The Performance of Homeric Epic

Introduction to the Topic of Homeric Performance

Steve Reece
Saint Olaf College
E-mail: reece@stolaf.edu

On behalf of The APA Committee for the Performance of Classical Texts I am pleased to welcome you to this panel: 'With Winged Words: The Performance of Homeric Epic'. The Committee for the Performance of Classical Texts has sponsored five panels at the annual meetings of the APA over the past eight years. The first four panels dealt exclusively with drama, the fifth ventured outside the confines of literature written exclusively for the stage to address the performance of Ovidian elegy. This year we continue this tradition by offering a panel on the performance of Homeric epic. I can think of no better way to begin our annual meeting-- here on the first panel of the first day--than with Homer.

This is surely a timely topic. The seminal work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on the orality of Homeric epic has now been extended to over one- hundred different language groups. It has revolutionized the way we read and understand the Iliad and Odyssey. In the past five years alone no fewer than a dozen new books and several dozen new journal articles have appeared having as their central theme the question of the nature of Homeric performance. In many respects the implications of Milman Parry's research are only now, sixty years later, being realized. This movement in Homeric studies has raised tantalizing questions:

What is the relationship between our inherited texts of the Iliad and Odyssey and the presumed historical performances of these epics, in the 8th century (let's say)?

Can the performance divisions of the early epics be reconstructed from traces in the surviving texts (from plot and thematic divisions, from narratological divisions, from shifts in place and time, from foreshadowing or backtracking, from a repeated proem, from an inconcinnity within the short space of a few verses), and if these performance divisions can be reconstructed, how do they correspond to the later divisions into twenty- four books?

How do the recently proposed theories about the date and purpose of the introduction of the alphabet into Greece inform our picture of Homeric performance in the earliest periods?

What was the setting, and who was the audience, of these early performances (are the settings and audiences of the performances within the epics themselves reflections of Homer's historical setting and audience)?

How instructive are comparative oral traditions in reconstructing the nature of early Greek epic performance?

And finally, and perhaps most important, in what respects does the aesthetics of an oral tradition differ from that of written literature?

We have brought together today four respected scholars, all experts in their fields, to raise some of these and other questions, and (hopefully) to venture some answers.

Richard Janko, who perhaps has the best credentials of any contemporary scholar to address textual and linguistic problems in Homer, will raise the vexed question of the genesis of our written texts. Are the Iliad and Odyssey products of oral composition in performance, written down by an amanuensis through dictation, or are they the result of a gradual process of textual fixation culminating in a 'Pisistratean Recension?' Professor Janko's conclusions point in an interesting way to the monarchs of eighth century Greece as the historical audience of the Homeric epics.

Lillian Doherty who has published many articles and a book on narratology and on internal audiences in Homer, will investigate the interplay between bard and audience within the Odyssey itself and then suggest what this may reveal about Homer's historical external audience.

John Miles Foley, an expert in many comparative oral traditions, continues the scholarly tradition that began with Milman Parry and Albert Lord of comparing the Greek and South Slavic traditions. But he aims at a more exacting comparison of the two poetic traditions than his predecessors. Many characteristics of the South Slavic tradition, which is much richer and better attested than the Greek, can, with appropriate qualification, illuminate aspect of the Homeric poems. As part of this presentation we will listen to some of Milman Parry's collection of South Slavic songs as well as some more recent recordings; we will also show a short film clip taken by Parry and Lord of Avdo Medjedovic, the legendary epic singer, singing to the accompaniment of the gusle.

John Wright, a well regarded scholar of Homer who has joined several other eminent scholars of ancient oral traditions in taking an interest in the oral story-telling and musical traditions of the American South, will share some of the fruits of his labors on a recently published book about Appalachian Bluegrass. Professor Wright was recently featured on a Voice of America radio program, where he performed on a banjo and discoursed on the topic of how his study of Appalachian Bluegrass had illuminated his perception of Homeric epic as performance. Some recordings will accompany his talk as well.

Steve Reece
Saint Olaf College
E-mail: reece@stolaf.edu

(Steve Reece is author of a book The Stranger's Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene (University of Michigan Press, 1993) and several articles on Homer, early Greek poetry, linguistics, and comparative oral traditions.)