Homeric Question

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The Homeric Question is the debate over the identity of Homer and the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This debate has roots in classical antiquity and the scholarship of the Hellenistic period, but is essentially a controversy among Homeric scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries. As the poems' origin in traditional oral poetry has become better understood, the Homeric Question has receded in importance, or at least has become drastically reformulated.

Scholars generally agree that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardization and refinement out of older material beginning in the 8th century BC. This process, often referred to as the "million little pieces" design, seems to acknowledge the spirit of the oral tradition. As Albert B. Lord notes in his magnum opus, The Singer of Tales, poets within an oral tradition, like Homer, create and modify their tales whilst they perform them. Thus, Homer may have “borrowed” from other bards, but he certainly made the piece his own when he performed.

Scholars, however, maintain their belief in the reality of an actual Homer. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that a common joke has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name," and the classical scholar Richmond Lattimore, author of well-regarded poetic translations to English of both epics, once wrote a paper entitled "Homer: Who Was She?" Samuel Butler was more specific, theorizing a young Sicilian woman as author of the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further speculated on by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter.

In Greek his name is Homēros. Many etymologies have been proposed for this name; it is identical with the Greek word for "hostage". There is a theory that his name was back-extracted from the name of a society of poets called the Homeridae, which literally means "sons of hostages", i.e., descendants of prisoners of war. As these men were not sent to war because their loyalty on the battlefield was suspect, they would not get killed in battles. Thus they were entrusted with remembering the area's stock of epic poetry, to remember past events, in the times before literacy came to the area.

Most Classicists would agree that, whether there was ever such a composer as "Homer" or not, the Homeric poems are the product of an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets (aoidoi). An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems consist of regular, repeating phrases; even entire verses repeat. Could the Iliad and Odyssey have been oral-formulaic poems, composed on the spot by the poet using a collection of memorized traditional verses and phases? Milman Parry and Albert Lord pointed out that such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in an exclusively oral culture. The crucial words are "oral" and "traditional." Parry started with "traditional." The repetitive chunks of language, he said, were inherited by the singer-poet from his predecessors, and they were useful to the poet in composition. He called these chunks of repetitive language "formulas."

Exactly when these poems would have taken on a fixed written form is subject to debate. The traditional solution is the "transcription hypothesis", wherein a non-literate singer dictates the poem to a literate scribe in the 6th century BC or earlier. More radical Homerists, such as Gregory Nagy, contend that a canonical text of the Homeric poems as "scripture" did not exist until the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st century BC).

The debate begins with the Prolegomena of F. A. Wolf. Wolf shows how the question of the date of writing meets us on the threshold of the textual criticism of Homer and accordingly enters into a full discussion, first of the external evidence, then of the indications furnished by the poems. Having satisfied himself that writing was unknown to Homer, he is led to consider the real mode of transmission, and finds this in the Rhapsodists, of whom the Homeridae were an hereditary school. And then comes the conclusion to which all this has been tending: the Iliad and Odyssey cannot have been composed in the form in which we know them without the aid of writing. They must therefore have been, as Bentley had said, a sequel of songs and rhapsodies, loose songs not collected together in the form of an epic poem till about 500 years after. This conclusion he then supports by the character attributed to the Cyclic poems (whose want of unity showed that the structure of the Iliad and Odyssey must be the work of a later time), by one or two indications of imperfect connection, and by the doubts of ancient critics as to the genuineness of certain parts. The voice of antiquity is unanimous in declaring that Peisistratus first committed the poems of Homer to writing, and reduced them to the order in which we now read them.

The effect of Wolf's Prolegomena was so overwhelming that, although a few protests were made at the time, the true Homeric controversy did not begin till after Wolf's death (1824). His speculations were thoroughly in harmony with the ideas and sentiment of the time, and his historical arguments, especially his long array of testimonies to the work of Peisistratus, were hardly challenged.

The first considerable antagonist of the Wolfian school was G. W. Nitzsch, whose writings cover the years 1828-1862, and deal with every side of the controversy. In the earlier part of his Metetemata (1830) he took up the question of written or unwritten literature, on which Wolfs whole argument turned, and showed that the art of writing must be anterior to Peisistratus. In the later part of the same series of discussions (1837), and in his chief work (Die Sagenpoesie der Griechen, 1852), he investigated the structure of the Homeric poems, and their relation to the other epics of the Trojan cycle. These epics had meanwhile been made the subject of a work which for exhaustive learning and delicacy of artistic perception has few rivals in the history of philology, the Epic cycle of F. C. Wekker. The confusion which previous scholars had made between the ancient post-Homeric poets (Arctinus, Lesches, etc.) and the learned mythological writers (such as the scriptor cyclicus of Horace) was first cleared up by Wekker. Wolf had argued that if the cyclic writers had known the Iliad and Odyssey which we possess, they would have imitated the unity of structure which distinguishes these two poems. The result of Wekker's labours was to show that the Homeric poems had influenced both the form and the substance of epic poetry.

In this way there arose a conservative school who admitted more or less freely the absorption of pre-existing lays in the formation of the Iliad and Odyssey, and also the existence of considerable interpolations, but assigned the main work of formation to prehistoric times, and to the genius of a great poet. Whether the two epics were by the same author remained an open question; the tendency of this group of scholars was decidedly towards separation. Regarding the use of writing, too, they were not unanimous. K. O. Miffler, for instance, maintained the view of Wolf on this point, while he strenuously combated the inference which Wolf drew from it.

The Prolegomena bore on the title-page the words "Volumen I.", but no second volume ever appeared, nor was any attempt made by Wolf himself to carry his theory further. The first important steps in that direction were taken by Gottfried Hermann, chiefly in two dissertations, De interpolalionibus Homeri (Leipzig, 1832), and De iteratis Homeri (Leipzig, 1840), called forth by the writings of Nitzsch. As the word interpolation implies, Hermann did not maintain the hypothesis of a conflation of independent lays. Feeling the difficulty of supposing that all the ancient minstrels sang of the wrath of Achilles or the return of Ulysses (leaving out even the capture of Troy itself), he was led to assume that two poems of no great compass dealing with these two themes became so famous at an early period as to throw other parts of the Trojan story into the background, and were then enlarged by successive generations of rhapsodists. Some parts of the Iliad, moreover, seemed to him to be older than the poem on the wrath of Achilles; and thus in addition to the Homeric and post-Homeric matter he distinguished a pre-Homeric element.

The conjectures of Hermann, in which the Wolfian theory found a modified and tentative application, were presently thrown into the shade by the inure trenchant method of Lachmann, who (in two papers read to the Berlin Academy in 1837 and 1841) sought to show that the Iliad was made up of sixteen independent lays, with various enlargements and interpolations, all finally reduced to order by Peisistratus. The first book, for instance, consists of a lay on the anger of Achilles (1-347), and two continuations, the return of Chryseis (430-492) and the scenes in Olympus (348-429, 493-611). The second book forms a second lay, but several passages, among them the speech of Ulysses (278-332), are interpolated. In the third book the scenes in which Helen and Priam take part (including the making of the truce) are pronounced to be interpolations; and so on. This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. de:Homerische Frage ja:ホメーロス問題

Homeric Question

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