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Homeric Questions

Homeric Questions

In this innovative investigation, Gregory Nagy applies the insights of comparative linguistics and anthropology to offer a new historical model for understanding how, when, where, and why the Iliad and the Odyssey were ultimately preserved as written texts that could be handed down over two millennia.

July 1996
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192 pages | 6 x 9 |

The "Homeric Question" has vexed Classicists for generations. Was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey a single individual who created the poems at a particular moment in history? Or does the name "Homer" hide the shaping influence of the epic tradition during a long period of oral composition and transmission?

In this innovative investigation, Gregory Nagy applies the insights of comparative linguistics and anthropology to offer a new historical model for understanding how, when, where, and why the Iliad and the Odyssey were ultimately preserved as written texts that could be handed down over two millennia. His model draws on the comparative evidence provided by living oral epic traditions, in which each performance of a song often involves a recomposition of the narrative.

This evidence suggests that the written texts emerged from an evolutionary process in which composition, performance, and diffusion interacted to create the epics we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Sure to challenge orthodox views and provoke lively debate, Nagy's book will be essential reading for all students of oral traditions.


A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Homer and Questions of Oral Poetry
  • Chapter 2: An Evolutionary Model for the Making of Homeric Poetry
  • Chapter 3: Homer and the Evolution of a Homeric Text
  • Chapter 4: Myth as Exemplum in Homer
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Gregory Nagy is Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of the recent books Greek Mythology and Poetics and Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond.


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The title of this work is marked by the word Questions, in the plural. It takes the place of the expected singular, along with a definite article, associated with that familiar phrase, "the Homeric Question." Today there is no agreement about what the Homeric Question might be. Perhaps the most succinct of many possible formulations is this one: "The Homeric Question is primarily concerned with the composition, authorship, and date of the Iliad and the Odyssey."' Not that any one way of formulating the question in the past was ever really sufficient. Who was Homer? When and where did Homer live? Was there a Homer? Is there one author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, or are there different authors for each? Is there a succession of authors or even of redactors for each? Is there, for that matter, a unitary Iliad, a unitary Odyssey?

I choose Homeric Questions as the title of this book both because I am convinced that the reality of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, cannot possibly be comprehended through any one Question, and because a plurality of questions can better recover the spirit of the Greek word zétema, meaning the kind of intellectual "question" that engages opposing viewpoints. In Plato's usage, zétema refers to a question or inquiry of a philosophical nature. This is the word used in the title of Porphyry's Homeric Questions, a work that continues in a tradition that can be traced as far back as Aristotle. As Rudolf Pfeiffer writes, "Probably over a long period of time Aristotle had drawn up for his lectures a list of 'difficulties' [aporémata or problémata] of interpretation in Homer with their respective 'solutions' [lúseis]; this custom of zetémata probállein may have prospered at the symposia of intellectual circles."

A number of quotations from Aristotle's work are preserved, mostly in Porphyry's Homeric Questions. In one of these, Aristotle is disputing the assertion, as found in Plato's Republic (319b), that it cannot be true that Achilles dragged the corpse of Hektor around the tomb of Patroklos; Aristotle contradicts this assertion by referring to a Thessalian custom, still prevalent, he says, in his own time, of dragging the corpses of murderers around the tombs of those they had murdered (F 166 Rose). As Pfeiffer goes on to say, "It is an example of the way [Aristotle] used the stupendous treasures of his collections for the correct interpretation of the epic poet against less learned predecessors who had raised subjective moral arguments without being aware of historical facts." Among the historical facts used by Aristotle is diction, léxis. For my own approach to Homeric Questions, diction is the primary empirical given.

We will return to the topic of diction presently. For now let us continue with the account by Pfeiffer:

Although certain circles of the Alexandrine Museum seem to have adopted this "method" of zétemata, which amused Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors, as it had amused Athenian symposiasts, the great and serious grammarians disliked it as a more or less frivolous game.... It was mainly continued by the philosophic schools, Peripatetics, Stoics, Neoplatonists, and by amateurs, until Porphyry (who died about 305 [C.E.]) arranged his final collection of Homérika zétemata in the grand style, in which he very probably still used Aristotle's original work.

The title Homeric Questions reaffirms the original Aristotelian seriousness of Homérika zétemata, avoiding the accretive implications of frivolity. To this extent it matches the seriousness of scholarship in the period of the Renaissance and thereafter concerning the Homeric Question. But my title also affirms the need to pose the question in such a way that it will not presuppose the necessity of any single answer or solution, lúsis. And even if a unified answer were to be achieved in the long run, the result is likely to be a blend achieved from a plurality of different voices, not the singular strain of a monotone edict emanating from the unquestioned authority of accepted scholarship to which some would assign the title of philology.

