Writing Homer

A study based on results from modern fieldwork

By Minna Skafte Jensen

It is unknown, of course, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, since, in general, no reliable contemporary description of how these two epics came into being is to be found. Such sources as there are - first and foremost, the two poems themselves - must be interpreted in a comparative framework built on experience from societies in the modern world that are in some respects similar to archaic Greece in order to reach a coherent picture of the process. The oral-formulaic theory, formed by Milman Parry (1902-1935) and Albert B. Lord (1912-1991), not only revolutionized Homeric studies, but also had an impact on anthropology and folklore. This led to an increased interest in oral epic traditions, and fieldworkers changed their methods towards a focus on composition in performance. The individual singer and his handling of the tradition gained importance. When possible, more than one performance of the "same" song was recorded - by the same singer on different occasions or by different singers - and interaction with the audience was documented. Traditions of the oral epic still exist in many parts of the world, and, during recent decades, quite a few of them have been documented and analyzed by innovative fieldworkers, leading to an overwhelming expansion of accessible knowledge of how oral epic works. Writing Homer explores what this means to the Parry-Lord-theory in general and the 'Homeric Question' in particular. The relationship between the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Homeric Hymns, with the tradition of which they are part, can now be described with much more precision than before. It turns out that there is nothing unusual in very long oral epics; what is unusual is that such poems are recorded in writing. The process by which this must have taken place is discussed in detail. Old problems, such as the fact that neither illustrations of Trojan stories nor early 'quotations' agree with the written poems, can be solved. Writing Homer achieves a deeper understanding of the methods at work in the oral epic for building a likely social context of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and especially for speculating on the circumstances of the writing of the two great poems. Long oral narratives are flexible, and accordingly, the dictation to scribes that must be at the origin of the texts, which have been preserved in writing to this day, was a process of the utmost importance as was the composition in performance of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Writing Homer is directed at classical scholars, but will also be of interest to a much broader readership: folklorists, anthropologists, and whoever enjoys reading Homer in Greek, as well as in translation.

Publication Date: 8/1/2011
Format: Paper
ISBN: 9788773043615