Homer’s Text and Language

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I§2 My overall method, however, which has been shaped by over three decades of research on Homer, is more inductive than deductive. Inductive thinking about the facts of Homeric text and language has become for me a story in itself, and this book is my attempt to tell such a story.

I§3 In Homeric studies, there is an ongoing debate centering on different ways to establish the text of Homer, different ways to appreciate the poetry created in the language of Homer. This book takes a stand in the midst of that debate. The stakes are high, not only because Homer remains such an indispensable figure in the canons of world literature but also because so much about Homeric poetry is still unknown or uncertain.

Ι§6 An opportunity to reflect is also an opportunity to reposition the ongoing debate. In practicing the profession of literary historian and critic, I must be both straightforward and open to dialogue. In maintaining a critical outlook, I will need to be direct in some of my criticisms. In developing my central argument, that Homeric poetry derives from a system, an oral poetic system, I find it necessary to highlight my disagreements with some contemporary Classicists. On some points, they too disagree with me—or with each other; on many other points, there is general agreement. If I became preoccupied, however, with tracking all the agreements and disagreements, the aim of my book would be lost. Homer’s Text and Language tells its own story in the form of a unified positive argumentation. {xii|xiii}

Ι§8 For my argument to be effective, I need to engage with specialized studies grounded in the realities of Homeric text and language—and with the technical terminology that goes with those studies. The terminology of text criticism is introduced gradually as the reading of Part I proceeds. Then, halfway into the book, Part II begins to introduce a further set of terms having to do with linguistic reconstructions, or “etymologies.” To read through the whole book in sequence, then, is to acquire at least two different kinds of complex technical language currently being used in Homeric research. What sustains the reading, however, is not the gradual acquisition of these complex technical languages but the central argument itself, which remains simple in its essence: that the text and language of Homeric poetry derive from oral traditional poetry.

I§9 The central argument is driven by three special interests: the systematic nature of oral poetry; the interplay of tradition and innovation in this kind of poetry; and the realities of actual performance. The first interest goes to the heart of my ongoing research on the history of Homeric reception. By combining the insights of Milman Parry and Albert Lord with the general methods of structural linguistics, I aim to show that the system underlying the making of Homeric verse enables us to appreciate the Homeric editorial practices of the ancient world. My second interest, concerning the interplay of innovation and tradition, runs closely parallel to the first: once we recognize the ways in which creative performers analogize and extend analogies within a tradition, we can break free from rigidly confining ideas of a single “Homeric genius” as the ultimate source of a once-and-for-all fixation of the Homeric text. Thirdly, my interest in the dynamics of performance motivates my re-examinations of the “origins” of the hexameter, as well as my analysis of the precious information contained in the Homeric scholia, that is, in the marginal notes we find preserved in ancient papyri and, more pervasively, in medieval manuscripts. In these scholia, traces of generations of past performances can be detected still. {xiii|xiv}

I§11 Chapter Two offers a clarification of the term “multiform” and its applications in the study of traditional oral poetics. It makes a connection between Lord’s notion of multiformity and the variations we find in the Homeric text as we know it. Some of these variations are insignificant, while others are of great significance. One sure sign of significant variation in Homeric poetry is the occasional highlighting of a given variant by the poetry itself: for example, a variant can be rhetorically “focalized” in contrast with other variants.

I§12 Chapter Three is more technical in content, examining in detail Martin West’s edition of the Homeric Iliad. The results of this examination are essential for the overall argument initiated in Chapters One and Two: that the variations in wording as we find them in Homeric texts stem ultimately from variations in formulaic composition stemming from many centuries of ongoing Homeric performances.

I§13 Chapter Four continues an ongoing debate with West by articulating some essential differences between his view of the Homeric text and mine. I argue that this text reflects a poetic system, and that editors of Homer need to work out a system of their own in their ongoing efforts to understand that system. For West, on the other hand, the Homeric text reflects no system, and he feels no obligation to articulate his own approach to this {xiv|xv} text—except to affirm and reaffirm, over and over again, his reliance on his own personal judgment of what is right and wrong. [14] Against the backdrop of this debate, Chapter Four spells out what is ultimately at stake: are the Homeric poems to be read once and for all as a uniform text determined by one editor who knows best—or are they to be read and re-read in light of the multiform oral traditions that had shaped their history and prehistory? I contend that the emergent uniformity of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey cannot be appreciated if we fail to understand the submerged multiformity of oral traditions that gave life to these poems. I resist the idea that Homeric poetry will somehow be safer in the hands of editors who seek to flatten out that multiformity. What saved this poetry in the distant past was the system of its oral traditions, in all its multiformity. To keep it safe, future editors need to maintain an active engagement with the history and prehistory of that system. It matters less, then, for me to worry about overextended claims, assumptions, and negative rhetoric about problems inherent in the study of Homeric poetry. [15] It matters more to find common ground. [16] And, ultimately, it matters even more to find answers to some basic questions. What did the Aristarchean critic Didymus know—or not know—about the editorial work of Aristarchus? How did Aristarchus himself use the earlier work of Aristophanes of Byzantium? What role did the “city” texts of Homer play in the evaluations of ancient editors?

