Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics

  Dué, Casey. 2018. Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 81. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Conclusion. “In Appearance Like a God”: Textual Criticism and the Quest for the One True Homer

Aristarchus athetized at least seven passages of three verses or more in Iliad 20 alone. Each athetesis gives us insight into an editor who was struggling to account for a mythological and poetic tradition that was multiform and at times contradictory. Some passages cause issues with narrative continuity, some passages Aristarchus felt would be better placed elsewhere, and others he felt to be not in keeping with his conception of Homer. For example, at Iliad 20.178–186, the Venetus A reads as follows, and verses 180–186 are marked with the athetesis mark, the obelos (folio 263v):

Αἰνεία τί σὺ τόσσον ὁμίλου πολλὸν ἐπελθὼν
ἔστης; ἦ σέ γε θυμὸς ἐμοὶ μαχέσασθαι ἀνώγει
ἐλπόμενον Τρώεσσιν ἀνάξειν ἱπποδάμοισι
τιμῆς τῆς Πριάμου; ἀτὰρ εἴ κεν ἔμ᾽ ἐξεναρίξῃς,
οὔ τοι τοὔνεκά γε Πρίαμος γέρας ἐν χερὶ θήσει·
εἰσὶν γάρ οἱ παῖδες, ὃ δ᾽ ἔμπεδος οὐδ᾽ ἀεσίφρων.
ἦ νύ τί τοι Τρῶες τέμενος τάμον ἔξοχον ἄλλων
καλὸν φυταλιῆς καὶ ἀρούρης, ὄφρα νέμηαι
αἴ κεν ἐμὲ κτείνῃς; χαλεπῶς δέ σ᾽ ἔολπα τὸ ῥέξειν.

Aeneas, why do you stand there, having come so far out from the crowd?
Does your thumos compel you to fight with me,
hoping to rule among the horse-taming Trojans
over the honor of Priam? But if you slay me,
not for the sake of this will Priam place a prize of honor in your hand.
For he has sons, and he is steadfast and not witless.
Or have the Trojans now apportioned out some plot of land surpassing all others for you,
a beautiful plot with orchards and ploughland, in order that you may inhabit it
if you kill me? But I expect that you will accomplish this with difficulty.

In this passage the best of the Achaeans confronts the future hero of the Aeneid with the kind of boasting that is typical of the Homeric battlefield. Flyting is “an essential part of the hero’s strategic repertoire” (Martin 1989:72), as has been well documented in a number of modern studies of this competitive genre of speech within the Iliad. [1] But in the left margin of the Venetus A we find the following comment explaining all the obeloi:

ἐλπόμενον Τρώεσσι: ἀθετοῦνται στίχοι ἑπτά, ὅτι εὐτελεῖς εἰσι τῇ κατασκευῇ καὶ τοῖς νοήμασι, καὶ οἱ λόγοι οὐ πρέποντες τῷ τοῦ Ἀχιλλέως προσώπῳ.

Seven verses are athetized, because they are shabby in their ornamentation and thought, and the words are not fitting for the character of Achilles.

Aristarchus, of course, believed in a real Homer, a divinely inspired authorial figure whose poetic abilities and aesthetics were by default whatever Aristarchus and other scholars of his day deemed to be the ideal. Whatever appeared to be inept or inelegant or unworthy of a character could not possibly have been composed by Homer. Aristarchus’ cuts (in the form of athetesis) were not as drastic as those of his predecessor Zenodotus, but if he had created an edition in which athetized verses were in fact removed, his Homer too would have been a lot slimmer than the one we know.


Let us consider a scholion in the Venetus A on Iliad 3.100. At this point in the narrative, Hektor has proposed on behalf of his brother Alexander a duel between the two men who claim Helen, Alexander and Menelaos. In his reply, Menelaos agrees that he should fight Alexander alone because the original dispute was between the two of them. The marginal note in the Venetus A here records a multiform of this reply.

The main text of the Venetus A, as well as the texts of the Venetus B and the two Escorial manuscripts and most modern editions, reads:

εἵνεκ᾽ ἐμῆς ἔριδος καὶ Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ᾽ ἀρχῆς

because of my conflict and because of the way it started with Alexander

The scholion, however, preserves Zenodotus’ alternative reading of ἄτης in place of ἀρχῆς, which then means “because of Alexander’s error” (though the word atē is obviously hard to translate and encompasses much more than a simple mistake). The note itself reads:

ὅτι Ζηνόδοτος γράφει ἕνεκ’ ἄτης. ἔσται δὲ ἀπολογούμενος Μενέλαος ὅτι ἄτη περιέπεσεν ὁ Ἀλέξανδρος. δια μέντοι τοῦ ἕνεκ᾽ ἀρχῆς. ἐνδείκνυται ὅτι προκατῆρξεν:~

[It is marked] because Zenodotus writes “because of [his] error.” This would be Menelaos saying in his defense that Alexander [was the one who] had fallen into error. With “because of his beginning,” however, it reveals that he began the hostilities.

Even in this one brief note in the margins of the Venetus A, we catch a glimpse of the multiformity of the Iliad. The differing readings give us evidence that multiple versions of the Iliad were available to the Alexandrian scholars. Why should we not consider Zenodotus’ reading a true multiform or, we might also say, a performance variation, a potential end to a line in a performance when the Iliad was an oral poem? One piece of evidence in support of doing so is that the phrase Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ’ ἄτης appears in this same position, after the weak caesura and completing the line, in at least two other lines:

Iliad 6.356, in which Helen says to Hektor that Hektor has had to take the brunt of the suffering caused by herself and Alexander’s error, and

Iliad 24.28, where the narrator most famously alludes to the Judgment of Paris.

