BMCR 2002.10.18

Tales of Heroes. The Origins of the Homeric Texts

, Tales of heroes : the origins of the Homeric texts. New York and Athens: A.D. Caratzas, 2000. xiii, [5], 302 pages : illustrations, plans ; 31 cm. ISBN 0892415371. $80.00.

This ambitious study begins with various arguments for the Bronze Age nature of Homeric epic but increasingly turns to the thesis that the Iliad and Odyssey were created by oral dictation in sixth-century Athens. The focus starts out primarily archaeological but becomes necessarily philological as the eventual thesis is pursued. Along the way Shear (hereafter S.) addresses numerous issues, which in turn engender twelve appended essays; there are also many lengthy endnotes. By the end of the book S. has discussed several “Homeric problems” beside the Homeric question and proclaimed them all solved. Unfortunately many of the arguments do not justify the confident rhetoric. The book displays much energy and wide learning, but on the whole it is not successful in its goals.

The brief introduction is promising, displaying a good sense of the oral nature of mythological traditions and providing a provocative outline of the thesis involving sixth-century Athens. Then the first chapter builds upon the author’s expertise with the Panagia houses at Mycenae in order to argue that there is a strong correlation between Mycenaean architecture and Homeric domestic structures. The next two chapters continue in an archaeological vein, focusing on Homeric weapons and clothing, which are also found to be Mycenaean. Chapters 4 and 5 move beyond artifacts but continue to focus on the Bronze Age. The society of the Phaeacians is described not as a prototypical polis, as is often argued, but Linear-B-like in its hierarchy. What is more, it is suggested that the volcanic destruction of Thera was the inspiration for the threat of Scheria’s destruction by Poseidon. Chapter 5 supports the view that the Catalogue of Ships is Bronze Age in character. Chapter 6 opens with a quick survey of Homeric items often considered Mycenaean (here a bit expanded) and Homeric items usually considered post-Mycenaean (here all denied as such); then the sixth-century Athens thesis is presented. It is argued that Pisistratus obtained one of the Ionian Homeridae, named “Homer” as were many of his forebears, who then dictated the Iliad and Odyssey to scribes in small segments. An appreciative Athenian audience attended these sessions, until the unsatisfactory resolution of bloodshed at the end of the Odyssey led them to fine and exile “Homer.” In Chapter 7 S. continues this thesis by identifying discontinuities in the Homeric texts and arguing that these result from breaks in dictation. In the next chapter S. examines, with diagrams, scenes that share several formulaic lines and concludes that “Homer” employed formulaic techniques in special and unique ways. The concluding chapter re-states the conclusions previously reached.

The portrayal of the Homeric world as Mycenaean in nature will strike some as old-fashioned, but to others it will seem a welcome contrast to recent tendencies. As S. recognizes, the pendulum has swung far in reaction against interest in the Bronze Age origins of Homeric epic that prevailed after Schliemann. For example, the New Companion to Homer understandably sought to distinguish itself from the archaeologically-oriented Companion to Homer,1 but was perhaps too enthusiastic in its disavowal of scholarship that led to major advances and still has much to offer. S. situates the origins of an oral tradition about the Trojan war back in the Bronze Age and places literary manifestations of this tradition firmly within this tradition. She rightly refers to early Greek art as evidence for the continuing healthy state of the tradition of the Trojan war. S. also recognizes that emphasis on the dates of textual fixations can only lead to a skewered view of this mythological tradition.2 Also well challenged here is the standard view of the Homeric poems as eighth-century (though S. seems to be unaware that she is not alone in questioning the old orthodoxy). To her credit, S. has moved beyond her archaeological experience by industriously employing the abundance of new philological reference works that have appeared in recent years, such as the Cambridge University Press and Clarendon Press commentaries on the Iliad and Odyssey, or the New Companion to Homer. As well, S. has repeatedly ransacked the TLG in order to list passages relevant to her discussion. This generally inter-disciplinary approach has a rich history in Homeric studies but is threatened by specialization today, and so it deserves to be applauded here.

That said, however, I did not always find the bibliographic support for the arguments effectively marshaled. At times the obvious works to cite were not mentioned, and at other times cited works were not accurately described or sufficiently recognized. For example, one would expect a thesis involving Homeric poetry and sixth-century Athens to mention Erwin Cook’s The Odyssey in Athens (Ithaca 1995). Alternatively S. knows Minna Skafte Jensen’s The Homeric Question and the Oral-Formulaic Theory (Copenhagen 1980) but does not seem to recognize that its thesis largely prefigures her own. Of course it is all too easy to fault anyone for missing something in the large quantity of publications in Homeric studies, but the numerous and bold arguments of this work require better backing in the bibliographic citations. This does not necessarily mean a greater amount (for often many citations are listed to no great purpose) but a more effective selection and discussion of them. And some arguments are one-sided in their presentation of evidence and views. For example, in the argument that the Shield of Achilles is Bronze Age in nature, there is no mention of early seventh-century comparanda, and S. insists that it could not be round, though the encircling of it by Oceanus suggests just that (pp. 30-34). Other aspects of the argumentation are problematic. S. pays great attention to ancient testimony, but unfortunately tends to accept it at face value. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this is her use of the claim by Heracleides, as quoted by Diogenes Laertius (2.43), that the Athenians had fined Homer fifty drachmas for being mad. The use of money cannot predate sixth-century Athens, S. reasons (p. 106), so Homer was at Athens then. And S. readily finds an explanation for the Athenians’ anger: the ending of the Odyssey by Homer insufficiently resolved bloodshed (here cf. R. Seaford Reciprocity and Ritual. Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State [Oxford 1994]; not cited by S.). Faulty premises based on naive use of ancient testimonia, followed by runaway inventiveness of argument, are all too common. Witness S.’s claim that there were multiple manifestations of “Homer”; in my count, a ninth-century “Homer” (based on the dating of Homer by Herodotus), an eighth-century “Homer” who knew Arctinus (based on testimonia about Arctinus as a pupil of Homer), a seventh-century “Homer” (based on testimonia about Lycurgus acquiring Homeric poetry), and a sixth-century “Homer” (based on Xenophanes, Pindar, etc. referring to Homer as if alive), and any number of Homeridae named “Homer.” It is the sixth-century “Homer” who becomes the hero of S.’s thesis, as the bard who orally dictated the Iliad and Odyssey to Athenian scribes.

