of Phoenician traditions, acquired through Philo, propounded by the purported authority Sanchuniathon of Beirut. The sensible opening essay, 'Towards Monotheism', irons out (to my mind, slightly too many) complexities in early Greek cosmogonic strife, but nevertheless sustains a plausible argument about the drift away from polytheism at least in the Mediterranean part of the planet. Yet the seminal account of Alcman and Pythagoras, published in 1967 only a decade after the emergence of PMG fr. 5 iii, with its delightful material on Greek and Babylonian sea goddesses and chthonic spirit gong rituals, shows an adventurous intellect experimenting with new models of analysis. We catch a glimpse of West's own expertise in astronomy in 'The mighty Planet' (ch. 6), which takes off from the mysterious heavenly body Mesonyx mentioned by Stesichorus (PMG fr. 259) on a whirlwind tour of the night skies as descried in archaic and classical Greece, before persuasively arguing that 'Midnight' could be the title of several ill understood planets at that time, including Jupiter and Saturn. I enjoyed even more the paper 'Cosmology in the Greek tragedians', which we are endearingly told was 'originally delivered in a French restaurant in Tokyo', with its exploration of tragic characters' and choruses' cosmological statements, for example when the wanderings of the hero are a recounted by the chorus of Euripides' Heracles Mainomenos. Who knew what a variety of meanings the noun aither could have in the tragedians, including Polyphemus' halitotic breath in Euripides' Cyclops?

The middle section provides treats for scholars specialising in ancient music. The expanded ch. 12, on transmission, contains indispensable comments on early Greek musical annotation, the difference between signs for singers and those for instrumentalists, and their vestigial presence in the papyri; there is also a colourful word-picture of Heraclides Ponticus, listening to Lasus of Hermione's Hymn to Demeter in the Hypodorian mode. West had a splendid ability to bring life to obscure individuals, with intellectual peccadilloes, in remote corners of the Greek world. He is happy to write himself into humorous stories, too: this chapter contains enticing glimpses of a concert performance of ancient Greek music he once attended in Brazil. Chapters 13-14 discuss when the word pektis began to mean 'panpipe' as well as (or instead of) 'lute' and the precise structure of the 'eleven-stringed lyre' notoriously mentioned in a passage of Ion (of Chios?) fr. 32 West. One of the most important chapters in the volume is 15, West's excellent commentary on P.Hibeh 13, a crucial text for ancient music studies, variously attributed to Hippias or Alcidamas, which discusses the Harmonikoi, music theorists who had absorbed Damon's notions about the ethical effects of music on the human soul. This is followed by an article arguing that P.Oxy 1786, an anapaestic Christian hymn with precious musical notation, is Greek rather than Syriac in origin, and the witty 'Music Therapy in Antiquity.' The latter makes a serious contribution to our understanding of the medical standing of music in antiquity while introducing us to some of the most charming anecdotes in West's entire oeuvre: my favourite concerns the women of Locri and Rhegium, who heard disembodied voices. The cure prescribed by the oracle was the singing of a paean twelve times a day for no fewer than sixty days. Presumably not much time was left in sufficient silence for disembodied voices to make themselves heard any more.

The general reader will find some of the papers in the third section heavy going, especially the four metrical pieces, chapters 18-21. But a much wider audience will be attracted to chapter 22, 'The Greek Poetess: her Role and Image', the first English translation of West's substantial survey of evidence for female composers of poetry in the ancient Greek world, originally published in German in 1996. There is some fascinating material here on chorus-leader-turned-composer Telesilla of Argos, and unfamiliar female figures like Eriphanis, the traditional inventor of a certain kind of pastoral ode called the nomion, mentioned in a fragment of Aristotle's pupil Clearchus. There are interesting observations on the more familiar ancient women poets—Sappho, Nossis, Erinna and Corinna. But West is fundamentally sceptical about ancient women's opportunities for learning musical skills (more attention to vase-painting evidence and inscriptions recording female instrumentalists might have tempered his minimalist case). If any ancient male author ever questions whether a work was by a woman—as Athenaeus questioned the authenticity of poems attributed to Erinna, or doubts were cast on the Praxilla of Sicyon's claim to have composed paroinia, drinking songs—West always believed the negative rather than the positive testimony. Although there is now considerable evidence for women's epic in traditional societies in parts of Africa and south- east Asia, he insists that that this was out of the question in ancient Greece: 'That a woman could have produced such a poem in that society is inconceivable'. His tone here is wearing, and compounded by the dismissal of several fine studies in the first footnote as 'feminist-dilettante', and, near the end, the lumping together of 'feminist essays' and 'erotic fiction' as a category distinct from the work of 'serious scholars'. This may have been acceptable academic discourse twenty years ago, and one must remember that West spent most of his adult life inside Oxford colleges and thus largely protected from shifts in wider public sensibility. This article will be helpful, but for the wrong reasons, in teaching 'Women in Ancient Greece' courses today.

Yet the remainder of the volume is a joy. In chapter 23 we are treated to an unanswerable case that Aphrodite's name originated, appropriately enough, in the language spoken by Cypriot Phoenicians; the fairly recent study of rhapsodes at festivals in chapter 24 illuminates some neglected inscriptions showing how far these prestigious professional musicians travelled on the competitive circuit; chapter 25 is a reproduction of West's classic 1967 article on 'The Contest of Homer and Hesiod'. His equally influential studies of Aesopic fables, Ion of Chios and Erinna follow, before four brief but compelling notes on P.Oxy 4762 (perhaps a mime about a woman having sex with a donkey), Longinus and the Ancient Near Eastern gods, imperial acrostics and the parallels between the diction of Proclus and the 8th Homeric Hymn (to Ares). Chapter 34 reproduces a rather bland obituary for E.R. Dodds and a markedly charitable one for Hugh Lloyd-Jones. The final chapter consists of a collection of obiter dicta—both published and unpublished—which remind us how buoyant and witty West always was as a conversationalist—'Profound thoughts are not created by presenting obscure thoughts obscurely' is one of my favourites, although it is just beaten into second place by 'Oral poetry has inspired much anal prose.' Priceless.

1 comment:

  1. The penultimate quotation seemed awfully flat and redundant for West.

    It should read: "Profound thoughts are not created by presenting simple thoughts obscurely."

    A textbook anticipatory error.

    Truly "Philologie ohne Textkritik ist eine nichtige Spielerei".


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