Here is verse 24.28 in context:

τὸν δ᾽ ἐλεαίρεσκον μάκαρες θεοὶ εἰσορόωντες,
κλέψαι δ᾽ ὀτρύνεσκον ἐΰσκοπον ἀργεϊφόντην.
ἔνθ᾽ ἄλλοις μὲν πᾶσιν ἑήνδανεν, οὐδέ ποθ᾽ Ἥρῃ
οὐδὲ Ποσειδάων᾽ οὐδὲ γλαυκώπιδι κούρῃ,
ἀλλ᾽ ἔχον ὥς σφιν πρῶτον ἀπήχθετο Ἴλιος ἱρὴ
καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ᾽ ἄτης,
ὃς νείκεσσε θεὰς ὅτε οἱ μέσσαυλον ἵκοντο,
τὴν δ᾽ ᾔνησ᾽ ἥ οἱ πόρε μαχλοσύνην ἀλεγεινήν.

Iliad 24.23–30

The blessed gods kept feeling pity as they looked upon him,
and they kept urging the watchful Argeiphontes to steal [the body].
Then it was pleasing to all the others, but not ever to Hera
nor to Poseidon nor to the grey-eyed maiden—
rather they persisted in hating holy Ilion as before
and Priam and the people because of the atē of Alexander,
who insulted the goddesses when they arrived at his inner courtyard,
and found best the one who offered him grief-causing lust.

At the Iliad 24 line, an intermarginal scholion in the Venetus A records ἕνεκ’ ἀρχῆς as an alternate reading. The line at Iliad 6.356 likewise reads ἀρχῆς in several papyri and some manuscripts as either the main reading or an alternate one. So in each of these three lines, we have evidence for both multiforms, and that evidence tells us something about how oral composition in performance works, when a singer either by training or under the circumstances of performance might choose one or the other phrase in any of these places. Either Alexander started the whole Trojan War (with his choice of Aphrodite in the Judgment, and by implication Helen) or, in taking a woman, he fell victim, like Agamemnon (Iliad 19.91), to atē.


I want to move from this example to make a larger point about editorial practice when it comes to an oral poem like the Iliad. How do we deal with the multiformity of the Iliad when we approach the text as an editor? The choices we make affect how students and scholars of the Iliad will understand the poem.

Martin West’s 1998–2000 Teubner edition of the Iliad is the most recent printed scholarly edition that I know of. West prints ἀρχῆς at 3.100. Here is what he does with the Iliad 24 reference to the Judgment of Paris that we just looked at:

τὸν δ᾽ ἐλεαίρεσκον μάκαρες θεοὶ εἰσορόωντες,
κλέψαι δ᾽ ὀτρύνεσκον ἐΰσκοπον ἀργεϊφόντην.
ἔνθ᾽ ἄλλοις μὲν πᾶσιν ἑήνδανεν, οὐδέ ποθ᾽ Ἥρῃ
οὐδὲ Ποσειδάων᾽ οὐδὲ γλαυκώπιδι κούρῃ,
ἀλλ᾽ ἔχον ὥς σφιν πρῶτον ἀπήχθετο Ἴλιος ἱρὴ
καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ᾽ ἄτης,
[ὃς νείκεσσε θεὰς ὅτε οἱ μέσσαυλον ἵκοντο,
τὴν δ᾽ ᾔνησ᾽ ἥ οἱ πόρε μαχλοσύνην ἀλεγεινήν.]

Iliad 24.23–30

The blessed gods kept feeling pity as they looked upon him,
and they kept urging the watchful Argeiphontes to steal [the body].
Then it was pleasing to all the others, but not ever to Hera
nor to Poseidon nor to the grey-eyed maiden—
rather they persisted in hating holy Ilion as before
and Priam and the people because of the atē of Alexander,
[who insulted the goddesses when they arrived at his inner courtyard,
and found best the one who offered him grief-causing lust.]

West prints ἄτης here, because that is the reading of most manuscripts, although, as we have seen, ἀρχῆς is also attested. The limitations of a print edition in dealing with the multiformity of an oral tradition are evident here. West brackets the next two lines, however, as being apparent interpolations (“interpolata videntur”). He does not altogether remove them, but he makes clear that he does not consider them Homeric. Why? His apparatus criticus simply states ath. quidam, “Some have athetized.” [
5] In other words, all manuscripts have them, but the verses were not universally approved of in antiquity.


Another passage that West brackets, despite universal manuscript support, is 19.326–337, a reference to Neoptolemos in Achilles’ lament for Patroklos. Here are the verses in context:

          οὐ μὲν γάρ τι κακώτερον ἄλλο πάθοιμι,
οὐδ᾽ εἴ κεν τοῦ πατρὸς ἀποφθιμένοιο πυθοίμην,
ὅς που νῦν Φθίηφι τέρεν κατὰ δάκρυον εἴβει
χήτεϊ τοιοῦδ᾽ υἷος: ὃ δ᾽ ἀλλοδαπῷ ἐνὶ δήμῳ
εἵνεκα ῥιγεδανῆς Ἑλένης Τρωσὶν πολεμίζω:
[ἠὲ τὸν ὃς Σκύρῳ μοι ἔνι τρέφεται φίλος υἱός,
εἴ που ἔτι ζώει γε Νεοπτόλεμος θεοειδής.
πρὶν μὲν γάρ μοι θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἐώλπει
οἶον ἐμὲ φθίσεσθαι ἀπ᾽ Ἄργεος ἱπποβότοιο
αὐτοῦ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ, σὲ δέ τε Φθίην δὲ νέεσθαι,
ὡς ἄν μοι τὸν παῖδα θοῇ ἐνὶ νηῒ μελαίνῃ
Σκυρόθεν ἐξαγάγοις καί οἱ δείξειας ἕκαστα
κτῆσιν ἐμὴν δμῶάς τε καὶ ὑψερεφὲς μέγα δῶμα.
ἤδη γὰρ Πηλῆά γ᾽ ὀΐομαι ἢ κατὰ πάμπαν
τεθνάμεν, ἤ που τυτθὸν ἔτι ζώοντ᾽ ἀκάχησθαι
γήραΐ τε στυγερῷ καὶ ἐμὴν ποτιδέγμενον αἰεὶ
λυγρὴν ἀγγελίην, ὅτ᾽ ἀποφθιμένοιο πύθηται.]

