Vico’s Prescient Evolutionary Model for Homer

7. Two Conclusions

Despite being a product of diachronic, Panhellenic dissemination, Homeric Greek, as an artificial literary language, is strikingly complex in the Russian Formalist sense of displaying literatur’nost’ (“literariness”). That is, both epics were “built” over the millennia through such devices as “the epic simile”; formulaic repetition (anaphora); foreshadowing; paranomasia (double entente); and on and on. These elements are normally thought of as applying to written works, or at least to works that are the products of individual minds. Vico’s genius lies in his having been the first scholar to create a system for analyzing “Homer” temporally, throughout all the stages in which the epics took form.

The Homeric image from antiquity to the present is of a singer who, whether blind or not, could not write. This observation may seem facile and unproductive, but I assert that it is not. I have actually heard some Homerists say, in the course of introducing the epics to students, that before Parry and Lord did their fieldwork in Yugoslavia, people didn’t know for certain that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed orally. This is not true, and is not really what they, earnest as they are, are trying to say. I believe that what they really mean is something like this: “Before Parry and Lord, there was no empirical evidence for a tradition going back through antiquity that some permutation of the illiterate singer actually existed.” I have tried to show that, even in antiquity, it was understood that “Homer” composed orally. It is all summed up in A. B. Lord’s “multiformity.” This word tells us why Giambattista Vico’s and Gregory Nagy’s elaborate diachronic paradigms for Homer make such good sense.