Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-544b6db54f-vq995 Total loading time: 0.16 Render date: 2021-10-16T19:04:51.662Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

The Homeric poems as oral dictated texts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Richard Janko
University College London


The more I understand the Southslavic poetry and the nature of the unity of the oral poem, the clearer it seems to me that the Iliad and the Odyssey are very exactly, as we have them, each one of them the rounded and finished work of a single singer…. I even figure to myself, just now, the moment when the author of the Odyssey sat and dictated his song, while another, with writing materials, wrote it down verse by verse, even in the way that our singers sit in the immobility of their thought, watching the motion of Nikola's hand across the empty page, when it will tell them it is the instant for them to speak the next verse.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1998

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Parry, M., The Making of Homeric Verse, ed. Parry, A. (Oxford, 1971), p. 451 (written in January 1934).Google Scholar

2 The Language of Hesiod (Oxford, 1972).

3 Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: Diachronic Development in Epic Diction (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 15–16,192,220–1.

4 See West, M. L., ‘The date of the Iliad’, MH 52 (1995), 203–19, esp. pp. 204f.Google Scholar

5 For a survey see Powell, B. B., Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 186220. I agree with West (n. 4), p. 207, that representations of the Iliad do not antedate c 625; but those of the Odyssey go back to at least c 660 (Powell, op. cit., p. 211). The arguments of H. van Wees (G&R 41 [1994], 1–18, 131–55) neglect the likelihood that vase-painters are representing heroic battles, with a mixture of weaponry characteristic of different dates, and are therefore poor evidence for contemporary warfare. West's recent claim (pp. 211–19) that the destruction by flood of the Achaean wall at II. 12.17–33 is inspired by the destruction of Babylon by Sennacherib in 689 B.C. rests on an archaeological misconception: eighth-century Greeks were perfectly familiar with construction in mud-brick, often on a stone socle; this was normal and need not suggest borrowing from the Near East (p. 213). The effects of torrential rains on unprotected walls of mud-brick are apparent from most excavations of Bronze- and Iron-Age sites in Greece (at Ayios Stephanos in Laconia in my own experience), and would have been easily observable in the eighth century.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 ‘D'Homere aux origines proto-myceniennes de la tradition épique’, pp. 1–96 in Crielaard, J. P. (ed.), Homeric Questions (Amsterdam, 1995), esp. pp. 21–6. For similar datings see A. C. Cassio, ‘ e la circolazione dell'epica in area euboica’, Annali di Archeologia e Storia Antica 1 (1994), 55–67, esp. p. 64, n. 66.Google Scholar

7 The theory was developed by Lord, A. B., ‘Homer's originality: oral dictated texts’, TAPA 84 (1953), 124–34.1 have argued other aspects of this case in ‘The Iliad and its editors: dictation and redaction’, CA 9 (1990), 326–34 (published in Italian translation as ‘L'liade fra dettatura e redazione’, SIFC 10 [1992], 833–43), and in a review of H. van Thiel, Homeri Odyssea, Gnomon 66 (1994), 289–95, as well as in The Iliad: A Commentary. IV: Books 13–16 (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 37–8 (necessarily with extreme brevity there). Cf. similarly M. L. West, ‘Archaische Heldendichtung: Singen und Schreiben’Google Scholar, in Kullmann, W. and Reichel, M. (edd.), Der Ubergang von der Miindlichkeit zur Literatur bei den Griechen (Tubingen, 1990), pp. 3350; Powell (n. 5), pp. 229–30; Ruijgh (n. 6), p. 26.Google Scholar

8 Bynum, D. (ed.), with Lord, A. B., Ženidba hadji-Smailagina Sina, Kazivaoje Avdo Mededovic (Cambridge, MA, 1974)Google Scholar; Lord, A.B. (trans.), The Wedding of Smailagid Meho, by Avdo Mededovic (Cambridge, MA, 1974).Google Scholar

9 So Lloyd-Jones, H., ‘Becoming Homer’, New York Review of Books (5 March 1992)Google Scholar; Thomas, Rosalind cf., Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1992), p. 49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Epic Singers and Oral Tradition (Ithaca, NY, 1991).

