Q&A Introduction to Oral Poetics


Q. Don’t ancient sources tell us that Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey?


“To say in Homeric criticism that “Homer does this” or “the poet intends that” can lead to problems. Not necessarily, but it can. {20|21} Granted, such usage corresponds to the spirit of conventional Greek references to the creation of epic poetry by Homer. For the ancient Greeks, however, Homer was not just the creator of epic par excellence: he was also the culture hero of epic itself. [29Greek institutions tend to be traditionally retrojected, by the Greeks themselves, each to a proto-creator, a culture hero who is credited with the sum total of a given cultural institution. [30It was a common practice to attribute any major achievement of society, even if this achievement may have been realized only through a lengthy period of social evolution, to the episodic and personal accomplishment of a culture hero who is pictured as having made his monumental contribution in an earlier era of the given society. [31Greek myths about lawgivers, for example, whether they are historical figures or not, tend to reconstruct these figures as the originators of the sum total of customary law as it evolved through time. [32So also with Homer: he is retrojected as the original genius of epic. [33]Thus the usage of saying that “Homer does this” or “the poet intends that” may become risky for modern experts if they start thinking of “Homer” in overly personalized terms, without regard for the traditional dynamics of composition and performanceAnd without regard for synchrony and diachrony. [34To say that “Homer wrote” is the ultimate risk, on which more below… Suffice it to note for now that the generic characterizations of Homer and other early poets seem to be a traditional function of the {21|22} poetry that represents them. This is not to say that the poetic tradition actually creates the poet; rather, the tradition has the capacity to transform even historical figures into generic characters who represent and are represented by the tradition.” [35]
-Gregory Nagy (Homeric Questions, 20-22)

Q. So if they weren’t written by Homer, how were the Iliad and Odyssey created?


“It was in the 1930’s, when Milman Parry and his assistant Albert Lord went to Yugoslavia to study the oral epic tradition that then still flourished there, that the Homeric poems began to be understood to be not only traditional, but oral—that is, as products of performance rather than composition through the technology of writing. In two expeditions to the former Yugoslavia in 1933–35 Parry and Lord collected 12,544 songs, stories, and conversations from 169 singers of the South Slavic epic song tradition. Their unsurpassed, original fieldwork has been matched only by the work of Albert Lord himself, who took additional trips in the 1950’s and 1960’s. No two of the songs collected are exactly alike, nor do any two of the singers have exactly the same repertoire. These singers composed extremely long epic poems in performance. In order to do this they drew on a vast storehouse of traditional themes and phrases that worked within the meter or rhythm of the poetry. That is to say they used what are called formulas to build each verse as they went along, instead of individual words that are static or memorized in a fixed order. This method results in each song being a new composition and is the reason why no two songs that Parry and Lord recorded were ever exactly the same. Parry and Lord applied this fieldwork to the Homeric poems by analogy, and they were able to show how the workings of the South Slavic system reveal a great deal about how theIliad and Odyssey were composed.

The work of Parry and Lord and the scholars who have built on their efforts suggests that in its earliest stages of development there was a great deal of multiformity in the Greek oral epic tradition. Countless variations on the story of the Trojan War and the episodes within it, the anger of Achilles, the returns of the heroes, and any number of traditional tales are known to have been current in different times and different places in antiquity, and were likely sung by countless poets whose names are now lost to us. The earliest textual witnesses of the Iliad and Odyssey that have survived, the fragmentary papyri from Egypt, postdate this fluid tradition by hundred of years, but nevertheless contain a great deal of variation that points to a very creative and dynamic early history of the poems.

