Vico’s Prescient Evolutionary Model for Homer

4. Evolutionary Models Resist Literary Bias

Something that has always struck me as I have studied Nagy’s work is how resistant many of his colleagues have been to what is perhaps the most important aspect of his model: namely, that it is faithful to the theories of his predecessor Albert Lord in treating the transmission of epic as a primarily creative rather than a simply mnemonic tekhnē, because “bards” as understood in the diachronic aggregate sustained oral poetry for millennia before the invention of writing. Even though the understanding of Homeric poiēsis known as the “oral-evolutionary model” is no longer in dispute as a general framework, there remains considerable controversy as to what role writing played in it. The usual charge that Nagy’s critics level against him actually comes in the form of a substitution. That is, for the aoidós (‘singer’), or trained oral performer working before the advent of recording through writing, scholars like Barry F. Powell, Richard Janko, and M. L. West feel compelled to posit the cultural substitution very early of a rhapsoidós (‘stitcher-together’), a solitary recorder, a real figure establishing some crystallized “proto-form,” which restricted or discouraged the performer from “composing in performance,” as Nagy prefers to say. The source of this impulse to posit an end to a strictly oral-performative phrase is a manifest skepticism that oral transmission could have taken place over such a long period of time and such a large (i.e., Panhellenic) area without some alphabetic aid. A second area of skepticism regarding Nagy’s position has to do with the Alexandrian editorial process itself. While it seems that most critics interpret variants that show up in the papyri and scholia as conjectural or corrective work by editors, Nagy sees no necessary reason why they could not also be alternatives generated by the oral tradition, because the chronological, geographical, and dialectical scopes of the transmission were so vast. Again, Vico’s ambiguity is manifest; §805 represents the culmination of a line of reasoning that seeks to provide an empirical basis for, e.g., the never-ending “historical” rivalry in antiquity among cities for the prestige of being the “historical Homer’s” birthplace. These traditions, while complex and often hard to trace, basically come from the “ folk rivalries” found within the classical corpus, rather than from any true historical knowledge. In the spirit of Vico, I argue that the archaic culture of illiterate “composers-in-performance” that the Parry-Lord Hypothesis describes is often concealed in the writings of antiquity. What follows is an elaborate example. In a chapter entitled “Blindness, Poverty, and Closeness to the Gods,” Barbara Graziosi tracks down the multiple sources of these particular Homeric attributes in ancient times. [1] One of her findings is that neither Homer’s renowned blindness nor his poverty have always been part of his persona. The brilliance of her presentation consists in her citing contradictory opinions to undercut the assumption that the image of Homer was stable in antiquity. At the same time, she demonstrates that at one point or another, the solitary blind singer wandering throughout the Greek-speaking world [2] depending on handouts in gratitude for his matchless song became canonical. She observes:

Graziosi next quotes the Second Sophistic rhetorician and fabulist Lucian (born in what is now Syria c. 120 CE), a native speaker of Aramaic who—as a prolific, improvising, witty, often sarcastic raconteur—fulfilled the cultural function of a Second Sophistic rhapsoidós himself. The passage in question pretends to record an encounter with the “real author” Homer in which Lucian asks him about a number of “unresolved issues” that are part of his legend:

… I went up to the poet Homer, when we were both at leisure, and asked him, among other things, where he came from, pointing out that this was still being investigated among us to this day. He said, “I am aware that some think I am from Chios, others from Smyrna and many from Colophon, but in fact I am Babylonian, and among my fellow-citizens I am not called Homer, but Tigranes. Afterwards, when I became a hostage [homereuo] to the Greeks, I changed my name.” I also enquired about the athetised lines, and asked if he had written [gegrammaténoi] them. He said that they were all composed [grammatōn: “written”] by himself. As a result, he rejected the work of Zenodotus, Aristarchus and their followers as utter nonsense. When he had given satisfactory answers to these questions, I asked why he started with the wrath of Achilles, and he said that it had occurred to him just like this, without any pre-preparation. I also wanted to know whether he wrote the Odyssey before the Iliad as most people claim and he said he had not. That he was not blind—because they say that about him—I found out at once: he could see, so I did not have to ask. [Lucian Verae Historiae 2. 20; trans. Graziosi, p. 127, with my emphases, p. 127]

