Homer’s Gods

Colin MacLeod

  • Homer on Life and Death by Jasper Griffin
    Oxford, 218 pp, £12.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 19 814016 9
  • Homer by Jasper Griffin
    Oxford, 82 pp, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 287532 9
  • Homer: The Odyssey translated by Walter Shewring
    Oxford, 346 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 251019 3

Historia locuta est. Sed historiae obloquitur ipse vates et contra testatur sensus legentis’ (History has spoken. But the poet’s own words answer back, and the reader’s impression adds its dissenting voice). This eloquent transition in F.A. Wolf’s Prolegomena to his edition of Homer (1795) might stand as the motto and the problem of Homeric studies ever since. Wolf, who was the first to examine seriously how the Iliad and Odyssey came down to us, thought that such long and complex works could not have been composed in an illiterate age and that they showed signs of their disunity. Wolf expressed himself firmly, but with some trepidation; and in fact he did not deal in any breadth or depth with the larger problems posed by the text. But after him scholars set with a will to the work of ‘analysis’, seeking out evidence of multiple authorship, confident that history had routed literary criticism for good. Yet even the analysts remained loyal at least to the notion of Homer, for they took themselves to be relieving the masterworks of later accretions; and if they claimed to be working as historians, a historian of the 19th century might now find their view of Homer and his audience all too close to the attitudes or aberrations of that time. The early Greeks, who did not have the benefits of scientific enlightenment and technical progress, had to be primitive; and so their poets could not be credited with any kind of artistry which challenged the understanding.

It took a long time for a concerted reaction to set in. If it did in the English-speaking world, this was primarily due to Milman Parry. His work on Serbo-Croat epics and on Homer’s vocabulary showed that very long poems could be composed without the aid of writing and identified some of the techniques which made it possible. The result was that many scholars thought it was enough to murmur the magic words ‘oral epic’, and the problems vanished. However, Parry had not even considered any of the multitude of questions raised by the analysts; and he had not encouraged scholars to look carefully at anything in Homer other than the fact that he used recurrent epithets, lines and scenes. Furthermore, it was doubtful if the Yugoslav epics could tell us very much about poems so far superior to themselves.

A more searching book appeared in 1938, three years after Parry’s untimely death. Wolfgang Schadewaldt’s Iliasstudien showed no interest in oral poetry: but he had taken a hint from Aristotle who observed in the Poetics that Homer’s work had an artistic shape, with deliberate limits and sections, as his successors’ (lost to us) did not. With a mass of detailed arguments Schadewaldt rebutted many of the analysts’ chief points and shed a flood of light on Homer’s art. At last the poet had a weighty spokesman to help him answer back; and though Schadewaldt’s work has never been adequately appreciated outside Germany and Austria, in the last forty years a body of writing has grown up there which, in Mr Griffin’s phrase, makes ‘intellectually respectable the instinctive response of the audience’.

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