Iliad 19.321–337

For I could not suffer another thing worse,
not even if I were to learn that my father had died,
who surely now in Pythia sheds a tender tear
for want of such a son. Meanwhile I am in a foreign land
fighting with the Trojans for the sake of Helen at whose name one shudders.
[Or if I learned that he who is being raised as my own son in Skyros (had died),
—if somewhere Neoptolemos who is in appearance like a god still lives at least.
For before now the heart in my chest hoped
that I alone would perish far from horse-pasturing Argos
here in Troy, and that you would return to Phthia,
in order that my child in the swift black ship you might lead
from Skyros and show him everything,
my property and slaves and great high-roofed house.
For by now I suppose that Peleus at least is altogether
dead, or perhaps still alive he is grieved
by hateful old age and always waiting for
sorrowful tidings of me, when he shall learn that I have died.]

West seems to generally object to the passage because it includes material he deems Cyclic, that is, that it belongs to the Epic Cycle: “This and the other passage that alludes to Neoptolemos, Ω 466 f., must be regarded as rhapsodic interpolations designed to take account of a figure who featured in the Little Iliad, Iliou Persis, and Nostoi, and was known to POd (λ 492 ff.). In Il. we have a consistent picture of Ach. as a doomed young man whose divine mother and distant, aged father are his only family” (West 2011 ad loc.). But the fact is, as West admits, there are several references to Neoptolemos in the Iliad and the Odyssey. [
8] At 24.465–467 Hermes tells Priam to beseech Achilles by his father, mother, and son (though he does not in fact mention Neoptolemos by name). West brackets this passage also. In Odyssey 11, Achilles asks Odysseus about Neoptolemos. West sees the Iliad passages as being incompatible with the “consistent picture” that is created if they are left out, but that consistent picture only works if the ancient audience somehow remained unaware of all the other coexisting song traditions that did feature Neoptolemos. While I can agree that Neoptolemos did not play a large role within the poetics of the Iliadic epic tradition, the Iliad did not exist in a mythological or poetic vacuum, such that he could never be invoked.

In antiquity, both Aristarchus and Aristophanes seem to have athetized verse 19.327 (not the whole passage, as West does, but just that line) because Skyros is not so far from Troy that Achilles would not have heard news of him and because they deemed theoeides to be inappropriate. The following note is found on folio 258r of the Venetus A:

καὶ Ἀριστοφάνης προηθέτει τὸν στίχον, ὥς φησι Καλλίστρατος[.] τό τε γὰρ ἐπὶ παιδὸς κομιδῇ λέγεσθαι διστακτικῶς <εἴ που ἔτι ζώει>· καὶ ταῦτα μηδὲ πόρρω τῆς Σκύρου κειμένης ὕποπτον τό τε <θεοειδής> ἀκαίρως προσέρριπται· τεκμήριον δὲ τῆς διασκευῆς τὸ καὶ ἑτέρως φέρεσθαι τὸν στίχον· “εἴ που ἔτι ζώει γε Πυρῆς ἐμός, ὃν κατέλειπον”:~

Also Aristophanes previously athetized the verse, as Kallistratos says. For the fact that he speaks at all doubtfully about his son (“εἴ που ἔτι ζώει”), and these things with Skyros lying not far away, is suspect, and θεοειδής is thrown in inaptly. And the existence of a different version of the verse is evidence of the recension [i.e. that the text has been edited]: “If my Pyrrhos still lives at least, whom I left behind.”

Let me first note that once again athetesis is employed partly in response to the existence of more than one version of the text. Once again West has bracketed a passage that has not only universal manuscript support but additional support in the fact that more than one version of it existed in antiquity. For him, as for the Alexandrian editors, the existence of multiple versions of the passage makes it suspect. A Parry-Lord approach to the history of the text expects multiformity, and so can admit both as authentically generated verses.

But there is more to say about the logic of the scholion from a Parry-Lord perspective. Why is θεοειδής used ἀκαίρως? I’m really not sure why Aristophanes and/or Aristarchus felt this to be the case. Richard Martin has written two articles that show that this word, which is also used of Telemakhos the first time we ever see him in the Odyssey, evokes a traditional theme in Homeric poetry, that of the beautiful young man who must grow up and prove himself. Martin argues that the word encompasses the entirety of the story arc, from the moment when the young man is still very much untested and lacking in maturity to the time when he does in fact develop a character that matches his looks. I quote Martin here:

My point is that the use of the formula theoeides marks out Homer’s handling of this traditional theme, which we can call “the hero grows up.” When an audience keyed into the traditional formulaic system first hears Telemachus described as “having the appearance of a god,” it receives a package of thematic messages, as it were, a box of potential narrative directions. This character, the son of Odysseus, could turn out to be like Paris, Alexandros theoeides, all Schein and no Sein, an indolent golden boy who relies on looks to get by. Or he could be like Euryalus [in the Odyssey]—arrogant but essentially educable. (1993:232–233)

I don’t want to reargue Martin’s arguments, but I would suggest that a thorough analysis grounded in the way formulaic language operates is the right approach here, and could lead us to a greater understanding of the full impact of calling Neoptolemos θεοειδής. It might lead us to a fuller appreciation of the heartbreak in Achilles’ words—unlike Odysseus, he will not see his son grown up and matured. Might we find here in the Iliad, as so often in the Odyssey, an implicit contrast between the fates of the two central heroes of Homeric epic? Perhaps that is a stretch, but certainly we would need to marshal all available evidence to find out.

