Comments on an Essay: Pietro Pucci’s Banter and Banquets for Heroic Death

For my senior thesis project, I have decided that I will probably be focusing on the role of food, feasting, and memory in the Odyssey, although exactly where I am going with this idea is still to be determined. To get me started, my thesis advisor recommended several sources, including an essay entitled Banter and Banquets for Heroic Death by Pietro Pucci from his book The Song of the Sirens: Essays on Homer because of its possible connection to my topic.

It focuses on the Iliad, not the Odyssey, but what it says about banquets may still be useful to me. The main argument of the essay, as far as I understood it, is that the Iliad is a self-reflective text that points to the inherent instability of the kleos, or fame/rumor, which is represented by the very genre of epic poetry of which the Iliad itself is a part.

Pucci’s evidence is the famous speech of Sarpedon, the Lycian king and ally of the Trojans, to his fellow warrior, Glaukos. In this speech, Sarpedon asks why they, the aristocratic noblemen of their society, are given such grand banquets where the best food and drink are served and why such fertile land is apportioned to them. The answer is that they fight on the front lines so that they can earn glory and people will speak well of them.

This essay points out the paradoxical nature of this speech. It is unclear whether the Lycian people are suspicious of Sarpedon’s kingly kleos, which means he needs to risk his life in battle to defend his image, or whether they truly believe in his glorious image, which means that he needs to live up to it. Either way, epic poetry cannot stand on its own merits; the Iliad shows that it must find a way to validate itself.

At the end of his speech, Sarpedon explains that death surrounds all men at all times, and so, he and Glaukos ought to risk their lives in battle for fame and glory. That is, life is short, and therefore, the danger of battle is worth it, if one hopes to attain kleos that lasts beyond death.

The paradox of this, as Pucci explains, is twofold. First, what is the purpose of all those benefits of being a great king (banquets, land, honor, etc.), if Sarpedon is, contrary to this grand and noble image he possesses, merely a frail mortal? Second, if death truly is everywhere around us, why should we feel the need to worsen the risk of death by engaging in battle, especially if the fame we earn is drawn into question by the Iliad itself?

Pucci’s point seems to be that the Iliad allows the dignity and humanity of Sarpedon in challenging death to shine through, while simultaneously undermining the kleos he may earn in doing so. Yet, as a part of the genre of epic, the Iliad itself is the report of the fame Sarpedon has earned.

I only explained above as much as I could understand of what Pucci wrote in his essay. There were actually entire sections of his argument that did not completely make sense to me because of his rather dense and overly theoretical writing style, with complex and technical logical steps that did not always appear to be clearly explained.

In my mind, the purpose of a Homeric scholar is to explore and then reveal the meaning hidden within the works of Homer. He or she, in explaining that meaning, should make completely clear the truly lasting power of these ancient epics. But I think that scholars too often become lost in their own fields and end up obscuring the power of Homer behind theoretical, academic language.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are poems of humanity’s essence, filled with important and fascinating observations on the world in which we live, yet there is a barrier around the study of these poems which makes it hard for an ordinary person to grasp those ideas.

Pucci makes some very good, useful points in his essay, and I do not doubt that he has a great passion for Homeric scholarship. But I fear that the impact of many of his wonderful ideas have been lessened by the difficulty readers may have in figuring out his dense language. This means that fewer people will be able to access and enjoy the deeper meanings of the Iliad or Odyssey, which is a terrible shame.

A side note: strangely enough, the other of Pucci’s essays that I read, called The Song of the Sirens just as the book is, does not seem to suffer from this issue! Although his thorough analysis of the Sirens’ song in Book 12 of the Odyssey is somewhat technical, it never completely loses the reader. The main thrust of his argument–of how the Odyssey makes reference to the Iliad through the Siren passage–makes quite a bit of sense.

So, even though I am not a Homeric scholar (although I may be someday!), I have made a goal in my own writing to ensure that what I am saying remains absolutely clear at all times. On this blog, which is written for a general audience, that includes not only making sure that all my points are fully and logically explained but also writing out summaries of the plot details which may not be known to everyone.

In essays written for professors, fellow students, or anyone who is familiar with these works of ancient literature, there is no need for extensive plot summaries, but otherwise everything I write needs to make complete, logical sense. At no point in time should anything ever become unclear to a reader, whether due to confusing leaps of logic or overly sophisticated language. The reader’s understanding is of the utmost importance.

That, at least, is my opinion on the matter. If you have dedicated your life to the understanding of literature that you believe is significant, one of your responsibilities must be to ensure that others can more easily grasp that knowledge. This is not always possible, since often scholars are writing for other scholars in an exclusive field, but nevertheless clarity in writing is always an admirable goal.

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