11 Lord, M.L., ed. Lord, M.L., The Singer Resumes the Tale (Ithaca, NY, 1995).Google Scholar

12 See M.L. Lord in Lord (n. 11), pp. 62–8.

13 Ibid., p. 102.

14 Ibid., pp. 212–37.

15 A. B. Lord (n. 10), pp. 62, 68–71.

16 A. B. Lord (n. 11), pp. 235–.

17 Ibid., pp. 213–20.

18 Ibid., p. 191. Nagy, Cf. G., ‘Homeric questions’, TAPA 122 (1992), 1760, esp. p. 28.Google Scholar

19 For this misunderstanding, see e.g. Thomas (n. 9), pp. 37, 40, and Taplin, O., Homeric Soundings (Oxford, 1992), p. 35; but cf. Lord (n. 10), pp. 76–7, and (n. 11), pp. 11, 102–3.Google Scholar

20 Ep. 28 PfeifTer.

21 ‘Words and Speakers in Homer’, JHS 106 (1986), 36–57. I do not of course accept his conclusion that this supports a written origin for the epics.

22 Poet. 1460a5–10.

23 For this misunderstanding, see e.g. Taplin (n. 19), p. 36.

24 Lord, A. B., The Singer of Tales(Cambridge, MA, 1960), p. 21.Google Scholar

25 Ibid., p. 28; thus Thomas (n. 9), pp. 36–8, is wrong to imply that this is not Lord's view.

26 For this error, see Thomas (n. 9), pp. 36–8.

27 See Lord (n. 11), pp. 11,20,197–200.

28 Ibid., p. 181.

29 Oral Poetry (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 18–22.

30 So Lord (n. 10), p. 3. Its influence is evident in, for example, Thomas (n. 9), pp. 43–4.

31 Lord(n. 11), p. 1.

32 Nilsson, M. P., The Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1932).Google Scholar

33 R. Janko, The Iliad: A Commentary. IV: Books 13–16, p. 13.Google Scholar

34 Wathelet, Y. in Lebrun, Y. (ed.), Linguistic Research in Belgium (Wetteren, 1966), pp. 14573. For further examples see Janko (n. 33), pp. 9–14; Ruijgh (n. 6), pp. 63–92.Google Scholar

35 Cf. Janko (n. 33), pp. 15–19; Ruijgh (n. 6), pp. 53–63.

36 So Janko (n. 33), p. 19; cf. West (n. 4), p. 217, although there is no reason to think that the Iliad was so named because of its place of composition rather than its content.

37 Shipp, G. P., Studies in the Language of Homer, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1972). He was obviously wrong to suppose that they are interpolated.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 See Hatto, A. T., The Nibelungenlied(London, 1965), pp. 370–95.Google Scholar

39 I will argue this case in my paper ‘Homer and Neo-Analysis', to appear.

40 ‘The epic cycle and the uniqueness of Homer’, JHS 97 (1977), 39–53. The superiority of Homeric epic to much of the tradition is vainly questioned by Nagy (n. 18), p. 29.

41 So Taplin(n. 19), p. 36.

42 Duggan, J. J., The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973), pp. 1,21318.Google Scholar

43 Lord (n. 24), p. 128.

44 Ars Poetica 390.

45 Od. 13.194.

46 E.g. Rutherford, R.B., Homer, Odyssey Books XIX and XX (Cambridge, 1992), ad he.Google Scholar

47 Lord (n. 8), p. xii.

48 Cf. Hainsworth ad loc, who cites strong objections to the other possibilities.

49 Lord (n. 11), p. 16. For other instances, seeFoley, J. M., Traditional Oral Epic (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990), p. 28, n. 18.Google Scholar

50 Ibid., pp. 17–18.

51 Cf. (n. 33), pp. 22–5. Another tendency in the MSS of Homer is the standardization of repeated verses against each other: see my article ‘The Iliad and its editors’ (n. 7), esp. pp. 332–3 (SIFC10 [1992], esp. pp. 840–2).

52 See my notes on Iliad 14.292–3, 310–12.

53 //. 16.856–7 = 22.362–3; see my note on 16.855–8, and cf. Taplin (n. 19), p. 246.

54 Aeneid 11.831 = 12.952.

55 For a similar acceptance of the possibility of combining this approach with the belief in an oral Homer see Taplin (n. 19), pp. 8–9.

