Homer, Vico, Naples
& the Ur-Google
"Uh...my dog ate the original."
think there are many people —not just scholars, but
real people— left in the world who think that a single
poet named Homer ever sat down and cranked out both the Iliad and the Odyssey. There used
to be, but then various points of view arose and
discussions grew heated. Scholars get along with one
another about like Achilles and Hector did.
questions are: How many “Homers” were there? Is there at
least one whom we might call a great poet? Or is it all a
collection of folk tales passed on—perhaps through
repetitive, formulaic song—from generation to generation
until someone learned how to write? If that is the case,
isn’t that just glorified stenography? These are not easy
questions, which is fine, since I have no answers.
the ancients used to wonder how Homer did it, they were
pretty sure that there was
a Homer (maybe two). Then, along came Neapolitan
philosopher Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) and said bluntly (in “The
Discovery of the True Homer,” a section of The New Science): “We
must suppose that the two poems were composed and compiled
by various hands through successive ages...” and “The
first age invented the fables to serve as true
narratives...the second altered and corrupted them. The
third and last, that of Homer, received them thus
corrupted.” Says Vico, “...the Greek people were
themselves Homer.” Independently of Vico and somewhat
later, German scholar, Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) voiced pretty much the same
opinion; thus, the entire 19th century was divided between
"analysts" and "unitarians." The former were nit-pickers
of language who pointed out all the anachronisms and
inconsistencies in style (thus, one person could not have
written both works); the latter worshiped the Romantic
ideal of the single great mind and were simply offended
that our greatest epic literature was a collection of
tales handed down by countless anonymous folk-singers and
poets until someone wrote it all down.
battle lines between the two camps were fairly
evenly drawn for a while until Homeric scholarship was
revolutionized in the early 20th century by Milman Parry (1902-1935). He showed that Homeric style
made extensive use of fixed expressions, or 'formulas.'
This formulaic structure was, itself, composition—oral
composition, very different from written composition,
which came later. Parry and others showed that it was
entirely plausible to suppose that the two poems were,
indeed, composed and compiled by various hands—or voices,
if you will, and passed on by the power of mnemonic
formulas. If it is helpful, you may wish to think of this
as "Old MacHomer had a farm...and on this farm he had some
Laestrygonians." In any event, most Homeric scholars today
have bought into Parry's idea to varying degrees.
his introduction to Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, Bernard
Knox sums up the controversy nicely in a way that does not
necessarily make you choose between the 'oral' or
'literary' camps or even between one or many Homers. He
says that while some of Parry's claims are extravagant and
need revision,* it is certain that "Homer's unique style
does show clearly that he was heir to a long tradition of
oral poetry." Citing Geoffrey Kirk (The Songs of Homer,
Cambridge, England, 1962), Knox says that the "epics were the work of an
oral 'monumental composer' whose version imposed itself on
bards and audiences...[but that]...writing [starting in
the last half of the eighth century] did indeed play a
role in the creation of these extraordinary poems [and
that] the phenomena characteristic of oral epic...are
balanced by qualities peculiar to literary composition."
*[note: Among the "extravagant claims" is one that says that as much as 90% of The Odyssey and The Iliad is formulaic. That is simply much too high. Also, the idea that an 'oral poet' cannot also be literate, while it may be true in the area of Parry's research in the Balkans, is demonstrably not true in at least some other folk traditions. Thus, goes the counter-claim, it is plausible that the Homeric epics are the result of both traditions, whether you mean one Homer or many. In any event, in the words of Ruth Finnegan, "The basic point...is the continuity of oral and written literature. There is no deep gulf between the two: they shade into each other both in the present and over many centuries of historical development, and there are innumerable cases of poetry which has both 'oral' and 'written' elements. (Finnegan, p. 24).]
