Epic Singers and Oral Tradition
Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet
The visitor to the library of the classical faculty at Harvard sees many photographs of past professors, almost all imposing, bearded figures; so imposing are they that it comes as a rude shock when one remarks that many of them have no very notable achievements to their credit. But among them one finds one youthful, strikingly handsome face, and it is the face of the most celebrated of all. No American classical scholar of the twentieth century has won higher praise than Milman Parry, who was born at Oakland, California, in 1902 and died in 1935.
By the common consent of readers over nearly three millennia, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer contain poetry of the highest order. But they have certain features which the taste of many later ages finds perplexing, if, not repugnant. They contain numerous repetitions, including the regular use of certain standard epithets to describe particular persons; readers of Proust will recall the embarrassment and annoyance caused by Bloch’s tiresome habit of imitating this kind of thing in conversation. They also contain a number of real or apparent inconsistencies, so that it is not surprising that the eminently rational eighteenth century asked some awkward questions about them. The French, in particular, asked awkward questions, and the most notable attempt to answer them came from a German. In 1795 the great scholar Friedrich August Wolf1 argued that Homer was an oral poet, ignorant of writing. He lived, Wolf thought, about the middle of the tenth century BCE, and his poems suffered many alterations and expansions before being written down as late as the sixth century. From then on many scholars analyzed the epics into the parts written by Homer and the parts supplied by others. Most, like Wolf, placed Homer at the beginning of the process, but some placed him in the middle. Others defended the essential unity of the two epics against the analysts, and this state of affairs continued until well inside the present century.
Milman Parry put forward a theory which placed the old battle between analysts and unitarians in a new perspective. Educated at the University of California at Berkeley, he obtained an MA there with a thesis containing the gem of a theory which he later worked out in detail at the Sorbonne, where he gained the degree of Docteur des Lettres with two treatises published in 1928 in French, and later elaborated in a series of articles published in America in English.2
The names accompanied by their regular epithets—Achilles swift of foot, Hector of the flashing helmet, Agamemnon king of men—are not the only repetitions that occur in Homer; many phrases, and sometimes whole sequences of lines, are repeated in the poems, sometimes in identical form and sometimes with minor variations. Various elements of his theory had been anticipated by other scholars, but Parry was the first to argue convincingly that these and other features of the style, meter, and dialect of the poems indicated that they…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.