At the same time, because Greek oral epic poetry was traditional in content already in ancient times, any given audience on any given occasion of performance knew the story and the characters already. There would have been nothing about the story, the language, the rhythm of the song, or the characters that was new for that audience. A poet in a traditional song culture like that of the ancient Greeks could compose poetry in performance using techniques, plots, characters, and language that he had inherited from many previous generations of singers. The material and techniques were traditional, but each performance was a new composition—a recomposition, in and for performance. In our publications we argue that the very fact that the Iliad and Odyssey are “oral traditional” often allows even deeper and more complex levels of meaning than may be found in poetry that is composed in a literate, text-based culture. These questions are important for the humanities as a whole, in terms of interpreting oral poetry and understanding its cultural impact, and we will continue to address them in our work on Iliad 10.

The work of Parry and Lord revolutionized Homeric studies, but there persists a strong contingent of scholars who try to minimize the impact of their work. These scholars prefer to see a single genius and a fixed point in time behind the Iliad and Odyssey as we now have them. This individual poet is sometimes conceived of as literate, and at other times imagined as dictating the poems to another literate person. [3  In both scenarios, a single absolute text is sought as the goal of the scholar’s efforts, the only text worth obtaining or appreciating. We maintain that this approach is fundamentally flawed, and marred by the prejudices of our literate, text-based culture. Whereas these Homerists seek to deny or minimize the multiformity of the Homeric poetry that has come down to us in a fruitless search for a single genius poet that is responsible for our Iliad and Odyssey, our work embraces variation as a window into the flourishing oral tradition that once existed in Greece, in which there were many singers and many tales. [4  What is at stake in taking such an approach is a better understanding of the language, structure, evolution, and cultural meaning of the epics.”
–Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott, First Drafts at Classics@: Oral Poetics and the Homeric Doloneia

Q. Does oral traditional poetry allow “for the choice of the best word/phrase”?

I have been reading around and it does seem most scholars think the Parry approach might go too far. But clearly there must be something behind it – poets that work in more “closed” verse styles clearly cherish the constraints that the form forces on language choices. Then again, the written version(s?) of the Iliad have the benefit of time and editing to allow for the choice of the “best” word/phrase.


Hi Jennifer, here’s a thing to watch out for: the notion that oral traditional poetry doesn’t allow “for the choice of the best word/phrase,” as you so succinctly put it. That plus the notion that there were written versions of the Iliad that benefited from the writing process in that particular way. All the research shows that for oral traditions that use writing — there are instances of traditions that have made that transition — there is no difference in the compositional style. Nor is there any “advantage” of the kind you are supposing to writing. The poets just compose and perform simultaneously but in writing (in November Greg and I came across a beautiful example of a tradition like that which thrives in modern Tibet alongside other flavors of the same tradition that don’t use writing at all). I hope this suggests to you the problem with the notion that people who compose and perform use language imprecisely — in practice, the exact opposite is true, as you will see when you play with the tools that the Sourcebook provides you for researching words in Homer and elsewhere (the Core Vocabulary aka Glossary that is going to be published sometime today will help — all the words in it are tracked wherever they occur in the Sourcebook). In reality, the diction of oral traditions is more precise and more contextually regulated than anything that we do in writing. It’s a question of getting out of the mindset that literacy and writing are a superior form of communication when it comes to poetry: that’s another one of those apparent truths that doesn’t work out in practice. What replaces the time to decide which word to use is generations and generations of performers interacting with generations and generations of audiences to hone their diction and their message.
-Leonard Muellner

Q. What are the differences between oral and written versions of the Iliad?

I am very interested in the differences between the oral and written versions. Does the classics community know much about this? Are there significant variations in the original Greek of the fragments of the Iliad (or some other document with an oral precursor)?