Achilles’ lament for Patroklos, including the verses about Neoptolemos, is typical as well. Many laments contain a narrative of both the past and the future—Briseis’ lament for Patroklos earlier in book 19 does this, as Pucci (1993) has shown. Peleus and Neoptolemos are Achilles’ past and future. Understanding Achilles’ words within the context of women’s songs of lament for the dead opens up a host of poetic possibilities. By likening Achilles’ grief to that of Briseis and the soon-to-be captive women of Troy, the Iliad depicts Achilles not only as having the greatest κλέος of all, but also profound ἄχος (and the two, in fact, go hand in hand). Achilles himself makes the connection in Iliad 18.121–125: “But now may I win good kleos, and may I cause some one of the deep-girdled Trojan and Dardanian women to wipe the tears from their delicate cheeks with both hands and lament unceasingly. And they may know that too long I have held back from battle.” Andromache’s song of sorrow is thus Achilles’ song of glory. But Achilles’ song is also a lament for Patroklos—and for himself:

πάντες δ᾽ ὑλοτόμοι φιτροὺς φέρον…
κὰδ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀκτῆς βάλλον ἐπισχερώ, ἔνθ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ἀχιλλεὺς
φράσσατο Πατρόκλῳ μέγα ἠρίον ἠδὲ οἷ αὐτῷ.

Iliad 23.123–126

All who had been cutting wood bore logs…
they threw them down in a line upon the seashore at the place where Achilles
would make a mighty funeral mound for Patroklos and for himself.

In chapter 1 I suggested that the Iliad that survives for us exhibits a tension between two competing traditional themes: Achilles’ μῆνις and his ἄχος. Where West sees interpolated “Cyclic” material that is extraneous to the Iliad, I find evidence for the wider poetic traditions from which our Iliad emerged and with which it interacted.

Our two approaches are not entirely incompatible: in some respects these are merely two different ways of labeling and conceptualizing the same phenomenon. The distinction lies in what we do with the text that survives. While West, like Aristarchus, separates out the portions of the poem he believes are attributable to a master poet and distinguishes (via bracketing and in some cases omission) others as not Homeric, the editors of the Homer Multitext have made the decision to treat each historical instantiation of the Iliad as just that: a whole unto itself, worthy of study for its own sake as well as for what it teaches us about the larger Homeric tradition.

This fundamental editorial decision—that is, to represent each histori-cal instantiation of the Iliad as a whole worthy of study (in comparison with other historical instantiations)—has been the subject of criticism in Massimo Magnani’s recent (2018) analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Homer Multitext. Magnani is careful to point out that the unusual choices we have made as editors are grounded in the Iliad’s special status as a poem composed in performance, and he notes that we rely on Albert Lord’s formulation that for poetry composed in performance, there is no “original” that can be reconstructed. But he laments the absence of a single text to read (the establishment of which he calls “the final objective of every philological operation”) as well as the absence of a traditional apparatus criticus. Given that we have chosen to study the multiformity that survives in the Homeric tradition as natural and expected reflexes of oral composition in performance, Magnani feels that we have failed to adequately make distinctions between what he calls “aedic” and “rhapsodic variations.” Magnani concludes, “There will certainly be a moment when the critical editor will be supported or even replaced by the AI, but the task of choosing the best possible text in a methodologically correct manner cannot but remain the essential purpose of the philological activity for most of the manuscript traditions handed down by a plurality of manuscripts” (2018:100).

I will have more to say below about the question of distinguishing between “aedic” and “rhapsodic” variations—we do indeed actively seek to blur such distinctions. But as for the absence of an apparatus criticus, Mary Ebbott and I have argued elsewhere about the problems inherent in a typical apparatus (see, e.g., Dué and Ebbott 2009, 2010:153–159, and 2017, and above, p. 13). Only the most specialized consulters of an apparatus criticus can decode what the apparatus is attempting to convey, and even they will be often at a loss. As I have explored in Chapter 4, there are types of information that an apparatus simply can’t convey, especially when meaning is conveyed visually within a manuscript, as is so often the case in the Venetus A. (A glance at even a single folio will confirm this assertion.) But Magnani’s point is well taken. How can a user of the Homer Multitext make comparisons between readings without an apparatus criticus? In fact, during this phase of the project we have chosen not to worry excessively about how precisely our data will be used to make such comparisons. Our energy thus far has been focused on first and foremost simply creating the archival data that we hope others will use in dynamic and unforeseen ways. Even after twenty years of work we have only fully edited and published one manuscript of the Iliad and select papyri; there are lifetimes of work still to do. The Homer Multitext will only begin to be realized when all of the oldest manuscripts with scholia have been completely edited and published, and all of the extent papyri, and all of the works that quote the Homeric epics.

That said, now that we do have a complete data set, tools are coming into existence that will soon make the need for an apparatus criticus obsolete. Many different types of searching, text analysis, and topic modeling are already in common use by humanists, and those employing such methods now have the complete Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad to work with. There is no need to build software or online tools specific to the Homer Multitext, though we have in fact made some tools available on our project website and will continue to do so. But because our data has been created and encoded in generic, archival, and open source formats, we can trust that as the tools of our discipline evolve, our data will be compatible with them.

On a more conceptual level, the editors of the Homer Multitext have concluded that making the evidence of the historical sources available to every individual reader, thereby allowing them the tools and access to make editorial judgments for themselves, outweighs the practical advantages of an apparatus criticus, as useful as it may have been for scholars of earlier eras. The fact is, print editions will continue to exist in physical libraries for those desiring to do the kind of philology that Magnani describes. The editors of the Homer Multitext have never desired to replicate or facilitate nineteenth- or twentieth-century philology. Rather, we feel that it is time, and now possible, to ask new questions.


My aim in this concluding chapter is not to single out for censure the late Martin West, whom I have greatly admired since my earliest days as a student of Greek poetry and from whose scholarship I have learned much of what I know about textual criticism. Rather my aim has been to show how a multitextual approach solves problems for Homeric criticism and opens up possibilities for the next generation of Homeric scholarship that conventional textual criticism cannot.

