Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.39

Martin L. West, The Making of the Odyssey.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xi, 336.  ISBN 9780198810193.  $35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Barry B. Powell, University of Wisconsin – Madison (


Martin West, who died in 2017 at age 77, was truly one of the great Hellenists of recent generations. His output was enormous and influential. He wrote over thirty books and many dozens of articles. I mention only his editions of Hesiod’s Theogony (1966) and Works and Days, his Teubner edition of the Iliad(1998, 2000), and his magisterial The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth(1997). Here in his last book, published in hardback in 2014, he offers a companion to The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary, published in 2011.

Avoiding much recent criticism on the Odyssey, West returns to the rich contributions of nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars, especially German criticism. The book has six chapters, each longer then the preceding.

In the short Chapter 1, “Conclusions” (4 pages), he summarizes his conclusions upfront, then in later chapters provides evidence for these conclusions. West thinks that the Odyssey was committed to writing over a period of many years, the work of one man whom he calls “Q.” He was not the same man who composed the Iliad. His world is different, with different moral values, different perception of the gods, and different literary tastes. His Odyssey is riddled with inconsistencies and sometimes incompetent verses. He has an affection for everyday scenes and everyday people.

The poem was written down in the last third of the seventh century BC, perhaps in Attica or Euboea. Q had been to Ithaca, but has little familiarity with the Peloponnese. He knows little about the Eastern Mediterranean, but is thoroughly familiar with the Iliad and its descriptions. Q is also familiar with Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days and Cyclic poetry, and also poems about Heracles and Jason, which he sometimes adapts.

Odysseus was a traditional figure of the trickster type who became drawn into the Trojan story and was credited with the invention of the Trojan Horse. Q inherited from the Pontic area the story of a man who returned after a long absence, giving rise to a poem West calls the “proto-Odyssey.” A couple of generations later this poem was influenced by poems focused on Telemachus and his wanderings and a third-person narrative describing Odysseus’ adventures. Attempting to emulate the Iliad, Q made use of these poems, adding much material about the domestic environment on Ithaca and reorganizing the chronology of events to remove contradictions. The scene of the slaughter of the suitors was much expanded, the original suitors being only 12 in number, but inflated to 108 in accordance with Q’s tendency to an expansive treatment.

Q added many insertions to his proto-Odyssey, which he has himself had written down, and sometimes entire scenes although he had not very well planned out just where his narrative was going.

Such are West’s “conclusions,” offered in the first chapter. One should not be surprised that West has eschewed recent Homeric research, because, in my own view, in spite of many interesting obiter dicta, his conclusions are simply old-fashioned “Homeric analysis” and wrong from beginning to end: see below.

In Chapter 2 (18 pages), entitled “Resourceful Odysseus,” West reviews the achievements of Odysseus in the tradition and speculates about the meaning of his name. He notes that the Cyclops episode has no Near Eastern antecedents and wonders if it may have come from the Pontic area, along with the story of the returning husband.

In Chapter 3 (19 pages), “The Odyssey in Context,” West attempts to situate the Odyssey in its historical context. Q knew the Iliad well (which West dates between 680 and 640) and in many places he depends on it. He also knew the content of the Cyclic epics, an Argonautica, a poem about Heracles, and traditions about Gilgamesh. West also finds echoes of Hesiodic poetry and Elegy and Iambus. He finds the cultural picture in the Odyssey, and especially relations with Egypt, to be friendly to a seventh century background. West dates the poem to c. 630 BC (in spite of artistic representations of the Polyphemus episode, scattered over the entire Aegean and in Italy, dating to 670 BC).

In Chapter 4 (47 pages), “The Poet and his Art,” West detects differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey that he thinks require separate authors: basically, a more contemporaneous feel and a concern with the activities of the lower classes. Men are more concerned with wealth, the gods with morality, and characters with scenery and the behavior of dogs. There are fewer similes and many of those badly constructed. West finds Q to be a poor, even inept, narrator in many cases. He imagines that Q is working from a written text of the Iliad and copying or modifying lines from other texts, including Hesiod’s poems. Many of Q’s lines scan imperfectly, another sign of his incompetence.

In Chapter 5 (50 pages), “The Poem in the Making,” West claims that the Odyssey is not the transcript of a single performance by the Q poet, or even a series of performances, but that it was created as a conscious rival to the Iliad, stabilized in writing as the Iliad was. Its production took many years and reflects the many variations in detail that Q introduced, hence the forest of inconcinnities and illogicalities that West detects. Its core story was that of the returning husband, around which Q invented all manner of elaborations. In the adventures he adapted material from an Argonautica, mixing up locations that took place in East and West. The Hades episode originally took place in Thresprotia and has been awkwardly shifted to the shores of Ocean, “with a risible transition.” As for the poem’s conclusion, “This may be another case where, as with the Phaeacian section and the end of the Nekyia, we may suspect that the older version was drafted in writing before being revised.”