Jennifer, the Iliad was a poem composed in performance; what we have is a complete poem, not fragments, and it is demonstrably the product of an oral tradition. The manuscripts and papyri that transmit it feature the kinds of variation in wording and structure that are appropriate to a performance tradition. There’s no need to invoke writing in its creation, only in its transmission to us. So I don’t think you need to speak of oral vs. written “versions” of the Iliad. The first scholars to analyze and understand oral traditions were Milman Parry and his protégé, Albert Lord, and their model was Homeric poetry (Parry was a classics professor at Harvard; Albert Lord was a professor of folklore and mythology at Harvard who was well-trained in classics and a lot more). So the comparative study of oral traditions began in classics, and it has continued to thrive in some parts of the professional community, especially in the United States. Some of us do know about how oral traditions function — and if you want to learn more about how poetry is composed and performed at the same time, the best thing to read is Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales. I think that would help you to understand what oral composition is like — there’s a whole super-system in place that makes an exquisitely refined process of poetic composition possible. Parry and Lord documented how people learn to do it and how it works in fieldwork that began in the 1930’s and continued into the ’50’s in the former Yugoslavia and Albania, and Lord’s The Singer of Tales, first published in 1960 and published in a second edition in 2000, was the result — Parry died very young, and Lord carried on his work.
-Leonard Muellner


Hi JacquiRenee, this is a beautifully researched and thought out question; it’s not “one gigantic read-in”, but in part a request for dialogue and in part a request for “authoritative” information. There are lots of contested issues around Homeric poetry, and the one that you are asking is one among them, so what I am about to write is the response that some people would not give to your question but that Greg and others of us who study Homeric poetry in comparative perspective, as a the product of a song culture, have been working out. I think that it’d be good to go back to the quotation from H24H that you began with: what’s “new” in the song of Phemios is “new” in reference to the here and now of the story, in reference to its timeframe, not in reference to our timeframe, the audience’s. The question I think you are asking is, are the differences in the way the poetry refers to itself in the Odyssey as against the Iliad constitutive of something “new” in a historical sense rather than the one that Greg is talking about. It’s worth exploring the idea that this is a different story about a different kind of hero and a different kind of story being told in the ways that the Homeric poetic tradition finds to adapt to different kinds of content. I think it’s better to avoid the all-too-familiar (familiar to us!) “genius” singer concept to account for what you can explain in comparative terms as something consistent with the way that different performance traditions in song cultures like the one in Ancient Greece evolve and differentiate themselves (for instance, if you have heard about Sanskrit “epic” poetry, there are two huge traditions, the Mahābhārata and the Ramāyana — actually there are versions of the M that have the R inside them, but not the other way around!). Thinking about the poems as evolving over time in relationship to each other is the model that we have used, though it’s easy to confuse the fact that the Odyssey (a nostos tale, a story of homecoming, told in retrospect by the hero as narrator as well as the master narrator) follows the Iliad (a more or less linear story of three weeks near the end of the Trojan war) within the chronology of the epic tradition with the notion that it was historically secondary as well. That’s not what you are doing or saying (for sure!), but it can color things without your wanting it to. I’d also point out, as you do, that there are plenty of self-references to the poetic tradition in the Iliad (you mention Achilles singing the klea andrōn in Scroll IX – that’s a very telling moment), but there is also the introduction to the catalog of ships in Iliad II and the way that Helen in Iliad VI tells Hector that everything is happening so that they may become “subjects of song” (the Greek word is aoidimoi, from aoidos ‘singer’ and aoidē ‘song’) for people in the future. But it’s also there when anyone uses the word kleos in both poems, including the places where it is translated as “news” “good name” “message” in the Odyssey. Those are places where in English we don’t have one word to cover the sense of this Greek term, which is, etymologically speaking, the noun from the word that means ‘hear’ or ‘listen’ (listen, which was once klisten, is actually an English word that is cognate with Greek kleos; as ‘fame’ Latin fāma comes from Latin fārī ‘to speak’, so ‘glory’ comes from Greek klu- ‘hear, listen’). In other words, I’m suggesting to you that “retrospective” doesn’t have to mean “evolutionary” over time. What do you think?

