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The Iliad... in 3D!
June 5, 2007 5:15 PM   Subscribe


 
Get all Hellenic on it.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:27 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


And I still won't read it.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:28 PM on June 5, 2007


Is it a signed copy?
posted by Postroad at 5:42 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


The manuscript is known as Venetus A, more here.

You can look at the 1901 facsimile edition here.
posted by beagle at 5:45 PM on June 5, 2007


Wow, that's great! I can't wait:
The next step is making the images readable. The Venetus A is handwritten and contains ligatures and abbreviations that boggle most text-recognition software. So, this summer a group of graduate and undergraduate students of Greek will gather at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., to produce XML transcriptions of the text. Eventually, their work will be posted online for anyone to search, as part of the Homer Multitext Project.
Thanks for the post!

I could have done without the separate paragraph embodying a pointless quote providing a link to Wikipedia, though. Did you really not expect people to know what the Iliad was?
posted by languagehat at 5:45 PM on June 5, 2007


Awesome. I greatly dig the idea of creating high resolution digital copies of all old works. This improves the chances that I will in some way have an opportunity to experience it myself.

Also:

39-megapixel digital camera, a Hasselblad H1 medium-format camera


Damn.
posted by quin at 5:46 PM on June 5, 2007


I refuse to be excited until Steve Jobs introduces the iLiad, "a quantum leap in reading literature."
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 6:21 PM on June 5, 2007


Steve Jobs isn't known for his love of the Illiad --- in fact, he dropped out after just one semester of Hum 110 ;)
posted by mmdei at 6:33 PM on June 5, 2007


in fact, he dropped out after just one semester of Hum 110 ;)

;)
posted by rxrfrx at 6:35 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Iliad [via].
posted by ericb at 6:41 PM on June 5, 2007


This is awesome, thanks! [starting to obsessively check the Homer Multitext Page...]
posted by Liosliath at 6:48 PM on June 5, 2007


I'd love to be part of the transcription effort.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:01 PM on June 5, 2007


And I still won't read it.”—CitrusFreak12

Seriously? Why?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:02 PM on June 5, 2007


*shiver*

That opening line gets me every time. A thousand years old and it still gets me.
posted by Jilder at 7:13 PM on June 5, 2007


Seriously? Why?

Well, mostly because I don't know how to read Greek.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 7:19 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, mostly because I don't know how to read Greek.

I recommend Robert Fagles' and/or Richmond Lattimore's English (verse) translations. But you might enjoy the narrative style/flow of Robert Fitzgerald's version (you can read 'Book One' under 'Excerpt' in 'Amazon's Online Reader' via its 'Search Inside' link).
posted by ericb at 7:46 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pardon my ignorance of palaeography - if the manuscript is 10th century AD, how confident are we that the Iliad we are reading is authentic to the 8th C BC? ie. that there have not been "modernizations" added - a 10th C monk/scribe who modified some parts, intentional or not.
posted by stbalbach at 7:51 PM on June 5, 2007


A thousand years old and it still gets me.

A little older than a thousand years. :) Unless you actually mean the English, which would be considerably younger than a thousand years.

if the manuscript is 10th century AD, how confident are we that the Iliad we are reading is authentic to the 8th C BC?

I'm not a palaeographist or a real-live classicist, either, but I can hazard a guess.

First, we're not going to get anything we can be sure is even close to the oral tradition version. So the 8th century BC version is right out.

But we have lots and lots of original sources that refer to parts of versions of Iliad that date before this book. And we have a great many reliable sources from the classical period that describe and quote the Iliad. So a whole bunch of cross-textual research is possible which can validate the reliability of that version.

Honestly, I'm quite surprised that this version would be the primary source for all modern translations. I don't think the article mentions much about its providence, but that period doesn't seem like a very good period for a reliable version of Iliad to be have written. But perhaps something makes it unusually reliable.

Most of the classical period stuff was lost to Western Europe in the middle ages until the modern era. The King James translation of the Bible isn't very reliable because the knowledge of Greek at that time wasn't very good.

Update at Final Edit: Googling Venetus A returns this helpful Wikipedia entry. Maginalia helped reveal that the primary source for it dated from ancient times. That's part of why we are pretty sure of its reliability.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:10 PM on June 5, 2007


Well I recommend the Stanley Lombardo but to each his own.

stbalbach,

The Homeric poems have a very strict structure. It is in meter and rhyme; the accents have a repeating pattern as well. The pattern of the accents give it its 'musical' quality. I do not know what textual issues there are with this copy but after the classicists made their emendations they have a very good idea of what the original was like. I believe there is only one questionable point which is where all the written copies show a word that is in the wrong case. Finally, there is nothing else written in 'Homeric Greek', the style distinguishes it. Contrast this with the gospels and especially the tragedies where there are more contentious issues; that said, the issues with the gospels are mostly settled after a couple hundred years of argument. The path to the 'original text', whatever that means, was probably smoother with Homer, despite the age of composition, than many other ancient writers. This is all covered pretty well in Bernard Knox's introduction to the Fagles (perhaps?) translation.

