Homer’s Text and Language

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2. The Homeric Text and Problems of Multiformity*

2§2 In his writings, lectures, and conversations, Lord preferred to use the terms multiformity and multiform instead of variation and variant in order to emphasize the fluidity of oral poetry, to be contrasted with the fixity of written texts. Lord was worried that those who are unfamiliar with the workings of any given oral tradition might easily be misled to think of its variants exclusively in terms of a pre-existing fixed text:

This concept of multiformity, as Lord acknowledges, challenges the student of literature with a basic problem:

As we see from Lord’s formulation, the concept of “original” is relative in terms of oral traditions. In what follows I argue that multiformity in oral traditions likewise needs to be defined in relative rather than absolute terms.

2§5 In response to the challenge posed by Lord’s concept of multiformity, the evolutionary model presents an alternative to the numerous attempts at reconstructing an ‘original’ text of Homer. In terms of this model, I envisage five periods of progressively less fluidity, more rigidity:

1. a relatively most fluid period, with no written texts, extending from the early second millennium into the middle of the eighth century in the first millennium BCE.

2. a more formative or “Panhellenic” period, still with no written texts, from the middle of the eighth century to the middle of the sixth BCE.

3. a definitive period, centralized in Athens, with potential texts in the sense of transcripts, at any or several points from the middle of the sixth century to the later part of the fourth BCE; this period starts with the reform of Homeric performance traditions in Athens during the régime of the Peisistratidai.

4. a standardizing period, with texts in the sense of transcripts or even scripts, from the later part of the fourth century to the middle of the second BCE; this period starts with the reform of Homeric performance traditions in Athens during the régime of Demetrius of Phalerum, which lasted from 317 to 307 BCE

5. a relatively most rigid period, with texts as scripture, from the middle of the second century onward; this period starts with the completion of Aristarchus’ editorial work on the Homeric texts, not long after 150 BCE or so, which is a date that also marks the general disappearance of the so-called “eccentric” papyri.

2§9 The wording “minimal variation” is intended to reflect an inherent relativity in the concept of multiformity: by the time we reach period 3, in terms of the model described, the multiformity of the Homeric poems is already relatively minimal. In period 4 and period 5, the relative multiformity is even further reduced.

2§10 Whereas this model views the multiformity of the Homeric poems in relative terms, others imagine a binary opposition between multiformity and “uniformity,” arguing that the Iliad and the Odyssey are uniform to start with—and positing an “original” written text in order to explain such uniformity. In the words of one commentator:

In terms of this formulation, the notion of the “fixity” of the Iliad is to be explained by the hypothesis of an “original” text dictated by an eighth-century Homer. [
18] The evolutionary model, recalling Lord’s view that “we must cease trying to find an original of any traditional song,” obviates the need to posit such an “original.” It sees the “fixity” of the Homeric poems as relative, resulting from a progressive decrease in multiformity, not from an “original” uniformity. [19] {30|31}

2§14 Two important clarifications are needed. {31|32}

2§15 First, in terms of the evolutionary model, only the Iliad and the Odyssey pass through the “Panathenaic bottleneck.” Only the Iliad and the Odyssey pass through periods 3, 4, and 5. By contrast, the poetry of the Cycle—including the Cypria—is exempt from periods 3, 4, and 5. Consequently, the evolutionary model allows for far more fluidity—or let us say multiformity—in the case of the Cypria and far less in the case of the Iliad.

2§16 Secondly, if indeed the Iliad and the Odyssey were shaped by the Panathenaia, unlike the Cypria and other poems of the Cycle, we must still be wary of assuming that the Homeric poems of the second half of the sixth century BCE were already the written “originals” of our Iliad and Odyssey.

2§21 Perhaps it would be useful for us to reverse, as it were, our temporal direction. If we work our way backward in time, not forward, as we trace the textual history of the Homeric poems, the implausibility of a “uniform” Panathenaic text of the Iliad and the Odyssey, continuing unchanged from the second half of the sixth century BCE all the way to the second half of the second, can be intuited more easily. What we see is a marked increase in degrees of multiformity as we move back from the fifth to the fourth to the third periods—from “scripture” to “script” to “transcript.”

2§31 Some textual variants, that is, stem from relatively earlier phases of an evolving oral tradition, while other textual variants stem from later phases. In terms of my evolutionary model, plus verses of Homeric poetry may belong to a phase so early that they predate the system of numerus versuum. If we contemplate the later phases, when this system of verse-counting was being introduced, we can see the emergence of a principle that regulates performances, not texts per se. The passage from unregulated to regulated verse-counts in the performance tradition would correspond to a passage from “transcript” to “script” in the text tradition. In other words, the principle of numerus versuum had to be performative before it became purely textual. Moreover, the passage from performative to purely textual verse-counting would correspond to a passage from “script” to “scripture.”

