Was Homer a solo act or a bevy of bards?
Classicists have few clues but lots of theories
BY JAY TOLSON
"RageGoddess, sing the rage of Peleus's son Achilles," begins the poet Homer in the first of two great epics that launch Western literature. But who was this man who sang of Troy's fall in The Iliad and of a wily hero's hazardous 10-year homecoming in The Odyssey? The Homeric Question has sparked a centuries-long debate among classicists, linguists, and archaeologists, and not just about the identity of the author (or whether he existed at all). It also touches on controversies about the connection between oral and literary traditions, and even the origins of the alphabet.
To ancient Greeks, Homer was the single makera blind itinerant performer like the poet Demodocus depicted in the eighth book of The Odyssey. In his History, Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) came up with dates for the singer ("400 years before my timeand no more than that"). Aristotle agreed with Pindar that Homer was born in Smyrna, on the coast of modern-day Turkey, and enjoyed years of fame on the Aegean island of Chios. The great scholar-librarians of Alexandria scrutinized the epics for historical and geographic errors but never doubted Homer's standing as sole creator.
Folk singers. Nor did the Renaissance humanists who rediscovered the Greek heritage. But in the early 1700s, rumblings commenced with philosopher Giambattista Vico's suggestion that the Homeric epics were products of the collective folk genius of the Greeks and not a single mind. Work by a cottage industry of mostly German scholars, pointing to inconsistencies of style, plot, and dialect, culminated at the end of that century in an influential book by F. A. Wolf, Prolegomena ad Homerum, arguing that scores of bards recited and reshaped Homeric "songs." Some were finally written down, then further revised by Alexandrian scholars.
Out of the swirl of disagreement came new arguments, including the proposal that an ur-Homer wrote shorter versions of both poems; generations of oral performers reworked the poems before they were recorded again. Efforts to date the writing of the core poems were complicated by archaeological work following Heinrich Schliemann's late-1800s excavations at Troy and Mycenae. That work suggested the Trojan War occurred at the end of the Bronze Age (c. 1400-1200 B.C.). Yet little in the world of The Iliad, from weaponry to political organization, corresponded to what was unearthed. Far more of the Iliadic world belonged to the Dark Age (c. 1150-750 B.C.), which, at least until the end, was nonliterate. So how could a nonliterate ur-Homer have set down the poems?
In the early 20th century, Harvard professor Milman Parry made the powerful case that Homer lived near the end of a long tradition of oral poetry. The poets used stock epithets (wine-dark sea, rosy-fingered dawn), and formulaic lines and passages, to ease the task of improvising six-foot lines, or hexameters. Parry's coup made sense of many things, including mingled dialects, but it still didn't account for how or why the epics were written downor whether Homer was involved. In fact, Parry's followers, insisting on the incompatibility of oral and literary practices, made little of new evidence suggesting that the composition of The Iliad and the rise of the Greek alphabet both dated to the eighth century B.C.
American scholar Barry Powell has stepped provocatively into the breach. The alphabet was a Greek creation, he asserts, "invented by a single human being . . . to record the Greek hexameters of the poet we call Homer." The Greek system of writing borrowed heavily from the Phoenician syllabary, which had consonant signs only and was therefore legible only to those already familiar with the words. That would have posed a problem for the man Powell calls the "Adapter"the recorder of Homer's works. The epics contained many words not found in spoken Greek dialects. So the Adapter would have had to create vowel signs. Which, argues Powell, is what some inventive Greek happened to do.
Robert Fagles, perhaps the greatest living English translator of Homer, finds Powell's theory teasing, but his reason for thinking the creator was one man derives more from feeling than theory. "As a translator, I come out more and more convinced that Homer's poems are not the work of committees." But Powell, too, can wax intuitive: "There's such a great moral genius behind these poems, I can't believe there was more than one."