In Chapter 6, the last and by far the longest (163 pages), entitled “Proof of the Pudding,” West goes through the poem book by book in a detailed, often tedious, plot summary, making observations claimed to support his general thesis. Everywhere he finds interpolations, copying from other poems, insertions, incompetent repetitions, “timetabling” problems, transpositions, and holdovers from the “original” text. Here is an example (page 223, note 131): “Someone, whether Q or another, has added two lines (602–3) to accommodate the idea of Heracles’ reception in Olympus and marriage to Hebe … A scholiast says that the addition was said to be the work of Onomacritus; it was presumably a Pergamene who dreamed up this ascription … Line 604 is an interpolation from Hes. Th. 952 = fr. 25.29, 229.9”.

Alas, West’s reconstructions are unhistorical and cannot stand. Apart from his attempts to place Homer in time, based on highly dubious evidence, he imagines that Homer was like himself, sitting at a desk and poring over his manuscript, making careful changes and substitutions, then at last releasing his complete poem for general distribution. Such a process is quite impossible. There were no desks in Homer’s world, no reading public, no market for books, in fact—in the poems—no alphabetic writing. West gives no consideration to the technology that made Homer possible, the Greek alphabet, what kind of writing this was, its position in the history of writing, how it came into being, when it came into being, where it came into being, and what it was used for from the beginning. He seems unaware that the Greek alphabet was a very odd form of writing unprecedented in its attention to phonetic accuracy, which can more plausibly be explained as a technique created expressly for imprisoning in signs oral verse. The Homeric Question cannot be resolved without attention to the technology that made the Homeric Question possible.

From what we can tell, alphabetic writing in its early centuries was not easy to read. Written continuously and probably boustrophedon with no word breaks or such diacritic devices as punctuation or capitals, and no distinction between long and short [e] or [o], an early alphabetic text was an unending stream of marks on a papyrus roll, hostile to searching out words or expressions and passages for correction or alteration. It could not be read with the eye, as scholars read Homer today, but was understood through the ear as the reader puzzled out and pronounced aloud the phonetic equivalents of the marks. In this way the reader could memorize poetry for reperformance in the symposium, as did the rhapsodes of later times, but in no sense is the text ever a “reading” text.

Scholarship on all this has in recent times been quite clear. New epigraphical finds in Methone and Eretria, and older ones from Pithecusae and Athens, agree that an earliest use—and purpose—of the Greek alphabet was to preserve verse. What verse, one should ask?

The invention of the alphabet took place, no doubt, in Euboea around 825 BC: Methone was an Eretrian colony. Probably through Aeolian Kyme it spread quickly to Phrygia, where alphabetic inscriptions have been securely dated to c. 800 BC. Only the Euboeans had the financial resources, the international connections, and the motives to launch so enormous and massive a project as recording the songs of Homer and Hesiod. It appears that they did just that. Fantasies about written ur-Odysseys and the poet’s scholarly examination of the Cyclic poems and his thoughtful, but sometimes incompetent, adjustments to the narrative are just that—fantasies.

The inconcinnities that West identifies in the Odyssey are expected in an oral style. They are uncorrected by editors even after generations of copying, making clear that the text we possess is the one that Homer dictated. It is surprising that West does not recognize this. There are no alternative texts of the Iliad or the Odyssey, unlike the Sanskrit Mahabharata, the Persian Shahnama, the Spanish Cantar de Mio Cid, the German Nibelungenlied, the French Chanson de Roland, the medieval Greek Digenis Akritis, and the South Slavic The Captivity of Djulich Ibrahim, which seem to have originated in the way that West imagines for Homer’s poems. And the epic dialect of Homer has been frozen at a very early stage. Whereas West’s book is useful for untangling the oral antecedents of Homer’s poems, it has no value in establishing the origin of the text as we have it.

Homer was some kind of poetic genius such as comes along every once in a while. A more likely scenario than West’s, better grounded in the scholarship, would imagine a man named Homer who dictated the Iliad and, later, the Odyssey (which never repeats a story told in the Iliad), to a scribe in the very earliest days of alphabetic literacy. He made use of oral stories of widely different kinds concerning the Trojan war, its heroes, and a wonderful story about a man who returned in disguise and killed a band of blackguards who besieged his house and threatened his wife. In a sense, by casting his poems in an unprecedented writing technology, the very technology that West employs in his scholarship, Homer created the Western world with all its science and its other wonders. Homer has also supported generations of scholars—for that, at least, we should be grateful.

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