Q. How could an oral poet memorize something as long as the Iliad or Odyssey?

SO- here’s the big question. I do think in my novice brain that Homer was not the sole author of these epics. Perhaps Homer – each of the Homers and their merry band of bards/scribes were the driving force behind the unification of the local versions and then crafting it into a new technology – writing. And that’s where I get a bit stuck. For all the different vocal inflections,nuances and stress accents on a word, only one word gets chosen to be written down. What an amazing feat – the complexity is staggering. Now, I would like to know what you think, and I really understand if you still tell me that I am coming at this from a modern point of view – but when the words hit the papyrus, do you not think that it is human nature (and for sure human nature is present in all its glory in these two epics) for the bards to acknowledge? preserve? their domain, their role as the fulcrum (from fulcire – to prop up! Bearing posts!) of society. They were the conduits (conductus – to bring together- ha! -have no idea if appropriate but this is fun!) of the medium, of the gods/muses. However, once it is down on scrolls – it is gone. Gone from the enlightened to the potentially uninitiated. Not immediately of course, but gone for sure.


So now we’re getting into the specifics of how performers of songs like the Iliad and Odyssey do what they do. The models we have for performance are things like this: you memorize a song or a sonata and you practice and practice until you can play it the way you are taught and the way you find most interesting or expressive or whatever aesthetic you want to apply as a performer; or you are a jazz musician, and you have a riff and a system for improvising on it, and you perform and compose at the same time, though there may be performers who do the same thing every time (in other words, who have memorized their performance — but that’s not “real” jazz). The second is a better model than the first, but it’s really not like either of these things. Again, the best way to get a sense of how this works is to read The Singer of Tales, but here’s one way to think of it. First of all, the formal requirements of the poetry in these media are amazingly complex. There are complex rules that determine the rhythmical pattern, where words can end and where they cannot end, what rhythmical patters are allowed and what are not, and there also is a rhetoric and aesthetic about where words are placed in the line. What makes it possible for people to perform and compose (at one and the same time) verse lines upon verse lines that work within these complex rules and tell a powerful and beautiful and moving story? It’s definitely not memorizing their performance. As I said, they are performing and composing at the same time, not repeating stuff that they have memorized. What makes it possible is that people who do this (and from comparative evidence in other cultures, as astounding as this seems to us, almost anyone who wants to can do this) start learning the systematic language of poetry when they are young, and they keep on listening and trying to speak it just in the way that you have learned to speak your own language. So it’s a special language developed over centuries by generation after generation of singer interacting with live audiences until it’s gotten big and flexible and ever more and more expressive for the culture in which it thrives. You are worried about fixed texts and fluid texts, and also multiple authors — we are not used to systems like these, and we think that a poet is a great genius who can do something that the rest of us can’t. Not so in these cultures; there are of course better and worse singers, but in general, the model that seems appropriate is to think of these people as artisans who learn a craft that all of the other people in the culture can more or less do but not as well as those who have devoted their lives to doing it. Greeks were super-competitive people, but it’s a mistake to think that singers are like our kind of “authors.” They have learned a systematic medium (it’s just a special language that produces poetic lines, instead of the language that we all learn that produces, well – conversations? speeches? stories that we tell our friends and relatives? all of the above) and the stories that go with it, and they are incentivized in all sorts of ways to keep the tradition alive and have it be as expressive as possible for themselves and their audiences, who are in front of them all the time. There’s no “censorship”, but there is a performer’s need to succeed with his or her audience. When people do fieldwork on these kinds of song cultures, the singers say things lie this — that they sing the same song word for word and line for line, except that they don’t know what words and lines are (we do because of writing and printing). And when they sing “the same song” a month later or five years later, lots of stuff is the same, and they are using the same traditional poetic language, but there are also things that are different. The notion of a fixed text which is fundamental to us has no meaning for them; what they are aiming at is “the same song”, and what that is includes the ability to vary the diction, to dwell on favorite bits and to skip and speed up over more boring bits, to make the language and the story as beautiful and powerful as they can, all of that in order to get people tuned in and appreciative. Planning it all out in advance — well that’s what we would do if we were told we had to perform a speech or a poem, but these people have a system that their brains have learned and that makes things work extremely well even if they aren’t necessarily always “consciously” aware of it. And people like themselves have been perfecting the system that they have learned for generations upon generations. So the result is incredible even to people like us, thousands of years later.
-Leonard Muellner

