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Between traditional possibility and impossible reality: compressed mímēsis in Homeric poetry

The aim of our project is to explore how and why the mimetic character of Homeric poetry (famously argued in Chapter 1 "Odysseus' scar" of Eric Auerbach’s 1946 book Mimesis) is often combined with poetic features and narrative details that actually clash with a realistic representation of an event. Such cases arguably reveal that, during their oral-traditional performances, Homeric poets compressed formulaic and thematic materials from a variety of “traditional possibilities” memorized during multiple previous performances, and they did so precisely to achieve mímēsis, that is, a fully perceptible re-enactment of stories. In our interdisciplinary investigation, we apply the cognitive notion of compression to textual analysis. We work on the narrative correspondence between two thematically close texts from the Homeric Greek corpus: a major section of Iliad 24 – describing Priam’s visit to Achilles to ransom his son’s corpse – and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter – the most famous version of the Greek myth of the goddess Demeter’s search for her abducted daughter Kore-Persephone. The correspondences between a series of incongruous details in the poetic and narrative features of these traditional texts index the compression of several traditional themes, including a “catabatic” narrative theme (a literal descent to the land of the dead) that is also detectable in mythological accounts composed in other Indo-European languages, such as Old Norse. The integrated methodology that we propose may thus be employed both for research on the texts of a single tradition and for comparative analyses of texts from multiple traditions.

Riccardo Ginevra