2§32 The plus verses are a most valuable test case. As a rule, they do not fit, either textually or thematically: we find that there is usually something “off” about them in terms of the overall text as we know it from viewing the Homeric poems through the lens of the “vulgate” version. But there is nothing “off” about these same plus verses in terms of the overall system as we know it from viewing Homeric poetry through the lens of its formulas and themes inherited from a continuing oral poetic tradition.

2§34 From the synchronic perspective of “our” Iliad, stemming from the “vulgate” version, this verse is thus an “interpolation.” From the diachronic perspective, however, Iliad V 808 is a precious vestige of a phase of Homeric poetry that predates the institution of the numerus versuum at the Panathenaia. From a diachronic perspective, this verse is not at all anomalous: as we see from Iliad IV 390, Athena was indeed present and did indeed help Tydeus fight the Thebans.

2§41 As the foregoing examples indicate, multiformity in ancient Greek epic must be understood as a matter of degrees. A more precise specification of these degrees—both formally and historically—seems a most rewarding new line of research. {39|40}


[ back ] * The original version of this essay is N 2001a.

[ back ] 1. Collected papers in Parry 1971, = MHV.

[ back ] 2. Lord 1960, 1991, 1995.

[ back ] 3. Lord 1960:100.

[ back ] 4. Lord 1995:23. In this posthumously published work, Lord also refers to his extensive discussions of multiformity in his earlier work (especially Lord 1991). For more on multiformity, see also PP, especially Ch.5, “Multiform epic and Aristarchus’ quest for the real Homer.” In PP 9, I explicitly accept Lord’s understanding of multiform while continuing to use the term variant as an equivalent. The usefulness of speaking in terms of variation—without implications of an Urform—is vividly illustrated by the metaphorical world of poikiliā ‘variation’: see PP Ch.1: “The Homeric nightingale and the poetics of variation in the art of a troubadour.” Lord himself (1995:23) uses variant and multiform as synonyms: “The very existence of these thousands of variants or multiforms is dramatic proof of the fluidity of the Latvian oral daina tradition.”

[ back ] 5. Lord 1960:100. The italics are mine. Quoted in PP 9. In the original printed version of PP, I committed three errors in reproducing this single paragraph, which is one of Lord’s most valuable formulations. For the record, here are my errors: p. 9 line 4, “It seems to us necessary” not “It seems ideal to us”; p. 9 line 8, “From one point of view” not “From an oral point of view”; p. 9 line 9, “is an” not “is.” These errors, corrected in later versions of PP, illustrate (at my expense) the dangers of extreme familiarity with the original of a fixed text. There is an irony in my having made perhaps the worst typographical errors of my career in reproducing a passage that was most familiar to me.

[ back ] 6. On the terms “synchronic” and “diachronic,” see again Saussure 1916:117.

[ back ] 7. For more on synchronic and diachronic perspectives in analyzing oral traditions, see PR 3–4 and HR 1.

[ back ] 8. PP 151–152, 109, and HQ 103–104. This is not to say that fluidity and rigidity are necessarily characteristic of earlier and later phases of any system. My “evolutionary model” differs from various other models, such as the “dictation theory” of Janko 1982:228–231, who proposes 750–725 BCE and 743–713 BCE as definitive dates for the text-fixation of the Iliad and Odyssey respectively. It also differs from the modified dictation theory of West 1995:203–219, who argues for a terminus post quem of either 688 or perhaps 678 BCE.

[ back ] 9. The term was introduced in N 1999b:271–272 (see now HR 69–70); also N 1999f:68. For more on the general concept behind the term, see also PH 23, HQ 43, and PP 77.

[ back ] 10. To quote from my earlier work (HQ 40): “I continue to describe as text-fixation or textualization the process whereby each composition-in-performance becomes progressively less changeable in the course of diffusion—with the proviso that we understand text here in a metaphorical sense.”

[ back ] 11. For models of centralized and decentralized diffusion, see OEI, especially S. H. Blackburn, “Patterns of Development for Indian Oral Epics,” OEI 15–32.

[ back ] 12. HQ 43.

[ back ] 13. See PP 81 for more on the “functioning institutional complementarity, in Athens, between the performance of drama by actors and chorus at the City Dionysia on the one hand and, on the other, the performance of Homeric epos—and of Homeric hymns that serve as preludes to the epos—by rhapsodes at the Panathenaia.” The most important references to the Athenian institution of rhapsodic performances of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaia are “Plato” Hipparkhos 228b–228c, Lycurgus Against Leokrates 102, and Dieuchidas of Megara (fourth century BCE) FGH 485 F 6 via Diogenes Laertius 1.57. For a correlation of the information provided by these passages, see PP 70–91. As for the references to the epē of Homer, as found in all three passages, I offer the working translation ‘verses’. More precisely, the epē are the poetic ‘lines’ of Homer (on epos as a distinct poetic unit or ‘line’, see Koller 1972). For Aristotle, the epē of Homer become ‘epic’ by default, whence the term epopoiiā ‘making of epic’, as in the beginning of the Poetics, 1447a: see N 1999e:27. The implicit preoccupation with ‘lines’ as the poetic units or building blocks of epē has to do with an ongoing question that engaged the ancient transmitters of the Homeric tradition: which ‘lines’ are genuine compositions of Homer and which ‘lines’ have been ‘interpolated’ (one word for which is emballein, as in Diogenes Laertius 1.57)? For more on this specific concern, see the next note.