Lucian’s tale has a Vichian quality about it. It is a synchronic allegorēsis of the diachronic process through which “Homer” shifted gradually from an oral tradition to a set of received texts; as such, it is what many of today’s critical theorists would be inclined to call “readerly.” As such, it represents a synopsis of much of the lore about the most sublime poiētēs of all time that had accrued over the centuries. Lucian wants his “sophisticated” audience to enjoy his tall tale, which is directed at the Homeric tradition; thus his questions concern conflicting details about the specifically literary Homer. He conspicuously places the encounter in the context of the Alexandrian diorthēsis (comprehensive scholarly textual correction) of Homer. The joke is that this Homer is fully aware that some of his lines have been “athetized”—tagged as possibly inauthentic—by Zenodotus, Aristarchus, and succeeding editors. Lucian’s Homer thinks that the very idea of attributing inauthentic lines to him—of all “authorities”!—is nonsense. I interpret this affronted dismissal as Lucian’s comment on the preposterousness of trying to maintain the image of a single literary Homer within the context of an oral tradition. Lucian’s “punch line” is that, if this particular incarnate Homer actually created the poetry that has been ascribed to him, then he must really be immortal, as per his kléos, or at least venerable in a decrepit way, rather like one of Swift’s Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels. So much for the age of the tradition. The second indicator that Lucian is ultimately referring his audience to an “oral, synchronic” Homer is signaled by a paradox. The traditional mūthos of Homer’s blindness, which Graziosi explores in detail, points to the existence of an oral tradition evolving into a written one. The narrator of Lucian’s favola tells us that this “Homer” is not really blind, as the tradition has claimed. The biographies claim that he is blind, which means that he could only have composed in performance, i.e., without the aid of writing. But what we have of his work is written, and requires the authentication of certain lines.

For the community of modern Homer scholars, the answer to this follow-up question would most likely be that at some point after the invention of writing some “Homer” or “Homers” dictated to an amanuensis, which is the technology of dissemination that Milton used. Indeed, the dictation of a text or texts, which would gradually tend to become “fixed,” forms part of the theories of scholars with views as frequently incompatible as those of Nagy, Powell, and Janko. Observe that the tekhnē of recording Homer “faithfully” is only an incidental part of the Lucian story. The really interesting issues (for those who believe Lucian, at least) are the authenticity (or inauthenticity) of Homer’s blindness, and how readily the lines actually came to him.

In offering my interpretation of Lucian’s story, I admit that I am swimming against the tide. Most see this Second Sophistic tale purely as a reference to the Alexandrian editing of Homer, with no vestige of the oral phases of Homeric transmission. As an example of the majority perspective, I offer personal communications sent to me by Michael Haslam, Professor Emeritus of Classics (papyrology) at U.C.L.A. and a contributor to A Companion to Ancient Epic. I select the following remarks, which were conveyed via email:

To me the whole passage seems to take for granted that Homer wrote the poems. Did he (rather than someone else) write the athetized lines? Did he write the Odyssey before the Iliad (or vice versa)? … There is no stress in Lucian on the writing, it’s simply presupposed. There’s no hint of any shift (gradual or otherwise) from an oral tradition. Lucian is debunking Alexandrian scholarship on the Homeric text, and he no less than the Alexandrians assumes that Homer wrote. There’s no oral tradition anywhere in sight.

Professor Haslam is right that Lucian finds a way to reify “Homer” as a sighted textual editor; but the poiētes, “the maker,” is seldom the editor. Bear in mind that Lucian intends the story to be enjoyed as an ironic fiction. I interpret his story, quite against Haslam’s objections, as at root a denial that the Alexandrian diorthēsis could ever be considered truly “authentic,” because I believe that Lucian is assuming that a real blind, illiterate singer must have served as the Archaic model for this covertly sighted Alexandrian parody of the iconic poiētēs. As evidence, there is Lucian’s remark: “I asked why he started with the wrath of Achilles, and he said that it had occurred to him just like this, without any pre-preparation.” Lucian is plausibly having fun with his audience by alluding to Odyssey 1.10: “Tell me, as you have told those who came before me, o daughter of Zeus [i.e., Mnūmosúne], starting from whatever point you wish” (trans. Samuel Butler). But I find Lucian’s Homer’s answer markedly anti-diorthotic, and hence anti-textual, as it alludes to the original existence of a wandering aoidós spontaneously “recomposing-in-performance” during earlier times. We might well recall the beauteous passage at Iliad 2.485–486: “For you [Muses] are goddesses, who are omnipresent and see everything, while we mortals know nothing except through kléos.” This is my own modification of the translation of Butler, who renders kléos as “report”; another defensible translation, given the context that implies a second-hand communication, is “rumor.” The conventional translation is “glory, fame.” But in the present context it is especially important to give kléos Nagy’s etymological rendering: “that which is heard.” As he explains, “‘that which is heard,’ kléos, comes to mean ‘glory’ because it is the poet himself who uses the word to designate what he hears from the Muses and what he recites to the audience.” [5] This interpretation also emphasizes that the poet is composing without the aid of writing—spontaneously, “without any pre-preparation”—in the same basic manner as does the modern South Slavic gúslar, the “singer of tales,” a figure Milman Parry and Albert Lord made indispensable to the study of Homeric epic. In this connection, I ask my reader to consider the similarity between the iconic characteristics Homer had in antiquity (e.g., his blindness and peregrinations, with an enduring controversy over his birthplace) and the tendency in South Slavic culture to “mythologize” the gúslar. In a brief comparative study of the gúslar and the Homer figure, John Miles Foley summarizes this phenomenon:

Foley stresses the following characteristics for both the Homeric and South Slavic traditions:

