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The Journey of the Homeric Texts

The Iliad and the Odyssey , as we have them in the Byzantine recensions that are the earliest complete texts of the Homeric epics, have stubbornly resisted the text and transmission models imposed upon them by generations of scholars. Each set of hypotheses, however apposite in some ways, seems to founder on


at least one important stage of the manuscript record: either the commonly accepted idea of the "vulgate," the phenomenon of the so-called wild papyri of the third century B.C. , or the elaborate editing undertaken by the Alexandrian scholars escapes the web of overall explanation. This is perhaps no wonder, for we are dealing with a history of which we know tantalizingly little and one that stretches from the eighth century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. —that is, nearly two millennia—without a single surviving complete text to anchor supposition. Notwithstanding these severe problems, by bringing to what we can learn about the different stages of the transition a model for textual evolution that suits the likely facts of emergence out of an oral tradition, we can at least approach a coherent view of what our texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey are and how they must relate to Homer's traditional poems.

Although Homer himself is customarily dated to the eighth century B.C. , we have no evidence for a fixed text of his poems until the version assumed to have been compiled during the Panathenaic Festival of the sixth century B.C. While we may choose to agree with Albert Lord's (1953) persuasive argument that the fullness of the poems as we now have them makes it likely that they were oral-dictated texts, that is, that they were taken down from dictation in a manner which allowed the singer to proceed relatively slowly and to compose carefully, we may also imagine the earliest stage of transmission of fixed or semi-fixed texts as primarily memorial.[1] As Parry contended from his first writings onward, the tradition epitomized in Homer must have been vigorous and continuous for centuries before the monumental poet composed the epics of which some version has survived, and the tradition may be traced back as far as the Mycenaean era.[2] Likewise, there is no reason to believe that, even if the Iliad and Odyssey that have reached us were fixed in the sixth century B.C. , oral composition of the Homeric ilk immediately ceased.[3] More likely, the Panathenaic Festival simply provided the opportunity and perhaps the impetus to commit to written and permanent form what Gregory Nagy (1979, 7) has identified as a Panhellenic "standard" version of Homeric poetry, one which "synthesizes the diverse traditions of each local city-state into a unified Panhellenic model that suits most city-states but corresponds exactly to none." If this is so, then we may assume that the more parochial versions of Homeric poetry—now at least two centuries removed from the probable date of composition by Homer—must have continued to disseminate themselves, at first through oral composition and later through memorization and rhapsodic performance.

For available evidence suggests that both oral composition, the craft of the


aoidos , and a creative brand of memorization, the province of the rhapsode (rhapsôidos ), contributed to the early transmission of Homer. In ways we do not entirely understand, the sixth-century Homeridae, or "sons of Homer,"[4] seem to have followed the great poet in safekeeping his poems; they claimed to recite Homer ek diadochês ("by right of succession"), or almost by a kind of exclusive copyright. Most scholars interpret their relationship to the great poet not as real kinship but as a guild, a cooperative effort to forestall the proliferation of different versions of the poem that must have resulted from the rhapsodes' activities. For alongside the singer of tales, whose primary oral tradition must have begun to recede after Homer, stood the rhapsode, who, in taking as his principal charge the effective oral recitation of Homer from memory or script (often in competition with other rhapsodes), must have felt relatively free to modify the canonical, received work. Indeed, he may well not have realized, or for that matter been prepared to recognize, that such variation was taking place; in the last stages of primary oral tradition, there would be an opportunity for rhapsodes to draw on their own experience of the singer's art to modify phraseology or perhaps even narrative structure. It is telling that references to the Homeridae stem from about the time when, on the one hand, rhapsodic activity and local traditions had produced many variants of what the ancient Greek world knew as "Homer" and, on the other, the Panathenaic text was reputedly being compiled.

This hypothetical first fixed text was apparently a response to What is known as the Panathenaic Rule, a law that governed fidelity to text in rhapsodic competitions from the sixth century B.C. onward, although there also exists a well-known legend that Solon or Hipparchus the son of Peisistratus first "arranged to have all the Homeric poems recited at the Panathenaea in relays of rhapsodes" (Lesky 1966, 73). Whatever the case may actually have been, all of these clues point to the establishment of a fixed text in that time and place. Scholars have explained this text either as a "Peisistratean recension," a hypothesis assembled from reports of interpolations made in the name of local patriotism and from the classical legend (first attested in Cicero) that Peisistratus was himself responsible for the arrangement of the poems,[5] or as a text brought to Athens by Hipparchus, perhaps directly from the Homeridae of Chios.