[ back ] 14. Especially important is the information to be derived from the ancient commentaries on Pindar Nemean 2.1 as preserved in the scholia (ed. Drachmann). This information, I argue, was mediated by the school of Aristarchus (middle of second century BCE), whose thinking affects an important reference to Hippostratus, = FGH 568 F 5, in the scholia to Nemean 2.1c. Hippostratus (ca. third century BCE) is being cited here as the source for information concerning Kynaithos of Chios as the first rhapsodic performer of the epē of “Homer” in the polis of Syracuse, within the timeframe of the sixty-ninth Olympiad (= 504–501 BCE). It seems to me misleading to claim that all the information we read in the scholia about the rhapsodic performance of Kynaithos “derives” not from Aristarchus but from Hippostratus, as if we needed to make an exclusive choice between the two sources. Janko 1998a makes this claim with specific reference to what I said in HS 110 (see p. 12n35 above), where I discussed the scholia to Pindar Nemean 2.1c. The fact that one detail in the scholiastic information about Kynaithos (that is, the dating of his rhapsodic performance at Syracuse) “derives” from Hippostratus cannot be used to rule out the school of Aristarchus as an intermediary source for that information—or even as a direct source for other information about Hippostratus. Besides the reference to Hippostratus in the scholia for Pindar Nemean 2, we see four explicit references to Aristarchus in the scholia for the same poem: 9a, 17c (twice), and 19. We may note too the reference to Hippostratus FGH 568 F 2 in the scholia at Pindar Pythian 6.5a. This reference happens to occur immediately next to an explicit reference to Aristarchus, again at 5a. In all, we find over seventy references to Aristarchus in Drachmann’s edition of the Pindaric scholia (and five to Hippostratus). These references, as casual as they are frequent, lead me to conclude that Aristarchus’ overall critical presence was taken for granted in the Pindaric exegetical tradition that culminated in the scholia. Returning, then, to the scholia for Pindar Nemean 2.1c: I maintain that the learned discussion in this section reflects primarily the agenda of Aristarchus, not of Hippostratus (whose work concentrated, after all, on sorting out the genealogies of Sicilian dynasties). Thus I follow the view of Wolf 1795 Ch.25, who discerns the agenda of “the Alexandrians” in the claim, reported by the scholia for Pindar Nemean 2.1c, that Kynaithos and his followers ‘interpolated [emballein] many of the epē that they had composed to be placed inside the composition [poetry] of Homer’ (οὕς φασι πολλὰ τῶν ἐπῶν ποιήσαντας ἐμβαλεῖν εἰς τὴν Ὁμήρου ποίησιν).

[ back ] 15. The wording of Lycurgus Against Leokrates 102 makes it clear that only the epē of “Homer” were performed at the Panathenaia. Also, in the scholia to Pindar Nemean 2.1d, it is mentioned en passant that the rhapsodes of Homeric poetry have as their repertoire the two poems ἑκατέρας τῆς ποιήσεως εἰσενεχθείσης); the source of information in this context is named: Dionysius of Argos (ca. fourth or third century BCE) = FGH 308 F 2. In my view, this reference to Dionysius was mediated by the school of Aristarchus; compare the reference to Hippostratus (ca. third century BCE) = FGH 568 F 5 in the scholia to Pindar Nemean 2.1c, as discussed in the note above.

[ back ] 16. N 1999b:271, HR 69–70.

[ back ] 17. Janko 1992:29.

[ back ] 18. Janko 1992:37–38.

[ back ] 19. N 1999b:269–272. See now also HR Ch.3.

[ back ] 20. Finkelberg 2000; Janko’s formulation of “fixity” in terms of an “original” uniformity is quoted at p. 4.

[ back ] 21. Finkelberg 2000:9.

[ back ] 22. N 1999b:271, HR 70. For further bibliography on the Panathenaia as the defining context of the Iliad and the Odyssey, see p. 65 of Lowenstam 1997. Although Finkelberg (2000:9) evidently agrees with me about the Panathenaia as a factor that distinguishes the Homeric poems from the Cycle, she chooses not to engage with my evolutionary model (more specifically, with the formulation of “period 3” and the “Panathenaic bottleneck”).