Foley mentions in particular three legendary gúslari as exhibiting these characteristics (or should one say “criteria”?): Isak, Hasan Coso, and Ćor Huso Husović, all of whom were legendary in the sense that there was considerable dispute among the twenty-seven gúslari Parry and Lord interviewed on matters of biography and geography. He relates this account of Ćor Huso:

Born blind in the Kolasin region sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century, Ćor Huso Husović was later to become the most famous gúslar in all of Montenegro and Serbia. Notwithstanding the obscurity of his early years and the severity of his handicap, he was eventually to enjoy an enormous reputation as an itinerant gúslar who surpassed all others and was the source of their best songs. In addition to his wanderings throughout Montenegro and Serbia, he spent 19 years in various parts of Bosnia, where he reportedly traveled in the never-realized hope that his vision would be restored. The sources agree that Ćor Huso journeyed everywhere on horseback, fully armed and accompanied by a young guide. His appearance would have been arresting: he wore a red silk coat with sleeves embroidered in the Croatian style, green trousers, black leather boots, a fez, and a great turban, not to mention a long knife hanging from his belt along with two sterling silver pistols. Very tall and stocky, at minimum 120 kg. (more than 260 lb.), with “brimming handfuls” of mustaches, Ćor Huso was literally larger than life, a challenging burden for even the strongest mount, we are told. Curiously, this vivid representation—strictly speaking, more heroic than bardic—conspicuously lacked his own gusle; he simply used whatever instrument was available, and prospective audiences were only too ready to provide whatever was needed to induce him to perform. We begin to gain a sense of Ćor Huso’s legendary status in the reports’ vagueness on certain basic facts—precise age, nature of repertoire, training as a singer, and so forth—and also by the ethnographer Schmaus’ crestfallen admission that it proved impossible to pin down such details with any accuracy. [8]

Foley, an authority on the Greek, South Slavic, and Anglo-Saxon oral traditions, while acknowledging the priority and ubiquity of ancient nonliterate poetic traditions does not ignore the main problem facing scholars of most such traditions: they “survive” only in written form. In other words, ancient epics have ceased to be sung, except as displays of “the possible.” What we have of them usually amounts to a set of texts. Obviously, the natural “authoritativeness” of a text (cf. Derrida’s confidence in the preservation of cultural memory through writing) immediately encroaches on the natural fluidity of an oral tradition. Early in his 1999 book Homer’s Traditional Art, Foley concedes the point:

Note that this figure has all the basic characteristics of the icon that Graziosi identifies with Lucian’s Second Sophistic Homer: his blindness, of course, but also his peripatetic ways, uncertain dates and vague identity. Lest, however, one is tempted to think of Ćor Huso as the ultimate paradigmatic master bard, the antecedent of the South Slavic gúslari, I add that there is another legendary figure who appeared significantly earlier than Ćor Huso: Filip Višnjić, who arguably has a greater claim to historicity than Huso, since he has been assigned specific dates (1767–1834). And, on the same principle, Višnjić himself was the apprentice of a master gúslar, and so on and so forth into the “dark backward an abysm of time.” Moreover, Višnjić’s fluorit was supposed to have come during Serbian revolution against the Ottoman Turks (ca. 1804–1813), which lends him an affinity with the Alexandrian scholar Eratosthenes’ image of Homer composing the Iliad shortly after the Trojan War—mythically, in 1183–4 B.C.E. And as long as we are searching for an original oral-epic “master poet,” Višnjić has an obvious South Slavic prototype, for he is known as the “Serbian Homer.” This phrase represents Homer as a template for the “oral-poetic possible.”

Clearly, Foley is aware of the dilemma that the necessity of Homeric texts pose for those engaged in developing oral-evolutionary models. But Foley is optimistic; he has recently claimed to have detected a détente between groups he calls “the oralists” and “the scripsists.” The disagreement itself he has referred to as the “Great Divide.” This terminology has won a reasonably prominent place in current explorations of The Homeric Question. For example, in his 2008 review of Adrian Kelly’s A Referential Commentary and Lexicon to Homer, Iliad VIII (Oxford, 2007), Christos Tsagalis remarks, “Nagy has not argued that every single varia lectio is the result of oral transmission, since post-Aristarchan variae lectiones belong to the last phase in Nagy’s evolutionary model …” [
10] Tsagalis’ contentment derives from an attitude he expresses at the top of his review:

The Great Divide between the oralists and scripsists is becoming increasingly outmoded, since both approaches to the riddling conundrum of Homeric poetry have started being more tolerant to the other side of Homeric criticism. This is not to say that there is a general consensus regarding the question of oral traditional poetry versus the poetic genius of a monumental composer, but it is fair to say that, with the exception of a few extremist aficionados, hard-core oralists or scripsists are happily dwindling in number.

