The writing of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Minna Skafte Jensen


Epic comparisons

There is a long tradition for comparative studies in the field of epic poetry. Over the centuries, Homeric scholars have fetched inspiration from field- workers who collect and analyse living oral traditions, and these have, on the other hand, been inspired by Homeric scholarship. F. A. Wolf, who with his Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) initiated modern theories of Homer, was deeply influenced by the great folklorists of his day, and when he concluded that it would be impossible ever to establish the original form of the two Greek epics, it was mainly because he was impressed by the fact that oral transmitters of a tradition tend to change their texts all the time. He was engaged in making a new edition of the poems and was concerned with the basic question which text he was supposed to restore, Homer’s original or the version established by Hellenistic scholars at the Museum in Alexandria c. 250–150 B.C. Since the art of writing was considered unknown in Greece in Homer’s time he chose the latter alternative as the only one possible. During the following generations not least Karl Lachmann, no less authority on the Nibelungenlied than on Homer, was building his Liedertheorie on analo- gies of how oral epics were known to function. His views, on their side, were having their impact on fieldworkers, notably on Elias Lönnrot, who did to his collected Finnish Lieder what he thought Homer had done once upon a time: built one great epic out of briefer lays (Honko 1990).

The “oral-formulaic theory” of Milman Parry and A. B. Lord stimulated new interest in comparisons.1 If, as they maintained, all literature composed orally has certain characteristics in common as distinct from literature com- posed in writing, it is important to investigate such features across bounda- ries of time and space. A detailed knowledge of common working conditions, techniques, aesthetic ideals etc. is important for any study of a given oral tradition, poetic form or individual text, if we want to understand them in an appropriate frame of reference. Since Western scholars are sharing a back- ground that is in all kinds of ways dominated by writing, the risk of cultural misunderstandings in the study of oral poetry – both fieldwork in living oral traditions in our own time and study of texts from earlier periods trans- mitted in writing but considered to have been composed orally – is close to hand and a factor that researchers must be carefully aware of.

Homeric scholarship since Milman Parry has been divided over the issue. There have been periods in which the oral-formulaic theory seemed to offer

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