Homeric Responses

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Homeric Responses

By Gregory Nagy

A series of essays that further elaborate the author's theories regarding the oral composition and evolution of the Homeric epics.

2003

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 112 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70554-8

The Homeric Iliad and Odyssey are among the world's foremost epics. Yet, millennia after their composition, basic questions remain about them. Who was Homer—a real or an ideal poet? When were the poems composed—at a single point in time, or over centuries of composition and performance? And how were the poems committed to writing? These uncertainties have been known as The Homeric Question, and many scholars, including Gregory Nagy, have sought to solve it.

In Homeric Responses, Nagy presents a series of essays that further elaborate his theories regarding the oral composition and evolution of the Homeric epics. Building on his previous work in Homeric Questions and Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond and responding to some of his critics, he examines such issues as the importance of performance and the interaction between audience and poet in shaping the poetry; the role of the rhapsode (the performer of the poems) in the composition and transmission of the poetry; the "irreversible mistakes" and cross-references in the Iliad and Odyssey as evidences of artistic creativity; and the Iliadic description of the shield of Achilles as a pointer to the world outside the poem, the polis of the audience.

  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue
  • Introduction. Four Questions
    • Question 1. About Synchronic and Diachronic Perspectives
    • Question 2. About the Evolutionary Model
    • Question 3. About Dictation Models
    • Question 4. About Cross-References in Homer
  • Chapter 1. Homeric Responses
  • Chapter 2. Homeric Rhapsodes and the Concept of Diachronic Skewing
  • Chapter 3. Irreversible Mistakes and Homeric Clairvoyance
  • Chapter 4. The Shield of Achilles: Ends of the Iliad and Beginnings of the Polis
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Homeric Responses builds on two earlier books, Homeric Questions (1996) and Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (1996), which dealt with respectively earlier and later phases in the evolution of Homeric poetry. By Homeric poetry I mean the poetic system underlying the poetic texts that we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey. "Homer" is used throughout this book as a cover term for the Iliad and Odyssey combined. This terminology follows that of Aristotle (Poetics 23.1459b1-7), who thought of Homer as the author of the Iliad and Odyssey to the exclusion of the so-called Epic Cycle. In comparison with Homeric Questions and Poetry as Performance, the present book deals with a wider range of questions about Homeric poetry as poetry. It attempts to convey, however briefly, the essence of Homeric poetry in the fullness of its complexities. Still, most of the book can be read without specialized background in Homeric or even in Classical studies. Further, Homeric Responses does not require a reading of those two other books as general background. Rather, it can serve as an introduction. In addition, it can serve as an introduction to two even earlier books, Pindar's Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (1990) and The Best of the Achaeans (1979; new ed. 1999).

Most of this book comes from work I have already published in a variety of far-flung settings. Some parts were commissioned for various projects distinct from my own. Most other parts, however, were originally conceived as ultimate components of the present book. What unites all the parts is a sustained interest in Homeric poetry as a unified poetic system.

In pursuing this interest, I invoke a dictum extrapolated from the work of Aristarchus, the most distinguished textual critic of Homeric poetry in the ancient world (middle of the second century B.C.E.): Homeron ex Homerou saphenizein, 'clarify Homer by way of Homer'. The clarifications provided by Homeric poetry itself are the unifying principle behind Homeric Responses.

My translation of the Aristarchean concept of saphenizein as 'clarify' is pertinent to a celebrated metaphor applied to Aristarchus in the ancient world: Panaetius of Rhodes, an exponent of Stoic thinking, compared Aristarchus to a mantis 'seer', for his power to understand the dianoia 'meaning' of poetry (Athenaeus 14.634c). The "clarification" of the critic is being equated metaphorically with the clairvoyance of the seer.

In this light, the expression Homeron ex Homerou saphenizein 'clarify Homer by way of Homer' can be taken further. Aristarchus is oracular, that is, mantic like a seer, in clarifying the meaning of Homer because Homer himself is oracular in clarifying his own meaning. But how can we imagine Homer as oracular in his own right? Is it because his meaning is made clear by his critics? No, it is because he makes his own meaning clear to them. In the language of Homeric poetry, a seer has the power to clarify meaning. Just as the generic seer knows sapha 'clearly' the meaning of an omen, as we see later when we take a close look at relevant passages in the Iliad (such as 12.228-229), so also Homer seems to know that meaning--as well as all the meanings of all things considered in the overall poetry.

The metaphor of clairvoyance can be taken even further. My translation of Homeron ex Homerou saphenizein as 'clarify Homer by way of Homer' is pertinent to the title of this book. Homeric Responses is, after all, a set of Homeric responses to questions, Homeric questions. Some of these Homeric "responses" can be understood in the sense of the word hupokrinesthai, which means more than simply 'respond to a question' in Homeric usage. As we see in Chapter 1, this word conveys the idea of oracular response, that is, of responding in the same way as a mantis or 'seer' would respond to a question about an omen. Moreover, this word conveys the idea of responding, responsiveness, in performance.

There are also other kinds of "responses" offered by Homeric poetry. This poetry not only lays claim to a meaning made absolute by oracular authority, it also leaves room for meanings that are relativized. As we see in Chapter 4, even the overall meaning of Homeric poetry remains in question, depending on an audience imagined as ever different, ever changing.

This act of imagining a Homeric audience happens in a world of verbal art pretending to be visual art, the world as pictured on the Shield of Achilles in Iliad. Inside this world of pictures on the Shield, Homeric poetry makes room for the world outside itself, reaching beyond its own heroic frame of time. In the world of the Shield, Homeric poetry looks at other worlds in its own future, the era of the polis or city-state and, virtually, even beyond. The art of the Shield, which is Homeric art, envisions an ever-expanding outer circle of listeners. This vision conveys, again, the idea of responding, responsiveness, in performance.

The "responses" of Homeric Responses have to do primarily with the responsiveness of poetry in performance and even as performance. In other words, they have to do with the traditions of oral poetry, as described by Albert Lord in The Singer of Tales.

When oral poetry is being performed, it responds to the occasion of performance. Such responsiveness is comparable to that of a seer, since the poetry provides potential answers to questions raised in the process of its performance. The actual responses, however, are decided not only by the seer-like authority of poets. The ultimate decision is left up to the audience at large, that ever-expanding outermost circle of listeners pictured on the Shield of Achilles. The responsiveness of Homeric poetry is mediated by whoever performs for such a generalized audience. Such a performer, in terms of Lord's model, is the singer of tales.

The driving idea of this book is that Homeric poetry, as a system grounded in oral traditions, responds to questions raised not only by ancient Homeric audiences but even by today's readers of the Homeric texts. To that extent, Homeric Responses offers immediate answers to questions posed in my earlier work, Homeric Questions, as also to questions posed by critics of that work and other related works. The ultimate responses, however, must be sought--and found--in the panorama of oral poetic insights revealed by the Homeric texts themselves, echoing words once sung by singers of tales.

 

By Gregory Nagy

Gregory Nagy has been the Director of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., since 2000, and continues to serve as the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

"More than any other classicist, Nagy tries to uncover and explain the brilliance that can come from an oral tradition. . . . This is an important contribution to the field of Homeric poetics, more narrowly, and to the study of Greek literature more broadly."

—Carol Dougherty, Professor of Classical Studies, Wellesley College