The source of Tsagalis’ diction, “Great Divide,” as well as his critical perspective, could possibly be Foley, who has proclaimed that “[S]cholars and fieldworkers generally concur that the supposed Great Divide of orality versus literacy does not exist.” [11] His motivation for saying this may come from his assertion that, contrary to what one might expect, in epic traditions “the oral” does not usually end when “the written” begins. This view is not consistent with observations Albert Lord made about South Slavic songs that ceased to be sung after they were printed in song-books. Nagy, on the other hand, basically agrees with Foley concerning the paradigmatic hazards that come with applying “the conventional literary model” to Homeric epic. Nagy insists that Homeric song must have remained fluid long after the advent of Homeric “textuality.” (Indeed, this is the basis of his concept of “(re-)composition-in-performance,” which, nota bene, is a phrase Foley himself uses above.) For it seems that many prominent Homerists are impatient to “fix the text”—here the double entente is irresistible—presumably as a way of explaining both the literatur’nost’ (the Russian Formalist term meaning “literariness”) of the Homeric epics and their artificial Ionic-Aeolic dialect, which in my view shouldn’t really be called a “dialect” at all, since this aggregation of sémata was never actually spoken. Both admiring Homer’s “literariness” and accepting the viability of “his” language fall under the category of seeking a “unified” Homer. I call this phenomenon the “rush to stabilize”; its purpose is to bury the epics’ actual multiformity, which Lord found such a salient feature of Homeric verse. Meanwhile, I contend that Foley’s “Great Divide” is a manifestation of the “oral versus written dilemma.” I must disagree strenuously with Kelly, Tsagalis, and Foley, concerning their sanguine conviction that the “Great Divide” is somehow disappearing. Rather, I would argue that neither party’s arguments can resolve the issue. But more important to my analysis of Vico’s ideas concerning Homer is the idea that ambiguity and inconsistency have always been a part of the Homeric legacy. Even those views that assign the most prominent role to oral composition succumb to the inevitable problem that the mere mention of Homer as “text” induces a counterproductive polarity between “the oral” and “the written.” One way to characterize Nagy’s objection to this “either/or” compression of the long process by which “Homer” evolved from a diachronic oral tradition to a set of pseudo-synchronic (and hence deceptive) texts is that the empirical evidence suggests a somewhat different paradigm. The key element missing from the usual “Boolean” model is a just understanding of the evolutionary dynamic that is present in non-literate traditions of “re-composition-in-performance.” Perhaps the most difficult quality to communicate about the “oral performance” of poetry is that it differs from the literary mímēsis [12] of performance in being non-utilitarian. Nagy puts it this way:

Nagy believes that Homeric “textuality” must not be viewed as some metaphorical Golden Bough-style Rex sacrorum that instantaneously deleted its rival tekhnē altogether and then superseded it, in a paradigm that suggests Hegelian Aufhebung. Nagy qualifies his view of Homeric texts thus:

Nagy’s term “primary metaphor” opens the way for me to explicate the affinities I see between his model and Vico’s critique of Homer-images that prevailed in his own day. In spite of these similarities, Vico’s vision ultimately remains limited by the “oral versus written” dichotomy, which is so seductive because it is a convenient explanation for a crucial aspect of western Europe’s evolution from “pagan” barbarity to “Christian” civility, a process that is both hard to quantify and subject to constant re-evaluation. To borrow a couple of old terms from historical linguistics, the “syncope” of the Homeric metaphor is myth; the apocope of the evolutionary model constitutes science. I repeat that in the Scienza Nuova, Vico devotes most of Book III to a diachronic, “proto-evolutionary” set of illiterate rapsòdi who serve as conceptual foils to “Homer.” For Vico these rapsòdi are not hypothetical; if they were, they would violate Vico’s first principle in the Scienza Nuova of rejecting Cartesian a priori epistemology.

As I have studied contemporary theories that seem inextricably ensnared in the “oral-versus-written” dilemma, I have come to the conclusion that, as the Peter Allen song goes, “everything old is new again,” and I have come to ask how scholarly perspectives on Homer have rushed to establish auctoritasqua-“text.” For it appears to me that most Homer scholars now lean in the opposite direction from Nagy. His critics have tended to be skeptical of his position on performance because they find it hard to conceive of a scenario in which epic poetry could have been transmitted for generations without the aide de mémoire of a written record. Barry Powell, for example, in a review of Nagy’s Poetry as Performance (1996), for Bryn Mawr Classical Review (97.3.21), dismisses Nagy’s position:

Does N[agy] … think that the Iliad and the Odyssey were sung by Homer, not taken down in writing, then sung by a successor nearly verbatim (except for such minor variations as poludeukea/poluekhea), still not written down, then sung by someone else, with still more mouvance and a shifting of lines here and there, new particles creep in, then in the sixth century BC sort of written down, and then in the fifth century BC really written down, but still with mouvance going on, until the Alexandrians at last established our text? Yes, N. does believe this.

