Who Wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Nates asks a set of questions on a recent thread about Joyce and Homer:

I still find it odd to think of the Odyssey (or the Iliad, which I know much better) as a communal text. I don’t disagree with the claim; I just find it an odd truth–and a difficult one to explicate. I mean, I get that it’s drawing from a common store of mythical tales, but clearly you mean more than just that. (Many modern authored tales do that much.) At some point, someone had to write the full story out for the first time. And he (presumably) did so in a skilled way, producing a narratively and thematically unified work. Maybe you could say a little more about what makes it an essentially communal work. In other words, what’s the Homeric version of Joyce’s letting language speak itself?

One way to respond to this concern: argue that one person – HOMER – wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Or, to use a joke I heard James Redfield deploy expertly: “it was written either by Homer or another man of the same name.”  This argument is fairly simple: these texts are extraordinarily long, and remarkably rhetorically, linguistically and structurally coherent and consistent.  One person, who had access to pen and paper, had to have written them.  We have a manuscript tradition that gets us not back to Homer himself (we have no autographed manuscript), but gets us back to people who we have reason to believe thought their texts credible.  What anomalies exist within these manuscripts is the subject of abstruse and arcane study, study which discerns to distinctions between original composition and interpolation.  The goal of Homer scholarship, on this view, is the discernment of that original manuscript’s contents.

This is traditionally called the “unitarist” answer.  It’s the one that, it seems, we all have sentimental attachment to (myself included).

There are problems with this answer, however.  For one thing, if Homer existed, we know nothing about him other than that he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The “Homer was a blind bard” idea is a traditional interpretation of the fact that a blind bard (Demodocus) appears in the Phaeacians sequence.  He sings a tale of the Trojan war, and Odysseus begins to cry.  Demodocus is described as blind, and so we understand this to be Homer writing himself into the epic, making a cameo.  But this, of course, comes nowhere close to establishing that Homer was blind.  And the rest of the would-be biographical leads on “Homer” are just as problematic.  There’s just no credible piece of evidence (and both sides agree on this) that tells us anything about Homer’s biography.  This problem, by the way, has been recognized at least since Plato’s time.

The mystery of “Homer” has led to all sorts of hypotheses which attempt to explain it.  I’m going to describe one very interesting anti-unitarist position, one described in several books by Gregory Nagy: principally, Homeric Questions and Homeric Responses.  Both of these texts are fully readable online through those links.  They’re not that long, and there are worse ways to spend a few hours some afternoon.

I’m not going to try to polemically defend Nagy’s view: I don’t know enough about Greek or philology to do that.  I read a set of polemical back and forths between him and Martin West, whose 1998 Greek edition of the Iliad was the occasion a Nagy review that contests West’s whole project.  If you then locate West’s reply to this review (I can’t track this down right now) and then Nagy’s reply to that (ditto) you can get a decent sense of the argumentative terrain.

For now I’ll just lay out Nagy’s view as I understand it, without quotation.

Nagy seeks to explain the paucity of evidence about Homer’s biography with a simple explanation: we know nothing about Homer the man because Homer the man never existed.  “Homer” is not a person, Homer is a eponym for a tradition of collective authorship.

So if there was no “Homer,” how did the Iliad and the Odyssey get created and come down to us?

There are several key steps on the timeline from antiquity up through the present:

Step One – Purely Oral Composition and Performance Phase: a group of poets, much like the 20th century Serbo-Croatian poets observed and aurally recorded by Lord and Parry on record and cassette tape, orally compose and recount poems in dactylic hexameter, telling tales of the Trojan war.  Two very important observations about Lord and Parry’s theory of oral composition.  First, these poems are not “memorized” and “recited”: they are recomposed in each instance.  Second, these poems are also remarkably consistent and very rule-bound (they’re not just random different stories each time).  There is a set of regularities that exist between two tellings by one poet, and also between one tale told by two different poets.  So if we imagine a hypothetical community of poets, they’re all telling a tale they think of as “the same” tale: the Iliad, the story of the fall of Troy.

Within this telling, there are only so many moves you can make: there is a well-defined succession of themes (with some variation).  There’s the fight between Achilles and Agamemnon, there’s the catalogue of ships, the embassy scene at Achilles’ tent, the disguised leadership and death of Patroclus, the battle between Hector and Achilles, the recovery of Hector’s body by Priam, etc.  Every poet uses these “themes” in roughly the same order.

And within each “theme” there are a limited set of “formulae” that can be used.  Each character, for example, has a finite set of epithets that can be used to describe him/her, usually based on what position in the poetic line needs to be filled.  When the stories are told, each poet recombines these formulae in subtly different ways, but they’re also extremely similar, much more similar than if you just asked two people to summarize a book they had both read.  It’s really hard to demonstrate what I mean here without quoting Greek and explaining its case system, as well as explaining how strict dactylic hexameter is.  Suffice it to say that the meter is restrictive enough that there are only a few different ways to express a given thought.  There are many line-long formulae that repeat over and over again, and those are thought of as times the poet was planning for future ideas by repeating an idea he had set in his mind.  Sometimes these formulae would even reach multi-line proportions.