Bernard Knox, the director emeritus of the Center for Hellenic Studies, which was chuckdarwin's after the link post, also makes an argument for the Homeric poems to be the work of one author. Perhaps not entirely so, but he makes a strong case for there being a singular overarching genius shaping the narrative. Interestingly, his successor, Gregory Nagy, has his book available on line, and from the description it appears he takes the opposite view.
posted by BigSky at 8:25 PM on June 5, 2007


"'Anger' is the first word of Western literature. 'Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles' is the opening prayer of Homer's Iliad, but in the original Greek, the word mhˆnin, 'wrath' or 'anger', comes first, in the place of emphasis. The anger of Achilles is the central theme of our civilisation's first and most powerful epic."
posted by homunculus at 8:36 PM on June 5, 2007


Fagles has it thus: "Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus son Achilles."

IIRC Knox goes on about this a bit in his frontmatter.
posted by mwhybark at 8:53 PM on June 5, 2007


Yeah, that's an example of why I like Fagles. I don't think Iliad is as much about the pride which comes before the fall as it is about the conflict between the human and the divine and that Achilleus's rage is his human rage against his divine nature and the lack of free will implied by that.1 Of course, that's arguably a very modern interpretation...and thus incorrect unless one takes an extreme textual indepdence view of the matter. :) (Which, I argue elsewhere, one should not.)

1. And I also thus find Achilles and Odysseus to be the two archetypes in the book, with Odysseus as the archetypical Man. I've not revisited these ideas since my college days so they may well reflect a certain amount of mid-20s immaturity of thought.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:00 PM on June 5, 2007


Incidentally, for those interested, I found Homeric Greek to be much more difficult than Attic (classical) Greek; and Koine Greek, in which the New Testament was written, to be laughably easy in comparison. But then, I sucked ass at Greek and it was the one academic intellectual challenge which has ever really humiliated me. Which is probably why I remain oddly fascinated with it to this day, even though I've mostly lost what little Greek I ever had.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:04 PM on June 5, 2007


Greek is a tough language. I found Homeric to be the easiest although Koine isn't too bad either. Homeric is greatly helped by working with a Homeric lexicon. With Attic you can get into some real issues. Of course it depends on the writer but there are sections of Plato (Parmenides, Theaetetus) and most of all, Thucydides that are about as tough as Greek gets. A friend of mine did graduate school in Classics at UNC. One of the professors who specialized in Thucydides confessed to the class that he didn't know how one passage should be translated and asked if anyone had any ideas.
posted by BigSky at 9:17 PM on June 5, 2007


Watch out when three goddess chicks want you to be the judge of their impromptu beauty contest.
posted by pax digita at 9:57 PM on June 5, 2007


I found Homeric to be the easiest although Koine isn't too bad either.

Really? That astonishes me. At St. John's College we spent 50% of our time on Attic, followed by about 30% on Homeric and then 20% Koine. I found Homeric to be, as a dialect, more complicated and ambiguous. Perhaps that was a function of my difficulty with the subject in general? I was struggling with Attic, then had to work on a brand new dialect even though I wasn't competent with Attic. Which is a shame, because translating Homer should have been a joy.

It's hard to imagine how anyone wouldn't find Koine to be extremely easier than the other two, being that it's not just a subjective distinction, it's an actual practical and documented disctinction because Koine was a kind of minimal pidgin Greek lingua franca. As I've recounted many times in the past, while I struggled and struggled even at the middle of my second year of Attic and Homeric Greek, the first time I saw Koine, I was able to read it on sight with no trouble whatsoever. True, it was John, which itself is unusually simple. But even so.

We translated a good amount of Plato; though of your other example, I don't think we did any Thucydides. Of Plato, I'm pretty sure we did portions of the Theatetus, as you did. A great deal of our translation work was of Aristotle, beginning by the end of the first semester with Physics.

Some folks just take to Greek, though. One of my two best friends did, even though, oddly, he's dyslexic. While he struggled with other subjects, Greek was his "no worries", slacker class. For me, that was always mathematics, where most other students struggled to some degree while I just coasted on my native talent which made everything pretty much intuitively obvious. If only that had been true for Greek. The contrast between my performance and personality in Greek and Math was extreme. But my experience in Greek itself was extreme. I had never before, and never since, been the class's dunce. It was excruciating.