Q. But aren’t these clearly the works of a “genius”?


The point I am trying to make is that the text that has come down to us, in terms its overall structure and meaning, is clearly the work of genius. And, while we can understand how the epic was sung over hundreds of years (the jazz “riffs”), we don’t really have an explanation how this type of process, to which so many people contributed, could end up as such great literature that would take a literary genius to compose or write. Yes, there can be great songs throughout the epic through the process you describe, but there simply cannot be so many geniuses that could create the literary greatness of the text that we now have.

So the question is, how did that great literary genius creep in there and how was he not diluted by all the people involved in the process over such a long period of time?


Ok, dear not_a_hero, I know this is hard, even painful to contemplate, but this whole course is about expanding your horizons, and you’re at a crucial point, I think, in your understanding of this problem. You’ve grown up with the idea that some poetry is especially great and that those great poets like Shakespeare and Milton were geniuses, so that’s your model not just for how you imagine the stuff being created but also for what you are doing when you read. You’re used to thinking that on the creating end of what you are reading was some especially gifted single human being with whom you are communing as it were when you read. If you understand the way that a highly developed, highly competitive song culture works, you actually have generations of people interacting with a live audience perfecting the diction and the story and the message — when you stop to think about it, it’s a lot more powerful as an engine of cultural communication than one genius (who after all is said and done doesn’t ever come out of nowhere — Shakespeare didn’t invent Elizabethan Drama, and there were a lot of other extraordinary playwrights in his time and before him with whom he competed and whose skills he learned from). What accepting a different model, one that suits a song culture and a performance tradition, means is that reading isn’t you communing with the dead genius. Instead, it means that you focus on the message, on the content, not the single individual whom you so naturally believe has to be the creator of the great poem. Concentrating on the genius individual and only being willing to believe that great poetry can be made by a single great genius — that’s our culture, that’s our belief system, that’s what we want to read into (sorry if I’m overusing the term) the culture of Ancient Greece. And it’s not that Homer is so exceptional as the product of such a song culture. We treasure it as the origin of Western Literature, but other cultures have equally or even more elaborated and more powerfully communicative traditional songs that have the same effect on them: we’ve talked about the Sanskrit epics, but there are many others. So it’s a matter of seeing things in a broader perspective, one that really accounts for what we have, rather than falling back on the familiar and getting stuck with what we have learned to do since we were children as the only way to perceive a different phenomenon. But all that is only one consequence of the compositional model for epic that we’re talking about, that you need to give up the genius creator model. There are a lot of other things! Hope this helps, and I truly understand what you are going through. Best, Lenny

Q. Didn’t Nietzsche discount these ideas?

How does a mass of people get together to develop the embedded messages that clearly exist, for that is what he discussed in his Lecture to Basel University that is published I think in 1867, where is discusses “never had such a crown been placed upon the masses”

I don’t think Nietzsche would agree with you view in entirety.

I think the base storyline probably is from the period. However a lot has since been embroidered into the text. Specific words, word pairs and so on the contribute to embedded meanings. To suggest that “the masses” came up with that seems impossible. Which is believe is Nietzsche’s point.


I.D., I’m no competition for Nietzsche, who was a brilliant classical philologist (among other things) whose work and methods are worthy of admiration. But he just didn’t know what we now know about song culture from actual fieldwork in cultures that maintained it. What he knew was talk that “the masses” creating the poem, in the way that such creation was romanticized in the 19th Century and formulated as “Das Volk dichtet.” What I’m talking about is the opposite of that, a very concrete process whose results can be documented. I don’t want to argue by authority, though, and I’m saying that before you close your mind, it’s good to learn about another way of conceiving things. What I’m doing is summarizing and pointing you at the work of others — Parry, Lord, and Prof. Nagy, among others.
-Leonard Muellner

