Discovery Procedures and Principles for Homeric Philological Research
The past 100 years have brought new perspectives and new methods to the study of Homeric poetry, several of which affect our understanding of the poems in the most basic ways. For the philologist working on the meaning of individual words, at least two are especially important: the enhanced understanding we have acquired about the compositional technique of Greek Epic from the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on oral traditional poetry, poetry that is composed as it is performed and performed as it is composed (A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 2nd ed., Cambridge, MA, 2000); and secondly, the development of the comparative method in historical linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure(Course in General Linguistics, New York, 1959), Antoine Meillet (The Comparative Method in Historical Linguistics, Paris, 1970), and Emile Benveniste (Indo-European Language and Society, Coral Gables, 1973) along with its application to the study of Homeric poetry by scholars like Gregory Nagy (The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, 2nd edition, Baltimore, 1998). In his last work of scholarship, Benveniste said that our knowledge of Homeric vocabulary is “in its infancy,” because the lexicographical tradition from antiquity on which it is based is inexact, disabled by an outmoded aesthetic. It behooves us to renew our sense of what epic words mean, to develop and exploit a methodology based on a deep understanding of the poetics of the text and a superior knowledge of the history of phonological, derivational, and semantic processes in Greek and the Indo-European languages to which it is related.
So this contribution to the Homerizon conference went on to describe and illustrate principles and procedures that are effective in research on the Homeric vocabulary that uses these methods. Although research of this kind is often presented as though it results from a Sherlock Holmesian deductive process, its basic and most powerful tool is inductive: looking at all the attestations of a given word in all of its contexts in depth, and with the care and pace that Nietzsche once ascribed to the philologist: “to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously fore and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers (F. Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge, 1997, p. 5).” Identifying problems is intuitive at best, but given the scope of the task, almost any starting point will do. It’s like pulling a loose thread in a complex tapestry and seeing where it’s attached. Is the goal, then, to solve the problem you identify, once and for all? Is the goal to begin with a generalization and then try to prove it? No to both: the goal is patiently to rebuild the poetic and cultural fabric that was disclosed as a given to the Epic audience, to reconstitute the resonances and connections of a traditional performance system. It is not a to impose solutions, but to find solutions that impose themselves. The goal is to open the door, in Nietzsche’s terms, in a way that leaves room for others to pass through as well.