I should admit that because anything involving memorization is hard work for me and very dull, 90% of the actual process of learning the subject was, for me, nothing but hard work. And, frankly, because most academic intellectual work for me has been easy, I don't have the discipline to truly work hard when I'm not already good at something. So I didn't. By the time that I was humiliating myself on a near-daily basis, it was too late to achieve competency. In the end, though, I still sort of feel that the experience was very valuable to me. In a perverse way, I guess, I sort of cherish the experience of being dismally inadequate at something I wished I weren't and felt I shouldn't be.

When I was at the College, we only used a handbook on Greek authored by a faculty member at that campus. At some point in the late 90s, however, both campuses began using a standard classical Greek textbook, which, frankly, shocks and scandalizes me because prior to that there have been no, or almost no, textbooks used anywhere in the history of the entire SJC "New Program" curriculum (dating from about '39, I believe). I'm not sure what textbook they are using now—they've changed a couple of times. They had been using a standard one co-authored, I think, by someone with an association with the College, but now I think they've switched to another standard text.

I'd prefer no textbook at all and, in fact, we only used the handbook into the second semester and from that point on simply translated with the L&S handy (later, also a Homeric lexicon).
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:14 PM on June 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Iliad... in 3D!
I'm too lazy to click the links but I think your title is implying that this is finally the Pop-up edition.

Sweet.
posted by chillmost at 10:33 PM on June 5, 2007


For anyone interested, there are drawings on most pages of the 1901 facsimile introduction - I'm not sure all of them are the same age as the text. See: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii
(thanks beagle and chuckdarwin -- Heh. The association of these 2 names was pure accident.)
Homer has the best descriptions of death.
posted by peacay at 11:24 PM on June 5, 2007


I haven't looked at the original Greek for 10 years, so I'm really pleased that this is going up under a CC licence rather than with limited access rights. What a brilliant decision - thank you, whoever made it.

On the subject of translations, Martin Hammond's translation (the Penguin Books one) is also very good, and for me captures both the intensity and the alien quality of Homeric Greek.

Oh and thank you EB for the long comment, which I enjoyed - I share your experience of turning to Koine and suddenly feeling a bit superior after struggling elsewhere...
posted by greycap at 11:33 PM on June 5, 2007


I'm usually underwhelmed by digitization projects, but this is seriously cool. What's so valuable about the Venetus A manuscript is that it preserves the ancient Greek scholia in the margins, along with the critical symbols (>, —, *) that the Alexandrian textual scholars Zenodotus and Aristarchus devised for 'symbolically annotating' Homer in the second and third centuries BCE. This is kind of weird for me because I'm just finishing up a paper that deals in part with eighteenth-century Homeric scholarship, and I really wish I could see this right now ...
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:17 AM on June 6, 2007


...the destructive rage that sent countless pains...

As fresh today as ever...
posted by taosbat at 12:17 AM on June 6, 2007


languagehat asked I could have done without the separate paragraph embodying a pointless quote providing a link to Wikipedia, though. Did you really not expect people to know what the Iliad was?

I was trying to get people like CitrusFreak12 sucked into ireading it.
posted by chuckdarwin at 12:27 AM on June 6, 2007


tangentially related, Christopher Logue finally gets his CBE, even if the the BBC is more impressed by some TV actor than by Britain's foremost man of letters.

Well done, Palmiro!
See an East African lion
Nose tip to tail tuft ten, eleven feet
Slouching towards you
Swaying its head from side to side
Doubling its pace, its gold-black mane
That stretches down its belly to its groin
Catching the sunlight as it hits
Twice its own length a beat, then leaps
Great forepaws high great claws disclosed
The scarlet insides of its mouth
Parting a roar as loud as sail-sized flames
And lands, slam-scattering the herd.

"This is how Hector came on us."
posted by matteo at 4:22 AM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


ericb writes 'I recommend Robert Fagles" and/or Richmond Lattimore's English (verse) translations.'

You just reminded me of one of my professors at University, who would use the phrase 'Of course, Fagles is wrong' at roughly five minute intervals in all his lectures on The Iliad. This got pretty funny, but tipped into hysterical when someone spotted that his lecture notes were dated 1972 - he must've claimed Fagles' wrongness hundreds of times over the years.
posted by jack_mo at 4:30 AM on June 6, 2007


stbalbach: “if the manuscript is 10th century AD, how confident are we that the Iliad we are reading is authentic to the 8th C BC?”

