The Iliad and Odyssey were not exactly “written" — they changed shape throughout their long years of being performed for audiences. So is it even possible to really know them today?By Brendan ByrneJul 26, 2019, 6:19 PM
“You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding…” - Socrates on writing in Plato’s Phaedrus
As befits a story which has been translated so many different ways, in so many different eras, and into so many different languages, there are at least seventeen audiobooks of theIliad currently for sale in English. While the epic doesn’t exactly seem like traffic-jam salve or workout accompaniment, it might seem appropriate to hear the story of Achilles’ wrath read aloud, since Homer was an oral poet — except his particular method of composition and recitation is all but extinct.
In 1960, the Harvard classicist Albert B. Lord published The Singer of Tales, based on research initiated by his mentor Milman Parry. Drawing on more than thirty years of field work, Lord found tremendous similarities in content, form, and composition between the songs of bards in then-Yugoslavia and those of Homer. This evidence was enough to convince Lord — and, after much pushback from those who could not “tolerate the unwashed illiterate” Homer, the scholarly community at large — that these Yugoslavian singers shared a common tradition of oral poetry with the foundational storyteller of Western culture.
The singers would insist that their songs were identical, even though their versions of tales often differed greatly from one another.
The singers Lord and Parry studied were mainly illiterate peasants who sung their epics “to the gusle,” a single-stringed instrument, often in coffeehouses or courtyards. As Lord wrote, the tradition was already dying. While both academic and academically quarrelsome, The Singer of Talesremains a stunning read, partially because of Lord’s insistence that the oral poet does not simply memorize his tales, either from some central text or from his forebears. Instead, the poet composes “during oral performance” in such a way that “every performance is a separate song.”
To Lord’s frustration, the singers would insist that their songs were identical, even though their versions of tales often differed greatly from one another. This was because these singers had a very loose conception of what a “word” was, instead thinking in terms of what Lord calls “utterances.” So while one singer might relate “that the door creaked and a messenger entered,” another will describe how “Mustajbey looked out the window and saw a cloud of dust which emerged from a rider bearing a message on a branch.” Yet both utterances are held to be the same, since they serve the same function in the overall narrative.
The poet delves into his toolkit of story fragments and descriptions, editing based on environment and audience reaction.
Many of these utterances contain what appear to be mnemonic placeholders, oft-repeated phrases which exist to give the poet time to prepare his next burst of story. For instance, the Iliad’s lists of Greek heroes camped on Priam’s shores end with derivations of “and forty black ships crossed the sea with him.” When the fighting begins in earnest, the phrases “he killed his man” and “darkness veiled his eyes” repeat themselves (almost distressingly often for the contemporary reader).
Lord considers these repetitions not just as memory aids, but as necessary to the style of the epic. Homeric epithets (“fleet-footed Akhilleus,” “ox-eyed Hera,” “rosy-fingered dawn”) had been a source of scholarly conflict, as they often stay static despite the character’s position in the narrative. As Andrew Ford points out in his introduction to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation of the Iliad, Aphrodite is a “‘lover of smiling eyes’ even when she has been wounded.” Paolo Vivante, whose 1985 Homer can be seen as a rather desperate attempt to erect an edifice against Lord’s theories, argues that the Homeric epithet is “recurring imagery” meant to construct “a way of being.” Edward Luttwak argues that these epithets not only remind us of the flavor of the original, but also provide “ironical foils,” so that Achilles is “fleet-footed” even when ensconced in his tent, refusing to fight. T.B.L. Webster theorized that epithets descend from “cult songs” in which they were used to emphasize the salient features of the god/goddess being invoked, and thus to shore up the prayer. Lord admits that this is probable, but holds that by the time of Homer, epithets had shed their religious history and become a piece of the oral poet’s craft.
During the process of oral composition, the poet delves into his toolkit of story fragments and descriptions, editing based on environment and audience reaction. (The gods intervening in the squabblings of the Iliad’s heroes seem to mimic the poet intervening in the poem.) The singer is not seeking to be original — he wouldn’t even really understand the concept — but “seeks expression of the idea under stress of performance.” However, none of these utterances or formulas are memorized, as Lord regards memorization as “a conscious act of making one’s own, and repeating something that one regards as fixed and not one’s own.” Instead the singer internalizes these formulas through hearing other singers and singing himself. These are the strictures of a craft which Lord sees as fundamentally dissimilar from the act of writing a text, even an epic.
During the decade after 29 B.C., approximately eight hundred years after Homer’s life (depending on whom you believe), Virgil composed the Aeneid, the first major reworking of Homer to be attempted in writing. While sometimes described as a Roman reboot of the Iliad, the Aeneid rather continues it, simultaneously reusing, as Fitzgerald puts it, “the Odyssey to tell how Aeneas survived the fall of Troy and made his way to Italy” while “the last six books closely [refashion] the Iliad to recount the tragic war he fought there to found a new civilization.”