Q. Were there various “local versions” of the Iliad in ancient times?

What I found interesting in the video discussion this week was a comment that the images might reflect different ‘traditions’ or versions of the Illiad, and not necessarily ‘our’ Iliad. I wonder about the multiverse of different Iliads. In modern storytelling, Marvel Comics is credited with creating alternative storylines which work with the same characters–similar but different. One example (not Marvel) is how the origin story of Superman has been retold over and over in comics and movies and television, all with subtle changes or differences. I wonder to what extent this occurred in the ancient world, perhaps out of necessity as localities were separated from each other and developed different narratives in their own tellings. I also wonder if there was any struggle to develop a ‘canonical’ version of a story, as perhaps ‘our’ Iliad has become ‘the’ Iliad in the present age.



Good point! Among the multiple Iliadic versions was one that was native to the island of Lesbos, home of Sappho. I have done a lot of work trying to reconstruct this particular version. And I think you are right: the Iliadic versions reflected in those early Athenian vase paintings point to a special Athenian way of looking at Achilles as a proto-athlete and proto-warrrior.
-Gregory Nagy

Q. Is writing necessary for the wide transmission of oral poetry? What do we know about the “critical moment” when the poems were written down?

in light of what you wrote above, I need to reflect on something I forgot to include in original post – how much of my question has to do (if anything) with the critical moment where all this is happening – when the oral tradition is being written down.


Hi JacquiRenee, there’s no reason to assume that the texts were “created” at a “critical moment” when the oral tradition was “being written down.” That’s confusing the composition and reception of the poetry (which happen simultaneously in a song culture) with its transmission, which is a separate thing. Experience in comparable cultures is that writing is not a necessary vehicle at all for the transmission of poetic texts of this scope in a song culture. We need to talk about comparisons because we have no evidence whatever that the Iliad and Odyssey were transmitted in written form until the 4th Century BCE.
-Leonard Muellner

Q. So then how did Homeric poetry get written down?


The only way to answer this question is to devise models that suit the evidence we have, which is not huge and much of which is indirect. Then we can try to perfect the model(s) with new direct or indirect evidence or new thoughts, or we can throw out the model altogether and devise a new one. So we’re talking about model-building on the basis of comparative evidence from other cultures, not proof positive of one “correct” theory.

I think that I’ve gotten you to separate the writing process from the composition process. That’s really important, because lots of people get stuck with an idea that actually has no comparative support, the one in which some genius who lives and works in an song culture discovers what a great thing writing is and therefore changes the way that he behaves and thinks so that then he produces the masterpiece that is Homer by writing. That just doesn’t really make sense as a model. Writing doesn’t have any necessary or predictable impact on oral traditions; experience teaches song poetry can thrive when writing exists and when it doesn’t. But the idea that a poet in a song culture would “adopt” writing as a superior model is really not a convincing one. That’s like saying that a train would naturally chose to become a trailer truck since it is a superior means of transportation. There’s nothing superior about writing as a vehicle for poetry. That’s our tunnel vision about the superiority of our own culture’s values. It’s true that in some song cultures writing comes to acquire the prestige that is embedded in our word “illiterate.” I myself have seen a man perform of an evening a chunk of the Persian epic, The Book of Kings or Shahnameh, with a kind of scroll in his hands. The scroll had writing on it. He started out performing and occasionally was pulling on this scroll and from time to time looking at it, and as he went on there was a bigger and bigger pile of scrolled paper on the floor beside him, but he never actually read from it – it was a prop, period, meant to make people who think that writing is best that he was somehow or other using writing. Which he wasn’t. So the real question is what happened internally within Greek culture that made it possible for the poems to get written down.

Albert Lord (the author of Singer of Tales, Cambridge 1969 which is the best starting point for understanding oral traditional poetry) thought that the process was a matter of dictation, that somehow someone got the traditional singers to compose slowly while a scribe or professional writer wrote the poems down. You may know that he was a person who, with his teacher Milman Parry, did exactly that for some singers in the South Slavic tradition in the 30’s, namely, take dictation from a singer who couldn’t write. But that’s the problem with that as a model: you have to have someone “parachute in” from a culture like ours with its value system about writing to have it make sense. What we need is a model that generates a written form of the poetry from within, not with a 20th Century scholar parachuting into Ancient Greece.