So you’ve got a community of poets who all know how to tell the tale of the Iliad in this way. Over time, their tales expand, taking the best/most striking ideas from each individual poet and melding them into the orthodox telling.  If there were 100 of them, and you lined them all up, and asked them to tell the tale of the Iliad, they’d all tell it slightly differently, but they would be a lot more similar than you might think people without writing could do (again, this is why Lord and Parry’s findings are so significant – they demonstrated that people CAN do this without writing).  As these communities grew and became defused, they’d each invent different regional variants, and since no one was writing them down, no one would really realize this, but after a few generations, if you brought them all back together, there would be more marked differences.

These groups of poets became known as “sons of Homer.”  They invented a mythical founder of their poetry circles.  This apparently happens over and over again in Greek (and other) culture of this time period: mythical origins are postulated for collective processes.  We have more viable evidence (apparently) to demonstrate this in the case of figures like “Aesop” and “Aesculapius.”  An important hint here is that “Homeros” has an etymology.  It’s not a name per se, it’s more like a phrase that means something like “master joiner.”  The “sons of the master-joiner” are people who have thought and worked together on joining themes and formulae together in a masterly scale.  “Homer” is their mythical first member.  The group back-forms an identity to this “Homer” but it’s really only a legendary back-formation.  The community gradually developed these tales, from at first relatively insignificant scraps, to eventually long, long tales, over the course of several generations.

Step Two:  Competitive Performance Phase:  As Greek culture became more national, the festival of the Panathania became in institution.  On a yearly basis, poets assembled to compete to see “who could tell the best Iliad.”  These were public performances with judges and audiences.  People reported from all regions of Greece to tell “their” Iliad.  These regions have different regional variations of this story.  Over time, however, because they’ve now all come together, those versions start to coalesce around a core version of the story.  Still, no one is writing anything down, but just listening to each other makes their stories more similar.  So too do audience and judge expectations: as the competition becomes more rigorous, and rules are established, performances become less innovative as the act of performing becomes more technically defined.

Step Three – The Rhapsodes: At some point, the jump is made from oral composition and performance into memorization and recitation (those good as this are called “rhapsodes”).  After the stories reach a certain level of stability, this becomes more possible.  If the tale are now 95% similar (whereas when they started it was more like 50% – these percentages being totally arbitrary of course), it becomes easier for successive poetry-contest entrants to simply memorize the increasingly canonical version by hearing others tell it.  The art of oral composition/performance starts to die off, but it leaves its mark on the transmitted story.  The “formulae” and “themes” remain in this canonical version though their original purpose for existing (to give the poet time to improvise within a restrictive and difficult meter) is now lost.

Step Four – Writing: As writing becomes more practical, with the development of ink and relatively cheap writing surfaces, and the demands for consistent rules for contests become more and more rigorous, the canonical spoken version of step three is eventually written down.  Perhaps the best rhapsodes – the contest winners in a given year – perform their now-memorized tales before a host of 10 scribes, say who are able to write only 1 of every 10 lines, in succession, and so a written “Iliad” is born.  Now the contests change over time from “who can tell the best Agamemnon/Achilles argument scene” into “who can perform Book I the best.”  And then sometimes after this, the manuscript tradition begins, and then is transmitted down to us.  Both the art of oral-composition and rhapsodic recitation of non-written text are lost.  More and more occasionally, people memorize the text to perform it, but with a written text, there is less need for this.  Eventually the contests take on a ritual significance that has forgotten its original dynamic.

Anyway, that’s Nagy’s vision, or something like it.  His principal argument in its defense is that it explains two facts:  first, that we know nothing about Homer, and second, that the Iliad and the Odyssey look remarkably like transcriptions of oral performances, given what Lord and Parry had learned about oral performances.  So it wasn’t that there was some single person who creatively intermingled a whole tradition, there was a collective tradition that was eventually written down.  There never was a singular genius who wrote any of this.

You can see something like this process unfold in classical music too, with concerto cadenzas.  Originally, they were improvised by the composer/performer themselves (like, Mozart performs his new concerto, and he plays whatever solo seems appropriate on this day) but then eventually, either Mozart or one of his admirers writes down a cadenza, and from that time forward, performers perform that cadenza – it becomes the “official” candenza.  That’s not a perfect analogy because Mozart did the actual performance, and then someone (or he) transcribed it himself, but it’s structurally similar in other ways.

Another analogy is Wikipedia – no one person wrote it, but it was amassed by loads of people making small changes.  The disanalogy here is that Wikipedia is written.  The Iliad and Odyssey were transmitted among communities not by writing but by memorized formulae and themes that, put together with a restrictive meter, allowed their relatively stable oral transmission.