I§14 Chapter Five confronts, in detail, thirty-three examples of readings claimed to be “authentic” in the Homeric text—as opposed to alleged “conjectures” made by Aristarchus and others. Here I put to the test a point I am making throughout Part I of this book about Homeric poetry as a system: if this poetry is in fact a system, and if the variants reported by Aristarchus can be shown to be part of such a system, then these Aristarchean variants cannot be dismissed as mere “conjectures”—as opposed to non-Aristarchean variants that are alleged to be “authentic.” If my demonstration is successful, then the Aristarchean as well as the non-Aristarchean variants can be considered authentic—that is, authentically generated by the system of oral traditional poetry. All such variants can be considered to be part of the overall system. And the evidence to be used to demonstrate such common authenticity can be found in the text of Homer as we have it. An Aristarchean variant as attested in a given Homeric verse can be validated by way of matching {xv|xvi} it with identical non-Aristarchean variants attested in other Homeric verses. On the basis of the vast number of variants that survived in Homeric textual history, we have enough evidence to conclude that the attestations of variation in the text are traces of variation in the traditional system underlying that text. Aristarchean variants are no exception: they are native to this traditional system, and they cannot be dismissed as alien guesswork.

I§16 Chapter Seven matches Chapter Six in focusing on the etymology of a name. This time it is the name of the god Apollo. The meaning of this name reveals Apollo as god of the sacred speech act and, by extension, of all speech acts. This quintessential Greek god embodies the sacred function of speech itself. As god of language, Apollo has absolute control of language. He is the god of linguistics. Within the framework of Homeric poetry as a system, the linguistic power of the god comes to life. Apollo, through his Muses, becomes the force that animates the medium of Homeric poetry.

I§19 Readers who are already familiar with my work will, I hope, see most clearly in this final essay the rapidly shifting kaleidoscope of Homeric themes to which I have attended in my older publications. Each of those themes has been given a new twist, however, in the new environment of this book. To readers who are new to my work, the ninth essay is meant to give an overview of the depth and vitality of the ancient Greek poetic treasure that is Homer.

I§20 As for the nine essays taken all together, each of them elaborates on that same depth and vitality, viewing Homer as an endless stream of variegated moments {xvii|xviii} in the actual reception of Homer. My essays, then, are rethinkings and refinements, as well as supplements to the debates they started. As such, they are meant to be the opposite of a scholarly reprint, for their purpose is not to memorialize older positions but to try to keep pace with the eternal newness of Homeric studies.


[ back ] 1. By “metonym” I mean an expression of meaning by way of connecting something to something else, to be contrasted with “metaphor,” which I define for the moment as an expression of meaning by way of substituting something for something else.

[ back ] 2. These essays are N 1998b and N 2000a, rewritten here as Ch.5 and Ch.3 respectively: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1998/1998-07-14.html; http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2000/2000-09-12.html.

[ back ] 3. N 2000a, reviewing West 1998b.

[ back ] 4. West 2001a, replying to N 2000a: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2001/2001-09-06.html.

[ back ] 5. West 2001a, incorporated into the printed book of West 2001b, on which I have more to say in Ch.4.

[ back ] 6. N 2003b, reviewing West 2001b. N 2003b is rewritten here as Ch.4.

[ back ] 7. West 2004, replying to Rengakos 2002 and N 2003b. Both Rengakos and Nagy reviewed West 2001b. N 2003b is rewritten here as Ch.4.

[ back ] 8. Schloemann 2001, assessing the review of West 1998b by N 2000a.

[ back ] 9. For an electronic publication of the Introductions and the Bibliographies for Volumes 1 and 2 of N 2001h, Greek Literature (both of these volumes concern mainly Homer), see N 2001g: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.Introductions_and_Suggested_Bibliographies.2001.

[ back ] 10. For example, the printed publication by Kullmann 2001 of his review of Latacz 2000a/b/c and 2001 on Homer was soon countered by the electronic publication of counterarguments by Latacz 2002: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2002/2002-02-15.html.

[ back ] 11. A case in point is the concept of “multitext,” to which I will turn at a later point.

[ back ] 12. On the terms “synchronic” and “diachronic,” see Saussure 1916:117: “De même synchronie et diachronie désigneront respectivement un état de langage et une phase d’évolution.”

[ back ] 13. The wording comes from Porphyry Homeric Questions [Iliad] 297.16 ed. Schrader 1890; see also scholia D at Iliad V 385. On the Aristarchean provenance of the wording, see Porter 1992:70–74 (who effectively addresses the skepticism of Pfeiffer 1968:225–227).

[ back ] 14. West 2001b.

[ back ] 15. The overextension seems particularly noticeable in West 2004, where he replies to Rengakos 2002—as also to N 2003b.

[ back ] 16. To cite just one example: as we will see, West and I agree more than disagree on the reading of Iliad XV 64–71.

[ back ] 17. HQ 15, following the terminology of Saussure 1916.

[ back ] 18. N 1974.

[ back ] 19. For the nuances of this last sentence, I am indebted to one of the two anonymous referees of my book, whose suggested wordings have powerfully affected my own.