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Homeric Poems as Epics

5 Pages

Classical Studies
Course Code
Classical Studies 1000
Christopher Brown

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Homeric Poems as Epics  “The Homeric Question” o Essential Question: what are these poems, how did they get to be the way they are o Beginning of 20 century had people finding inconsistencies and trying to restore original forms and the other camp had people trying to defend every word of Homer o Often call these two views called the separators and the unifiers o The game changed in big way by Milman Parry  The oral-formular style (contribution of Milman Parry) o He discovered this revolution of thinking about these poems o Has an answer to all these questions o The questions have somewhat changed in interesting ways o What emerges from this is the idea that the Iliad and Odessy are oral- formular style  Oral vs. Literate epic (or primary and secondary epic) o What emerges is the idea that the Homeric poems originated in a style to facilitate oral composition o Improvisation o Not always literary composition we assume o Takes us in a different direction Milman Parry- (1902-1935)  Studied the formulae of the Homeric poems o Aspects of the language of Homer intrigued him o Pursued PhD in Paris o Wrote two thesis, came back to North America and taught at Harvard, cleaned gun and died o Achilles is never just Achilles, he is swift, or great, ect o Formulae: little phrases fitting in particular places and forms in a line allowing poets to improvise while performing o Old view focused on idea of poet’s text (like classical music), Parry says oral theory turns the poems more like jazz, there are fixed things but the performer can improvise freely on theme- there are typical scenes but there are quick versions or long versions (working with the oral style allows performers to do this)  Concluded that the Iliad and the Odyssey were the products of an oral tradition of heroic song o Linguistic system o Homer didn’t know how to write , Parry shows us how in an unlettered society may compose poetry in a performance without the aid of writing o The Iliad and Odyssey were products of a heroic tradition of song o People sang and resang these stories and the language allowed them to improv the stories o Over time it gained depth and range  Found a modern tradition in the former Yugoslavia o Field work o Recorded oral singers to compare how they do things in Croatian traditions with Homeric Traditions Possible Implications of Oral Theory  No single poet is fully responsible for the composition of the Homeric poems o And so no “homer ‘in the usual sense of an author o Idea that one person made this all up is implausible  Language and content shaped over time o Greek language has dialect reflecting regions o Language of Homeric poems points to coast of Asia minor, it actually has forms that occur in number of dialects suggesting poets using this moved around the Greek world so those different places are reflected  No single authoritative version o Extemporization was important in the tradition o these poems could be shaped differently on each performance  The Homeric poems had collective importance o “A tribal encyclopedia” Limitations of Oral Theory  May overrate the strength of the tradition, and underrate the contributions of individual singers  Fails to explain the emergence of a fixed tent o There could very well be some major composer  Fails to explain convincingly the transition from oral poem to written text o Talks a lot about what could be the origin of the language, but fails to explain how the oral poems became texts o No one has an explanation to why or how these texts were written down o Someone said an oral singer cannot be literate o This came from the field work done by Parry- they recorded him two years earlier when he was illiterate and the second time they recorded him after he learned to read and write the second time was much worse than the first time o When you make the oral singer literate it compromises those oral skills o Even though this is problematic, the oral traditional poem is believed to have to be created orally and then composed on paper later  Has not formulated a strategy for ‘reading’ these texts o There is not the same sense of correct and incorrect usage of language in ancient Greek language o What we see with the Croatian singer was not the fact that he can write but that he knew correct and not correct grammar, effecting his oral singing manipulation of words and the alphabet o Iliad and Odyssey are huge poems and the audience would have to be very patient to make it through the extremely long poems if they were performed (series of performances because they would take days to do) o Designed in some sense to never be performed entirely o People responding to the challenge of writing because writing can preserve a text in a way a performance cannot giving an ambition to writing o Crucial moment is how Homeric poems went to performed poems to text o Do we need to adjust how we approach them, many say yes but no one knows HOW o For all the achievements of Parry there are still many questions remaining o These texts are central works, highly compelling, and yet still mysterious origins o For all they look like they are unlike any other texts encountered o Primitive and sophisticated Homer’s Iliad  Salient characteristics: narrative, speeches, similes, divine ‘machinery’ ect o Tells story dramatically with a lot of speeches (more like drama), characters have interesting roles in plot advancement o Elaborate roles played by Gods (divine machinery) o Basic epic  Basic divisions (24 ‘books’) o More naturally falls into 3 larger chucks but division into 24 as a convenience o Made them more manageable when the time of books was cumbersome  Expansive narrative combined with remarkable compression o The poem treats only 14 days in a war that lasted 10 years o Through flashbacks, foreshadowing o Encourages thinking of the poem as a product of serious artistic concentration o All seems to spring from first word of Greek texts- wrath (anger) o Poem takes us to Troy and it all spirals out from an incident – the main character is Achilles, and it begins with an odd treatment of Achilles o Poem begins with priest coming to camp of Greeks who are trying to conquer Troy, Priest of God Apollo and he pleads for return of his daughter taken in a raid o He brings things to exchange for her back, formal appeal to Agamemnon (commander in Chief of the Greeks) o Agamemnon refuses and tells the Priest he’s going to sleep with his daughter and likes her better than his own wife o Priest prays to Apollo to punish the Priest o Apol
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