As mentioned above, however, Nagy's idea of the gradual evolution of fixed Homeric texts as a function of both composition and proliferation best fits both the surviving evidence and what we know of oral tradition. As he puts it,

composition and proliferation need not necessarily be related as an event followed by a process : the evolution of the fixed texts that we know as the Iliad and Odyssey


may be envisaged as a cumulative process, entailing countless instances of composition/performance in a tradition that is becoming streamlined into an increasingly rigid form as a result of ever-increasing proliferation. (1979, 8; see also G. Nags 1986)

Besides taking into account the political aspects of contemporary Panhellenism, this explanation has the advantage of not overlooking the obvious fact that by the sixth century Homeric poetry had already spread from its probable source in Ionia to all parts of the Greek world and, equally important, would continue to be (re-)composed and performed throughout those areas for many years to come. With the hypothesis of a text at this point in history, then, we posit a single epitome: a pair of monumental poems that bear the burden of a long tradition, that represent the Panhellenic fervor of the emerging city-states, and that are spoken (and written down) in a polydialectal Greek no one had ever used for non-poetic purposes. We most assuredly do not posit the immediate demise of the large tradition and the smaller local traditions out of which the poems were fashioned.[6] The Homeric texts are monumental and no doubt the flower of their now-perished tradition, but they did not exist outside of that tradition.

The Athenian texts of the Panathenaea or some version of them then passed into the capable hands of the Alexandrian scholars, most notably Zenodotus of Ephesus (head of the library in the mid-third century B.C. ), Aristophanes of Byzantium (head 195-180 B.C. ), and Aristarchus of Samothrace (head ca. 180-145 B.C. ). There is considerable historical irony in the fact that we know a great deal about the editing procedures employed by each of these men, even the details of their copyediting marks, but almost nothing about the actual texts they produced, if in fact they did produce whole editions of Homer. Further, since their learned observations and opinions seem to have had little effect on the transmitted vulgate text—a surprising turn of events that may have more to do with the lack of anything approaching a contemporary book trade than with lack of attention to their remarks[7] —we are left to infer their role in transmission indirectly. Davison (1963b, 223) and others


note that with Aristarchus's rather conservative but well-founded style of editing Homer, the number of so-called wild papyri, those fragments of the Iliad and Odyssey that vary considerably from the received vulgate, diminishes sharply.

Although silent witness is usually the rule in assessing the contribution of the Alexandrians, we can appreciate the enormity of their task by taking account of the fact that the Library collection of Homeric poetry contained an imposing number and variety of texts. Of the editions current around 300 B.C. , just before Zenodotus assumed command, there are records of thirteen that contain readings adopted by men of letters (kat' andra ), over sixty-six anonymous "city" editions (kata poleis or hai politikai ), and fifty-two vulgate (koinê ) texts. Added to these variants from all over the Greek world, which most scholars assume were collated by Aristarchus but not in any sense "published," is a group of contemporary papyrus fragments heterogeneous enough to be conventionally designated as the "eccentric" or "wild" papyri. We do not know exactly how the Alexandrians treated these excerpts from the Iliad and Odyssey , but we can observe, as noted above, that their number seems to fall off rapidly after Aristarchus. Perhaps S. West's (1967, 17) suggestion that "the post-aristarchean tradition underwent the influence of the Aristarchean Text, without being descended from it," best explains the discernible facts without depending on an anachronistic model of transmission.

But what of this mélange of texts, and especially of papyri? How do they relate to the hypothetical Panathenaic text, itself at least two centuries removed from the supposed time of Homer? Even if we assume with most scholars that the sixth-century Athenian Homer became the vulgate, which in turn gave way to the Byzantine codices on which we base our modern editions, we must still deal with those witnesses that are probably not a part of the direct line of descent. To begin with, we should recall the point made above that a Panathenaic epitome, a fixed text made under the rule for rhapsodic competition, does not in any way presuppose the end of the oral tradition. Rather, it is only logical to believe that the art of oral verse-making continued on for some time, albeit from that point on exclusively in the diverse local traditions rather than Panhellenically.[8] The fieldwork and collecting of Parry and Lord have shown that the local tradition is a very important unit in the overall ecology of oral epic composition, and on the basis of evidence gathered firsthand in this living laboratory it is clear that just such a great intersectional and rationalizing force as Panhellenism would be required to mold the disparate local traditions into a pair of national poems. More importantly, the making of such a text— and its use as a standard for rhapsodic competitions—would not in any way


