Homer, the Bible, and Beyond: Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World

By Margalit Finkelberg; Guy G. Stroumsa | Go to book overview
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TWO POINTS ABOUT RHAPSODES

HAYDEN PELLICCIA

In current controversies over the status of the Iliad and Odyssey during the pre-Alexandrian era the conception of the rhapsode’s role is crucial. The more fixed the tradition we posit, the more restricted will be the rhapsode’s function, to the point at which he becomes little more than a play-back device. But if the tradition itself is still creative, then that creativity, which might be great or small to a near infinity of degrees, must chiefly reside in the rhapsode himself. Another consideration will be our conception of the overall culture in which the rhapsode functioned: some scholars hold that an “oral culture” is unlikely even to possess the concept of textual fixity, or of verbatim repetition.

The extreme ends of the spectrum of synchronic possibilities might be crudely laid out as follows:

(la) “oral culture”(lb) (uncertain on oral vs. literate culture question)
(2a) creative rhapsode, (re-) composing Iliadic and Odyssean poems (among others) in performance(2b) uncreative rhapsode, performing memorized texts of poems verbatim
(3a) fluid, evolving Iliadic and Odyssean (etc.) poetic traditions(3b) fixed Iliad and Odyssey

For the purposes of, e.g., an editor of the Iliad or Odyssey, the ultimate goal is going to be to formulate a position on (3), but that will entail taking a position on at least (2) as well. It is my impression that it is primarily if not solely advocates of the left-hand, (a)-style theories who regularly invoke arguments at the level of (1); the failure of supporters of (b)-theories to do so may reflect a thoughtless assumption that Greek culture was “like ours, until proven otherwise”, or a reluctance to deduce concrete particulars from debatable global generalizations.

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