West's Making of the Odyssey Reviewed at BMCR

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West's Making of the Odyssey Reviewed at BMCR

Post by jeidsath » Wed Jun 27, 2018 3:14 pm


Barry P. Powell reviews West's making of the Odyssey and is highly critical of West's theories. But while I'm sympathetic with Powell's viewpoint, he hasn't really taken the time to provide detailed support for his argument. His suggestion of West's ignorance is laughable:
[West] seems unaware that the Greek alphabet was a very odd form of writing unprecedented in its attention to phonetic accuracy, which can more plausibly be explained as a technique created expressly for imprisoning in signs oral verse.
Had this review come out a few years ago, I think that it would have been chewed up thoroughly by West's response.
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Re: West's Making of the Odyssey Reviewed at BMCR

Post by Hylander » Wed Jun 27, 2018 3:43 pm

Barry Powell thinks that the Greek alphabet was invented specifically to record the Homeric poems. He claims that the Greek alphabet is nearly unique among writing systems that were not adapted wholesale from an existing writing system in aiming at phonetic accuracy, as evidenced by characters representing vowels, which were more or less unrepresented in the pre-existing Semitic alphabet on which the Greek alphabet was clearly based. So Powell is asserting in effect that West was unaware of his theory, which he somewhat disingenuously presents as fact in his review.

But I think, attractive as the notion that the Greek alphabet was specifically invented for Homer may be, not many specialists would wholeheartedly embrace Powell's theory. There just isn't enough evidence, like so much other speculation about the Homeric poems.

On the other hand, many of West's speculations about the origins of the Homeric poems have also been met with skepticism by other scholars in the field, and I think that many if not most scholars have gotten away from fashioning arguments more or less out of thin air about these topics, recognizing that the evidence is very thin and inconsistent.

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Re: West's Making of the Odyssey Reviewed at BMCR

Post by Paul Derouda » Wed Jul 04, 2018 8:47 pm

All my stuff, including my Mac, has been in cardboard boxes, so I haven't been able to post (I don't like to post with a pad or a phone). You bet I'd read this review already before Joel posted about it! We've discussed West's theories many times before, so I haven't really much to add to what's been said previously.

What Powell says is unfair, if not downright ridiculous:
West gives no consideration to the technology that made Homer possible, the Greek alphabet, what kind of writing this was, its position in the history of writing, how it came into being, when it came into being, where it came into being, and what it was used for from the beginning.
This is true only to the extent that West gives no consideration to Powell's own, rather fantastic theories on the common origin of the Homeric epics and the Greek alphabet.

To my mind, the essence of West's theory is precisely giving consideration to the technical difficulties of writing down a very long epic – especially his idea that many of the inconcinnities in the poems are the result of the writing process being long and laborious. Actually, what I'm finding difficult is understanding what it is that other scholars find so difficult to accept in what to me seems just common sense - unless it is West's citing 19th century analytic scholarship instead of their own more recent, perhaps rather second-rate writing. It's true that many of West's ideas about the order in which passages where composed, passages being transposed from one place to another etc., are often quite speculative – but really, the theory doesn't stand or fall on whether each particular one of them is correct or not.
Hylander wrote:I think that many if not most scholars have gotten away from fashioning arguments more or less out of thin air about these topics, recognizing that the evidence is very thin and inconsistent.
If only this were the case! But to me it seems that it's a sort of competition: who comes up with the craziest theory on the genesis of the epics. I don't think it's just the older generation like Powell and Nagy, but younger scholars as well. The general idea is that since Homer was the greatest of them all and beside that, an oral poet (something we hardly see nowadays), the textualization of the epic had to be an event unlike anything we've seen (or can even imagine!) - they were crystallized; or they mark the origin of the alphabet; or they were first composed orally, memorized verbatim for a hundred years and then dictated and written down one day in one go – pick your favorite! I prefer the down-to-earth simplicity of West's theory. But I'm willing to change my mind any day if you can point another theory that makes sense.

But it's true that the Making of the Odyssey is seems mainly written for those like me who are already converts. The Making of the Iliad is much a more painstaking work, so that's the book I'd recommend for someone who wants to get acquainted with West's idea on how the Homeric epics were written down. That said, The Making of the Odyssey isn't just about this particular theory of West's, it contains a lot of other valuable information on the Odyssey that have nothing to with his theory, which Powell doesn't discuss very much.

In a review on BMCR Powell criticizes Nagy's theories in a way I can fully agree with. But in his own writing, he doesn't always seem to check his facts very thoroughly. In the review, he gives the wrong year for West's death. And a couple of years ago I was reading Powell's book Homer. Right in the beginning, he tells us that medial sigma σ was invented by Porson (in the 18th century). I found that claim a bit odd from someone who's particularly known as a specialist of the history of the Greek alphabet, and wondered whether I could trust anything else the book might say. I didn't go on reading very long.

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