EB is correct in suggesting that we can’t get very close to any 8th-century oral-tradition-based version of the Iliad. And in fact, we don’t even know exactly when the Homeric poems as they have come down to us were first put into writing. Traditionally, we tend to date the poems to the 8th century based mainly on internal linguistic evidence found within the texts. For instance, certain letters and sounds dropped out of the Greek alphabet over time, and sometimes these sounds—even though they weren’t recorded in the later copies of the poems—are necessary for maintaining the metrical regularity of the line. If we know from inscriptional evidence that such a change was occurring in, say, the latter half of the 8th century, then we can make a good guess at figuring out where the poems stand in relation to that change. Richard Janko’s work on this subject has been eye-opening if anyone's interested. The ancients themselves tended to connect the fixing of the epic with the reign of Peisistratos, but this information comes from only a later Roman source (Cicero) and would then make the texts much later, dating them to the early 6th century.

But the transition of the Homeric epics from oral to print form has been a subject of much debate. So, for instance, even if we could say for sure (which we can’t) that the poems were written down at a specific place or time by a specific person or groups, we couldn’t say exactly what was represented in those original versions or how it relates to what we have today. Remember that early Greece was dominated by orality rather than literacy. Even at the height of Athenian glory, less than 10% of the population was functionally literate. Writing could have indeed preserved such poems, but obviously it wouldn’t be the primary way for transmitting their contents to others. The most widely accepted theory has continued oral performance therefore persisting alongside any written copies of these poems that may have existed. And over time, these oral variants affected the written versions in very different ways.

What we do know is that at a somewhat early (pre-classical) period, the episodes themselves of the two major epics became fixed in form. We have no testimony from ancient sources describing a scene that is nonexistent in our handed-down texts. But individual lines are a different story. The number of lines quoted by classical writers as being part of Homer is huge, but only about half of them actually made it through the transmission process to reach us today. The usual view is that the text sort of got streamlined as it went, with nonessential lines being cut out. And if quotes from Aristotle and Plato are any indication, the final versions of our poems are between 30 and 50% shorter than ones from the earlier periods.

And of course, the Iliad and Odyssey were only two poems of many that were composed in a similar style. We still have a corpus of 33 Homeric Hymns that vary in length but use the same general style as the epics, there are the poems of Hesiod (the Theogony and the Works and Days) which are quite similar as well, and we have fragments and synopses of many other poems that were part of an epic cycle of poems.

So the Homeric poems existed in a very flexible and adaptable state for many years. Different cities may have had different versions of the poems, and each Greek probably had a very individualistic relationship to these poems that were considered religious, historical, and entertaining all at the same time. But the greatest degree of fixing the text seems only to have come about because of the Library at Alexandria. Many texts would make their way Alexandria (where they had the fun practice of demanding all copies of literary texts from merchants who wanted to sell their wares, then copying them, then keeping the originals and giving the copies back to the merchants) which over a couple hundred years were then sort of streamlined into a version or perhaps a few versions of the texts that then became the most widely copied versions from then on in the tradition, and excluding papyrus fragments that get discovered in the sand, nearly all of our knowledge of the Homeric poems and the manuscripts that we have today stem from this work at Alexandria.

So how does all of this relate to the current thread and the Venetus A? The Venetus A is the single manuscript that provides the most information about the Iliad. It is well preserved and seems to derive from a very good and very early (Alexandrian?) edition of the text. But even though the text itself is important as testimony to this or that reading, the greatest value of the Venetus A is that it also includes synopses of the poems from the epic cycle, notations about the text that have been largely understood to represent textual criticism of the Alexandrians themselves (i.e., “this line should be deleted, but I’m preserving it to keep from altering the text.”) and a huge number of scholia of various types. The scholia are the equivalent of ancient commentaries on the text that provide quite a bit of insight (both for better and for worse) concerning ancient views of the text.

As for translations, I agree that the Lombardo is the new kid on the block that’s doing well, though I still use Lattimore in my courses since he’s the only one who stays close at all to the Greek. As for jack_mo’s comment about Fagles, I find myself doing the same thing when having to refer to that translation, though in defense of your prof, he wasn’t making the Fagles’ references pre-1990 since that’s when that translation came out. But this is why we need the digitizing of the Greek MS; now everyone has a reason to read it in the “original” Greek. Our Intro. Greek numbers can use any boost they can get....
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:00 AM on June 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ive only read it once and it was the Richmond Lattimore translation. I was quite pleased with it...