56 Die typischen Scenen bei Homer (Berlin, 1933).

57 Lord (n. 24), p. 173. Parry regarded the use of themes as the most important characteristic of the oral style (n. 1, p. 452).

58 There are other examples of this theme at II. 14.135, Od. 8.285.

59 Other examples are at 5.364–9, 720, 8.381,24.265ff.

60 8.41–4= 13.23–6.

61 13.29, cf. 8.45.

62 13.34f., cf. 8.49f.

63 So the theory of G. Nagy, most clearly expressed in his article cited in n. 7, that the progressively wider and wider diffusion of the Homeric poems resulted in their gradually becoming more and more fixed. However, the reverse outcome would seem more likely, as is indeed supported by the plethora of early papyrus texts with inorganic additional lines; and one is entitled to ask why the resulting texts contain so many minor oddities, which would surely have been tidied up in any process of this kind. The theory faces the same problems as the memorial transmission posited by G. S. Kirk, cogently refuted by A. Parry (‘Have we Homer's Iliad?’, YCS 20 [1966], 175–216). Also, my linguistic researches (n. 2, and n. 33, p. 14 with n. 19, p. 17 with n. 28) have shown that the texts were fixed at different linguistic stages—a most unlikely outcome for any process other than either dictation or fixation in writing. Nagy's theory is followed by Foley (n. 49), pp. 21–31, who believes that the ‘wild' papyri are different versions rather than merely replete with inorganic plus-verses (p. 26). He also misses the fact that other poems in the tradition survive (p. 25), and states that the Alexandrians knew 131 separate editions of Homer (pp. 24,28). This rests on a misunderstanding of T. W. Allen's statistics for how often the editions are cited.

64 See Powell (n. 7). Again, I am not convinced by Nagy's argument (n. 6, pp. 35–6) that, since extant early hexameter inscriptions are designed to represent the object on which they are engraved as speaking (‘I am the cup of Nestor’), writing was used only to record verse of that kind. Did no Greeks have any knowledge of the written literature of the Phoenicians from whom they adapted the alphabet and learned the letter-names?

65 Lord (n. 9), esp. p. 44.

66 On the probable influence of the latter on Homer, see Burkert, W., The Orientalizing Revolution, trans. Pinder, M. E. and Burkert, W. (Cambridge, MA, 1992), pp. 114–20.Google Scholar

67 For the theory that the same person who adapted the alphabet did so in order to take down by dictation the Homeric poems, see Powell (n. 5).

68 Lord, A. B., ‘Homer, Parry and Huso’, American Journal of Archaeology 52 (1948), 3444, esp. p. 42 (reprinted in Parry [n. 1], p. 476; cf. Lord [n. 8], p. 12).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

69 E.g. Morris, I., ‘The use and abuse of Homer’, CA 5 (1986), 81138.Google Scholar

70 On early kingship, see Carlier, P., La Royaut' en Grėce avant Alexandre (Paris, 1984), esp. pp. 195214 on Homer; J. Lenz, Kings and the Ideology of Kingship in Early Greece (Diss. Columbia, 1993).Google Scholar

71 For a fuller account of my view of the transmission, see (n. 33), pp. 20–37.

72 Parry (n. l), p. 353, n. 1.

73 This paper began at a Symposium on Homer, organized by Peter Bing, in honour of A. B. Lord, which was held at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983. Successive larval stages appeared at UCLA in 1987, at the Conference on Oral Literature, Department of English, University of California, Berkeley, organized by J. D. Niles, in 1988, and at the congress of the Federation Internationale des Etudes Classiques in Pisa, 1989. The butterfly emerged in 1996, translated into red, white, and green, at a conference (organized by F. Montanari) on Homeric commentaries at the University of Genoa, but in red, white, and blue at a panel on Homeric performance arranged by S. Reece at the APA Annual Meeting in New York (the manuscript was closed early in that year). To the organizers and audiences on those occasions, to all who have ever discussed these questions with me, and to CQ's reader, I extend my thanks. But my greatest debt is of course to the late Albert Lord, whose experience, insights, and friendship I will always miss.

Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The Homeric poems as oral dictated texts
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

The Homeric poems as oral dictated texts
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

The Homeric poems as oral dictated texts
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *