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Lesson 10

And now the big question. . . did Homer know his ABC's?

This page discusses some basic effects of technology on literature. 

Key to the spirit world
how to read Homer

Early Hellenic practitioners of literature called upon the Muses for inspiration. Our word "music" comes from these goddess spirits who were said to be the daughters of Mnemosyne, the personification of memory. Music comes from memory; memory loves music. The songs of the ancients were full of mnemonic (or memory-aiding) devices, such as metrical regularity and formulaic or standardized descriptions, helping the singers to remember the words.

A good memory, and memorable style, were needed in the beginning. Songs at first could not be read from books or manuscripts, but the singing required exact words to be recalled in proper arrangement, timing, and pitch in order to summon the spirits. Old heroes never died or faded away, if they were correctly present-ed. So there were strict musical rules for magical incantation (incantation=calling).

The Homeric songs obviously are not ritual texts, in this magical sense of words that call up the ancestral spirits to be present with us here and now. Odysseus returns to Telemakhos, not to us; Patroklos appears to Achilles, not to us. The spiritual experience is distanced from us in this way, as literature, with the heroes appearing in the story as re-present-ation. The lyre music, the chanting, and the repetitive, formulaic phrasing of the words supported this association in Hellenic minds between Homer's story and traditional religious mysteries that resurrected the dead.

How can we recover this ancient experience and begin to meet these ghosts? 

To read Homer is, imaginatively at least, to perform, to act out varied roles, to deliver speeches in the characters of famous people, heroes and gods (and yes, even a talking horse!). The most complex role is featured as the lead. In the starring part the performer plays a character who is not entirely himself but is possessed by a hero. The result is several layers deep in animation. The bard presents the Muse who presents Achilles (or Telemakhos) who presents Patroklos (or Odysseus), among a large ensemble of secondary and supporting characters. 

This is professional text, not easy performing, or reading, especially on the first pass through. You start with little or no idea about the characters: who they are, how they are related to each other, what they are doing or why. There are no stage directions or performance notes to guide you. As in reading any great dramatic script, it takes time to assemble a coherent production in your mind. If you're going to perform well, you must rehearse. "Practice makes perfect" applies to reading as well as all other performance arts. Rereading is key.

The best way to cheat is to get hold of a good recorded performance, and listen to it. But you aren't likely to hear the voices of the dead and voices of gods, if you think constantly that you are hearing only the recording of an actor delivering lines in a sound studio. You won't hear the spirits, either, if you assume that the song originates from a normal state of consciousness. The key to the illusion is at least temporary belief that the performer is not performing. Imagine that the Muse and the other spirits are using the singer's voice. Accept the song on its own terms if you want to enter its world. Surrender to the song's power.

Some readers have trouble with Homer just because the language doesn't sound much like natural human speech (meaning their own speech). To hear people talking, as they really do, go to the mall or watch TV! Homeric language is special.  It is meant to have an aura that is extraordinary, even eerie, a sound of the spirit world.

Primordial alphabet soup:
did Homer know his ABC's?

No, it's not a laptop computer!We don't know when Homeric songs first were sung or when they first were written down. The singing may have begun as early as 1200 BC, the best-guess date of the Trojan War, if in fact there ever was a Trojan War. The songs perhaps were not written down until about 750-725 BC, however, because there is no physical evidence for Greek alphabetical writing before that time. (For a quick overview of dates, see my Hellenic timeline.) This is the conventional dating, give or take a few decades, accepted tentatively by many, probably most, scholars.

If this conventional dating is correct, the Troy story, or some Troy story, may have passed down through the generations by word of mouth for perhaps 500 years! 

The idea of such a 500-year oral tradition boggles the mind. To us today in century 21 AD, itís as if we decided to write down the adventures of Christopher Columbus, nobody ever having written about him before! Imagine.  How much would we know today about the European rediscovery of America, if writing had not been in use in Columbus' time? Perhaps as much as we know about the pre-Columbus discoveries of the Americas, I'd guess.

The period from 1200 BC to 725 BC, when the Troy story is supposed to have passed down by oral tradition, was the evil era of the Zeus-men, the Helladic Dark Ages. The archaeology of this period has turned up no pottery or anything else with writing on it. Archaeologists generally conclude from this record, or lack of it, that the art of writing was lost in the Greek-speaking world throughout this period.

Linear B clay tablet.Before the Helladic Dark Ages, in the time of high civilization that we call the Bronze Age (or Mycenaean Age), at least some Greek-speakers had written on wet clay tablets using a script that we call Linear B. But insofar as we can tell, this script never was used for literary, historical, religious or cultural purposes. Linear B was a commercial or administrative device used to keep palace inventories and business records. In this cumbersome writing system each character (and there were many) represented a different syllable in speech. Linear B seems to have disappeared completely by about 1200 BC, with the rest of Bronze Age culture.

