The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
that Wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy Reign
the Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
whose Limbs unbury'd on the naked Shore
devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
such was the Sov'reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove.
-- From the start of The Iliad, translated by Pope
There are two eternal literary questions:
- Did Shakespeare write any or all the plays attributed to him
- The Homeric Question (actually a mini-series)
- When were The Iliad/The Odyssey written?
- Did Homer write either/both of them?
- How were they composed?
Is There Any History Behind the Homeric Epics?
There are also non-literary Homeric problems, including the dating of the Trojan War. Two other important questions are whether or not the Trojan War is real and whether or not we know where it might have been fought. Archaeology Guide Kris Hirst examines these in her two part Homeric Questions feature beginning with this week's Part I: The Discovery of Troy. Heinrich Schliemann is the man associated with the discovery of Troy, but what he thought was Priam's Troy turns out to be wrong.
Logistics of Epic Recitals
For a generation being raised on Netflix© it will not seem strange that the Greeks would actually sit through eight-hour festival performances of drama for several consecutive days. My family enjoys a marathon Harry Potter series now and again. But I suspect even today it would take a feat of superhuman patience to sit through the three eight-hour days it would take to listen to a single poem like the The Iliad. How could one human possibly recite the entire work?
In 1935, Milman Parry [*] of the Harvard Classics Department determined to prove The Iliad and The Odyssey were oral performances. Alfred Lord continued his work in Singer of Tales. Some of the Homeric problems he sought to address were:
- Did writing exist in the 9th century B.C.?
- The Great Homer Nodding: If one person wrote it, why were there so many inconsistencies?
- How were the poems preserved until the time of writing?
Lord explains that the singer of the epics was also their performer, composer, and poet; that the epic is re-written -- recreated -- in each performance, so the poem is not memorized. Irregularities, repetitions, and formulas help oral poets improvise the traditional stories. Lord also believes that even if Homer had been literate, he would have dictated to a scribe.
The Performance of Homeric Epic
"We can be certain that Homer did not use writing to plan his texts. He included frequent summaries and predictions of events partly to help him solidify and recall the plan of his story, and his numerous catalogues of warriors served in part to establish in his mind who was to be killed off in the next few hundred verses."Didasklia's Richard Janko [**]"Thunder but no Clouds: the Genesis of the Homeric Text") argues that The Iliad and The Odyssey were written by different men, but this is less important as an Homeric question than "what kind of text we are dealing with."
Dictation of the Epics
Basing his analysis on Parry and Lord's investigations of Bosnian oral poetry, Janko believes the minor irregularities of meter, inconsistencies of plot, and near-repetition suggest that Homer recited the epics to a scribe.
Janko believes (because of the discovery of new alphabetic inscription dated to 800 B.C.) The Iliad was written between 775-750 B.C. while The Odyssey was written a little later, but both before the other great Greek epic poet of the Archaic period, Hesiod.
Homeric Poetry and Its Significance for the Modern and Ancient Worlds
"His style has the rapidity and directness of youthful utterance. Yet his metre is complex, his language is richly ornate, and in content his thought is highly sophisticated. This seeming contradiction can best be explained if we remember that he stands at a pivotal point in the evolution of Greek society from a preliterate to a literate condition. He is a poetic pioneer in having his work transmitted in the brand new technique of alphabetic writing, while at the same time he stands as the last great heir to a centuries old bardic tradition of oral verse."
John Luce, in Classics Ireland's [***] "Homeric Poetry and its Significance for the Modern World," argues Homer's works date from shortly before 700 B.C. Much of the article states how much Homer means personally to the author. Luce doesn't think The Iliad is overly gruesome and believes that for history to become real for modern readers it must be made into poetry. He also reminds us that Herodotus believed Greek theology came from Hesiod and Homer, and that Aristotle claimed poetry was more philosophical than history.
Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi
"... the social and material realities of Homer's world are not of the Bronze Age, the middle Iron Age, nor are they a melange, but reflect closely the eighth century B.C., once one has taken into account the poetic need to create 'epic distance'."
Barry Powell, in Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi?, traces scholarly arguments on dating Homer. He questions the conventional placement of Homer in Ionia, suggesting, instead, that even if Homer came from Ionia, the epics were probably transcribed in Euboia, which was not only the seat of culture, but the site of the earliest Greek alphabetic writing.
Background to Homer and Epic Poetry
The Classics Department at the John Burroughs School[****] explains the Separatist vs. Unitarian arguments on the questions of Homer's authorship and the problems with using Homeric epic as reliable history of the Mycenaeans. The site also provides information on the socio-political background of the epics and the archaeological evidence for the Trojan War.
University of Saskatchewan's The Iliad as Oral Formulaic Poetry
John Porter argues that The Iliad could not have been written before the eighth century because the art of writing wasn't imported from the Near East until 800-750 B.C.
Porter discusses the stylistic oddities in composition of The Iliad which were once thought to prove the author's genius, but are now (since the work of Lord and Parry) believed to be the result of dictated composition. Because epithets and stock phrases appear to be the result of generations worth of oral poets, in a sense The Iliad is not the work on one man.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says the following about Homer:
"This appears, because the time when those lived who went to the Trojan war, so many years afterward, is in great doubt, and great inquiry is made, whether the Greeks used their letters at that time; and the most prevailing opinion, and that nearest the truth, is, that their present way of using those letters was unknown at that time. However, there is not any writing which the Greeks agree to he genuine among them ancienter than Homer's Poems, who must plainly he confessed later than the siege of Troy; nay, the report goes, that even he did not leave his poems in writing, but that their memory was preserved in songs, and they were put together afterward, and that this is the reason of such a number of variations as are found in them."
-- Flavius Josephus Against Apion i.2
The Discovery of Troy
The Great Homer Nodding
Tale of Troy or Iliad?
Odysseus the Stranger
Notes[*]http://www.missouri.edu/~csottime/biblio/bib_p.html > [Accessed 09/01/98]
[**]http://didaskalia.open.ac.uk/issues/vol3no3/Janko.html > [Accessed 09/01/98]
[***]http://www.ucd.ie/~classics/97/Luce97.html > [Accessed 09/01/98]
[****]http://jbworld.jbs.st-louis.mo.us/classics/fwl/Homer/homer_background.html > [Accessed 09/01/98]