also, this is freaking.awesome.
posted by nihlton at 8:45 AM on June 6, 2007


zeugitai_guy,

Good post, a lot to think about. Despite the flexibility of the poems over time do you think there was one genius who came and put his stamp on the work at some point? I'm pretty partial to this view for a couple of reasons. Bernard Knox points out that the characterization in the poems is very rich and consistent, there is no episode where someone acts out of character. This holds between the poems as well, Odysseus, Athena, Achilles and others are all recognizable as themselves in the Odyssey. This is a bit unusual in Greek myth where so many liberties were taken in rewriting and shaping the material. On my too-read list are some of the books by Seth Benardete. I know that in his doctoral dissertation he points out that the epithets do not just function as fillers for the poem's structure, but that there is a commonality between those used for the Achaeans, for the Trojans, and for the Gods. His view is that these commonalities are thematically important and they amplify Homer's view on death, fate, etc. I haven't yet read his book so I can't go into more detail. But, my question is, if there is no one genius at the helm, isn't a reading that detailed, delusional? It may have some value as a creative exercise but the correspondence to the text and to the intent of the author(s) is slight or nonexistent. And for what it's worth Benardete, as I, looks to understand the work as the author intended it to be understood. An anonymous work that is the product of generations of poets can have great interpretations that are true for it, for instance, Simone Weil's would still hold. But the resolution of the work wouldn't bear closer scrutiny after some point, while with the work of an individual creator we can assume that each choice is deliberate.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how the composition directs an approach to the text.
posted by BigSky at 9:55 AM on June 6, 2007


Great post. Nice to see that I'm not the only Johnnie around these parts.
posted by joedan at 10:27 AM on June 6, 2007


The Homeric poems have a very strict structure. It is in meter and rhyme; the accents have a repeating pattern as well.

Quick correction -- Homeric verse is not rhymed. The main thing is the meter, dactylic hexameter (with occasional spondees at no extra charge).
posted by uosuaq at 10:30 AM on June 6, 2007


Despite the flexibility of the poems over time do you think there was one genius who came and put his stamp on the work at some point? I'm pretty partial to this view for a couple of reasons. Bernard Knox points out that the characterization in the poems is very rich and consistent, there is no episode where someone acts out of character. This holds between the poems as well, Odysseus, Athena, Achilles and others are all recognizable as themselves in the Odyssey.

First, as to the consistency of characterization, I agree that for the most part the characters do remain the same from epic to epic. However, as Walter Ong once argued, there is the complication here that most of the included characters in oral narratives—even complex ones such as Achilles—usually remain one-dimensional in nature as the poet tends to focus on a single part of their personality or behavior at the expense of more multifaceted characterization such as would often be found in novels or other more “literate” works. But beyond that fact, I personally find there to be a huge difference between the Odysseus found in the two poems. In the Odyssey, he is definitely seen as a positive and Everyman sort of hero, even if his rash actions sometimes lead to problems for others (e.g., his men getting eaten by the Cyclops Polyphemus); in the Iliad, Odysseus is usually a bad guy. He does have one shining moment when he keeps the troops from fleeing in Book 2 when Agamemnon tests them, but more often he is used as a foil for Achilles, representing everything that Achilles finds dishonorable—even if he still finds it hard not to like the guy (as in Book 9).

We also, I think, have to be careful not to disregard the ability that oral traditions can have to create monumental works of art that are perfectly coherent thematically. The underlying reason here is that for any given performance (or for that matter textualization) there is going to be both a tradition and an individual creative genius at work. So a poem is created not just by a poet remembering verbatim words that have been spoken before him by others but by a poet manipulating his inherited material in a way that is going to promote his own message but do so in a way that is understandable to an audience that is filtering these new words through what they have heard previously. In some contexts, especially those that are more affiliated with religious ritual, variation is kept to a minimum as it is the communal act of sharing in the words’ meaning that is most important, but for the Homeric poems where performance contexts seem to have varied a lot, the poet was going to be freer to adapt his material as he saw fit. (And yes in the ancient Greek epic tradition we seem to be limited to male poets. As far as we know, women only worked in non-epic poetic traditions.)