The modern alphabet does not appear in the Hellenic archaeological record until the middle of the eighth century BC. (That is not to say that it was first introduced to the Hellenes at that time.) It came from Phoenix's homeland in the east. The Hellenes borrowed the Phoenician system of consonant writing and then added some new letters, including signs for vowels so that all of the individual sounds of Greek could be represented. Some scholars contend that the Homeric songs may have been among the first compositions written down in the new script. 

The usual history today, then, places Homer at about 750 BC, but only because that is when the first pottery with writing on it begins to show up under archaeological investigation. To get the Trojan War story down through the Dark Ages to Homer's supposed time, the scholars hypothesize a long line of illiterate bards like Demodocus. They say that the bards' stunning feat of verbal repetition was made possible by technology: mnemonic oral style or music allowed remembrance of the words.

Oral tradition?
How did Homer know about Troy?

The world described by the Homeric songs is, at least in part, the world of the Bronze Age, which ended abruptly throughout the Mediterranean and Near East about 1200 BC. Some memory of that distant period was preserved through the Dark Ages, but how?

This polished marble image from the Aegean island of Syros probably dates from before 2100 BC.The singing of illiterate bards, like Homer's Demodocus, is the usual explanation, because bards of some sort were singing in the ancient world from Bronze Age times. The figurine shown at the right dates from as early as 2100 BC, or possibly much earlier, in any event prior to the Helladic Dark Ages. It comes from a burial site on Syros in the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean. A number of similar cult images have been found in the area, always associated with burials.

Fresco from the so-called "Palace of Nestor" in Pylos, cir. 1200 BC (Mycenaean). Bards were singing before the Mycenaean palaces fell to the Zeus-men.Hero ritual appears to have been in use before the time of the fall of Troy, perhaps from Neolithic times. [Recall Lesson 2.]  The conservatism of ritual could have preserved words and phrases, if not whole songs also, over long periods of time. After all, the hero spirit could be invoked or called up only by using the right name ("Noman" wouldn't work! Try calling for no man and see who comes!) and attaching the correct epithets, too. Epithets are standardized, respectful phrases of description added to the spirit's proper name, praising or flattering the spirit in some way by mentioning some outstanding attribute or some worthy past episode in its career. E.g., God "the father almighty," "maker of heaven and earth."  (The Homeric Hymns, a collection of 33 hymns and religious song-fragments ascribed to Homer, exemplify some elaborate invocation formulas that were used to call Hellenic gods and heroes in early classical times.)

A priestly or religious tradition is far more likely than a secular poetic one to have preserved key words about heroes and gods during the dark ages. In the ritual belief system, if the traditional words are forgotten, the spirit no longer can be summoned. This is more than a matter of the hero's "fame" being lost, or a song dropping out of bardic circulation. It means that the power of the spirit is no longer useful. The spirit can't be called for help.

Some record of the Bronze Age also could have been preserved, before the arrival of the alphabet, through art work or pictorial representation. There is no clear evidence that Homer knew any particular statue or painting or vase illustration, but he must have been familiar with heroic scenes painted on burial urns and libation cups, because they were so common, and perhaps he knew carved monuments, statuary and other art, too. Visitors to Egypt in archaic times certainly could have seen pictorial histories of Bronze Age events painted or sculpted on temple walls throughout the kingdom. Some of these images exist in Egypt still today. Imagination can tell the story behind the picture where labels are inadequate or unreadable.

I'll show you Apollo!

Another possible explanation for Homer's knowledge of Bronze Age events--and a far more likely explanation, it seems to me--is that writing in fact existed from the Bronze Age through the Dark Ages, even though archaeology has not found it. The script that transmitted the Troy story from Bronze Age times could have been Linear B, Greek alphabetical, or Phoenician. (Phoenician letters are attested in Near Eastern pottery from about 1200 BC.) 

The case for some form of Greek alphabetical writing is particularly interesting. The early Hellenic historian Herodotus (5th century BC) says that the Phoenician letters were borrowed by the Greeks in very early times--times that we can date to the Bronze Age. The heroes (Heracles, Achilles, Oedipus, Theseus and the rest) date from that time; the preservation of their fame (as well as the lack of information about their ancestors) strongly suggests that writing was introduced in that period. Herodotus tells us that some records of the oldest alphabetical writing in Greece still existed in his day, but most of it had long been lost.

Lost how? It seems to me that animal sacrifice may provide the explanation, as so often in Homer. The deeds of the Hellenic heroes may have been written on animal skins! By classical times, as Herodotus tells us, the Hellenes were writing  on imported papyrus sheets, but out of habit or tradition they still called these papers "skins." 