The concept of the inventing Homer is double edged. When we encounter a passage that seems poetically sophisticated, we often assign it to Homer: “Oh that part about Achilles’ grief for Patroklos, that’s good stuff, Homer invented him” (the implication being that an oral tradition could not produce something that good). [12] Likewise when something is really bad: “Well the whole thing about Niobe having to eat but being a stone, frankly, it is awkward. It must be awkward because Homer somehow ‘broke free’ of the oral tradition, invented the story, and couldn’t quite fit it in right.” The paradox with a traditional system such as the South Slavic one that Parry and Lord studied—and, I believe, the system in which the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed—is that innovation occurs, without a doubt, but the singers composing within that system do not strive to innovate. They claim to reproduce the same song word for word every time, yet they never do. [13] It is only outsiders to the tradition who can come and observe innovation happening. For those on the inside, the tradition remains constant. This is something that our culture does not easily relate to. Imagine Shakespeare not wanting to be innovative, or Monet, or Frank Lloyd Wright. The people we admire, the people we call geniuses, are innovators. And so it is not surprising that ever since the eighteenth century scholars have been inventing (and continually reinventing) a Homer who is just such an original genius. [14]

What we need to fully grasp the poetics and textual transmission of an oral traditional poem is a paradigm shift in Homeric scholarship. The concept of the paradigm shift was first articulated by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As my colleague John Lienhard at the University of Houston noted in an episode of his radio program, The Engines of Our Ingenuity, Kuhn demonstrated that “science develops, not by accretion, but by replacement—by paradigm replacement.” [15] In other words, we cannot make a scientific breakthrough unless we can somehow step out of our own paradigm and conceive of an entirely new one. Lienhard goes on to assert in the episode that many have attempted to point out flaws in Kuhn’s bold assertions, but no one has been able to undermine their fundamental validity. In fact, “as Kuhn’s detractors have gone at him, and stripped him of his original hyperbole, they’ve left him much stronger.” He speculates: “Perhaps the villain in all this is our need to pin everything on one creator genius—Einstein, Edison, Bell. That erases all the labor needed to complete any really good idea.” Lienhard compares the attacks on Kuhn’s work to the criticism levied against Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution: “I’m astonished by people who try to refute natural selection by going back to Darwin himself. Never mind that we’ve spent a century and a half weaving the connecting tissue of evolution by natural selection. You’d think Darwin had written the last word on the subject, not the first.”

As I listened to that episode the first time I heard it, I could not help but think of the paradigm shift in Homeric studies initiated by the fieldwork of Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the former Yugoslavia. Parry’s 1928 doctoral dissertation on the traditional epithet in Homer is a brilliant demonstration of the economy and traditionality of Homeric diction, but, as I noted in chapter 1, even Parry himself did not grasp the implications of this work initially:

My first studies were on the style of the Homeric poems and led me to understand that so highly formulaic a style could be only traditional. I failed, however, at the time to understand as fully as I should have that a style such as that of Homer must not only be traditional but also must be oral. It was largely due to the remarks of my teacher (M.) Antoine Meillet that I came to see, dimly at first, that a true understanding of the Homeric poems could only come with a full understanding of the nature of oral poetry. It happened that a week or so before I defended my theses for the doctorate at the Sorbonne, Professor Mathias Murko of the University of Prague delivered in Paris the series of conferences which later appeared as his book La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle. I had seen the poster for these lectures but at the time I saw in them no great meaning for myself. However, Professor Murko, doubtless due to some remark of (M.) Meillet, was present at my soutenance and at that time M. Meillet as a member of my jury pointed out with his usual ease and clarity this failing in my two books. It was the writings of Professor Murko more than those of any other which in the following years led me to the study of oral poetry in itself and to the heroic poems of the South Slavs. (A. Parry 1971:439)

It was only when Parry went to Yugoslavia to observe the still-flourishing South Slavic oral epic song tradition that he came to understand that Homeric poetry was not only traditional but oral—that is, composed anew every time in performance, by means of a sophisticated system of traditional phraseology and diction. For Parry, witnessing the workings of a living oral epic song tradition was a paradigm shift. Suddenly, by analogy with the South Slavic tradition, the workings of the Homeric system of composition became clear to him.

Parry planned a series of publications based on his observations and subsequent analysis of Homeric poetry that were never completed. His surviving writings have been incredibly influential, but he died in 1935 at the age of 33, long before he had a chance to realize the many implications of his fieldwork. Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales was published in 1960, just two years before Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In retrospect it is quite clear that when Parry and Lord went searching for an analogy for the composition of the Homeric epics, they were at the same time searching for Homer—that is to say Homer the man, the author, and the poetic genius (Dué 2006b). Although the work of both men made possible the paradigm shift that I am advocating for in this concluding chapter, both Parry and Lord in varying degrees operated under the authorial model of understanding the composition of the Homeric epics that prevailed in their own day. We can see this older paradigm reflected especially in some of Albert Lord’s earliest writing. Lord went to Yugoslavia for the first time at the age of 22, from June 1934 until September 1935. Parry described his activities as follows:

My assistant, Mr. Albert Lord, is shortly leaving for a month in Greece. His help has been altogether indispensable to me, and I may say that I have done twice as much work since I had his very able assistance. He has relieved me altogether of the very long labeling and cataloguing of the manuscripts and discs, has helped me with the keeping of accounts and the presentations of reports, has typed some 300 pages of my commentary on the collected texts, and most particularly he has ably run the recording apparatus while we are working in the field, this for the first time leaving me free to be with the singer before the microphone, and to oversee and take part in the putting of questions to the singers.… I myself feel the greatest gratitude to him for the help which he has given me and the expedition is under the greatest obligation to him. (From M. Parry, “Report on Work in Yugoslavia, October 20, 1934–March 24, 1935,” Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, p. 12)

Albert Lord took photographs throughout the trip and kept a record of his experiences with a view to submitting them to a popular magazine such as National Geographic. The essay that he wrote, dated March 1937, was entitled “Across Montenegro: Searching for Gúsle Songs” but was never in fact published. [
16] We can see already in this early essay a fascination with two singers in particular that would shape much of Lord’s subsequent professional scholarship on the creative process of oral traditional poetry and the analogy between the South Slavic and the Homeric song traditions. The first was known as Ćor Huso (“Blind Huso”), a singer of a previous generation who was credited by many of the singers Parry interviewed as being the teacher of their teacher, and the source for all the best songs. Lord recounts one of these interviews (conducted by Nikola Vujnović) as he describes their initial attempts to find singers in Kolashin:

In Kolashin we got to work. During the last century this was the home of one of the greatest singers. The name of old One-eye Huso Husovitch was a magic one in those days, and still is among the Turks (Moslems) in the region further east where the old masters of Kolashin now dwell. We sought eagerly for every trace of his tradition. What was he like? How did he sing? How did he make his living? How did he die? And so on. We had heard of him first from Sálih Uglian [sic] in Novi Pazar. From Huso Salih had learned his favorite song about the taking of Bagdad and its queen by Djérdjelez Aliya, hero of the Turkish border. In Salih’s own words, caught by our microphone, we have a bit of the tradition of the blind singer’s way of life.