For purposes of my argument, we need to turn back to earlier understandings of the very idea of philology. Let us consider, for example, the report of Suetonius that Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who succeeded the scholar-poet Apollonius of Rhodes as head of the Library of Alexandria, was the first scholar to formalize the term philólogos in referring to his identity as a scholar, and that in so doing he was drawing attention to a doctrina that is multiplex variaque, a course of studies that is many-sided and composed of many different elements."

The era of the great Library of Alexandria reflects a link between our new world of philology and the old world of the actual words that are studied in philology, like the ipsissima verba credited to Homer. Those who presided over the words, as texts, were the Muses: the very name of the Library of Alexandria was, after all, the Museum, the place of the Muses, and its head was officially a priest of the Muses, nominated by the king himself. These Muses of the text had once been the Muses of performance.

The members of the Museum, which was part of the royal compound, have been described by Pfeiffer: "They had a carefree life: free meals, high salaries, no taxes to pay, very pleasant surroundings, good lodgings and servants. There was plenty of opportunity for quarrelling with each other." One might say that the Museum itself was a formalization of nostalgia for the glory days when the Muses supposedly inspired the competitive performance of a poet. The importance of performance as the realization of the poetic art will become clear as the discussion proceeds.

Another head of the Alexandrian Library, Aristarchus of Samothrace, perhaps the most accomplished philologist of the Hellenistic era, was described by Panaetius of Rhodes, a leading figure among the Stoics, as a mantis 'seer' when it came to understanding the words of poetry (Athenaeus 634c). In this concept of the seer, we see again the nostalgia of philology for the Muses of inspired performance.

The beginnings of a split between philology and performance—a split that had led to this nostalgia, ongoing into our own time—are evident in an account of Herodotus that I have examined at length elsewhere, concerning two ominous disasters that befell the island of Chios, a reputed birthplace of Homer. In the earliest attested mention of schools in ancient Greece, Herodotus 6.27.2, the spotlight centers on an incident that occurred on the island of Chios around 496 B.C.E., where a roof collapsed on a group of 120 boys as they were being taught grámmata 'letters'; only one boy survived. This disaster is explicitly described by Herodotus as an omen presaging the overall political disaster that was about to befall the whole community of Chios in the wake of the Ionian Revolt against the Persians (6.27.1), namely, the attack by Histiaios (6.26.1-2), and then the atrocities resulting from the occupation of the island by the Persians (6.31-32).

The disaster that befell the schoolboys at Chios is directly coupled by the narrative of Herodotus with another disaster, likewise presaging the overall political disaster about to befall all of Chios: at about the same time, a khorós 'chorus' of 100 young men from Chios, officially sent to Delphi for a performance at a festival there, fell victim to a plague that killed 98 of them. Only two of the boys returned alive to Chios (6.27.2).

In this account by Herodotus, then, we see two symmetrical disasters befalling the poetic traditions of a community, presaging a general political disaster befalling the community as a whole: first to be mentioned are the old-fashioned and elitist oral traditions of the chorus, to be followed by the newer and even more elitist written traditions of the school. The differentiation between the older and newer traditions, as we see it played out in the narrative of Herodotus, can be viewed as the beginnings of the crisis of philology, ongoing in our own time.

It is as if the misfortune of the people of Chios had to be presaged separately, in both public and private sectors. The deaths of the chorus-boys affected the public at large, in that choruses were inclusive, to the extent that they represented the community at large. The deaths of the schoolboys, on the other hand, affected primarily the elite, in that schools were more exclusive, restricted to the rich and the powerful.

For our own era, the scene of a disaster where the roof caves in on schoolboys learning their letters becomes all the more disturbing because schools are all we have left from the split between the more inclusive education of the chorus and the more exclusive education of the school. For us it is not just a scene: it is a primal scene. The crisis of philology, signaled initially by the split between chorus and school, deepens with the conceptual narrowing of paideía as education over the course of time.

The narrowing is signaled by exclusion. In the Protagoras of Plato, we are witness to a proposal that girl musicians be excluded from the company of good old boys at the symposium. Even as slave-girls, women lose the chance to contribute to, let alone benefit from, the new paideía. Meanwhile, the traditions of the old paideía, where aristocratic girls had once received their education in the form of choral training, become obsolete. Obsolete too, ironically, is the old paideía of boys, both in the chorus and in the schools. The new schools as ridiculed in the Clouds of Aristophanes seem to have lost the art of performing the "classics," and the classics have become written texts to be studied and emulated in writing. Gone forever, in the end, are the performances of Sophocles. Gone forever is the possibility of bringing such performances back to life, even if for just one more time, at occasions like the symposium. Gone forever, perhaps, is the art of actually performing a composition for any given occasion.