So for any work we have a tradition and at least one poet. And these poets’ skills can be pretty amazing. In a poem collected a few years ago by one of my Finnish colleagues, the end result when textualized was over 120,000 lines long—or about 10x the length of the Odyssey. But here the method of textualization comes into play. For this modern poem from central Asia, video recorders were used. But Homer and his contemporaries had no such devices, so the question is how the oral tradition evolved into a written one. There seem to be only three real possibilities. Either a poet wrote it himself or an actual performance was transcribed (either faithfully or after the fact in some remembered way) or the poem was written down through oral dictation. As for the poet writing it himself, this is made more difficult by modern parallels (especially from the South Slavic region) where those poets most gifted in the oral poetic tradition tend to be the worst with respect to literacy. And vice versa. So poets who can write paradoxically turn out not to be that good of singers in the first place. An actual performance being transcribed is also difficult because the evidence is that the hexameter was sung too quickly to be written down (even by a team of scribes) very accurately. So that leaves us with oral dictation where someone who wanted to write down these poems cornered a poet and had him say each individual line and then wait until it was written down before proceeding to the next one. There are all kinds of reasons why this is the most likely scenario for Homer, but then we have a change in the question: Who wanted to write these poems down in the first place? Surely not the poet. A written record of the poem would make his skill less marketable. So perhaps a king or other powerful person who wanted these as a possession for himself or for a city? Maybe. But after one guy would get this brilliant idea, others were likely to follow suit. Thebes probably wouldn’t like Athens boasting that they had the only copy of the Iliad, so they’d want to get one down, too. And you can bet the Athenians weren’t sharing. So they get a poet, maybe a different one, to dictate another version. And even the same poet isn’t going to dictate it exactly the same, because there’s no impetus to do so. So even at the beginning, the contents of the poem were probably standardized by performance rather than the textualization, and then the different texts get handed down, problems between different versions get ironed out or accepted, and a final form of the epic takes shape. But even this “final form” is misleading. Open any text of Homer today and you’ll see that nearly every single line has an attested variant from somewhere.

On my too-read list are some of the books by Seth Benardete. I know that in his doctoral dissertation he points out that the epithets do not just function as fillers for the poem's structure, but that there is a commonality between those used for the Achaeans, for the Trojans, and for the Gods. His view is that these commonalities are thematically important and they amplify Homer's view on death, fate, etc. I haven't yet read his book so I can't go into more detail. But, my question is, if there is no one genius at the helm, isn't a reading that detailed, delusional?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how the composition directs an approach to the text.


Sort of two questions here. One involves the role of epithets in oral versus literary poetry. The other is how you arrive at a “correct” reading of the material. As for the epithets (adjectives regularly attached to frequently occurring nouns such as “rosy-fingered Dawn” or “fleet-footed Achilles”) I see no reason why they can’t function in a variety of ways. In some cases, yes, the noun-epithet formulas are going to be more or less fillers to get the meter right, and as Milman Parry showed in the 1920’s and 30’s, there is an extreme thrift with which such items are used so that there is only rarely a formula set that has two different epithets that are metrically identical. So in this view, you use “Achilles,” “fleet-footed Achilles,” “shining Achilles,” or “Achilles son of Peleus” based on how much of the hexameter line you needed to fill. But though this is more common in oral than literary poetry, if you think about any pop or rock song you’ll see examples of adjectives being chosen to create the correct rhythms there as well. The other end of the spectrum for epithets would be viewing them as items used every time for a specific purpose. So if Achilles is called “fleet-footed,” the poet wants you to think about just how fast he is. The problem with using this for Homer is that sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. For instance, Achilles can be “fleet-footed” even when he’s sulking in his tent. Or better yet, in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the god Hermes is called “the slayer of Argos” on the day he is born, before he has ever even encountered Argos. So many opt for a third view of epithets where they have a sort of traditionally encoded meaning. From this perspective, when Achilles is called “fleet-footed,” it calls to the minds of the audience all the other times that they have heard him called “fleet-footed” and they generate a sort of web of meanings and experiences to go along with that naming. So an epithet could almost be like the theme song at the beginning of a TV sitcom where they do a montage of various experiences the characters have had in previous episodes. And if the epithets or other formulas get used in the same kinds of contexts enough, even more specialized meanings can develop. For example, specific phrases can be used by the poet to indicate that a prayer is going to be successful or that a hero will emerge unscathed from a battle or so on. None of this requires a single poet at the helm of a tradition but instead necessitates many voices coming together over time to create a shared experience with further meaning.

Finally (and sorry for such a long comment here…), as to the “correct” reading, it’s my own view that any good work of art can be interpreted in many different ways. It will evoke an individualistic response from every person who encounters it, so there will never be a single correct view. But I always ask my students to try to get as close as possible to the experience of the earliest audiences of these poems. We may not be able to hear the exact same words they did, appreciate them in the same contexts, or bring the same experiences to the table, but we do the texts a great disservice if we just totally omit these early views because we can’t get all the way there. Can we say for sure that “this is what the poet intended”? No. Can we make educated guesses based on regularly recurring themes, phrases, etc.? Yes. Can we recover at least some of the meaning that might otherwise be lost from these texts by keeping in mind their oral derivation and later textual evolution. Absolutely. And the insanely interesting part of this to me is that many times we can look at the patternings in the text or its oral-derived features or whatever, come up with what we think is a brand new way of looking at the text, and then look back at what the ancients themselves said, only to discover that we misinterpreted their opinions previously and that they were of course right all along and we just misunderstood what they were saying.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 11:44 AM on June 6, 2007 [4 favorites]


*waves to fellow johnnie, joedan*
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:26 PM on June 6, 2007


It is in meter and rhyme

Um, no.

