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The Homer Multitext Project

Editors: Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott
Information Architects: Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith
Co-Editors: Douglas Frame, Leonard Muellner, Gregory Nagy

For the latest news on the Homer Multitext, see the Homer Multitext blog.
The Homer Multitext project, the first of its kind in Homeric studies, seeks to present the textual transmission of the Iliad and Odyssey in a historical framework. Such a framework is needed to account for the full reality of a complex medium of oral performance that underwent many changes over a long period of time. These changes, as reflected in the many texts of Homer, need to be understood in their many different historical contexts. The Homer Multitext provides ways to view these contexts both synchronically and diachronically.

Using technology that takes advantage of the best available practices and open source standards that have been developed for digital publications in a variety of fields, the Homer Multitext offers free access to a library of texts and images, a machine-interface to that library and its indices, and tools to allow readers to discover and engage with the Homeric tradition.

For more details on the Homer Multitext  see pages on project components, technological infrastructure, multitext links, and the full list of project participants.

A Multitextual Approach to Homer


The Homer Multitext views the full historical reality of the Homeric textual tradition as it evolved for well over a thousand years, from the pre-Classical era well into the medieval. It is an edition of Homer that is electronic and web-based. Unlike printed editions, which offer a reconstruction of an original text as it supposedly existed at the time and place of its origin, the Homer Multitext offers the tools for reconstructing a variety of texts as they existed in a variety of times and places.

Unlimited in its capacity to handle any number of textual variants, the electronic format of the Homer Multitext offers critical readers of Homer the opportunity to analyze the many different phases that led to the historical Iliad and Odyssey. By tracking the textual variations attested in the Homeric sources of transmission (in the media of papyri, ancient quotations, and medieval manuscripts), the Homer Multitext enables the user to reconstruct the Homeric tradition in the earliest stages of its textuality.

Here is a brief summary of the research that has led to the Multitext project. The poetry that we know as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey results from a lengthy evolution of oral poetry that was composed in performance. The comparative work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, as synthesized in Lord’s book The Singer of Tales (first published in 1960), shows that oral poetry was composed in performance. Such a mode of composition depends on a system that can best be understood as a specialized language that has its own specialized grammar and vocabulary. The oral poet does not memorize a static, precomposed poem for performance but learns a special language of composition-in-performance. Thus each time the song is sung, each time the poem is composed-in-performance, it is composed anew.

The system of oral poetry allows for rapid composition-in-performance because the poetry is composed through formulaic language, as most visible in the half-lines of name-epithet combinations familiar to readers of Homer. Because such formulas are suited to the meter, they are also flexible and can be interchanged with one another. Although the mentality of the poets within the system is that they sing the song the same way every time (that is, they sing it the right way), the vantage point of an outsider is different. As Parry and Lord noticed in their field work on living oral traditions, the system of oral poetry allows for variation in how the story is told: details may be changed and episodes may be expanded or compressed. So the narrative can evolve over time.

During the time when Homeric poetry was transmitted orally and not yet through writing, it followed the grammar, as it were, of a coherent system. During such a time, what we might think of as the "text" was not at all fixed. Instead, we can expect a great deal of the variation that the system of oral poetry allows and even demands.

Although most experts in Homeric studies recognize that an oral tradition shaped the Iliad and Odyssey, it is not known how these epics came to be written texts. Other things about them, however, are well known. Even after alphabetic writing was introduced and oral poetry was written down, the language of this poetry persisted. We know that these epics continued to be performed and to be experienced as a performance for centuries.

Thus variation, which is typical of oral poetry, continued along with the system, even as transcripts of performances were recorded in writing, and even as these performances relied more and more on scripts than on the techniques of composition-in-performance as time went on. Accordingly, the earliest surviving phases of this poetry show the most variation. With the passage of time, however, the text becomes more and more fixed, and eventually the textual tradition takes over from the oral tradition. But variations still exist in the textual tradition. That is, written sources continue to show variation, which is a sure sign of the continuing operation of the system that is oral poetry, which was the medium of the Homeric tradition for centuries before it became a fixed text.

An understanding of this medium forces a rethinking of how the text of Homeric poetry is presented on the printed page - and how the Multitext presents the information in a different way, a way that is more intuitive for the reader, more transparent in showing the multiple sources, and more true to the textual and oral traditions of the poetry. In printed critical editions of texts, editors choose what they judge to be the original text, that is, what the author actually wrote (or as close as possible to such an original), and they place into an apparatus criticus what other witnesses to the text record. The text as printed on a given page of such a critical edition gives the reader the impression that this text is the standard, while everything else at the bottom of the page is somehow beneath that standard. Such a formatting of the text by textual critics is reasonable when the aim is to establish the original text that was composed in writing. In the case of the Homeric text, however, the aim of determining an original, especially in a system where each performance could change the composition, is self-defeating. And attempts to achieve such an aim end up sacrificing accuracy in reporting the status of variations. Textual variants in the Homeric text are not necessarily "mistakes" to be corrected. In many cases such variant forms are reflexes of variations that were once just as much a part of the system as those forces that are placed by editors in the upper register of printed texts of Homer.