So what models do we have for that? Well, there’s Greg’s model, and it’s presented in a very accessible way in a book he wrote called Homeric Questions. I’m not making a sales pitch. You can read it free online, here. It’s an evolutionary model that motivates the written forms of Homeric poetry as a process that took place over a long period of time, and that really takes account of the evidence we have for people consulting written forms of the poetry and also for things like vasepaintings that actually represent scenes from Homeric poetry as we have them in the medieval texts of it that have come down to us (earlier vasepaintings often don’t resemble our versions of the stories, presumably because they hadn’t yet crystallized into what we call Homer). There is also a historical and politically relevant setting in which the performance of these huge poems was orchestrated, in the form of an Athenian festival like the festivals in which Athenian tragedies were performed, this one called the Panathenaia, and a tyrant, Peisistratus, who had an agenda in taking on Homeric performance in Athens (mid-late 6th Century BCE). That also explains how you get such huge poems in some kind of relatively stable form in the first place: there are political and social forces at work, and Greg has recently modified his work in view of a newer model by another Homerist who works with us, Douglas Frame, who wrote a book on the figure Nestor in Homer (Hippota Nestor, Cambridge MA 2009, also available free online here). It’s a big book, over 900 pages in print, and you will see Doug soon in a video. He’s written a shortened version of his basic scenario here. What we are looking at in both cases is a festival in which the performance and therefore the composition of the poems is a form of community-building. In Doug’s case, the scenario that would have later resulted in the Athenian performances that Greg features goes back to an earlier period, to the time of the rise of the Ionian dodecapolis (a league of 12 cities in Asia Minor) in the late 8th and early 7th Centuries BCE. That is the point at which the process of epic composition culminated in the first huge compositions that ultimately (after a long and complex process of transmission without writing and then with more and more writing) give us what we have, but that version of the poems is itself a historic artefact, not in any way the “original” version of some one singer, but the result of a lot of reperformance and recomposition and, in the case of our text of Homer, a lot of editing both ancient and modern (going back to Alexandria, where scholars supposed that Homer was a poet who wrote like the ones that they knew, but they still respected the diversity of the tradition that they managed to compile, which was multiform and not uniform).
-Leonard Muellner

Q. But the Iliad and Odyssey that we read don’t show this multiformity. Is that because scholars have already figured out “the best”/”most Homeric” text?


“The received practice of textual criticism, in this case as applied to ancient Greek texts, has the goal of recovering the original composition of the author. [1] To create a critical edition, a modern editor assembles a text by collating the various written witnesses to an ancient Greek text, understanding their relationship with each other, knowing the kinds and likelihoods of mistakes that can occur when texts are copied by hand, and, in the case of poetry, applying the rules and exceptions of the meter as well as grammar. The final published work will then represent what she or he thinks are the author’s own words (or as close to them as possible). An editor may follow one manuscript almost exclusively or pick and choose between different manuscripts to compile what seems truest to the original. The editor also places in the apparatus criticus what she or he judges to be significant variants recorded in the witnesses. The reader must rely on the editor for the completeness of the apparatus in reporting variants. For a text that was composed and originally published in writing, this goal of recovering the original text and these practices for achieving it are valuable and productive, even if the author’s original composition may never be fully achieved because of the state of the evidence.