Powell’s tone reflects his own insistence that for the purpose of transmission the poems were put in writing through dictation. He also claims that

Elsewhere, Powell theorizes that one person from Lefkandi in Euboeia, whom he dubs “the Adapter,” reworked the West Semitic sign-system (for he insists this was not technically an alphabet) into the Greek alphabet in the eighth or ninth century for the express purpose of “writing down” the Iliad and the Odyssey. Of all contemporary theorists concerned with Homeric transmission, Powell arguably exhibits the greatest anxiety to bring a halt, as it were, to the oral-evolutionary process. To demonstrate this, I digress to examine some ideas from his 1993 article “Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi?” Powell adopts a contrarian model featuring early synchonization in an unexpected dialect:

Notice Powell’s rhetorical sleight-of-hand here. He begins by presenting the traditional ancient image of one single sublime genius “Homer” as if it were universally considered a viable construct, against which he will be offering his counter-paradigm. I submit that Vico’s Doppel-Homer, the one he uses to establish historical credibility, lurks darkly within Powell’s phrase. Whatever the case, in certifying a priori the synchronic Homer figure (while at the same time attempting to reinforce the reader’s confidence in his own auctoritas by enlisting M. L. West in his cause), Powell sets the stage for his own theory of the non-Ionic-Aeolic element of Homeric ep o s, as well as that of the remarkably early West Greek adaptation of a foreign tekhnē.

In positing a different geographical provenance for Homeric Greek, Powell wages his polemic against the generally held core assumption that Homeric epos was Panhellenic and, concordantly, against any model that emphasizes the polysemous origins of “Homer.” His linguistic analysis allows him to make a logical transition to the theory that really interests him—namely, the need that the “culturally superior” Euboeans may have felt for developing a way to “fix” ep o s. This interpretation explains Powell’s next focus:

Central to the Homeric Question, and to the present topic, is the relation between Homer and writing. We are in a better position now than ever before to understand this problem … Some basics: (a) The Iliad and the Odyssey are oral compositions, sung by an accomplished bard, the inheritor of an old tradition of oral verse-making. (b) The Iliad and the Odyssey come down to us because someone wrote them down; they cannot have been passed on orally in the form in which we have them because oral poems are subject to variation and recreation at each performance. (c) It is hardly likely that the bard himself wrote down these poems, since aoidoi have no need of writing … Whoever wrote down the Iliad and the Odyssey made use of an invention, the Greek alphabet, a new kind of writing capable of recording the phonetic nuances essential to reconstruct the rough form of oral verse from graphic markings. I have argued elsewhere the alphabet was invented expressly for the purpose of recording Homer’s poetry. Recording the Iliad and the Odyssey required a new technology. Present archaeological evidence indicates that the Euboians were the first to have this technology, which is plausible considering their presence from the early Iron Age in the Levant. From Lefkandi, in addition to abundant gold, ivory, and faience objects from the eastern Mediterranean, come the very earliest Greek inscriptions, dated by stratification to as early as about 775–750 … Other very early Greek alphabetic inscriptions are found in the West, where Chalkis apparently joined with Eretria in friendly times to found the colony on Pithekoussai. The cemetery in the Valle San Montano on Pithekoussai, where much pottery was found, has produced eighth century inscriptions, including the three lines, with two hexameters, on the celebrated ‘Cup of Nestor’, about 730, together with objects imported from north Syria (Al Mina?), from Phoenicia, and from Egypt. Settlers from Pithekoussai, together with new arrivals from Euboia and Boiotia, soon settled Cumae on the Italic mainland across the bay, an outpost that must have included settlers from a Euboian Kyme or some Aiolic Kymaians who gave the name of their mother city to the Italian colony … From Italian Cumae the Etruscans took their writing, about 700, which, transmitted by Rome, is our own … Khalkidic inscriptions from the eighth century also appear on Boiotian bronze cauldrons dedicated on the Acropolis at Athens …

A pattern underlies the data. The Euboians traded in Al Mina in the Levant where they could easily have seen the Phoenician writing on which a Greek inventor based the Greek alphabet; Euboian Lefkandi yields our earliest evidence of Greek alphabetic writing; Euboians founded Pithekoussai in the eighth century, where other early remnants of alphabetic writing have been discovered; from Pithekoussai the Euboic alphabet soon spread to the mainland. A report in Herodotus (5.57–58) supports the epigraphic and archaeological evidence connecting Euboians and early alphabetic literacy:

The entirety of Powell’s hostility to oral-evolutionary paradigms is displayed in these paragraphs. If we stop at his sentence marked (a), he is in basic agreement with Nagy. But this is where the concord ends. Powell immediately posits the need for a means of arresting the creative evolution of the epic in order to record a “proto-text.” Powell’s model gives the impression that the “classic” status of what we know today as the (synchronic) Iliad and Odyssey was determined practically right away, implying that by the same token the poems in the Epic Cycle immediately assumed the vestigial, supplementary literary role they now have, without ever having undergone their own separate Panhellenic oral evolutions. (This, by the way, is the basic impression conveyed by “world literature” courses that make Homer the primum mobile of the “Western Canon,” despite background lectures on Wolf, Parry-Lord, the archaeology at Hissarlik, etc.) By contrast, much of Nagy’s most recent work seeks to account for this separation between epic and epitome on the basis of political circumstances that developed somewhat later than Powell’s hypothesis, and at Athens and Alexandria, rather than Lefkandi.