Hides would have been perishable, of course. Unlike arid climates that conveniently preserved records for archaeologists to find in Egypt and the Near East, the climate of Greece was humid, and organic materials decayed rapidly there. If letters rapidly decomposed when written on hides, there's hardly any mystery that early Hellenic literature was preoccupied with issues of mortality and the return of all things to watery chaos! 

Hide technology is a possible basis for Homer's apparent fascination with the linkage between animal sacrifice, eating and story-telling. [Recall Lesson 2.] When an animal was "offered to" a hero or god in ritual, I suggest, part of the hide was used to preserve the record of that particular hero or god. Yearly, biannual or four-year festival sacrifices to particular heroes and gods may have been practical necessities to maintain good copies of the old stories. Link to more info about the introduction of the alphabet into Greece, if desired.

But whatever the truth may be about Homer and writing, or the origin of writing among the Hellenes, it is clear that the Iliad and the Odyssey are oral in style. The words may or may not have been transcripts (i.e., written down as the record of live performances), but they clearly were scripts (i.e., capable of performance). Centuries after Homer in classical times, they in fact were performed by solo performers known as rhapsodes. Oral style made them memorable. This oral technique is a major issue in modern Homeric studies and also a big issue for the study of literature in general.

From Greeks to geeks:
four ages of literature

The technology of literary production should not be under-appreciated. The great changes in literature, as in other fields, have been driven by technology. Three major breakthroughs in technology have been the alphabet, mechanical print, and electronic text. These inventions clearly divide literary history into four major ages:

1. The Age of Memory: the spoken word from prehistoric times to the use of writing. Literature is performance, varying by performer and even, in improvisation, varying by performance, though attempts are made through music, dance and ritualization to preserve important words. Distribution is limited to those within hearing distance. How many of these small audiences will hear the same story? Any complex literature in the Age of Memory is restricted to trained bards or scops using mnemonic and musical devices. The artists work for chiefs who can afford to retain them. Literature is used for entertainment and, more importantly, for team-building. The song of the legendary past (usually dubbed by modern scholars as myth, mythic history, epic, or heroic song) may have originated in this Age, but short lyrics, songs and ballads must have been the most common literary forms.

2. The Age of Manuscripts: the handwritten word from the use of writing to the printing press. (European literary writing begins perhaps as early as 1200 BC, certainly by 750 BC. European mechanical printing begins about 1436 AD.) Writing and reading gradually replace singing and listening, as text replaces song. Performance becomes fixed or nearly so (scribes may add new items to old manuscripts). Distribution broadens a little since copies can be made of the same story, but copies are limited in number because hand copying is inefficient. Literacy is restricted to a small professional class (such as scribes or monks or scholars) who think of themselves as learned. Copying becomes a value in itself: literary emphasis falls on the handing-down of authentic stories from old authorities and the close imitation of those models. Most authors are supported by politically powerful and wealthy patrons, so literature typically is priestly, courtly, or aristocratic. Classical literature and medieval literature represent the Age of Manuscripts in European history.

3. The Age of Books: the printed word from the invention of the printing press until the internet. With every printed copy identical, the performersí words are absolutely fixed for the first time. Mechanical copying allows mass distribution. The low cost and ease of publishing permits an explosion of different kinds of literature, different kinds of authors, different stories, translations into different languages, specialization in every direction. It even permits publication of criticism about literature, so that literary self-consciousness develops to an unprecedented (some would say ridiculous) degree. Performance length becomes no obstacle, technologically speaking: nearly all novels belong to this phase. Literacy becomes an essential skill in a text-based world. Commercial distribution favors popular literature; writers no longer depend for support on wealthy patrons but cater to the masses. Junk literature proliferates. Literature engages in social criticism, humor, humble subjects, fantasy and pure entertainment. Renaissance to modern literature represents the Age of Books in the west.

(Some historians might insert here, between the third and fourth age, a mini-age of public broadcast media: radio, television and film. Was this period the Modern Dark Ages when the art of writing was lost for 100 years? Or was this period the final flowering of the Age of Books, when mechanical reproduction finally was extended from text to recorded voice and recorded performance? However we choose to see them, broadcast media form an important evolutionary link to the Fourth Age.)

4. The Age of the Internet: the web word from the invention of electronic text until ???  Use your imagination to describe this one. How fortunate we are to live at this "post-modern" time when such important changes are beginning to take place! Will the Internet Age resemble the Age of Memory since internet presentations are interactive and even "live," unlike old-fashioned books, manuscripts and recordings?  Will bards make a come-back in cyberspace?