I found Homeric to be the easiest although Koine isn't too bad either.”
Really? That astonishes me.


I had the same experience. Homer has some weird variants, but the basic vocabulary is small and there's endless repetition, which is a boon to the student. I always tell people who want to learn Greek to start with Homer. (It's great poetry, too, which is a recommendation in itself.)

the evidence is that the hexameter was sung too quickly to be written down (even by a team of scribes) very accurately


What evidence could there be for this? And I hope you're not going to tell me about 20th-century Serbs, because that won't impress me.

sorry for such a long comment here

Good lord, don't apologize! Your comments in this thread are some of the most enlightening and worthwhile I've seen at MeFi. Please keep up the good work!
posted by languagehat at 1:05 PM on June 6, 2007


the evidence is that the hexameter was sung too quickly to be written down (even by a team of scribes) very accurately

What evidence could there be for this? And I hope you're not going to tell me about 20th-century Serbs, because that won't impress me.


Tempo has been a very large question in Homeric studies, not least because a good knowledge of the time it took to compose/recite a line would give us a better indicator of when such poems could have been performed—either in their entirety or in set pieces. All of the evidence is circumstantial, but it seems clear that the phrase production was pretty quick. First, most Greek meter is wrapped up not only with the words that are being said but with the dance that is going on with them. (Think of choral poetry or any dramatic performance, for example.) And since the hexameter has many affinities with these other meters, in general we can say it had to be fast enough to be danced to. Other meters we know of that are related to the hexameter were used as marching meters, so marching speed is relevant as well. But the most important evidence is in the anomalies that occur within the meter. Metrical irregularities such as correption, elision, crasis, and the like would have been intolerable if the length of a syllable were such that it was too long to be sort of mumbled over in certain instances. Most estimates therefore put the length of a hexameter at between 2.5 and 3 seconds. And of course the action being narrated or the stamina of the singer would vary such performance speed also.

As for the South Slavic parallel, no, it isn’t very helpful for tempo. Not only do singers vary quite a lot in this tradition, but the different lengths of the words themselves cause problems. This is true even though both traditions seem to stem from the same proto-Indo_European versification processes.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 1:57 PM on June 6, 2007


Ok, that article about Christopher Logue that matteo linked just looks phenomenal. I just read the Aeneid for the first time (the Fagles translation) and really enjoyed it. I've never read the Illiad.

Presumably I shouldn't skip Homer entirely in favor of Logue (the Slate article said that he'd skipped a lot) but has anyone here read both? Are there chapters or sections of the Illiad for which Logue's version makes sense to read? I really like the excerpts that were quoted.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 2:27 PM on June 6, 2007


Watch out when three goddess chicks want you to be the judge of their impromptu beauty contest.

fixed that for you, pax.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:30 PM on June 6, 2007


one of the things I took away from my (admittedly highschool english 101 educated) rememberance of the Iliad was my 10th grade teacher telling us that it's very possible that oral bardic tradition, much like jazz music, may have depended as much upon nuance and improvisation as it did upon rote recital.

so i guess that means that oral bards might consider their audience and quite possibly shade the meanings / delivery depending upon where & to whom the performance was given?

imo that'd seem to make it fairly difficult for any scribe to transcribe an 'exact' copy, if the work in question is fluid itself and not static.

or am i just being obtuse here?
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:45 PM on June 6, 2007


First, most Greek meter is wrapped up not only with the words that are being said but with the dance that is going on with them. (Think of choral poetry or any dramatic performance, for example.)

But epic hexameter isn't choral poetry or dramatic verse, it's an entirely different creature, and this is the first I've heard of the idea that it was danced to. In general, people don't dance to epic recitations, judging from the traditions I know about (Slavic, Arab): it's just a guy with an instrument, chanting a story.

Most estimates therefore put the length of a hexameter at between 2.5 and 3 seconds.