If you go back a bit to the
pre-Parry period, you find some strange scholarship that
not many people took seriously even at the time. Samuel Butler (best
remembered today as the author of the utopian novel Erewhon (an anagram
of "nowhere") proposed in the 1890s in The Authoress of the Odyssey
that there were, indeed two authors: the man who wrote The Iliad and
sometime later the woman who wrote the Odyssey. What's more,
the latter was a Greek woman living near Trapani on Sicily
in the year 1000 b.c., and all of the marvelous wanderings
of Ulysses after the Trojan War and back home to Ithaca
involved nothing more than a trip from Trapani around the
island of Sicily and nearby small islands and back to
Trapani. Even more, she wrote all this while using a copy
of the Iliad
"before her much as we have it now" for reference. Butler
...the theory that the Iliad and Odyssey were written each of them by various hands, and pieced together in various centuries by various editors, is not one which it is easy to treat respectfully ...The theory is founded on a supposition as to the date when writing became possible, which has long since been shown to be untenable.
don't know if the origins of Greek writing were
controversial in the 1890s, and Butler doesn't expand on
"untenable." Today, there is no controversy; the Greek
alphabet not exist before the year 800 b.c. (For other
forms of much earlier writing, such as Mycenean Linear B,
see this link.) Thus the idea
of the lone Greek/Sicilian poetess writing the Odyssey in the year
1000 b.c. and even using a copy of the Iliad written before that time is
—well, untenable. Butler frequented and loved the
town of Trapani, and his arguments are largely based on
geographical similarities between rivers and mountains
near Trapani and the descriptions of places in the Odyssey. Also, he
says, the Iliad
was clearly written for men by a man since it is full of
men practicing male violence and deceit. The Odyssey, on the other
hand, was clearly written for women by a woman since it is
full of women doing womanly things. (Practicing female violence and
deceit?) The London
Times said in its obituary for Butler that he was
always up for a good hoax and enjoyed them immensely. It
adds, however, that he may have wound up believing this
is worth noting, however, that Butler had at least one
solid supporter —Robert Graves, who says in The Greek Myths
[170.1]: "Apollodorus records (Epitome, vii. 29) that 'some have taken
the Odyssey to be an account of a voyage around Sicily'."
Graves summarizes Butler's views and then says, "It is
difficult to disagree with Butler." (But knowing what we
do today about the history of Greek writing, it is not at
was Homer? Possibly the editor in Alexandria in the
second century b.c. who finally gathered up and put
together all the scraps of fables finally committed to
writing after long centuries of oral history. Maybe he
all the folk singers in the area who could still recite
from memory and said, "Start singing, guys. Go slowly,
please, because I have to get it all down. This 'writing'
stuff can be tricky."
Finally, Vico does point out that at least one plausible etymology for the name "Homer" is homou, meaning "together" plus eirein, meaning "to link." Thus, he says, it is "natural and proper...[to apply]...the name to a putter together of fables."
Nevertheless, when you give Homer his final grade this term, be kind.
thanks to Prof. Warren Johnson for suggesting this topic
to me and to Prof. Richard Kidder for helping me with
the big words. Any errors or gross oversimplifications I
have committed are clearly their fault and not mine.
Butler, Samuel. The Authoress of the Odyssey, Where and When She Wrote, Who She Was, the Use She Made of the Iliad and How the Poem Grew Under her Hands. London: A.C. Fifield, 1898.
Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: its Nature,
Significance, and Social Context. Cambridge,
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths,
170.1. Moyer Bell Limited, Mt. Kisco, New York, 1988.
"Vico's 'Discovery of the True Homer': A Case-Study in
Historical Reconstruction." Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol.
40, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1979), pp. 583-602. University
of Pennsylvania Press.
Homer. The Odyssey.
Translated by Robert Fagles; intro and notes by Bernard
Knox. Penguin Classics. New York, London, 1996.
Parry, Milman. The Making of Homeric
Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry,
ed. by Adam Parry. Oxford Uni. Press, 1971.
Giambattista. "Discovery of the true Homer" is Book III
of La Scienza nuova
seconda (Naples, 1744). The section was not in
Vico's earlier edition from 1725. A convenient Italian
version is Giambattista
Vico, Opere, ed. Fausto Nicolini (Milan and
Naples, 1953); an English translation is The New Science of
Giambattista Vico, trans. Max Harold Fisch and
Thomas Goddard Bergin (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968).
zu Homer. 1795.
Reclam, Leipzig, 1908. (German edition). An English
version is Prolegomena
to Homer. 1795. Princeton Univ. Press,
Princeton, N.J. 1985.