These different ages of literature are not absolutely fixed historical periods, of course. We have oral story telling today at the outset of the Internet Age, and we have manuscripts and more books than anybody can read, too. From age to age itís the cumulative variety of media that grows, and the relative emphasis among media that changes.

Transitions are gradual. When changes finally come, people tend to see the new technology in light of the old. Homer seems to illustrate this principle, since his work is in manuscript, but the words are composed in oral style. Late in the age of manuscripts, handwritten papers were bound together in book-like volumes. Early in the age of the printing press, mechanically published books had manuscript-like illustrations, and for many decades the font styles remained unnecessarily ornate, resembling handwriting. Similarly at the start of the Internet Age, we see the new web technology used first for book distribution in, electronic texts, and . . . even this print-heavy course? Meanwhile, the novelties of the new medium, like interactivity, are underutilized, and internet applications that seem wonderfully advanced to us surely will seem primitive in the years to come.

Here we are at the very beginning of a great transitional time. How will literature change to make full use of internet technology?

The four ages in English

In English literature the different ages also have been marked by major changes in the English language itself. Old English, Middle English and Modern English broadly correspond to the Age of Memory, Age of Manuscripts and Age of Books.

Don't you just hate being jammed into the corner of manuscripts?The Old English Beowulf, a bardic song, is the most complete remaining example of the first age. Courtier Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English story collection, The Canterbury Tales, is the most complete (and wonderful) example of the second. The Age of Books in England began at the dawn of the Renaissance, only about 100 years before Shakespeare (a transitional figure), and is represented by thoroughly bookish neo-classical writers like John Milton and John Dryden (17th century AD) and almost everybody since their time through the twentieth century. There's at least rough correlation in history among the Age of Books, the British Empire, and the spread of the English language around the earth.

The Beowulf-poet, Chaucer and Milton, if they could meet somehow, would not be able to communicate with one another very well because of the great changes in the language over the centuries. English teachers, of course, will have you understanding all of these people, and very many more besides...

But what about the fourth Age? Are we entering a time when the English language will change again into something strange and new? Perhaps machine language will play some role in transforming not only the technical processing of literature but also the form of English? Will people in the new age have trouble reading our "modern" English of 2000 AD, much as we have trouble reading Middle English? What shortcomings of books can be fixed by the new electronic medium?


We can't see the Age of Memory
 when it's preserved only in writing.

The Iliad, as we know it, is over 15,600 lines long, and the Odyssey is longer. Yet we know that these songs were performed for popular audiences in classical times, at least in part or occasionally during festivals and competitions. They were memorized, as well as read.

In one of Plato's dialogues, the Ion (written perhaps about 390 BC), Socrates questions one of these competitive performers of Homer, Ion the rhapsode. Socrates mocks Ion, for knowing all of Homer's words by heart but not knowing anything else. Ion is not what Plato thinks of as an educated soul, a person capable of creative thinking; he's simply a rote learner, a dinosaur left over from the Age of Memory. To generations of Hellenes before Plato's time, education meant memorizing Homer and the other poets!

Remains of a classical statue of Homer. But who remembered Homer right? Local variations and discrepancies among Homeric manuscripts must have become apparent as writing came into widespread use. Which lines were the true "Homer"?  Which were "forgeries"?  Unsolvable disputes arose over who Homer had been, which city had been his home, what circuits he had worked, what he had believed, what language was characteristic of his work. Everyone wanted to claim the single best, most authentic manuscript. From our great distance in time, we can see that the Greeks in these debates about the one true authorized text, from which all copies should be made, were developing the need for the technology of the type-set book, a couple of thousand years before its invention. 

"The" Iliad and "the" Odyssey that we read today are the patchwork or composite that resulted when scholars at the Library at Alexandria in about 200 BC reconciled the conflicting manuscripts into a standardized text--only some 1,000 years after the supposed date of the fall of Troy! [Recall Lesson 9.] "An Iliad" and "An Odyssey" perhaps might make more accurate titles. These editions have some different lines and words than the bits of "Homer" that are quoted by Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle and other classical authors who lived before the approved Alexandrian editions were published.

There are other technical difficulties. Our literary technology today (the book or electronic text) is not the technology that Homer puts forward for us to imagine that he is using (the song). We happen to be reading a translation too, so there's an interpreter between ourselves and Homer.

Learning Homer's Greek isn't a complete solution. Homeric Greek is no longer a language, if it ever was a language, and there are only a few fragmentary examples of anything like it outside of the Iliad and Odyssey. Even the Greeks of classical times found it strange. Scholars can guess at them, but we have lost the subtleties and nuances of meaning that would have come from an understanding of Homer's words in the context of the language from which they arose.