[ back ] 23. Finkelberg 2000:11.

[ back ] 24. Finkelberg 2000:11. In this context, she compares the Homeric tradition to the Hebrew Bible, citing with approval West 1998a:95. In terms of my “evolutionary” model, a scriptural analogy is apt not so much for the sixth century BCE, as Finkelberg and West think, but more for the second and thereafter: see Ch.7 of PP, “Homer as ‘Scripture’.”

[ back ] 25. See Burgess 1996, especially p. 90n51. Moreover, much of the multiformity claimed for the Cypria can be explained in other ways: it is possible that there were several or at least two compositions entitled Cypria (cf. Finkelberg 2000:8n26).

[ back ] 26. Lowenstam 1997:66. Finkelberg 2000:9n27 cites Lowenstam’s article, though this citation actually undermines the general claim that she is making at p. 9 where she says: “no fluctuations in the names of the characters or in the order of the episodes like those observed [in the Cypria] have ever been attested for the Iliad subjects.” Lowenstam documents such fluctuations (see especially his p. 66n145 concerning variations on the Briseis theme and other such multiformities). On Homer and the vase-painting tradition, see also Shapiro 1993 and Snodgrass 1998.

[ back ] 27. See Ch.4 and Ch.5 below.

[ back ] 28. PP Ch.5.

[ back ] 29. In Ch.4 below, I introduce the terms of “horizontal” and “vertical” variants: in the first case, the ancient editor had to choose between different wordings that make up a single line of Homeric poetry, while in the second case he had to choose between fewer or more lines that make up a given sequence of lines (cf. also PP 139–140).

[ back ] 30. PP 194–195.

[ back ] 31. For the hermeneutic model of Homer as “scripture,” see PP Ch.7.

[ back ] 32. See Haslam 1997, especially pp. 63–78.

[ back ] 33. Finkelberg 2000:2n2 (also p. 10) evidently uses the term “vulgate” with this understanding.

[ back ] 34. See Ch.1, p. 23; cf. PP 117, 133–134.

[ back ] 35. More on koinē in what follows.

[ back ] 36. On the koinē as a virtual ‘standard’ text derived from Panathenaic competitions in performing the Homeric poems, see PP 152–156, 185–190, 193–195, 198, 205.

[ back ] 37. For the hermeneutic model of Homer as “script,” see PP Ch.6.

[ back ] 38. PR 7–8.

[ back ] 39. PR 91.

[ back ] 40. PP 117, 152–156, 185–186.

[ back ] 41. For the hermeneutic model of Homer as “transcript,” see PP Ch.5.

[ back ] 42. Apthorp 1980.

[ back ] 43. PP 143.

[ back ] 44. I say “delete” and not “omit” for reasons that I will clarify in Ch.3.

[ back ] 45. Apthorp 1980:47–56.

[ back ] 46. Apthorp 2000. Again I say “delete” and not “omit,” for reasons that I will clarify in Ch.3.

[ back ] 47. Apthorp 2000:9. On Homeric “focalization,” see Jong 1985 and 1989.

[ back ] 48. PP 151–152.

[ back ] 49. PP 152.

[ back ] 50. Whether some of these variant readings are conjectures made by the editors themselves is a question I addressed in N 1998b, the argumentation of which is recast as Ch.5 below.

[ back ] 51. N 1998a.

[ back ] 52. For an acute discussion of multiforms attested in fourth-century “quotations” and in early papyri, see Dué 2001.

[ back ] 53. Such claims are reflected in assessments like the following (Pelliccia 1997:46; quoted by Finkelberg 2000:2n5): “the variant recordings that we know of from papyri and the indirect sources … are for the most part too boring and insignificant to imply that they derived from a truly creative performance tradition. … [W]e are still left wondering if the banal repetitions and expansions that we find in various papyrus scraps really require us to accept, in order to explain them, a full-blown oral performance tradition.” Once again we see an absolutizing notion of multiformity, viewed as typical of “a truly creative performance tradition” and “a full-blown oral performance tradition.” In terms of the assessment just quoted, the choice is once again between oral and non-oral, multiform and “uniform”—or at least near-uniform except for variants that are banal, boring, and insignificant.

[ back ] 54. N 1998a:215–223.

[ back ] 55. N 1999b:259–260, HR 50–55. See the scholia at Iliad I 567, III 459, VI 112, VIII 503, XIII 627, XV 347, XVI 287, XXIII 753; Odyssey i 38, viii 251, as analyzed by Broggiato 1998. See also Matthaios 1999:378ff and the comments of Rengakos 2002.

[ back ] 56. N 2001c.

[ back ] 57. S. West 1996; see also West 1998:43–44. Finkelberg (2000:10) treats these variants simply as “significant changes proposed by ancient scholars,” discounting them because they did not become “part of the vulgate.”