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Reading the Homeric poems (and other Greek hexameter poetry)

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Reading the Homeric poems (and other Greek hexameter poetry)

Postby Qimmik » Sat May 10, 2014 2:22 pm

Having responded to many of huilen's queries about verb-forms in Odyssey 1, I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief explanation of why there are so many apparently irregular verbs in Homeric verse, and how to go about dealing with them as you read the poems.

Most of us are aware that the Homeric poems represent the end-product of a long tradition of hexameter poetry that was oral and composed in performance without the use of writing (leaving aside the controversial issues of how and when the Homeric poems themselves came to be committed to writing). Although some scholars began to suspect this fact in the late 18th century, a clear understanding of the process of oral composition and the development of the Homeric language was not really achieved until around 1930, and it was not until after WWII that these ideas became widely accepted and the implications were worked out. Much material written about the Homeric poems before that period is not informed by these insights.

The technique of oral composition in performance was based on a system of "formulas": i.e., very generally, groups of words that fit a specific metrical segment of the verse (again, there is a lot of controversy as to exactly what a "formula" is, but this is a very crude definition). An aoidos would have had a large repertory of formulas in his (or maybe her) head and could draw on this repertory as s/he spoke or sang a poem, working in the difficult medium of hexameter verse.

The repertory of formulas was built up over a very long period of time, some perhaps going back as far as the middle of the second millenium BCE, nearly a millenium before the Homeric poems came into existence, depending on when you date them. As the spoken language evolved over time, the aoidoi innovated whenever they could, replacing an older form with a contemporary form when they could do this without disrupting the meter, but where this was impossible, older forms would be preserved, or you might say "fossilized," in the formulas. As a result of this process, the Homeric language includes forms from different historical periods of the language and different dialects. The basic dialect of the poems is Ionic (with a thin Attic overlay reflecting the later history of the text), but there are some "Achaean" forms that have been preserved from a Mycenaean phase of the language, and many forms and words from the Aeolic dialect. (There is a dispute as to whether the Aeolic element reflects an Aeolic phase of the tradition or cultural diffusion in an area that in which Ionic and Aeolic speakers were in contact).

Last edited by Qimmik on Sun May 11, 2014 2:22 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: Reading the Homeric poems (and other Greek hexameter poe

Postby Qimmik » Sat May 10, 2014 2:55 pm

Different words with identical meanings and different forms (particularly verb forms) filling identical morphological slots from different strata of the Homeric language can coexist in different formulas. So it isn't surprising to find, for example, different stems for the tense/aspect of the same basic verb in coexistence.

In sum, the Homeric language is an artificial language that no one ever spoke. Presumably the original audience for the poems understood most of it--they had been hearing it since childhood--but there is the possibility that some of the obscure forms and words fossilized in formulas were unintelligible even to the aoidoi themselves. Certainly subsequent generations of Greek-speakers needed a lot of help to understand the Homeric poems, and the explanations of later scholars and scholia are full of misunderstandings.

What does this mean for the reader? The main point is not to be mystified when you come across a verb-form that seems unusual. You need to look up the verb in LSJ (although the on-line version is difficult to use for this purpose) or in a good specialized Homeric lexicon (in English, preferably Cunliffe) to identify (or verify the identity of) the particular form.

You should also bear in mind that the formulas out of which the Homeric language is constructed preserve many archaisms that were smoothed out by the process of analogical leveling in the spoken language, where the archaic forms couldn't be replaced by contemporary forms. Many if not all of these archaisms can be explained by a deep dive into historical linguistics, and the first volume of Chantraine's Grammaire Homérique collects these explanations if you're curious, know French and are familiar with Greek historical linguistics and dialectology.

But, fortunately, it's not necessary to explain all of these apparent irregularities to enjoy and appreciate the Homeric poems--all you need to do is look up the words in LSJ or a Homeric lexicon and note the forms, without necessarily understanding where they came from. After all, audiences and readers have been engaging with the poems for 2500+ years without the benefit of historical linguistics.

And, incidentally, much archaic Greek poetry, such as the Homeric hymns and early elegy, is written in an Ionic dialect that draws on the Homeric language, using archaic words and forms, as well as many poems written in hexameters and elegiac couplets over the long course of ancient Greek literature, right down to Quintus Smyrnaeus and Nonnus, writing in late antiquity--as late as perhaps 400 CE.
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Re: Reading the Homeric poems (and other Greek hexameter poe

Postby huilen » Tue May 27, 2014 8:46 pm

Your explanation is great. It was very illuminating for me, you told it as a children's tale :)

It seems a very exciting and interesting history and you stirred up my curiosity. I would like to read more about this.

I've already made this comparison unwittingly in other post, but now more than ever this mode of oral composition reminds me a lot to the medieval epic (the chason de geste, the chivalric romance, and the Old Spanish tradition of the cantar de gesta).
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