Poets like to claim that they make songs which will last forever. They envy Homer for this. (We will see some examples of Homer-envy later, in connection with Plato and Milton.) But the fact is that we don't and can't hear Homer's words as Homer and Homer's early audiences heard them. All poetry is subject to changes in language and technology. Time robs it of meaning.

Homer's oral style

Homeric bard, image design based on a classical vase dating from the sixth century BC.Popular literature today--song, theater and film--still are designed for oral performance. Teachers of literature, however, tend to be unimpressed. They usually teach books. Contemporary novelists and poets who are studied in literature class may give public "readings" of their works, but very few give recitals from memory. They are "writers." Homer doesn't seem to fit this mold; generally he is seen as a crude preliterate, not a "writer." This characterization is almost certainly wrong, I believe, but it is based on Homer's style which clearly is oral and evocative of performance. 

What are the main features of Homer's oral style?

  • 1. Homer makes extensive use of scenes and dialogue. Feasting scenes, council scenes and battle scenes are among Homer's standards. The dialogue in all scenes is exchanged in character so that the performer uses many different, conflicting voices. Agamemnon whines, Nestor lectures, Andromache wails, Hera nags, Thersites rails... The more important characters exhibit a range of emotion and ideas. Shifty Odysseus is the most variable of all; his special talent is saying the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. He may not always tell the truth, but he's an ideal performance hero because he always seems to be performing.

  • 2. Homer nests or threads many stories into the narrative. His favorite character type is the story-teller. We can see how bards would be drawn to Odysseus. He is not only fond of story-tellers, but he himself is one, and his yarns are "almost as good" as a bard's. Achilles, too, is a bard who sings "the glories of the heroes" while strumming his lyre, and his teacher Phoenix draws lessons for Achilles from heroic songs. Even the boorish characters in Homer, like Nestor and Agamemnon, like to tell stories, and the stories that they tell reveal their characters. The gods are in charge of the unfolding of stories (fated events), and Zeus himself is a god of story-tellers [recall Lesson 5]. In the afterlife down in Hades there's nothing to do except to tell and hear stories. The stylistic result is nested or threaded stories galore in Homer [recall Lesson 3].

  • 3. Homer composes in poetry, not prose. And not free verse, either. That is, the words are arranged in regular rhythms and patterns of sounds that give them an artistic consistency when spoken and that also make them easier to remember. Homer's meter is hexameter, six metrical units to a line. The first five units in the line may be dactyls (a long syllable followed by two short syllables) or else spondees (two long syllables), but the last unit in the line must be a spondee. These Homeric units are not beats as in English poetry. Long and short syllables are not stressed and unstressed syllables, as in English, but longer and shorter pronunciation times. The regularity of the form provides part of the listening pleasure. It gives the performance a hypnotic or trance-like effect, chanting with regular slow breathing. The more aware we are of this rhapsodic music, the more we appreciate that all of the words are being selected and arranged with extraordinary care so that they fit the song pattern. 

  • 4. Homer uses formulaic language. One key aspect of oral style is the use of formulaic language, or prefabricated phrasing of a plug-and-play kind.  Homer attaches epithets, or brief stock descriptions, to nearly everything and everybody, and he repeats them tirelessly. Ships, for example, are always "black" or "sea-going" or "well-benched" depending, primarily, on the metrical requirements in the line and, secondarily, on the appropriateness to the sense of the passage in which the phrase appears. Nowhere do we get an elaborate physical description of a ship, such as we have in Moby-Dick and so many other modern acounts of sea-faring. The absence of particulars and unique details in Homeric descriptions makes recital easier, but it also underscores the imaginative quality of the song. Because Homer is not specific about the ships, we are free to imagine them with few limitations. People, as well as things, are described repeatedly by epithets. Achilles is "swift-footed," Hektor is "tamer of horses," etc.