Nikola: From whom did you learn your first Bosnian songs?

Salih: I learned Bosnian songs from One-eye Huso Husovitch from Kolashin.

N: Who was he? How did he live? What sort of work did he do?

S: He had no trade, only his horse and his arms, and he wandered about the world. He had only one eye. His clothes and his arms were of the finest. And so he wandered from town to town and sang to people to the gusle.

N: And that’s all he did?

S: He went from kingdom to kingdom and learned and sang.

N: From kingdom to kingdom?

S: He was at Vienna, at Franz’s court.

N: Why did he go there?

S: He happened to go there, and they told him about him, and went and got him, and he sang to him to the gusle, and King Joseph gave him a hundred sheep, and a hundred Napoleons as a present.

N: How long did he sing to him to the gusle?

S: A month.

N: So there was Dutchman who liked the gusle that much?

S: You know he wanted to hear such an unusual thing. He had never heard anything like it.

N: All right. And afterwards, when he came back, what did he do with those sheep? Did he work after that, or did he go on singing to the gusle?

S: He gave all the sheep to his relatives, and put the money in his purse, and wandered about the world.

N: Was he a good singer?

S: There could not have been a better.

(Trans. Milman Parry)

Lord later wrote that for Parry Huso came to symbolize “the Yugoslav traditional singer in much the same way in which Homer was the Greek singer of tales par excellence.” He continues: “Some of the best poems collected were from singers who had heard Ćor Huso and had learned from him” (Lord 1948b:40). Yet Parry and Lord do not seem to have questioned the existence of Huso, even though, as John Foley has demonstrated, he is clearly legendary or “at most…a historical character to whom layers of legend have accrued” (Foley 1998:161). So taken was Parry with the analogy between Homer and Huso that before his death he planned a series of articles entitled “Homer and Huso,” which Lord completed based on Parry’s abstracts and notes. [

Just as Ćor Huso embodied for Parry the Yugoslav traditional singer, Avdo was for Lord on a practical level a living, breathing example of a supremely talented oral poet to whom Homer could be compared. Lord’s Singer of Tales is remarkable for its straightforward exposition of the practical workings of the traditional system in which poets like Avdo composed their songs; it is no surprise therefore that he found a great deal of power in the concrete example that Avdo provided. Avdo dictated songs, was recorded on disk, and was even captured on a very early form of video called “kinescope.” Their initial encounter was in the 1930s, and Lord found him and recorded him again in the 1950s. He was in many ways the test case for Lord’s theories about the South Slavic (and by extension the Homeric) poetic system.

The photograph of Avdo featured on the cover of The Singer of Tales was one that Lord had taken on his first trip to Yugoslavia and was to accompany his unpublished essay. The caption reads: “Avdo Medjedovitch, peasant farmer, is the finest singer the expedition encountered. His poems reached as many as fifteen thousand lines. A veritable Yugoslav Homer!” Here is Lord’s fuller description of Avdo in the essay:

Lying on the bench not far from us was a Turk smoking a cigarette in an antique silver “cigárluk” (cigarette holder). He was a tall, lean and impressive person. At a break in our conversation he joined in. He knew of singers. The best, he said, was a certain Avdo Medjédovitch, a peasant farmer who lived an hour way. How old is he? Sixty, sixty-five. Does he know how to read or write? Nézna, bráte! (No, brother!) And so we went for him.… Finally Avdo came, and he sang for us old Salih’s favorite of the taking of Bagdad in the days of Sultan Selim. We listened with increasing interest to this short homely farmer, whose throat was disfigured by a large goiter. He sat cross-legged on the bench, sawing the gusle, swaying in rhythm with the music. He sang very fast, sometimes deserting the melody, and while the bow went lightly back and forth over the string, he recited the verses at top speed. A crowd gathered. A card game, played by some of the modern young men of the town, noisily kept on, but was finally broken up. The next few days were a revelation. Avdo’s songs were longer and finer than any we had heard before. He could prolong one for days, and some of them reached fifteen or sixteen thousand lines. Other singers came, but none could equal Avdo, our Yugoslav Homer.

In these excerpts I think we can see how important Avdo was for Lord’s earliest conception of Homer as an oral poet. Whereas Parry’s never-completed articles comparing the South Slavic and Homeric traditions focused on the hazy figure of Ćor Huso, Lord, when invited to give a lecture on La poesia epica e la sua formazione, entitled his talk “Tradition and the Oral Poet: Homer, Huso, and Avdo Medjedović”(see Lord 1970). As early as his 1948 article, “Homer, Parry, and Huso,” Lord links Avdo directly with Parry’s Huso: “During the summer of 1935, while collecting at Bijelo Polje, Parry came across a singer named Avdo Međedović, one of those who had heard Ćor Huso in his youth, whose powers of invention and story-telling were far above the ordinary.”

Lord’s comments about Avdo, especially in these earliest descriptions of him, focus on his excellence as a composer (despite the weakness of his voice), his superiority to other poets, and the length of his songs. It is not insignificant that in his unpublished essay Lord misestimates the length of Avdo’s song at fifteen–sixteen thousand verses, the approximate length of the Iliad, whereas in fact the longest song that Avdo recorded was 13,331 verses long. By 1948 Lord was careful to report the accurate total of Avdo’s verses, but he made certain to point out how extraordinary the length of Avdo’s songs were in comparison with his fellow singers, whose songs averaged only a few hundred lines. Clearly it was Lord’s first impression that Avdo provided the answer to the still hotly debated Homeric Question.

