Was Homeric Greek spoken? Was Homer one single person?

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Was Homeric Greek spoken? Was Homer one single person?

Post by Wishfulcrystal » Wed Nov 22, 2017 10:27 pm

To preface this, I not only don't know Greek (although my textbook should arrive just before December!), but I've not even read Homer in translation apart from the occasional quotation one finds in various ancient (and occasionally modern or contemporary) works, e.g. in Plato.

In the introduction to Robert Fagles' translation of The Illiad (published by Penguin), Bernard Knox writes
The language of Homer is of course a problem in itself. One thing is certain: it is not a language that anyone ever spoke. It is an artificial, poetic language... (pg. 11)
expanding on this, he says
The language of Homer is the "creation of epic verse" in a strict sense too: it is created, adapted and shaped to fit the epic meter, the hexamete. (pg. 12).
My question is simple: is this generally agreed on by scholars? It seems not only true, considering the argument put forward by Knox in the immediately preceding pages, but, as he says, certain, given what Knox adduces on page 15 (utilizing the scholarship of Milman Parry):
Parry...demonstrated that in fact there was an intricate system of metrical alternatives for the recurring names of heroes, gods and objects....Parry demonstrated that the system was more extensive and highly organized than anyone had dreamed, and he also realized what it meant. It meant that this system had been developed by and for the use of oral poets who improvised.`
Knox summarizes Parry's discovery like so:
The Homeric epithets were created to meet the demands of the meter of Greek heroic poetry, the dactylic hexameter. They offer the improvising bard different ways of fitting the name of his god, hero or object into whatever section of the line is left after he has, so to speak, filled up the first half (that too, quite possibly, with another formulaic phrase.)
Knox continues (and this is the last quote!) his explanation of Parry's discovery on page 17:
There is one aspect of Parry's discovery, however, that changed the whole problem of the nature of our Homeric text. The oral bard who uses such formulaic language is not...a poet reciting from memory of a fixt text. He is improvising, along known lines, relying on a huge stock of formulaic phrases, lines and even whole scenes; but he is improvising. And every time he sings the poem, he does it differently. The outline remains the same but the text, the oral text, is flexible. The poem is new every time it is performed.
There was so much more to include in Knox's introduction (for example, his quotations of the Greek, his summaries of previous scholarship), but my curiosity extends beyond it. I really want to know:

(1) Do scholars generally agree that an epic poet and bard named Homer actually existed? If not, what do they think, or is there nothing like general agreement among scholars on this question?
(2) Do scholars generally agree that Homeric Greek was not a spoken language but a constructed one, one which employs various words and phrases that are peculiar to certain dialects and which repeats certain set phrases, and all this in order to fulfill the needs of the hexameter? If not, what do they generally think? or is there nothing like a generally accepted answer to this question?
(3) Do scholars generally agree that our versions of Illiad and Odyssey (which Knox makes clear also vary, but not dramatically so, between editions and between the centuries) are directly descended from Homer, a poet who culminated through writing a long tradition of an improvised oral epic? If not, do they think that what we have now is a canonized, written form of what was once a long oral tradition which was later written down and more or less canonized? If neither of these, what do they generally think? or is there nothing like a generally accepted answer to this question?

And lastly, if any of you could offer reading recommendations which influence your answers to my questions, that'd be fantastic.

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Re: Was Homeric Greek spoken? Was Homer one single person?

Post by jeidsath » Thu Nov 23, 2017 2:08 pm

Welcome to Textkit! My first introduction to Homer was the through Knox's introduction to the Iliad as well.

1) I don't know what sort of scholarly consensus exists here. I've seen arguments both ways. West argues for a real poet (who knows his real name, but might as well call him Homer). And certainly there was a real poet involved in putting the poems into their current form. But what elements did they share, of plot, character and scene, with the preceding oral tradition? Enough to make them merely derivative, or were they compositions in their own right?

2) Homeric Greek is definitely a grab bag. The set phrases are real, as you can even see in translation.

3) No, scholars don't agree.

For reading, I'd recommend "A New Companion to Homer" and West's "Text and Transmission of the Iliad."
But you may want to read Homer in the Greek first, and then worry about where it came from!

One thing, that is perhaps lighter reading than either of the above, but very thorough for its time, is the summary of 19th century scholarship in the introduction to Monro's Illiad of 1888. You can find that online in Google Books.
Joel Eidsath -- jeidsath@gmail.com

μὴ δ’ οὕτως ἀγαθός περ ἐὼν θεοείκελ’ Ἀχιλλεῦ
κλέπτε νόῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐ παρελεύσεαι οὐδέ με πείσεις.

