Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond
Homer was poor. His scholars live at ease,
Making as many Homers as you please.
And every Homer furnishes a book.
The Iliad and the Odyssey, traditionally attributed to Homer, may be the greatest epics in Western literature, but no one really knows where they came from. The inquiry into this mystery—the effort to establish who composed the epics, and how, when, and where—is called the Homeric Question, and it remains one of the most actively cultivated fields in classical scholarship. Gregory Nagy of Harvard has now given the question a new answer.
The modern period of Homeric studies began with the publication of F.A. Wolf’s Prolegomena to Homer in 1795.1 Wolf proposed a revolutionary theory: the society in which the Homeric poems originated was, like the one that they describe, illiterate. The poems were composed as songs to be heard, not read, by an audience as illiterate as the poet himself. But, Wolf continued, the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have them are of a size and overall unity such as (1) could not have been created without the aid of writing, and (2) could not have been apprehended except through reading. Illiterate Homer, therefore, could not have given the poems their present shape: he must have composed episodes of two thousand lines or so, enough for a satisfying evening’s entertainment. The picture given in the Odyssey itself was thus in all essentials correct:
The herald came near, bringing with him the excellent singer/whom the Muse had loved greatly, and gave him both good and evil. She reft him of his eyes, but she gave him the sweet singing/art…. [The gathered nobles] put forth their hands to the good things that lay ready before them./But when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking,/the Muse stirred the singer to sing….
The episodes thus performed were orally transmitted by Homer’s successors. Someone later, in an age of writing, noticed that with a little editorial patching and pasting the episodes could be put together to form a unified, large-scale structure, and that is the origin of our Iliad and Odyssey (about sixteen and twelve thousand lines, respectively).
Wolf’s was a seductive theory, but its elegance concealed a paradox that returned to haunt Homer studies in this century: the size and artistry of the Iliad and Odyssey were, according to Wolf, too great to be the work of an illiterate oral poet. The defects in that unity, on the other hand, were judged by him glaring enough to betray the poems’ origins in the stitching-together of previously autonomous, orally composed episodes. For Wolf’s theory to hold, in short, the poems had to be too good to be oral, but too bad to be literate.
Working out the distribution of good and bad occupied the next century of Homeric scholarship. For example, a typical assumption was that Homer, in prehistory, composed a first-rate poem about…
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