It would be easy to criticize Lord’s youthful essay, and few people would find it necessary to do so. And even if we jump forward, decades later, it seems obvious that Lord initially conceived of the paradigm of a dictating oral poet Homer because he was imagining him in Avdo’s image. The technology used to record Avdo was cutting edge at that time, and Lord would never have been so anachronistic as to suggest that Homer was recorded on audio disk, but to assume the technologies required for writing (pen, ink, loose or bound sheets of readily available “paper,” skilled scribes, etc.) for “Homer’s time” is an equally anachronistic projection. As much as Lord’s work is responsible for setting in motion the paradigm shift in Homeric studies that has allowed many scholars to abandon the “Homer as original genius” genre of criticism, he himself had his blind spots on this crucial point. Lord could have his Homer and his oral tradition too. But it is also true that Lord never speculated about the historical circumstances under which the Iliad and the Odyssey might have been dictated. For Lord, the question of the text fixation of the Homeric poems was not essential; rather he was concerned with the dynamic process, that is to say their ongoing recomposition in performance.

Parry, unlike Lord, did not have the opportunity to rethink his earlier work, or to conduct further fieldwork, or to spend decades studying the the South Slavic tradition and the Homeric poems as Lord did. His early writings on the economy of Homeric diction are a brilliant first step towards an entirely new way of conceiving of the composition of the Homeric poems, but they are only the beginning. Like Kuhn or Darwin, Parry’s work has been assailed by many as mistaken in this or that particular, or not sufficiently thorough to have worked out all aspects of the system it seeks to describe.

As Mary Ebbott and I discuss in our 2010 book, Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush, much scholarship has been devoted to refining Parry’s initial findings about the economy of Homeric diction and the nature of the Homeric formula. There is strong resistance among those who feel that Parry’s work somehow minimizes the artistry of the poems or that the principles he outlined restrict the creativity of poets composing in this medium. Thus even those who accept Parry’s findings often seek to amend significant aspects of his arguments. We feel that the scope of Parry’s and Lord’s insights has been ignored, misread or misrepresented, or dismissed too quickly. Some (though certainly not all) efforts to revise Parry and Lord are built on a misunderstanding of the principles they documented in their fieldwork and a lack of awareness of, or at least appreciation for, the kind of meaning made possible by an oral poetic tradition.

That is not to say that our approach and the interpretations offered in our book on Iliad 10 have not also greatly benefited from the work of scholars who have sought to better understand such essential concepts as the Homeric formula and the complex relationship between orality and literacy in ancient Greece. There is, however, a significant difference between scholarship that expands the central insights of Parry and Lord’s work, even while modifying certain notions or definitions, and scholarship that sets out to “prove” Parry (more often than Lord) “wrong” in order to conclude, usually with no further justification, that Homer wrote, or somehow “broke free” of the oral tradition of these epics. These criticisms, like those cited by Lienhard against Kuhn and Darwin, seem to me to react to Parry as if he had “written the last word on the subject, not the first.” As Lienhard concludes at the end of the episode:

Kuhn, White, and Darwin are fine reminders that nothing is finished in its first incarnation. Did the Wright brothers get it wrong because they put the tail in front? Was Edison wrong to record sound on a wax cylinder instead of a CD? I suppose if we need only to be absolutely right we’ll shy away from any of our important progenitors. But, if we want to see creative change in full flower, we have to go to the delicious flawed beginnings.

Building on Parry’s beginnings and Lord’s subsequent decades of scholarship, as well as the findings of those who have been inspired by Lord’s work—such as John Foley, Richard Martin, Leonard Muellner, and Gregory Nagy (all of whom approach Homeric poetry as a system rather than a man)—Mary Ebbott and I propose that it is now possible to enact the paradigm shift in Homeric studies that Parry and Lord set in motion. The paradigm shift we envision is borne out in our many years of work as coeditors of the Homer Multitext, and indeed it has only been made fully possible by that work. In our 2010 book, rather than looking to the intention or skill of a particular composer in order to explain the poetry, we attempted to ground our readings in the meanings made possible by an oral tradition. In de-emphasizing authorship we did not deny the possibility that some form of authorship, in terms of the poet as a creative artist composing in performance, could exist in this oral tradition. But we asserted that when the search for Homer’s genius is abandoned, many more illuminating possibilities present themselves.

The implications of such a shift are as true for the whole of Homeric poetry as they are for Iliad 10:

What is at stake in taking this approach is a better understanding of the language, structure, evolution, and cultural meaning of the epics. Our arguments confront deeply entrenched ideas about the Doloneia. The condemnation of Iliad 10 is so extensive that even a relatively recent book devoted to the theme of ambush, written from an avowedly oralist perspective, does not discuss Iliad 10, our most extensive example of ambush in surviving Greek epic. Ignoring or only barely acknowledging Iliad 10 is a strategy employed by many scholars, who likely feel they must ignore it so as not to incur the charge of making arguments about Homer based on an “interpolated,” “un-Homeric,” or otherwise problematic text. Nevertheless, we feel that there is an entirely different way of treating this book. Rather than dismiss it as “un-Homeric” or pass over it in silence, we propose to show that Iliad 10 offers us unique insight into such important topics as the process of composition-in-performance, the traditional themes of Archaic Greek epic, the nature of the hero, and the creativity and artistry of the oral traditional language.

It strikes me as I revisit these words that I would now happily substitute “attested multiforms” wherever it currently says “Doloneia” or “Iliad 10” in that paragraph.