cause the local traditions from which it was drawn to cease their own independent activity, for by its very nature oral tradition does not recognize the individual text or performance as definitive. At the outset, then, we should realize that it is only natural that the Alexandrians (and the Greek world as a whole) were awash in versions of Homer; the continuing oral tradition and later the "memorization" and "performance" of generations of rhapsodes must have further parochialized the diversity that the Panhellenic spirit sought to counter. Even limited (and chiefly memorial) "publication" of the Athenian epitome through the rhapsodes would lead to variation, since we must expect that such performers often drew from their own Homeric wordhoards to embellish and personalize their performances.

The Ptolemaic papyri present a problem of a different but ultimately related sort. They diverge from the canonical Homeric texts in ways that cannot be explained as purely mechanical corruption associated with scribal practice, and S. West (1967, 11) makes the telling point that although we conventionally refer to them as "wild," "yet there is no evidence that at the date they were written there was anything abnormal about these texts." Indeed, the early papyri arc characterized by a high proportion not of substituted but of additional lines,[9] and these additions arc not random but of a particular kind:

The proportion depends partly on the context: passages containing many versus iterati ... or a summary of a typical scene described elsewhere in greater detail ... attracted plus-verses, while a passage for which there arc no close parallels elsewhere in Homer was likely to remain free from them. Concordance interpolation exercised a powerful attraction: thus a line or group of lines which follow a particular formula in one place are inserted after it in another passage where they may be rather less suitable. (pp. 12-13)

This "concordance interpolation," as West calls it, belies the existence of a still-fluid vestige of oral tradition, perhaps by this point exclusively the possession of rhapsodes (or even schoolmasters)[10] who could read and write but had committed much of Homer to memory. However far away we may be from the composing aoidos , we have not yet very nearly approached the stage of a single absolutely fixed, inviolate text. The papyri argue that, even while Aristarchus and his fellow scholars labored over the editing of their manuscripts, others outside the mainstream of textual transmission—but still very much a part of the traditional context—were performing and recording versions of Homer faithful to the overarching tradition yet couched, as our three Yugoslav guslari might put it (see below), in slightly different "words."

In fact this particular kind of interpolation, one that adds lines traditionally associated with other lines or with specific themes or typical scenes, can hardly


have been due to any other cause. To put it proscriptively, only those acquainted with the multiformity of Homeric epic tradition could make "errors" of this sort, just as only singers actively involved in the process of composition—as distinct from this latter-day practice of reinterpreting multiforms, mistakenly thought of only as "interpolation" into an early editio princeps —would be able to engender true "narrative inconsistencies."[11] And once one brings to bear the well-documented example of multiformity in the Serbo-Croatian oral epic tradition, the case is complete: what Lord (1960, chaps. 2-3) illustrates as customary variation among instances of formulas and themes in the epske pjesme of such singers as Ibro Basic[*] , Halil Bajgoric[*] , and Mujo Kukuruzovic[*] is very similar to the sort of "concordance interpolation" West identifies as characteristic of the relationship between the papyri and the canonical text of Homer.[12] In a real sense the tradition of Homer was, if not active and "primary-oral," at least fluid and responsive possibly as late as the second century B.C.[13]

From this point on the wild papyri taper off rather suddenly, evidently in part because of Alexandrian scholarship, and perhaps eventually in part because the much more capacious codex, which could entirely contain a long work and thus theoretically help to standardize it, was to replace the papyrus roll, in which little more than a single book of the Iliad or Odyssey could be recorded. The vulgate text now effectively goes underground until its emergence in the first complete surviving Iliad , Venetus Marcianus 454, an early-tenth-century minuscule manuscript that remains the most important source for modern editions because of the famous A Scholia[14] included with the text. Almost in concert with its mysterious past, the A manuscript then underwent textual criticism by generations of Byzantine scholars and


re-emerged with a number of other texts of Homer in the West. As Davison (1963b, 226) notes, it was rediscovered in the Marcian Library in Venice, "to which it came in the fifteenth century from the library of Cardinal Bessarion, only to be forgotten until the late eighteenth century." Although critics have labored. long and diligently to establish stemmata for the surviving manuscripts from the Byzantine period, most agree that a definitive genealogy for the extant witnesses is beyond our reach. But even if such a genealogy could be established, we would still be faced with about a millennium during which the complete text of Homer is unattested in any direct way. At any rate, the poems reach their true editio princeps in 1488 with the printing of an edition of Homer by Demetrius Damilas. From that point on, and especially after Wolf's Prolegomena of 1795,[15] the problem of setting the text and deriving its antecedents has turned on the answers made by various ages and schools of criticism to the Homeric Question itself.