Huh? Did you mistype something? As it stands, that's completely nuts. Here's a hexameter:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
[mēnin aeide thea pēlēiadeō akhilēos]

I defy even an auctioneer to get that whole line out in "between 2.5 and 3 seconds."
posted by languagehat at 3:43 PM on June 6, 2007


Squid Voltaire: Logue is magnificent, his War Music is one of the great poetic projects of our day, but it's not Homer, it's... a poetic performance based on Homer, maybe. It's far looser than, say, Pound's version of Propertius, which is pretty loose. By all means read Logue, both for its own sake and to get your appetite whetted, and then find an actual translation that appeals to you: personally, I love Fitzgerald (as a poet, he was head and shoulders above the other modern translators), but the important thing is that you read a version that speaks to you, that makes you enjoy the experience. Reading Homer shouldn't be like eating your Brussels sprouts.
posted by languagehat at 3:48 PM on June 6, 2007


lonefrontranger, that seems absolutely right (and better than my earlier posts because of its relative succinctness) to me. People sometimes have the idea that oral performance is based on pure memorization, but Homeric Greek poetry and many other oral traditions are much more a product of adapting inherited material by means of accepted rules for ever-changing audiences. And textualizing affects this process but doesn't change it completely. For instance, most of us know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which was textualized at several different times over the last 200 years after a lengthy existence in an oral tradition. But though we have certain rules that we would each follow in telling the story--porridge, chairs, beds; Mama, Papa Baby Bear etc.--none of us would feel compelled to reproduce the story exactly the same word for word each time we say it, and we definitely wouldn't feel the need to be faithful to a specific printed edition. But if I were to tell the story over and over again to my young son, he would probably come to expect me to say certain parts in a certain way, and he'd get mad if I deviated from that norm. In the same way Homeric poets were probably compelled to say certain things in specific ways, but others could always change. So what gets written down is only like a fossilized footprint that gets left behind of dynamic tradition.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 3:50 PM on June 6, 2007


zeugitai_guy: Response to my previous comment?
posted by languagehat at 5:02 PM on June 6, 2007


But epic hexameter isn't choral poetry or dramatic verse, it's an entirely different creature, and this is the first I've heard of the idea that it was danced to. In general, people don't dance to epic recitations, judging from the traditions I know about (Slavic, Arab): it's just a guy with an instrument, chanting a story.


You’re right about people probably not dancing to epic itself (at least as far as we know in ancient Greece). However, the dactylic hexameter is intricately related to the elegiac couplet which was definitely marched to and which also had military-style dances associated with it. Additionally, many of the various portions of the line that seem to have come together to form the hexameter (as well as its formulaic phraseology) are found in many of the other types of poetry (especially choral) that were danced to, and sometimes the comic playwrights even include Homeric hexameters within their choral interludes, so the rate must have been at least approximately the same as found in these other meters that did include dance.


Most estimates therefore put the length of a hexameter at between 2.5 and 3 seconds.
Huh? Did you mistype something? As it stands, that's completely nuts. Here's a hexameter:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
[mēnin aeide thea pēlēiadeō akhilēos]
I defy even an auctioneer to get that whole line out in "between 2.5 and 3 seconds."


Actually, in that particular case the line is a bit longer than normal. Personally that seems to me to be about a 3.5-second line, and I think Daitz in his somewhat over-pronounced recordings does it in about 4 seconds. But even if we were to double those amounts, I think it would exceed any reliable recording possibility other than oral dictation, especially since the first Western shorthand system wasn’t developed for another 700 years.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:06 PM on June 6, 2007


zeugitai_guy: the fairytale analogy makes sense; just in the past 2 centuries alone, wasn't it shown that even these sorts of brief folktales have incurred some fairly significant edits / reinterpretations on account of shifting social mores? -- these are the sorts of nuanced improvisations i'm thinking of.

lol, i've been called a number of things on metafilter, but 'til now, succinct hasn't been one of them; thanks!
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:29 PM on June 6, 2007


Johnnie shout-out from Brooklyn!
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:50 PM on June 6, 2007


lfr: Sure. Of course Disney is the most public of these retellings, and sometimes people think of that as a bit different than, say, Homer because it's intentional reworking in order to make a buck. But we can't be sure some tyrant in Athens wasn't doing the same thing. But even beyond that, one of the points that Walter Ong makes about dominantly oral societies is that their traditions tend to be homeostatic--that is, they adjust themselves in order to keep an equilibrium with their society. My favorite example here involves a region in Africa (sorry, my books are at work and not available to me this morning, so details are a bit vague) where British officials had gone in and recorded some of the native "history". There were something like ten tribes in this area and the locals had a story about there orginally being ten brothers of a powerful king who split the kingdom. 30 years later researchers went back and because of a war and, I think, a drought there were now only 8 tribes. But now the story the researchers were told was simply changed to say that there were originally only 8 brothers. So the story changed to fit the times in which they were living. But as far as Germanic fairy tales, if you look at the versions collected by the Grimm Brothers, there's no way most of those would make it in the US today. Almost all of them end with someone dying, especially the pesky kids. In those cases children were punished for being too curious; now we tend to apply a sense of justice to them.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 6:55 AM on June 7, 2007


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