Nagy, Gregory. Homeric Questions

  Use the following persistent identifier:


[[This volume is an electronic version of Homeric Questions, originally published in 1996 by the University of Texas Press. The original pagination of the printed version will be indicated in this electronic version inside pointed brackets (“{“ and “}”). For example, {6|7} indicates where p. 6 of the printed version ends and p. 7 begins.]]

The title of this work is marked by the word Questions, in the plural. It takes the place of the expected singular, along with a definite article, associated with that familiar phrase, “the Homeric Question.” Today there is no agreement about what the Homeric Question might be. Perhaps the most succinct of many possible formulations is this one: “The Homeric Question is primarily concerned with the composition, authorship, and date of the Iliad and the Odyssey.” [1] Not that any one way of formulating the question in the past was ever really sufficient. Who was Homer? When and where did Homer live? Was there a Homer? Is there one author of the Iliad and Odyssey, or are there different authors for each? Is there a succession of authors or even of redactors for each? Is there for that matter a unitary Iliad, a unitary Odyssey? [2]

The title Homeric Questions reaffirms the original Aristotelian seriousness of Homḗrika zētḗmata, avoiding the accretive implications of frivolity. To this extent it matches the seriousness of scholarship in the period of the Renaissance and thereafter concerning the Homeric Question. But my title also affirms the need to pose the question in such a way that it will not presuppose the necessity of any {2|3} single answer or solution, lúsis. And even if a unified answer were to be achieved in the long run, the result is likely to be a blend achieved from a plurality of different voices, not the singular strain of a monotone edict emanating from the unquestioned authority of accepted scholarship to which some would assign the title of philology.

The disaster that befell the schoolboys at Chios is directly coupled by the narrative of Herodotus with another disaster, likewise presaging the overall political disaster about to befall all of Chios: at about the same time that the roof caved in on the boys studying their grámmata ‘letters’ in school (again, 6.27.2), a khorós ‘chorus’ of 100 young men from Chios, officially sent to Delphi for a performance at a festival there, fell victim to a plague that killed 98 of them. Only two of the boys returned alive to Chios (ibid.).

It is as if the misfortune of the people of Chios had to be presaged separately, in both public and private sectors. The deaths of the {4|5} chorus-boys affected the public at large, in that choruses were inclusive, to the extent that they represented the community at large. The deaths of the schoolboys, on the other hand, affected primarily the élite, in that schools were more exclusive, restricted to the rich and the powerful.

For our own era, the scene of a disaster where the roof caves in on schoolboys learning their letters becomes all the more disturbing because schools are all we have left from the split between the more inclusive education of the chorus and the more exclusive education of the school. For us it is not just a scene: it is a primal scene. The crisis of philology, signaled initially by the split between chorus and school, deepens with the conceptual narrowing of paideía as education over the course of time.

The narrowing is signaled by exclusion. In the Protagoras of Plato, we are witness to a proposal that girl-musicians be excluded from the company of good old boys at the symposium. Even as slave-girls, women lose the chance to contribute to, let alone benefit from, the new paideía. Meanwhile, the traditions of the old paideía, where aristocratic girls had once received their education in the form of choral training, becomes obsolete. Obsolete too, ironically, is the old paideía of boys, both in the chorus and in the schools. The new schools as ridiculed in the Clouds of Aristophanes seem to have lost the art of performing the “Classics,” and the Classics have become written texts to be studied and emulated in writing. Gone forever, in the end, are the performances of Sophocles. Gone forever is the possibility of bringing such performances back to life, even if for just one more time, at occasions like the symposium. Gone forever, perhaps, is the art of actually performing a composition for any given occasion.