In summary, then, as we enter on textual studies of Homer to be undertaken in a comparative context, it is well to recall the long and circuitous journey of the Homeric poems from the eighth century B.C. forward almost three millennia to our own time. The circumstances of the recording of the great aoidos himself remain completely unreported, of course, but we may imagine a written or, more probably, memorial tradition of preservation through the Homeridae[16] down the two centuries to the Panathenaea and what was probably the first full text. Whether this memorial tradition was based on the kind of oral-dictated text described by Lord we shall perhaps never know, but in any case some variation from the performance of Homer would have occurred no matter how pure the intent of the preservers. The singers and rhapsodes who transmitted the poems must have made their own contributions, according to their lights and their usual mode of performance; as noted above, even the inertia provided by a manuscript text did not prevent a rhapsode from "stitching" together episodes of the poems as he performed them. What surfaced at the Panathenaea, whether under the aegis of Peisistratus or not, must have been a text true in its essential nature not only to the fact of the eighth-century performance but also in some measure to the multiform idiom that allowed the poems to live and flourish after their monumental poet was no more.

Gazing along the probable path of the poems as they reached the first


professional textual critics in Alexandria, moreover, we realize that nowhere in the ancient records is there incontrovertible evidence that the vulgate and Panathenaic texts were one and the same. It is of course convenient to assume a direct line of descent, since we can then avoid having to deal with problems of "genuine" or "spurious" texts. But by making that assumption we obscure if not forget a crucially important dimension of Homeric art; we push aside as an unnecessary complication the evidence that no less than 131 separate editions of Homer were deposited in the Alexandrian Library, some with commentary, some as part of the vulgate record, and some attributed to various cities. When we add to this evidence the phenomenon of "concordance interpolation" that characterizes the surviving Ptolemaic papyri, the picture comes clearer. The practice of Homeric poetry must have been alive in some form all over the Greek world for centuries after Homer;[17] by insisting on a simple, literary model for transmission of the Homerid, Athenian text directly to Alexandria and beyond we miss that essential point. The Iliad and the Odyssey began as—indeed were part of—oral epic tradition, and we have no reason to believe that the poems (as distinguished from the extant texts) were entirely cut off from that tradition for many centuries thereafter. "Homer" was known to all, apparently in many different forms, but the essence of the poems is likely to have remained quite intact within the shape-shifting of phraseology and narrative structure that was the very medium of their transmission.

Just as we cannot be sure that the Athenian text held pride of place as the koinê that apparently eluded the editorial signature of Aristarchus and his predecessors, so we have even less reason to believe that this same primordial text surfaced whole in the tenth-century Venetus Marcianus 454 and its brethren. In fact, from the very moment when (let us hypothesize) an amanuensis started to commit Homer's words to writing, there began an editing process that continues to the present day.[18] Anyone concerned with mere intelligibility, not to mention aesthetic judgments, would have a hand in rendering the oral performance "acceptable" in grammatical terms at least, and this editing would still be necessary (if less frequent) for an oral-dictated text composed more slowly and carefully than a sung performance. From this beginning memorizers and rhapsodes alike, no matter how meticulous they


were in pursuit of perfect preservation, would continue to modify the received text and to shape it to their conception of what Homer must have said or meant. These processes, along with the important phenomenon of local traditions mentioned above, go a long way toward explaining both the multiplicity of editions of Homer (in addition to the hypothesized Panhellenic epitome) and the typical variation among papyri. The fact that these papyri start to die out after Aristarchus is perhaps attributable less to his reputation or influence as a textual scholar than to the simple phenomenon that by about the middle of the second century B.C. the last vestiges of a once-vigorous tradition are gone. The poetic tradition, having passed from aoidos to rhapsode and beyond, had to all appearances died out completely.