As I have said, the era of the Museum at Alexandria represents a grand humanistic effort to preserve, even as texts, the ipsissima verba. To that extent, it also represents an attempt to reverse the narrowing of paideía. Our own hope lies in the capacity of philology, as also of schools, to continue to reverse such a pattern of narrowing, to recover a more integrated, integral, paideía. The symptom of a narrowed education can be described as the terminal prestige of arrested development, where schoolboys, instead of getting killed, grow up to be the old boys of an exclusive confraternity that they call philology, their philology. The humanism of philology, which must surely counter such a narrow modern view, depends on its inclusiveness, its diversity of interests. We come back to the ancient scholarly ideal of a doctrina that is multiplex variaque, a course of studies that is many-sided and composed of many different elements. Such a course of studies, I argue, is essential for pursuing Homeric Questions, not to mention other classical questions.

One small but troubling sign of narrowing, of a movement away from a course of studies that is ideally many-sided, is the way in which we contemporary classics scholars—certainly not just Homerists—tend to use the words "right" and "wrong": this kind of value judgment seems to operate on the assumption that the reader already accepts the argument being offered and rejects all others. The implications are discouraging, because a cumulative plurality of scholars who say "I am right" and "most of you are wrong" suggests that most of those who make this claim are wrong and only some, if any, are right. I propose to write instead, here and elsewhere, that I agree or disagree, without presupposing the ultimate judgment. Or, better, my arguments either converge with or diverge from those of others. I cannot presuppose that I am right, since even a "right" formulation may need to be reformulated in the future, but I, along with all other classicists, need to be wary of a style of criticism that seeks to reformulate our formulations in a style of one-upmanship, where the latest word pretends to be the last word.

The idea of a zétema or 'question', in the usage of those earliest scholars of Homeric poetry, assumes an ongoing conflict of views in an ongoing debate of scholars. It is in that spirit of open-endedness that I take up my own set of questions, Homeric Questions, making clear my disagreements as well as agreements with other scholars. My goal is to offer a set of answers, sine ira et studio, that must in the long run be tested by further questions. In my search for answers, I am striving for a definitive formulation of my own thinking on Homeric poetry as it has evolved since my earliest published formulations, which appeared over twenty years ago. Whatever answers I propose, however, leave open-ended the need for further answers—and questions.

The ideal in the academic discourse of my Homeric Questions is respect for the positive efforts of others. Polemics tend to be reserved for occasions where I countercriticize some criticisms that seem intended to displace or exclude results and views. But I hope in general to transcend the kind of internal battles in classical scholarship where the intensity of contentiousness over the rights and wrongs of interpretation seems at times symptomatic of a specially virulent strain of odium philologicum, likely to shock even the most cynical specialist in other areas of the humanities. Such marked levels of contentiousness among classicists may be excused as an indirect reflex of the agonistic striving toward the definition of value in ancient Hellenic poetics. Excuses should not distract, however, from a basic shortcoming that seems to result from such strife, namely, an avoidance of new or different methods for fear of being condemned as unorthodox. Such a pattern of avoidance can lead to narrow and consequently oversimplified approaches to complex problems. My goal is to apply a wide enough variety of inductive approaches to do justice to the complexity of the problems addressed.

Failure to apply a broad enough spectrum of empirical methods to a given question is oftentimes not recognized as a failure by the very ones who fail. Ironically, it is sometimes they who will blame newer scholars who may have succeeded in deploying a wider variety of approaches. It is as if the newcomers were rival heirs to a domain called philology. The blame can take the form of accusing newcomers of not having proved what they are seeking to prove. What the blamers may be thereby admitting, however unintentionally, is that they do not know how to use methods that others have found to advance their own arguments. In this connection I am reminded of Terry Eagleton's formulation, "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories and an oblivion of one's own."

Yet another problem that can lead to a narrowing of resources in pursuing Homeric Questions has to do with a negative attitude toward the study of earlier stages of Greek literature, deriving from the inference that the further one goes back in time, the less one may really know. This attitude, as I find it articulated by some classicists, comes dangerously close to shunning the study of older evidence on the ground that there is not enough information to prove anything. In resisting such a stance, I take my inspiration from a philologist who studies Greek texts that are even older—as texts—than the Homeric poems. I quote the words of John Chadwick, as he speaks about the Linear B tablets of the second millennium B.C.E.:

Some of my colleagues will doubtless think I have in places gone too far in reconstructing a pattern which will explain the documents. Here I can only say that some pattern must exist, for these are authentic, contemporary sources; and if the pattern I have proposed is the wrong one, I will cheerfully adopt a better one when it is offered. But what I do reject is the defeatist attitude which refuses even to devise a pattern, because all its details cannot be proved. The documents exist; therefore the circumstances existed which caused them to be written, and my experience has shown me that these are not altogether impossible to conjecture.