  • 5. Homer relies heavily on repetition. Everyone notices how often Homer repeats himself. Most scenes of feasting, for example, are ritualized or generalized so that all meals are similar, and nearly the same. Repetition in these scenes is helpful to the performer, even as it underscores Homer's theme of sacrifice. Some Homeric repetitions are quite extended, as in the episode of the mission to Achilles where the list of gifts to be offered to Achilles is presented twice, first when Agamemnon tells Odysseus, then again when Odysseus repeats the list to Achilles. Most of what Odysseus recounts to Achilles in this episode is verbatim repetition of Agamemnon's gift catalogue, so that we are impressed with Odysseus' memory--for the gift list is quite long. And yet there is subtlety here, too, because Odysseus diplomatically leaves out of his recital Agamemnon's ultimatum that Achilles must accept the gifts and obey him:
    "Let him [Achilles] then yield: it is only Hades who is utterly ruthless and unyielding - and hence he is of all gods the one most hateful to humankind. Moreover I am older and more royal than himself. Therefore, let him now obey me." (Iliad ix. 147)
    Achilles appears to know that diplomat Odysseus is not telling him the whole truth, as he turns the Hades image back upon Odysseus:
    "Hateful to me like the gates of Hades is the man who says one thing while he hides another thing in his mind; therefore I will say what I mean. I will be appeased neither by Agamemnon son of Atreus nor by any other of the Danaans." (Iliad ix. 309).
    Repetition of the gift list makes Agamemnon's offer easy to remember, since we hear it twice, but the repetition is not simply redundancy. Homer assumes that our memories will be sharp enough to detect how Odysseus edits Agamemnon's message for Achilles. Perhaps he also wants us to associate Agamemnon with Hades, so that we compare Odysseus' embassy to Achilles with his trip to the underworld and the City of Dreams in the Odyssey.

  • 6. Homer emphasizes similes. Comparisons using "like" or "as" (similies) are everywhere in Homer. Odysseus weeps "as" a war widow  weeps when she is hauled away from her dying husband and taken into slavery. Or unable to sleep he tosses himself back and forth restlessly "as" a cook turns a sausage on a hot fire. The comparisons make descriptions memorable, but they also add a dimension to description so that we know not only what the story-teller sees but how the story-teller experiences it. For this reason, the similies are important keys to meaning; they disclose associations that are present in the story-teller's mind. Odysseus is not simply an old warrior returning home from war; in the singer's imagination, he is a victim, as indicated by the war-widow, the sausage and other similes describing him. Simile and metaphor (metaphor makes comparisons without using "like" or "as") find similarity in dissimilar things, and so they keep us mindful that we are in the presence of a creative imagination. 

  • 7. Homer relies on extended metaphoric action. Personifications like the good-mind Alkinoos and the bad-mind Antinoos, and allegorical features like the Cave of Fame or Bag of Winds also maintain our awareness that the story is a fantasy taking place in the imagination with thinly disguised meanings. They suggest how the characters are to be played in performance. Gods, monsters, magicians and other supernatural creatures serve the same purposes. 

None of the features of Homeric style prove that Homer was pre-literate or could not write, though many Homerists have made such claims. We know only that the Homeric songs were performable from memory in recital so that they were accessible to illiterate people. Later, poets added more actors, scenery, dancing, new music and stage equipment. From their work emerged popular theater. [More about this in Lesson 11.]

Riiting maaks purfekt?

Thu tiim masheen wuz improvd tu sum deegree with thu invenshun uv riiting, which kan preesurv mor elements uv thu past mor purfektlee than memooree. Thu serviival uv westurn siviliizaashun, or eevun Greek kultur, noo longur deepends on owr abilitee tu reemembur thu wurds uv thu Hoomerik pooems.  Wee ar freed frum thu teribul burdens uv root lurning and resitashun!

But there are tradeoffs, perhaps? For one thing, writing presupposes that someone is going to read--and, further, that reading causes understanding! Because it's in a book you don't have to memorize the Iliad, and you don't have to read it, either, unless you want to be educated. Neither memorization nor reading guarantees that you will be educated--or understand the Iliad at any level. But memorization at least assures that you can say the words.Toth, the original tech meister.

Long ago, before Homer was a baby, the Pharaoh of Egypt was terribly upset when the god Thoth (the inventor of all arts and technologies) proudly announced the invention of writing. Now humankind no longer would remember anything, Pharaoh complained! Egypt would have to hire a huge army of scribes just to record all of the stuff that everybody used to know.

And Pharaoh had it right, too. Before long, there were thousands of scribes in the land, and they were lobbying for further expansion of knowledge (that is, more scrolls, really).  Eventually they became a huge bureaucracy, the foremost librarians of the ancient world. Pharaoh appears to have made the most of the situation by inventing the tax return, for which he is remembered forever. 

Even today we rationalize our ignorance of facts by thinking we can always "look it up." Have we spent fortunes on technology to keep our minds free of knowledge? With the invention of computer memory, have we constructed the greatest of all temptations to ignorance? Once all of knowledge is computerized, what is it that humankind will need to know (apart from use and repair of computers)?

Lesson Summary: The basic technologies of literature--the spoken word, handwritten text and printed text--mark distinct literary periods, though historical transitions from the use of one technology to the next tend to be gradual. Many scholars describe the Homeric songs as oral, because of their mnemonic style and because Homer's Demodocus apparently is a blind bard. I have speculated that stories of the Trojan War existed in written form, on animal skins, from the time of the war in about 1200 BC, but the Homeric songs in any event are oral in style and capable of being performed.