The impetus for this epic was not poetic, but political. The first emperor of Rome, Augustus, was of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, one half of which (the Julii half) claimed lineage from one of the Iliad’s heroes, Aeneas. Said hero was a Trojan whom Poseidon promised to save from battle “to ensure that the great line of Dardanus may not unseeded perish from the world.” Virgil was of Augustus’ retinue, and the Aeneid was written when the emperor was solidifying Rome as an empire and conducting almost constant wars of expansion. The Romans were obsessed with Hellenic culture, repurposing Greek gods, architecture, etc., so claiming descent from the epic of Greek civilization was a deft political move. Strange, perhaps, is the fact that Aeneas is a Trojan and an enemy of the Greeks. (A Greek straggler discovered by Aeneas’ crew on the cyclopses’ island is treated rather poorly.) But then, an epic is an epic is an epic.
Virgil personally had a long history of imitating the Greeks. His first success was the Eclogues, which was partially inspired by the pastoral lyric of Theocritus. No surprise then that the Aeneid owes debts, both stylistic and narrative, to Homer’s poems. Like the Iliad, Virgil’s epic features nested stories, such as Hercules’ killing of the “half-beast” Cacus. The section entitled “The Death of Princes” mirrors the Iliadvery closely in its listing of the lineages of noble heroes as they die. There’s also an extended, quite tense flashback to Aeneas and company’s escape from a burning Troy.
“[Oral tradition] was only moved further into the background … until it disappeared.”
Virgil might use many of Homer’s mnemonic devices, such as zeugma and synecdoche, but unlike Homer, his language is static. And Virgil manipulates this written language expertly. As John Dryden put it, Virgil’s phrases “could embody or enact what they described or narrated.” Fitzgerald’s example:
As heavens turned, Night from the Ocean stream
Came on, profound in gloom on earth and sky
And Myrmidons in hiding.
In the original Latin, the translator claims, the above passage has a “density of echoing sounds” which “convey the density of this darkness.” If Homer invokes the Muse to sing through him, Virgil asks the Muse to “Help me spread the massive page of war.”
Since Virgil, Homer has inspired a diverse, staggering amount of texts, while as Lord says, “Oral tradition … was only moved further and further into the background, literally into the backcountry, until it disappeared.” Perhaps most famous of Homer’s spawn is James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Exactly how flippant Joyce was being with the titular comparison is unclear, but safe to say, the Odysseydoes not end with a hundred pages of Penelope masturbating.)
The English poet and shit-stirrer Christopher Logue composed War Music, his massive reworking of the Iliad, between 1959 and his death in 2011. Larded with contemporary slang, the poem was meant to be, in Logue’s words, “dependent upon whatever … I could guess about a small part of the Iliad, a poem whose composition is reckoned to have preceded the beginnings of our own written language by fifteen centuries.” (Here is a very entertaining audio of Logue reading a piece of the section “All Day Permanent Red.”) Logue died leaving his epic unfinished, like Virgil did 2033 years before him.
Even if you had a time machine and could download perfectly spoken Ancient Greek, you still wouldn’t be able to hear the definitive Song of Troy.
Unlike Logue, who worked from translations, the classicist and poet Alice Oswald based her 2011 Memorial on source texts. Oswald’s poem strips the Iliad of anything resembling plot, presenting it as, in her words, “a kind of oral cemetery.” Oswald leaves only the death scenes, coupled with mini-bios of the fallen and extended similes. (Some of which are coldly beautiful, such as, “Like hawk wings cut through a sheet of starlings/Like wing-scissors open and close/Through a billow of jackdaws.”). Oswald aims “for translucence rather than translation,” seeing this as “compatible with the spirit of oral poetry, which was never stable, but always adapting itself to a new audience.”
Listening to Dan Stevens’ recording of Fitzgerald’s translation of the Iliad driving home from a recent vacation, I found myself paying attention not to the epithets nor the repeated slam of spears “near the nipple,” nor even the “noble” style, but rather to the story itself. While Stevens’ hot-British-actor-reads-you-a-bedtime-story style is no doubt far from Homer’s lilt, he has flow and does not lull you to sleep or shred scenery. The larger distractions of the text still raise their bleary heads, like Nestor’s seemingly endless tale about a youthful cattle raid in Chapter 11, but I found myself editing out most of the repetitions and focusing on the action. Which was, of course, what Homer wanted his audience to do.
Even if you had a time machine and could download perfectly spoken Ancient Greek, you still wouldn’t be able to hear the definitive Song of Troy, much less the small section of it we have. Homer shaped the Iliad and the Odyssey over long years of recitation before he gave the command performance for a scribe that Lord imagines. Richard Bentley reputedly said to Alexander Pope of his translation of the Iliad, “A very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you mustn’t call it Homer.” Despite the long tradition of trash-talking Homer’s translators and interpreters, there is no Platonic form of theIliad; there never was. There are only storytellers recreating a tale, and an audience reliving it.
Ed. note: All Iliad and Aeneid quotations are from the Fitzgerald translations.