S. chooses to support her version of the oral dictation theory by focusing on alleged discontinuities or discrepancies in the text that are thought to reflect breaks in dictation. This negative approach to the text has an unfortunate resemblance to the attitude of analysts or hard Parryists in search of “problems” in order to prove a point. Simple changes of setting in the narrative are pounced upon as evidence that “Homer” needed a rest and then forgot where he was. And even where S. has a plausible discrepancy her argument goes too far. For example, she notes the peculiarity of the duel between Ajax and Hector that breaks off at the end of bk. 13 and does not resume until the middle of book 14. S. reasons that an important personage especially interested in the duel was not able to attend a dictation session and so the bard refrained from finishing the episode until he returned. Then S., though admitting that this is “highly speculative,” cannot resist the conclusion that “the sessions of dictation had become popular events attracting some of the most important people of the city” (p. 116).

Observations on potential correspondences between the Homeric poems and the Mycenaean world are interesting and plausible enough in the early chapters, but frequently the Homeric passages cited are too vague to provide much certainty. And S’s insistence on the Bronze Age nature of Homeric epic leads to an overly historicist approach to myth. This goes beyond the unargued assumption that there was a real Trojan war. The old and discredited link between Thera and the Atlantis story is here raised once again, now in connection to Scheria. And S. argues that the destruction of humanity theme, as found at the beginning of the Cypria and elsewhere, was derived from depopulation at the end of Mycenaean prosperity, despite the motif’s ancient Near Eastern origin.

It becomes a bit paradoxical for S. to link the Homeric poems to both the Bronze Age and sixth-century Athens. A more flexible argument might succeed with the argument that elements of many ages were incorporated into ever-changing poetic traditions. But S. sees the nature of the Homeric world as entirely Bronze Age, ascribing only a few details in content and some aspects of language to sixth-century Athens. According to this view, epic traditions were curiously static up until the dictation of the Iliad and Odyssey in Athens. Contrary to contemporary concepts of oral traditions, S. claims that after the Bronze Age “almost no additions of contemporary events” were added as the tradition of the Trojan war developed, resulting in an “almost complete exclusion of later historical events” (p. 136). S. does frequently observe that a performer needed to please the audience but does not seem to realize that this works against her portrayal of a rigid Homeric tradition.

Certainly this is a rich and generous study, full of facts and illustrations. The kernel of this book, building on the author’s long experience in Bronze Age archaeology, has something to offer. The arguments on Homeric architecture and artifacts are worthy of consideration, even if they are unlikely to convince many that the Iliad and Odyssey are mostly Mycenaean in character. But the book loses credibility when S. seems unable to resist taking on many infamous Homeric problems. On these issues the arguments are usually not very cogent. They vigorously apply a “common-sense” approach that really does not break new ground. The assumptions that underlie many discussions are questionable, and the arguments are pushed much farther than they deserve to go. The add-on style of argumentation can become tiresome (the endnotes for Chapter 6 are nearly as many pages as the chapter itself, though in smaller font). It is a brave book, and it is creative in its search for a solution to the Homeric question. But unfortunately it is not successful in achieving all that it undertakes.

The book features detailed indices, and numerous color illustrations (not always of highest quality, but with a thorough bibliographic catalogue).


1. Companion to Homer, eds. A. J. B. Wace and F. H. Stubbings (London 1962); A New Companion to Homer, eds. I. Morris and B. Powell (Leiden 1997). See in particular the comments by the editors of A New Companion to Homer on pp. xii-xv. For reports on work done recently at Troy by a team under the direction of M. Korfmann, see the issues of Studia Troica.

2. Though I think I can claim to have pursued some of these arguments more methodically ( The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle (Baltimore 2001), I enjoyed S.’s vigorous and clear assertion of them. However, I often found details in the argument troubling. For instance, I largely agree with the portrayal of the mythological origins of the Epic Cycle portrayed here, but S. seems to have misapprehensions about basic facts concerning Proclus and Photius and their relation to the Epic Cycle (repeating all-too-common errors, to be fair). The recent editions of the Cycle by BernabĂ© and Davies are not mentioned, and when S. cites the well-known article on the Cycle by Jasper Griffin she usually misspells his name.