Powell’s quasi-Derridean “writerly” vision of Homeric epic (see below regarding Derrida, Bloom, memory, and “the scene of writing”) requires us to extrapolate that arresting composition-in-performance so as to record cultural memory entails a highly specialized technology. As it happens, the archaeological evidence shows that the ancient West-Greek-speaking Euboeans were particularly cosmopolitan owing to several, simultaneous foreign influences. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to Powell that the West Greeks should have “adapted” the Phoenician writing system for the express purpose of recording the Iliad and the Odyssey. Rather unexpectedly, Powell feels free to use as his ad hoc auctoritas Herodotus, who validates historically the transmission of writing technology from the Semitic writing system of the Phoenicians to the West Greeks via the “hero” Kadmos.

As I have said, in certain respects Powell’s Homer resembles Vico’s. Powell’s quotation from Herodotus is just the sort of “authoritative” evidence from the classical corpus that appeals to Vico in his role as Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples. Another similarity is that Vico routinely employs mythic figures as if they provided empirical evidence from history. While Vico reveals in Book III, “della Discoverta del vero Omero” that Homer’s epic was originally sung, other aspects of his theory stress—as does Powell—that we only have a record of Homer’s “genius” because of writing. In “Idea of the Work,” he first expresses this idea rather indirectly, in an ékphrasis of the tablet Providence is holding in the dipintura:

§23. The tablet shows only the first letters of the alphabets and lies facing the statue of Homer. For the letters, as Greek tradition tells us of Greek letters, were not all invented at one time; at least they cannot all have been invented by Homer’s time, for we know that he left none of his poems in writing.

One might best think of this particular bit of ékphrasis as a kind of draft statement anticipating Vico’s later position, because it is actually quite different from his positing of multiple Homeric rapsòdi in Book III at §877: “[E]ach of them was called homeros, had exceptionally retentive memories, and, being poor, sustained life by singing the poems of Homer throughout the cities of Greece.” At both loci Vico sounds more like Nagy (and, as it happens, Lucian) than Powell, for Vico’s idealization is not of a literate bard. Still, in §23 Vico is clearly moving in the same direction as Powell’s hypothesis that writing must have been developed for the sole purpose of preserving the Iliad and Odyssey.

Powell’s criticism of Nagy’s model demands a response. Simply put, Powell’s rejection of Nagy’s oral performative model dooms his own West Greek literate Adapter paradigm. I begin by repeating Powell’s rhetorical question from the BMCR critique:

Does N[agy] … think that the Iliad and the Odyssey were sung by Homer, not taken down in writing, then sung by a successor nearly verbatim (except for such minor variations as poludeukea/poluekhea), still not written down, then sung by someone else, with still more lines mouvance and a shifting of lines here and there … ?

Powell appeals to his “clued-in” audience to share his gn o sis that Nagy’s position is technically ludicrous; by implication, the train of events that Powell compresses is prima facie impossible. Yet in fact, his facetious digest of Nagy’s model, if stripped of its tone, might be considered a decent little provisional abstract, since it encompasses a Panhellenic oral diachrony that rewards creative change. Powell’s problem is that he is intellectually hamstrung by his own “Adapter.” It is evident that he truly believes that the transmission of epic (in the sense of “long”) segments of poetry over centuries without the aid of alphabets is the stuff of anthropological fantasy.

Nagy does not, as Powell claims, “fatally deny an essential difference between the singer who composed in performance (the aoidos) and the reciter who has memorized (the rhapsoidos)”; [18] he merely attempts to give the two modes a more sensitive diachronic nuance than other contemporary Homer models reflect. Moreover, Nagy’s Period 4 (see below) actually does suggest something like “a dictated text” with the phrase “transcripts or even scripts.” In a clarification, Nagy has said:

Nagy resists introducing writing too early into the model because he posits a bardic tradition disseminated throughout Greece that remained “fluid” for a very long time. Powell’s proposition that one “Adapter” designed with wondrous acumen a medium that immediately disposed of the need for Mnūmosúne (the mythological personification of Hellenic oral memory) seems far less probable than Nagy’s model. Moreover, Lord’s final version of this cause-and-effect paradigm presents a crucial modification:

This is an ethnographer’s way of expressing a phenomenon Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric have expressed as follows:

Lord’s reconsideration on this point between 1960 and 1995 is the at the heart of Nagy’s scholarly emphasis on the original Archaic creative fluidity of oral epic performance over the eventual classical and Hellenistic motif of seeking to politicize Homer by generating koinē (meaning both “common” and “standard”) versions. That Nagy’s scholarly production has currently shifted toward “the written” should debellare critics like Powell. From the perspective of my comparative study, Nagy’s most important “first principle” is that the gradual fixation of an epic tradition conceals its history from us. This theme of the unrecognized concealment of process and the consequent need for scientific revelation is at the heart of Vico’s system, as well.