In the case of the Homeric poems, it can be said even more forcefully: not only does the text exist, but even the ultimate reception of the Homeric poems is historically attested, ready to be studied empirically. As I have already indicated, the primary given in my own work is the léxis, or diction, of the Homeric poems. What, then, is the primary question? For me, it is vital that the evidence provided by the words, the ipsissima verba, reflect on the context in which the words were said, the actual performance. The essence of performing song and poetry, an essence permanently lost from the paideía that we have inherited from the ancient Greeks, is for me the primary question.

In choosing language and text as my primary empirical given, I hope to stay within a long preexisting continuum of philologists. In choosing performance, the occasion of performance, as my primary question, I go beyond this continuum in relying on two other disciplines. These disciplines are linguistics and anthropology.

Let us start with linguistics. Here we can make a distinction between two kinds, descriptive and historical. In the case of descriptive linguistics, the problematic word structuralism tends to take pride of place in the discourse of classicists, even displacing the very use of the term linguistics. Too much has been said about structuralism, both for and against, by those who are unfamiliar with the rudiments of descriptive linguistics. For one who was initially trained as a linguist and only later as a classicist, the point is this: the observation that language is a structure is not a matter of theory, not someone's brilliant insight, but the cumulative result of inductive experience in descriptive linguistics.

Now we turn to historical linguistics, a method that I have used extensively in my earlier work on Homer. Here, too, we may confront a problematic word: this time, it is etymology. For example, it has been said about my approach that it "regards alleged etymologies from the distant linguistic past to be some kind of key to Homeric epic." This is to underrate the value of historical linguistics in the study of tradition: the purpose of connecting the etymology of a Homeric word with its current usage in the Homeric poems is to establish a continuum of meaning within tradition. An etymology may be a "key" to the diachronic explanation of some reality, as in the case of a cultural continuum, but it cannot be equated with some clever novelty in literary criticism.

As for the second of the two disciplines that I propose to apply, anthropology, I should note simply that this discipline has as yet exerted so little influence in the field of classics, with a few notable exceptions, that it is seldom mentioned even by those classicists who are given to issuing admonitions against the intrusion of supposedly alien disciplines. Ironically, the field of anthropology has as much to benefit from the currently construed field of classics as the other way around. We find ourselves in an era when the ethnographic evidence of living traditions is rapidly becoming extinct, where many thousands of years of cumulative human experience are becoming obliterated by less than a century or so of modern technological progress, and where the need to reaffirm the humanistic value of tradition in the modern world often cannot be met by the members of endangered traditional societies, who are sometimes in the forefront of embracing the very progress that threatens to obliterate their traditions. The field of classics, which lends itself to the empirical study of tradition, seems ideally suited to articulate the value of tradition in other societies, whether or not these societies are closely comparable to those of ancient Greece and Rome.

The primary Homeric question at hand, that of performance, is not only to be articulated in terms of linguistics and anthropology. It is also to be linked with the past research of two scholars whose training stemmed not directly from these two disciplines but from the classics. It is essential that I invoke these two scholars, both deceased, as we approach the centerpiece of my Homeric Questions. Their names are Milman Parry and Albert Lord. On the occasion of delivering my presidential address at the 1991 convention of the American Philological Association, I stressed what a humbling experience it was for me to be given an honor—and an opportunity—that others before me, who had their own Homeric Questions, would have deserved far more. In particular, I had in mind these two scholars, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, neither of whom was ever awarded such an honor by the American Philological Association. Parry died young, and there was little opportunity for the American Philological Association to recognize the lasting value of his contributions to the study of Homer and to the field of classics in general. In the case of Albert Lord, Life Member of the American Philological Association, whose own important research continued his earlier work with his teacher, Milman Parry, I hope to honor his contributions to classical philology by way of my Homeric Questions, which are meant to serve as extensions of the questions that he had asked in his Singer of Tales and, shortly before his death, in Epic Singers and Oral Tradition.


“. . . the latest in [Nagy’s] series of brilliant and provocative works that open up new vistas in Homeric studies. . . . Informed and creative, wide-ranging and profound, this book stands at the cutting edge of Homeric scholarship and reminds readers why its author is one of the foremost classical scholars in the world today.”

“Nagy performs a valuable service, in the current climate of Homeric studies, simply by reminding us once again, and forcefully, that the relationship between our written texts of Greek epic and their oral origins is a problematic one.”
Southern Humanities Review


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