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Re: Was Homeric Greek spoken? Was Homer one single person?

Post by Paul Derouda » Thu Nov 23, 2017 10:45 pm

Welcome to Textkit!

Like Joel says, there is a hardly a consensus on what is called the Homeric question. I try to answer your questions as well.

1) It's not very likely that Homer was really called Homer. The joke goes that the poems were written by another man who went by the same name, but in reality that was probably something else. There is some speculation actually that the poet of the Odyssey was really named Melesigenes, but you should know that many, perhaps most, scholars agree that the Iliad and the Odyssey were likely not created by the same poet. As Joel said, and I agree, there certainly was a real poet (or two poets) involved in putting the poems into their current form - but as obvious as this seems, there are some who actually deny even this, whom some call "hard Parryists" after Milman Parry. According to one of them, Gregory Nagy, the Homeric epics didn't take their final written form in one go but rather were slowly "crystalized" over a very long period of fluidity (maybe even a couple of hundred of years?). I never really understood this theory and don't believe it, so I'm not going to explain it any further (and by doing so I might be accused of attacking a straw man anyway).
2) Yes. The language is artificial and employs features from different dialects. Some words and forms are archaisms that once were really part of every day speech in some dialects, but not any more in the period when the poems were composed.
3) Scholars don't agree, like Joel said. My personal opinion is that many adepts of the now prevailing "oralist" doctrine do not make enough difference between oral poetry, which is fundamentally fluid, and poetry (whether originating from such an oral tradition or not) that is written down once and for all. Whoever composed the Iliad and the Odyssey must have been a masterful oral poet capable of improvising lengthy oral epics, and the language of these epics bears all the marks of being composed in an age-old traditional poetic language (some formulas seem to be well a thousand years older than the Iliad); but the fact remains that they are not oral performances – they are written texts, and at the moment of writing they took a fixed form, whatever Nagy says (of course, when any manuscript is copied, mistakes happen, but that's another story). We don't know how far back we can trace the Iliad and the Odyssey as stories that will still be recognizable to us (personally, I don't think very far), but I'm sure that every poet made his own version of the story, which they performed differently according to the occasion, the composition of audience etc., sometimes making it shorter, sometimes longed, sometimes emphasizing some plot elements and sometimes others. One day, one poet decided to write down an extra long extra good version of the poem - his version of the poem, which would become our Iliad. Others liked his poem so much that it finally became canonized. Somewhat later, with a different poet, the same thing happened with the Odyssey.

Martin West is the certainly the author to be recommended, but his works are often quite technical. His "Making of the Iliad" (at least the first chapters) is easier and, what's most important, funnier reading than "Text and Transmission of the Iliad", although the works of course complement each other. You should at least have read the epics before trying either of these, and for the "Studies" book you'd probably also want to know some Greek and something about the transmission of classical texts in general. For me, reading "The Making of the Iliad" essentially solved the Homeric question, after having read a large number of puzzling, contradictory and ultimately unsatisfying discussions on the subject, so I most emphatically recommend it, even if it's not as "serious" reading as the other book. I don't know if the book has convinced anyone else but me, but give it a try!

"The New Companion to Homer" is a mixed bag, it contains chapters from different authors of varying quality, the best being very good, but often quite technical. The chapter on papyri is especially good, but again, perhaps a bit technical, but it should be very high on the reading list of anyone who wants to get intimate with the Homeric question. But I wouldn't recommend starting with this book.

19th century scholars knew their Greek extremely well, so you might well lend them your ear, even if quite a few things have been found since them. Unlike some modern works, they actually usually written for other people to read not just for the purpose of producing academic fluff. But their theories on the origin of the Homeric epics are not really satisfying. In those times, Homerists were divided between "Analysts" who thought that the epics were written by a number of different hands, and "Unitarians" who thought that there was single great mind (or at most two minds) behind the Iliad and the Odyssey.

But what would be a proper introductory book for you then, if the really good stuff is a bit difficult to start with? Sorry, but I can't think of one just right now! I'll come back later if I remember one!

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Re: Was Homeric Greek spoken? Was Homer one single person?

Post by Wishfulcrystal » Fri Nov 24, 2017 12:32 am

I will most definitely finish the work (and likely Odyssey, too) in English at the very leastbefore looking at scholarship on it. Truthfully, I want my Greek to be at least okay, if not better, before I look into any secondary work. I wanted to post here in case many of my questions had standard, consensus-like answers to them, but it seems like only one does! Which is fine with me.

Thanks for the information, you two. I really appreciate it. And enjoy the rest of your Thanksgiving or, if you're not Americans, have an excellent Thursday/Friday.

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