So no one ever needed to be individually creative in the way you might think they’d need to be to write the Iliad or the Odyssey.  Generations of oral poets, memorizers and then transcribers gradually created these texts bit by bit, collectively.  What we have is the end result of that process that, since it wasn’t written down, is difficult to prove the existence of.  Our best hint is the oral-poetic appearance of the  manuscript.

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5 Responses to Who Wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey?

  1. Nates says:

    West’s rely to Nagy: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2001/2001-09-06.html
    (It’s not very good.)

    Here’s how the argumentative terrain looks to me. There’s overwhelming evidence (based mainly on the metrically varying epithets for character’s names) that the poems were originally orally composed. We also know that at some point it was finally written down by someone. The main question concerns how much originality (or literary significance) there was in the latter act.

    In downplaying the contribution of the author, Nagy cites as evidence the fact that we know nothing reliable about Homer. (And that Plato was in the same position of ignorance.) This doesn’t seem very persuasive to me. After all, we know virtually nothing about Thales or Pythagoras or Sappho either. (And what we tend to think we know about them is on very weak foundations.) It’s a routine problem in early Greek history, given the uncritical traditions of biography at the time–and the late transition to written culture.

    I had always thought that the first writer would have needed to play a significant authorial role, simply because there was such a diversity of oral stories to choose from. Against this, the thought is that there was some sort of winnowing effect, with the best stories winning out in an evolutionary way. Just as a gut reaction, that seems odd to me, for two reasons. First, oral storytelling tends to diversify (think of all the flood myths in the near east). Second, the Greek tragedians often refer (in a familiar way) to events in the Trojan War that differ significantly from Homer’s version, and that seems to suggest that the winnowing process was far from complete–even well after Homer!

    Given these concerns, I guess I still lean toward the view that the first writer made a significant contribution to the work we have now. I realize this is an only slightly educated opinion, so hopefully I can find the time to read more of the sources you mention. But, what the hell, it’s a blog, so I’m just throwing out my opinion anyway!

  2. Josh says:

    So the main thing I’d emphasize for why I’m slightly less devoted to the first-person-who-wrote-it-would-have-been-a-creative-artist thing is Nagy’s story about the Panathania contests, and how this would have brought a whole community together without anyone ever having to have the whole story conceived of in the traditional “authorial” way we generally presuppose. So I guess two issues Nagy needs to prove:

    (1) an oral tradition is capable of producing a long, nuanced and formally consistent whole without the aid of writing, one that several adherents to that tradition can all perform relatively similarly, and

    (2) that the Panathania went down the way he says it did. Large groups of people gradually, over time, made a collectively held epic into a unified written whole without any one individual’s creative guidance. He calls this the “Panathanian bottleneck.”

    Of course he can prove (1) more easily than (2), since the present-day record of oral poetry (1) i a much more complete record than the historical record about the Panathania (2). He’s got some interesting stuff about Pisastratus, the rhapsodes, etc.

    Maybe I misrepresented the extent to which his argument rests on ignorance of Homer’s biography. It rests much more on the Panathania explanation and also the philological analysis of oral poetry.

    My overall perception was that he can prove that his oral-transmission theory is POSSIBLE or even PLAUSIBLE but doesn’t have the historical info needed to prove that it is TRUE. And so the controversy is not resolvable at some level.

    There are two huge books Nagy has put out in the last couple of years that allege to lay this argument out in much more detail than the books I’ve listed above. I have to say away from that section of the Seminary Coop lest I actually spend like $130 just because they look so nice.

  3. Josh says:

    (to speak more directly to your point about oral traditions tending to diverge – Nagy’s argument is that there was a unique situation that gave rise to the con-vergence of Homeric epic, which is a national contest – the Panathania – where uniformity gradually became desirable, and the epic’s status as national myth became solidified – over a few generations, the oral tradition came together into a written canonical version, again, without any real “authorial” work by any individual. That’s why I think the open-source idea is relevant here.)

  4. Nates says:

    OK, very interesting! That helps make the process sound more plausible. And the cultural norm of competion in pursuit of glory is already emphasized in the myths, which helps.

    I was trying to think of other places where we might see this sort of artistic process at work. It would be interesting to look at illiterate folk music traditions–and also how these traditions were affected by the emergence of recording technology.

  5. Josh says:

    Absolutely. I heard an interesting talk by a guy named Haun Saussy (who’s in the U of C department of comparative literature) about oral literature in general. The talk is on his blog here: printculture.com/calling-all-bards and here: printculture.com/from-folk-to-folk/.

    What do you mean by the cultural norm of competition in pursuit of glory being emphasized in the myths? Are there places where songs or poetry are competed over within the Iliad or the Odyssey, or are you talking about other forms of competition?

    On an unrelated note, how could make our blog look more like his, at least as regards the sharing buttons? If you follow those links you’ll see what I mean.

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