What Nagy says West is seeking is a recension tree branching out from one “ur-performance” that just happens to have been recorded. The problem with West’s approach is that it is too redolent of Random House; it tends to accord priority to the textual editor over the skills of the ethnographer. It fails to differentiate between “Homer” as a diachronic set of manifestations, both oral and literate, of a tradition, and the necessary eventual desire to establish an “optimal” literary version derived from that tradition. In a sense, West’s perspective does even more damage to the concept of oral-evolutionary fluidity than Powell’s does, since it is so intent on positing a “one and only” poet called Homer. This dilemma existed even in antiquity, as part of the “Greco-Roman continuum.” Hence, for example, there is an affinity between Lucian’s fanciful encounter with the poet and Horace’s labels for narrative strategies in the Ars Poetica 147–148, namely “ab ovo” and “in medias res”:

nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ovo;
semper ad eventum festinat et in medias res …

neither, I add, is the warp laid out for the Trojan war from [Leda’s] egg;
it is always rushing toward the [next] event, right into the middle of things …

In the first line, Horace is describing the Iliad as a text, as signaled by the verb orditur (“is woven, unravels, begins”), which is a time-honored metaphor—i.e., the “thread” of narrative. Meanwhile, line 148 fortuitously applies just as well to the performances of the gúslari, as recorded in the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard: they are so rapid and sound so effortless that in re-composing during a performance it seems that the gúslar semper ad eventum festinat (“is always rushing toward the event”).

Homer’s response to Lucian’s question is that, as the most sublime of poets, who received inspiration directly from the Muse without an intervening sign-system, he was unburdened by the premeditative constraints of ordinary “literary” poets. W. B. Yeats, in “Adam’s Curse” (1904) might be heard to allude to this power attributed to “Homer” when he writes of his own work:

… A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Here, Yeats captures the essence of the Homeric dilemma: the gúslar’s institutional érgon (work, function) is to appear “spontaneous,” which is a mechanistic expression of the traditional mūthos of vatic inspiration. One of Graziosi’s purposes in Inventing Homer is to establish approximately when the iconic literary image of Homer became stabilized. And I think her analysis has other fascinating implications. For me, what stands out in Lucian’s little quasi-Odyssean fiction is the stupendous ruse he exposes concerning the “spontaneity” of this fellow Homer’s poiēsis. Revealing at the end of his story that the Homer of kléos is actually not blind is emblematic of a skepticism regarding the very feasibility of performing oral poetry inspired by the Muses. The inconsistency of the ancient iconography of Homer supports this interpretation. As Graziosi observes:

The visual evidence allows us to draw two separate conclusions. The first is that blindness was a sort of signature which immediately clarified Homer’s identity to viewers. If we consider that the name Homeros was sometimes thought to mean “blind,” the identification of blindness as a marker of identity becomes all the more compelling. Secondly, the evidence shows that Homer was not always depicted as being blind. There are, in other words, limits to the universality of blindness as a feature of his portraits. This is in itself not surprising, given the general flexibility of ancient representations of Homer; but it is worth exploring when and why Homer’s eyes were depicted as normal.

The earliest example of Homer with normal eyes is a portrait found on some coins from Ios, usually dated from the second half of the fourth century BC. They portray Homer in profile with wide-open eyes and clearly-distinguishable pupils… [W]hatever their “iconographical value,” the coins from Ios show that Homer did not necessarily have to be portrayed as being blind, at least on coins …

The iconographic shift reflects a shift in tekhnē, culturally transmitted art, from diachronic memory expressed as “(re-)composition-in-performance” to the synchronic preservation through writing of the “works” of one perceived individual unparalleled genius. With this shift came the ascendancy of editors, commentators, translators, and historians relating to Homer as “text.” A similar instability applies to the matter of Homer’s financial condition. Graziosi observes:

Graziosi’s scholarship allows me to assert that there are templates in Vico’s anthropology that he “discovered” within the ancient Greek and Roman texts. This is evident in a passage from his Scienza Nuova, which critics probably quote most often to demonstrate his anticipation of current Homeric paradigms:

§877 E la cecità … §878 e la povertà d’Omero furono de’ rapsòdi, i quali, essendo ciechi, onde ogniun di loro si disse «omèro», prevalevano nella memoria, ed essendo poveri, ne sostentavano la vita con andar cantando i poemi d’Omero per le città della Grecia, de’ quali essi eran autori, perch’erano parte di que’ popoli che vi avevano composte le loro istorie.

§877. And the blindness … §878 and the poverty of Homer were characteristics of the rhapsodes, who, being blind, whence each of them was called homeros, had exceptionally retentive memories, and, being poor, sustained life by singing the poems of Homer throughout the cities of Greece; and they were the authors of these poems inasmuch as they were a part of these peoples who had composed their histories in the poems.