Additional related readings and journal topics

1. The medium is the message: One of most interesting books on literature and technology is Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (University of Toronto Press 1962). McLuhan was among the first to describe the psychological and social changes that took place in ancient Greece, and again in the European Renaissance, due to literacy. In these formative periods of western civilization, according to McLuhan, "tribal man" gave way to "individualized man" because of writing. In this theory words, when written, become visual, and they lose some of their power, since they can be read or not read. In Africa "the nonliterate rural population lives largely in a world of sound, in contrast to western Europeans who live largely in a world of vision... Sounds lose much of their significance in western Europe, where man often develops, and must develop, a remarkable ability to disregard them. Whereas for Europeans, in general, seeing is believing, for rural Africans reality seems to reside far more in what is heard and what is said" (p. 19).

Compare Homer's idea of kleos: fame or "that which is heard." The immortality of the hero resides in what is spoken. This verbal emphasis contrasts with the "action hero" of most of our movies today who is seen doing lots of things but seldom has much to say. 

Another interesting discussion about psychological and social differences between pre-literate and literate cultures is Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Routledge 1982).

2. This means you: Think about your own language development as (so far) Four Ages, parallel to the Four Ages of Literature, described in this Lesson. First, at home, you learned to speak. Second, you went to grammar school and learned to write by hand. Third, you moved up to high school where you should have studied books. Now you're in your Fourth Age, learning on-line here in cyber-school. 

If this describes your progress, think now of the pluses and minuses of each of these four stages of learning, your learning. Do you see that a major problem or limitation in each stage is addressed somehow in the next stage? What book problems might be solved by the internet?

3. History of the language: some basic books on this fascinating subject include W.F. Bolton, A Living Language (New York 1982); Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language (4th ed, Prentice Hall 1993); Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English (Viking 1986). 

It is estimated that one quarter of the world's population speaks English as a primary language, and another one quarter uses it as a second language. How will closer communications in coming years influence the language? Will we eventually lose the separate identities of American English, Aussie English, Black English, the Queen's English, Irish English, Scots English, East Asian English  and other major offshoots of the mother tongue? What might be the positives and negatives of such a development?

4. Oral tradition: the study of Homer's roots in oral tradition was pioneered at Harvard University by classicists Milman Parry and Albert Lord. See Lord's The Singer of Tales (Harvard Press 1960). Harvard maintains a huge collection of oral literature from all parts of the world; some of it from time to time is accessible on-line. 

5. The return of the Age of Memory. Periodically literature seeks to refresh itself by returning to its earliest origins in the spoken word. In English literature, the most famous example is Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798 by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an attempt to write poetry by imitating conversational everyday speech, and avoiding the language of bookish poetry. Lyrical Ballads was the basic manifesto of the Romantic movement in English literature.

Attempts to mimic spoken language are found regularly in modern drama, film, lyric song, and children's stories, obviously because these kinds of literature normally are meant to be performed aloud. Other kinds of poetry and narrative, however, are much less likely to be oral in style. A complexity of language that we associate with printed books might be used, for example, by a novelist who intends the words to be read silently and who is trying to mimic the subtleties and nuances of unspoken thoughts. As I write this web site I am designing it to be read, not spoken; a different approach would have been to design using streaming audio/visual data, paring back the complexity of the ideas, as in a lecture on film. 

Mixed styles are common. For example the same novelist who uses a bookish style when writing passages of description or narration can switch to oral style when writing scenes of dialogue within the narration. This mixed style can combine the advantages of written and spoken language so that the novel has both complexity and liveliness.

Look at the style of one of your favorite pieces of literature. Is it more like spoken language or book language? What important features in the language lead you to your conclusion?

6. Translation: compare and contrast any two translations of Homer. Take one or more specific passages from each and describe how they differ in their choice of words, phrases and language structure. The meanings cannot be identical, if different words are used, right? Try to describe any differences in meaning between the translated passages. When you have finished this exercise, ask yourself which translator makes a better Homer? And why do you think so? At this point you may sense that translation is performance, much like acting. The translator articulates written text as an actor articulates speech.

Another interesting exercise is to translate into your own words a passage or brief episode of Homer. (No, you don't need to learn Greek. You can translate a translation.) You might not produce the greatest translation of all time--but don't worry at all about that. In searching for the right words, you are finding your own relationship to the story, your own understanding of it, its meaning for you. This can be a direct way to "get" Homer, as opposed to writing pretentious school "themes" or "papers" or "essays" about Homer. [Hint: The exercise may work best if you take it seriously, instead of hamming it up with parody or corny jokes.]