Because the Iliad and Odyssey were not composed in writing, however, this editorial system cannot be applied in the same way. Our versions of these epics result from a long oral tradition in which they were created, performed, and re-performed, all without the technology of writing. In the earliest phases of this tradition, the Iliad and Odyssey would never have been performed exactly the same way twice. In other words, in a tradition in which the composition occurs during the course of performance, there is no one “author’s original composition” to attempt to recover. The fundamental difference in the composition and history of this poetry, then, means that we must adjust the assumptions in our understanding of the variations in the written record. What does it mean when we see variations, which still fit the meter and language of the poetry, in the witnesses to the texts? These kinds of variations are of a kind different from those that are more clearly scribal errors. Instead of “mistakes” to be corrected or choices that must be weighed and evaluated, as an editor would do in the case of a text composed in writing, we assert that these variations are testaments to the system of language that underlies the composition-in-performance of the oral tradition.

The Iliad and Odyssey as Oral Poetry

As we have already noted elsewhere in this volume (see “Interpreting Iliad 10”), we have learned from the comparative fieldwork of Milman Parry and Albert Lord that the Homeric epics were composed in performance during a long oral tradition that preceded any written version. [2] In this tradition, the singer did not memorize a static text prior to performance, but would compose the song as he sang it. How is this possible, especially for a song such as the Iliad? As Parry and Lord were able to illustrate comparatively by way of the South Slavic tradition, the composition depends on a traditional system that can best be understood as a specialized language with its own specialized grammar and vocabulary. We refer to this specialized language as “formulaic,” using Parry’s terminology. This traditional language is most familiar to us in name-epithet combinations (e.g. “swift-footed Achilles”), but, as scholarship over the past seventy-five years has shown, the whole epic is composed using this formulaic system. A singer trained in this system of language and in the traditional stories, as Parry and Lord themselves observed in action, can then rapidly compose while performing (Lord 1960/2000).
One of the most important revelations of the fieldwork of Parry and Lord is that every time the song is performed in an oral composition-in-performance tradition, it is composed anew. The singers themselves do not strive to innovate, but they nevertheless compose a new song each time (Dué 2002:83–89). The mood of the audience or occasion of performance are just two factors that can influence the length of a song or a singer’s choices between competing, but still traditional, elements of plot. The term “variant,” as employed by textual critics when evaluating witnesses to a text, is not appropriate for such a compositional process. Lord has explained the difference this way: “the word multiform is more accurate than ‘variant,’ because it does not give preference or precedence to any one word or set of words to express an idea; instead it acknowledges that the idea may exist in several forms” (Lord 1995:23). Our textual criticism of Homeric epic, then, needs to distinguish what may genuinely be copying mistakes from what are performance multiforms: that is, what variations we see are very likely to be part of the system and the tradition in which these epics were composed (Dué 2001a).

Once we begin to think about the variations as parts of the system rather than as mistakes or corruptions, textual criticism of the Homeric texts can then address fresh questions. Some of the variations we see in the written record, for example, reveal the flexibility of this system. Where different written versions record different words, but each phrase or line is metrically and contextually sound, we must not necessarily consider one “correct” or “composed by Homer” and the other a “mistake” or an “interpolation.” Rather, each could represent a different performance possibility, a choice that the singer could have made, and would have been making rapidly without reference to a set text (in any sense of that word). John Foley has used the term “oral-derived poetry” to describe the Iliad and Odyssey because we no longer have direct access to the performance tradition and, instead, must rely exclusively on texts, which themselves are at a remove of many years from any particular performance (Foley 1995:60–98, 137–143). In terms of interpreting the poetry, however, Foley argues that we are still required to understand its “traditional idiom”: “Poems composed in a particular register must be received in the same register, to the extent that such fidelity is possible over gaps of space, time, and culture” (Foley 2002:132). We believe that a new kind of textual criticism is necessary because of Homeric epic’s special register of performance, and that this new criticism should help to recover, rather than obscure, what is natural and particular to that register. By means of this criticism, then, considering and properly understanding the multiforms that remain in the textual record will help us to receive the poems in their own register.

Q. Are these ideas widely accepted in the field? Why haven’t I heard of this before?

For more on oral poetics and Homeric Questions, read:

Homeric Questions by Gregory Nagy (available online via the Center for Hellenic Studies)

The Singer of Tales by Albert Lord