Yet another problem that can lead to a narrowing of resources in pursuing Homeric Questions has to do with a negative attitude towards the study of earlier stages of Greek literature, deriving from the inference that the further one goes back in time, the less one may really know. This attitude, as I find it articulated by some Classicists, comes dangerously close to shunning the study of older evidence on the grounds that there is not enough information to prove anything. In resisting such a stance, I take my inspiration from a philologist who studies Greek texts that are even older — as texts — than the Homeric poems. I quote the words of John Chadwick, as he speaks about the Linear B tablets of the second millennium BCE:

In the case of the Homeric poems, it can be said even more forcefully: not only does the text exist but even the ultimate reception of the Homeric poems is historically attested, ready to be studied empirically. As I have already indicated, the primary given in my own work is the léxis or diction of the Homeric poems. What, then, is the primary question? For me it is vital that the evidence provided by the words, the ipsissima verba, reflects on the context in which the words were said, the actual performance. The essence of performing song and poetry, an essence permanently lost from the paideía that we have inherited from the ancient Greeks, is for me the primary question. {8|9}

In choosing language and text as my primary empirical given, I hope to stay within a long preexisting continuum of philologists. In choosing performance, the occasion of performance, as my primary question, I go beyond this continuum in relying on two other disciplines. These disciplines are linguistics and anthropology.

As for the second of the two disciplines that I propose to apply, anthropology, I should note simply that this discipline has as yet exerted so little influence in the field of Classics, with a few notable exceptions, that it is seldom mentioned even by those Classicists who are given to issuing admonitions against the intrusion of supposedly alien disciplines. Ironically, the field of anthropology has as much to benefit from the currently construed field of Classics as the other way around. We find ourselves in an era when the ethnographic evidence of living traditions is rapidly becoming extinct, where many thousands of years of cumulative human experience are becoming obliterated by less than a century or so of modern technological progress, and where the need to reaffirm the humanistic value of tradition in the modern world often cannot be met by the members of endangered traditional societies, who are sometimes in the forefront of embracing the very progress that threatens to obliterate their traditions. The field of Classics, which lends itself to the empirical study of tradition, seems ideally suited to articulate the value of tradition in other societies, whether or not these societies are closely comparable to the those of ancient Greece and Rome.

The primary Homeric question at hand, that of performance, is not only to be articulated in terms of linguistics and anthropology. It is also to be linked with the past research of two scholars whose training stemmed not directly from these two disciplines but from the Classics. It is essential that I invoke these two scholars, both deceased, as we approach the centerpiece of my Homeric Questions. Their names are Milman Parry and Albert Lord. On the occasion of delivering my Presidential address at the 1991 Convention of the American Philological Association, I stressed what a humbling experience it was for me to be given an honor — and an opportunity — that others before me, who had their own Homeric Questions, would have deserved far more. In particular, I had in mind these two scholars, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, neither of whom was ever awarded such an honor by the American Philological Association. Parry died young, and there was little opportunity for the American Philological {10|11} Association to recognize the lasting value of his contributions to the study of Homer and to the field of Classics in general. [27] In the case of Albert Lord, Life Member of the American Philological Association, whose own important research continued his earlier work with his teacher, Milman Parry, I hope to honor his contributions to Classical Philology by way of my Homeric Questions, which are meant to serve as extensions of the questions that he had asked in his Singer of Tales [28] and, shortly before his death, in Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. [29] {11|12}


[ back ] 1. Davison 1963:234.

[ back ] 2. Books of the Iliad / Odyssey will by cited with upper- / lower-case roman numerals.

[ back ] 3. Pfeiffer 1968:69.

[ back ] 4. Hintenlang 1961; Pfeiffer p. 69.

[ back ] 5. Hintenlang pp. 22–23; Pfeiffer p. 69.

[ back ] 6. Pfeiffer p. 70.

[ back ] 7. See Pfeiffer p. 70.

[ back ] 8. Pfeiffer p. 70, with reference to Lehrs 1882:206.

[ back ] 9. Pfeiffer pp. 70–71.

[ back ] 10. Suetonius De grammaticis et rhetoribus c. 10 (see Pfeiffer p. 158n8).

[ back ] 11. Testimonia collected by Pfeiffer p. 96.

[ back ] 12. Pfeiffer p. 97.

[ back ] 13. Pfeiffer p. 232.

[ back ] 14. N 1990c, restating an earlier discussion in N 1990a:406–413. On Chios as birthplace of Homer: Acusilaus FGH 2 F 2.