I submit that we should also cease to draw sharp boundaries between material deemed to be pristine, Homeric, or “by Homer” and that of other Archaic epic traditions. I do not mean to suggest that each song tradition did not have, to a certain extent, its own poetics, traditional themes, characters, accompanying formulaic language, and structure, but I believe that in the early phases of these traditions at least, the boundaries were far more fluid than we typically admit. By approaching the Iliad this way, we lose “Homer,” the individual genius, and we lose a fixed and monolithic entity that we can analyze as a self-contained unit. But we gain infinitely more Iliads to inform our appreciation of the one we know, and a greatly expanded poetic universe. We may lose “intertextuality,” but we gain “resonance” (Lord 1960:65; Graziosi and Haubold 2005), “traditional referentiality” (Foley 1999), “interformularity” (Bakker 2013:157–169), and “interaction” among speech and musical genres both past and present (Martin, forthcoming). These methodologies, all of which are grounded in an understanding of oral poetics and Homeric poetry as a system, open our eyes to the world of epic song in which each new performance was composed and received by its audience.


The creation of a Homer Multitext was first contemplated in the late 1990s in the midst of a different kind of paradigm shift within academia and the broader culture. The idea of a digital edition of the Homeric epics was without a doubt a response to the widespread adoption of the Internet as a means for scholarly communication, and previous editors of the Homeric epics simply could not have conceived of such an edition.

My collaborators and I were able to envision a multitext edition of the Iliad that was not constrained by the boundaries of the printed page, the cost of paper, the logistics of binding, the expense of color ink, or the need for specialized typesetting. Not only was it suddenly possible to imagine a freely accessible digital edition, but in those early days it was already possible for pioneers in this kind of work to imagine—as Ross Scaife, Christopher Blackwell, and Neel Smith did—a digital edition encoded for posterity, one that did not rely on proprietary software or soon-to-be obsolete tools or applications. A true scholarly edition, as they envisioned it, would not only provide free access to data, but would also openly license that data for scholarly use (and re-use) and verification by others. In bringing that vision to reality we have theorized and experimented and gone back to the drawing board many times. We are certainly in the midst of the “delicious flawed beginnings” of a new way of doing things. The digital tools and methods available to our students when they conduct research using our edition evolve from year to year, far beyond our early imaginings. But because our gaze has always been to the future, and is guided by an appreciation of the long past of Homeric scholarship, I am hopeful that we have built a foundation upon which many others will collaboratively construct a new paradigm.


[ back ] 1. On the poetics of flyting see Martin 1989:68–75, Mackie 1996:55–56, Camerotto 2007, and Lentini 2013:§4. On this passage in particular see Lentini 2013.

[ back ] 2. On this topic see also Dué and Ebbott 2009, 2010:153–166, and 2017.

[ back ] 3. For a most recent example, Mackie begins his discussion of Iliad 24 and the Judgment of Paris by stating, “Despite the importance of the Judgement of Paris in the story of the Trojan War, the Iliad has only one explicit reference to it” (Mackie 2013:1). See also below on West 2011.

[ back ] 4. The phrase Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ’ ἄτης in Iliad 6.356 is followed by Helen’s prediction that they will be a subject of song for future generations, suggesting that “Alexander’s error” here too has a thematic connection to the Judgment and the epic tradition as a whole.

[ back ] 5. For a fuller explanation see West’s Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (2001), 197–198 and below. In West 2011:33 he calls the passage “very probably interpolated” (see also West 2011:140 and 412).

[ back ] 6. For the phrase κεχαρισμένα δῶρ’ in the edition attributed to Aristophanes and the city editions cf. Iliad 20.298–299, Odyssey 16.184–185.

[ back ] 7. On traditional referentiality and Homeric “hypertextuality” see Tsagalis 2010a and above, p. 111.

[ back ] 8. I was only able to consult West’s 2017 edition of the Odyssey in the final stages of preparing this manuscript for publication. I note that he allows references to Neoptolemus in the Odyssey, on the assumption that that work was composed by a different poet.

[ back ] 9. Note that the reading ὤφελλ’ ἀπολέσθαι was also known in antiquity, and the manuscript Escorial Ω.1.12 has ὤφελ’ ἀπολέσθαι.

[ back ] 10. Cf. 3.173–175 (Helen to Priam), 3.428–429 (Helen to Alexander), 6.344–348 (Helen to Hektor), and 19.59–60 (Achilles of Briseis) as well as Hecuba at 22.431–2 and Andromache at 22.481. For just such an analysis of Helen’s speech throughout the Iliad within the poetics of lament see Ebbott 1999.

[ back ] 11. For Homeric scholarship that makes use of the term “invention” see, e.g., Fenik 1978, West 1999, and Graziosi 2002 (Graziosi’s study turns this approach on its head and instead explores how the ancient Greeks invented the figure of Homer in a multitude of ways, in various places, and at various points in time—hence her title Inventing Homer).

[ back ] 12. On Patroklos as an allegedly invented character see Dué 2002:83.

[ back ] 13. See also chapter 1, p. 21. Cf. Parry’s interviews with South Slavic singers quoted in Lord 1960:26–28, as well as Lord 1960:44–45: “We must hasten to assert that in speaking of ‘creating’ phrases in performance we do not intend to convey the idea that the singer seeks originality or fineness of expression.… To say that the opportunity for originality and for finding the ‘poetically’ fine phrase exists does not mean that the desire for originality also exists” (emphasis in the original).

[ back ] 14. For a historical overview of the intellectual context in which notions of originality and genius came to dominate Homeric criticism see Simonsuuri 1979 as well as Dué 2006b and McLane and Slatkin 2011. Graziosi has explored ancient inventions of Homer, but, as she herself suggests, her work should impel us to look at the way that we continue to invent Homer in modern scholarship (2002:6).

[ back ] 15. The episode (no. 1835) is entitled “Revisiting Stirrups” and can be accessed here:

[ back ] 16. I am grateful to Stephen Mitchell, curator of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, for providing me with a copy of this essay.

[ back ] 17. Lord 1936, 1938, 1948a; see also Lord 1948b and 1970.

[ back ] 18. Parry was able to complete only twelve pages of this book before his death. They are published in Lord 1948b.

[ back ] 19. On this point see González 2013 and forthcoming (c), as well as the discussion in Ready and Tsagalis (forthcoming):2–4, with additional bibliography ad loc.