Vico’s portrait of Homer the blind, impoverished figure constitutes a treatment of literature and history as if they were empirical evidence, which epitomizes his method. If we relate this image back to Graziosi’s ambivalent Homeric icon of late antiquity—a reputedly blind poet who in actuality can see; a renowned oral poet holding a scroll; a court poet singing for his supper in “harbor towns”—then this Homer owes as much to Vico’s knowledge of the classical corpus as to any “scientific” recognition of Homeric “multeity-in-unity,” to use Coleridge’s phrase. Take note that in §877–§878 Vico has done more than simply appropriating Homer’s blindness and poverty from one “wing,” as it were, of the tradition. He has put something over on his readers: he has essentially cloned the archetype of which Lucian makes such fun and sent all the progeny out into preliterate Greece (again, note that Vico does not mention Asia Minor) as a group—or, perhaps, a succession—of real artists devoted to disseminating, preserving—one might even say forming—Panhellenic culture. I use “real” emphatically because (following no less a luminary than Benedetto Croce) I believe that Vico conceives the so-called “Rinaldi” singers of his native Naples as empirical evidence, much as Graziosi herself, in characterizing present models, considers the appropriateness of studying the South Slavic gúslars in order to understand the ancient Homeric icon. [
27] This mímēsis or appropriation of the classical and especially the post-classical Homeric image to “certify” flesh-and-bone singers epitomizes my subject, since it reflects the ambiguity with which Vico treats Homer, manifested most prominently between Books II and III of the Scienza Nuova, but implicit throughout the work. This ambiguity in Vico’s concepts and its manifestations both before and after Vico constitute my main theme.


[ back ] 1. B. Graziosi, Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic (Cambridge, 2002), chap. 4.

[ back ] 2. In antiquity the geographical distribution of the Greek language encompassed both Greece proper and Asia Minor. Evidence that Vico was possibly ignorant of this is in Scienza Nuova §878, which I cite shortly.

[ back ] 3. Graziosi, Inventing Homer (n. 1 above), 126.

[ back ] 4. Besides being a logistical nightmare for a wandering figure, dictation doesn’t fit if the poems were actually supposed to have been sung by the Muse through the poet, as the iconic mūthos went.

[ back ] 5. Nagy, Best of the Achaeans (Chapter 1, n. 2 above), 16.

[ back ] 6. J. M. Foley, “Individual Poet and Epic Tradition: Homer as Legendary Singer,” Arethusa 31 (1998): 149.

[ back ] 7. Foley, “Individual Poet” (n. 6 above), 152–153.

[ back ] 8. Foley, “Individual Poet,” p. 162.

[ back ] 9. J. M. Foley, Homer’s Traditional Art (University Park, PA, 1999), 16.

[ back ] 10. C. Tsagalis, “Review of A. Kelly, A Referential Commentary and Lexicon to Homer, Iliad VIII,”

[ back ] 11. Foley, Homer’s Traditional Art (n. 9 above), xiii.

[ back ] 12. Throughout this essay, I shall be employing an understanding of mímēsis favored by Nagy, who has referred us to Aristotle’s Poetics. Nagy has defined mímēsis as “the mental process of identifying the representing ‘this’ with the represented ‘that’: ‘this is that’ (1448b17). Such a mental process, Aristotle goes on to say, is itself a source of pleasure (1448b11–18). This pleasure is not incompatible with an anthropological understanding of ritual” (“Early Greek Views” [Chapter 1, n. 6 above], 6).

[ back ] 13. Nagy, Homeric Questions (Chapter 1, n. 9 above), 17–18.

[ back ] 14. Nagy, Homeric Questions, 69–70.

[ back ] 15. B. F. Powell, “Review of G. Nagy, Poetry as Performance,”

[ back ] 16. B. Powell, “Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi,” Electronic Antiquity: Communicating the Classics 1.2 (1993).

[ back ] 17. B. Powell, “Did Homer Sing?” (n. 16 above).

[ back ] 18. Powell, “Review of Nagy” (n. 15 above).

[ back ] 19. G. Nagy, Homeric Responses (Austin, 2003), 5.

[ back ] 20. A. B. Lord, The Singer Resumes the Tale, ed. M. L. Lord (Ithaca, 1995), 102.

[ back ] 21. M. McLuhan and E. McLuhan, The Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto, 1992), 9.

[ back ] 22. G. Nagy, “Review of M. L. West, Homeri Ilias. Volumen prius, rhapsodias I–XII continens,”

[ back ] 23. West, Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (Munich and Leipzig, 2001), 158-159. West’s response to Nagy’s patent criticism of his view that Homer must have been both “real” and “literate” seems to appropriate the auctoritas of an element of the Parry-Lord Hypothesis itself. In the Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.06, West writes: “As Adam Parry pointed out, if the poet had not written (or caused to be written), we could not have his poem. But we do have it, because ‘he’ is by definition the author of the poem we have.” The catch is that, as I document below (p. XX), Nagy does not necessarily view Adam Parry as a trustworthy explicator of the Parry-Lord “project.”

[ back ] 24. G. Nagy, Homer’s Text and Language (Urbana-Champaign, IL, 2005), 76.

[ back ] 25. Graziosi, Inventing Homer (n. 1 above), 129–130.

[ back ] 26. Graziosi, Inventing Homer, 134.

[ back ] 27. Graziosi, Inventing Homer, 136–137.