If we cannot be certain that the Byzantine texts look directly back to Homer, indeed if we cannot discover any verifiable connection even to Alexandria, are we then lost in a scholar's nightmare of editorial debris? Not, I propose, if we look at the evidence that actually exists and resist the impulse to impose stemmata and other generalized models that are the literary scholar's stock-in-trade. Consider for a moment the audiences of Homeric poetry in the primary oral phase; like audiences that attend the composition and recitation of oral epic narrative in other cultures, they "knew the story" of what was transpiring (Lord 1960, 99-123). Even the Panhellenic text, after all, had to have an audience, perhaps in that case a rather heterogeneous group accustomed to variations on what they were hearing, and this constituency heard the authoritative Homer against the echoes of the poems as they (no doubt quite differently and individually) knew them from prior experience. There was for them probably nothing especially sacred about this particular text except for its role in rhapsodic competitions, and even those singers and rhapsodes present at the Panathenaic Festival may well have returned to more parochial versions in other milieus.

Editions and papyri from the time of the Alexandrian scholars offer the same impossible problem for the literary critic seeking to confer a literary order on these materials, and present the same opportunity for those willing to seek another answer, one more faithful both to the available facts and to the period in which the texts were made and transmitted. The editions multiplied because the local traditions that began well before the sixth-century epitome continued to develop in their separate ways, dependent on rhapsodic activity and memorial transmission as well as on the written word. The papyri varied in ways that betray some sort of oral traditional transmission; even if we understand their production as exclusively a written process, we must make the minimal assumption that the writers knew and could use the oral traditional style, otherwise we cannot explain their characteristic variation.[19]

In short, the journey of the two Homeric epic texts is most fruitfully and


faithfully understood as the journey of the Homeric poems . Whatever lacunae exist in the manuscript history (and there are many), we may be sure of this much: up to the time of Aristarchus, Homer's poems existed not in one exclusive version but rather in many versions of different but—from the perspective of tradition—equal authority. Held together by what Lord has so felicitously called a "tension of essences" and by an overall conservatism of language and thought possible only in a homeostatic idiom such as the archaic Greek poetic language, Homer's poems survived the centuries intact—from Homer's own texts through the Panhellenic standardization and on through the Alexandrian and Byzantine eras. Under these conditions, searching for a textual archetype must be as futile an exercise as searching for the archetypal form of a story. In the end it does not matter which manuscripts the Alexandrian scholars favored or exactly how the rhapsodes stitched in their own contributions; what matters is that the text we have is the result of a concatenation of processes, all of which served to "edit" the oral performance of Homer.

As a negative conclusion, we should thus be hesitant about attributing the term oral epic to the surviving Iliad and Odyssey without qualification. Given the uncertainties of transmission and the inevitable editing that Homer's songs underwent, it would be wiser to understand these texts as "oral-derived" in the sense advocated in chapter 1. Surely the poems' essence has survived the journey of the text, and we would be shortchanging Homeric art to deny its traditional nature; multiformity was an active part of text-making, and then of textual transmission, long after the advent of writing and Panathenaic epitomization of the text, and it remains a crucial aesthetic dimension of our Iliad and Odyssey , a dimension much in need of further investigation. At the same time, though, it would be at best romantic and at worst misleading to treat these same Homeric texts as if they were the completely unedited songs recited for dictation by a Yugoslav guslar . Especially when, as in the present volume, we seek answers to structural questions, we must be aware that while the Serbo-Croatian material is unambiguously oral and presents the welcome opportunity to measure a living oral tradition quantitatively, the Homeric poems as they have come down to us are oral-derived and cannot simply be equated with the epske pjesme for the purposes of comparison.[20]

But positive conclusions are also possible and necessary. For example, the mélange of editions and papyri helps us to describe how Homer was transmitted and understood: in effect, his poems must have had an active audience versed in the oral traditional inheritance as late as the mid-second century B.C. Could it be that the poets of some of the medieval—and also oral-derived—


epics addressed this same kind of audience?[21] If the Alexandrians seem not to have affected the vulgate text in a major way, we may justifiably conclude that, owing in part to the absence of a book trade, the transmission of Homer was not in any important fashion a scholarly enterprise. Perhaps, like the verse romances of later medieval England, these poems were passed on as a kind of oral palimpsest, to be "erased" and re-"written" in accordance with traditional structure and within the limits of the multiform idiom. Most of all, we should recognize that Homer's poetry was itself a powerful enough medium and a sufficiently finely crafted instrument to assure its own preservation as it wandered through the bewildering historical maze of poets, rhapsodes, and editors. In their essentials, then, these are Homer's, and his tradition's, poems.

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