[ back ] 15. Ibid.

[ back ] 16. N 1990c:47. On the concept of terminal prestige, see McClary 1989.

[ back ] 17. Phillips 1989:637 makes the following remarks on the “scientific model” of Classical scholarship: “the most recent work becomes the most truthful, with the exceptions either of older views which agree with contemporary conceptualizations (hence becoming glimmerings of truth) or which through their apparent ‘error’ provide a point of departure for interpretational polemic or which offer compilations of data as yet not reedited. This ahistorical view of contemporary ‘truth’ makes classical studies akin to the natural sciences.”

[ back ] 18. Householder and Nagy 1972b, especially pp. 19–26, 35–36, 48–54, 62–70. In my earlier publications, I consistently refer to this work according to the pagination of version 1972a, because of a troublesome typographical error on p. 20 of version 1972b. Still, the latter version is now more easily available and more often cited (e.g. Palmer 1980:72, 74, 105, 316 and Janko 1992:8n2, 11n10, 11n13, 16n27, 17n30, 303); accordingly, I will simply correct the error at p. 20 of version 1972b (εὐρέα πόντον and εὐρὺν πόντον at line 5, εὐρέι πόντῳ at line 6) and refer to this version hereafter.

[ back ] 19. An example that comes to mind is this statement by Griffin 1987:103n36: “On the phrase κλέος ἄφθιτον [kléos áphthiton ‘imperishable fame’], on which too much has been based, I share the reservations of Finkelberg (1986).” Cf. N 1974, which is indeed based on the Homeric expression kléos áphthiton (IX 413). I offer some counterarguments to Finkelberg 1986 in N 1990a:244–245n126. Cf. also Edwards 1985:75–78 and Martin 1989:182–183. Griffin says at pp. 98–99 that Achilles is promised kléos áphthiton as compensation for his death. I agree, having elaborated on this point in N 1974.

[ back ] 20. Eagleton 1983:viii.

[ back ] 21. Chadwick 1976:x.

[ back ] 22. As Meillet 1925:12 points out, each linguistic fact is part of a system (“chaque fait linguistique fait partie d’un ensemble où tout se tient”). We need not expect, however, any such system to be perfect: it is fitting to recall the succinct formula of a noted American linguist and anthropologist: “all grammars leak” (Sapir 1921:38). Further discussion of linguistic models in Householder and Nagy 1972b:17; also N 1990a:4–5. Few studies in Homer apply linguistics with the degree of intellectual rigor and flair that this field requires. A notable exception is Miller 1982a and 1982b: the author reveals a thorough grounding in linguistic theory and praxis. Here I record my own debt to my linguistics teachers, Fred Householder and Calvert Watkins; also to my former students, many of whom have published monographs that apply the methods of linguistics (e.g. Bers 1974, Bergren 1975, Shannon 1975, Clader 1976, Muellner 1976, Frame 1978, Sinos 1980, Lowenstam 1981, Martin 1983, Sacks 1987, Crane 1988, Caswell 1990, Edmunds 1990, Kelly 1990, Lowry 1991, Slatkin 1991, Vodoklys 1992, Batchelder 1994, Petropoulos 1994).

[ back ] 23. Especially N 1974, 1979, 1990b.

[ back ] 24. Taplin 1992:116n12, commenting on N 1979.

[ back ] 25. N 1990b:20–21.

[ back ] 26. Further debate in N 1994b. More below on the term diachronic. On traditionality as an instrument of meaning, see Slatkin 1991.

[ back ] 27. The collected papers of Milman Parry have been published by his son, Adam: Parry 1971.

[ back ] 28. Lord 1960.

[ back ] 29. Lord 1991. I sense that there is a special need to put on record, for the institutional memory of the American Philological Association, the honor that is Lord’s due. This need is prompted not only by the value of his scholarship but also because, as I still remember clearly, one particular APA presidential address, delivered in a previous year on the subject of Homeric composition, seemed to go out of its way to slight Lord’s work.