7. Why bother with the past? If the past is behind us, why should anyone study it? More particularly, why should we, who have invented cheeseburgers and even polio vaccine, seek heroes in ancient times when humanity knew so little and misbehaved so much?  

Great technological and economic advances distance us from the past in terms of our possessions and ease. Things are better now, but are we?

In the humanities, the study is us, not our science or technology or wealth. Human progress from this point of view is not so clear. Even in Homer, composed at least 2500 years ago, we find portraits of individuals who are surprisingly like ourselves, not only in their terrible failings and delusions but also in their admirable strengths. The problems or themes of the Homeric songs--death, enmity, loneliness and suffering--have not gone away, despite material and technological advances that even Hephaistos could not have imagined. 

If the old days were not better--if, in fact, they were very much worse--wouldn't the people (some of them anyway) have been better because they had to be? This nostalgic outlook is reflected in old Nestor's speech to the Achaean assembly in scroll 1 of the Iliad:

Listen to me, for you are younger than I. In earlier times I moved among men more warlike than you, and never did they despise me. Such warriors have I never since seen, nor shall I see, as Peirithous was and Dryas, shepherd of the people, and Caeneus and Exadius and godlike Polyphemus, and Theseus, son of Aegeus, a man like the immortals. Mightiest were these of men reared upon the earth; mightiest were they, and with the mightiest they fought, the mountain-dwelling centaurs, and they destroyed them terribly. With these men I had fellowship, when I came from Pylos, from a distant land far away; for they themselves called me. With those men could no one fight of the mortals now upon the earth. [Iliad I. 255]

The younger Achaeans may not believe that old Nestor really fought centaurs once upon a time or that men were more warlike in days of old. We assign exaggerated importance to our own times, and then we die and are forgotten in times to come, when newcomers in turn assign too much importance to their own times. Our alienation from all who came before, and from all who will come after, is one not-so-happy measure of our progress beyond the ancestor worship of archaic cultures.

8. Linear B: 

"Probably the most intriguing story of the deciphering of an ancient written language was that of Linear B, the earliest deciphered Greek writing. Over 3,000 clay tablets of this writing were uncovered beginning in 1900s at Knossos in Crete. These tablets dated from about 1400 B.C. to 1240 B.C.--the time of Agamemnon through the heroic age of Greece and the Trojan War. The story of the fifty-year quest of a translation, ending in the triumph in 1952 of the British architect Michael Ventris and the British classicist John Chadwick, has been recounted many times in print. What is seldom related is the content of this ancient library. Typical samples are as follows:

Koldos the shepherd holds a lease from the village: 48 litres of wheat.
One pair of wheels bound with bronze, unfit for service.
Four slaves of Koradollos in charge of seed-corn.
Two tripods: Aigeus the Cretan brings them.

...None of these tablets contains any literary work, nor any diplomatic instructions, personal letters, religious texts, historical writings, nor anything, in fact, beside these minutely detailed bureaucratic records of petty commercial transactions. We could imagine a future civilization finally translating the magnetic computer language of a long-buried tape cartridge of today, and finding in disappointment exactly the same thing--writing for the purpose of information storage."

Lucky, Robert W. Silicon Dreams: Information, Man, and Machine (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), p. 93.

9. Perform some Homer: make a recording of your reading, if possible, and listen to yourself. Rehearse the same reading again and again, trying to improve your delivery of the words each time. (Several good professional recordings are available for your listening pleasure.)

Powers of Literature

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For some sample readings of Homer on the internet, see my Suggestions for further study.

















Image left, based on a classical pottery decoration: a youth practices writing with a stylus on a wax surface. Paper was rare and expensive, outside of Egypt and other places where papyrus was made.

















Figure left: Linear B on a sun-dried clay tablet. See further Note 8 below





















Due to lack of evidence of writing in Greece before about 750 BC, many scholars assume that bards were illiterate. Some have suggested that bards often were blind, as Demodocus must be helped into his place in the Phaeacian dining room. From this image, and other depictions of blind musicians in ancient art, comes speculation that Homer himself was blind and therefore illiterate.


Image left: figure of a bard from Mycenaen culture in the Bronze Age, about 1200 BC.





















Figure left, with his bow Pharaoh Ramesses III slaughters invading Phoenicians and other Mediterranean "Sea Peoples" (a group possibly including Odysseus?) at the Nile delta about 1170 BC. The picture tells the story of Pharaoh's victory for those who can't read hieroglyphics.

Click here for enlarged image and more info






































































































Figure left: Chaucer, from a medieval manuscript illustration. Note the proportions! No, Chaucer is not on a merry-go-round! Manuscript illustration makes use of whatever space is available to it, after the words are in place.