BMCR 2005.04.47

Homer’s Text and Language. In the series “Traditions”

, Homer's text and language. Traditions. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004. xviii, 197 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0252029836. $35.00.

This important book collects articles published between 1994 and 2003 and to some degree rewritten. The bulk of it as well as the most recent and interesting part, is I, ‘Text’ (pp. 3-128). Here Nagy discusses how a modern edition of Homer should ideally be constituted, criticizes the recent editions by Helmut van Thiel and Martin West, and engages in detailed polemics against West. Part II, ‘Language’ (pp. 131-175), consists of four shorter papers with less mutual coherence. The work is concluded with a bibliography and index. The overall purpose is stated right from the start, “to show how the text and language of Homer derive from a system, an oral poetic system” (p. xi). This basic thesis is decisive for Nagy’s opinion of how to treat variant readings as preserved in papyri, scholia, ancient testimonia and medieval manuscripts: on principle they are to be equally respected as potentially genuine creations of an oral tradition. Central in the discussion is the question how much authority should be attached to Alexandrian readings, especially those of Aristarchus. The book is one step further in the fascinating gradual establishment of a comprehensive Homeric hypothesis that Nagy began in 19741 and has been developing with increasing refinement ever since.

Chapter 1, The Quest for a Definitive Text of Homer: Evidence from the Homeric Scholia and Beyond, gives an overview of editorial work on Homer since de Villoison’s edition in 1788 of the scholia in “Venetus A” = codex Marcianus Graecus 454. We are taken through Wolf’s edition of the Iliad from 1795 with its famous Prolegomena, Lehrs and his “Königsberg-school” 1882, Ludwich 1898, Monro & Allen (1902-12), right up to the recent editions by van Thiel ( Odyssey 1991, Iliad 1996) and West ( Iliad 1998-2000). The question of whether the modern editor — as Wolf thought — has to realize that the original text is lost, or if it is possible to reach further back to the time before the Alexandrian critics, is a guiding line through the survey, with Lehrs and Ludwich as the defenders of Aristarchus. Instead Nagy argues for his hypothesis of an evolutionary model, first put forward in 1996,2 and argues that a modern edition should represent the historical development of the Homeric text in all its variations.

Chapter 2, The Homeric Text and Problems of Multiformity, states that oral poetry may be more or less multiform along a graded continuum, both synchronically and diachronically. Accordingly, Nagy divides the early history of the Iliad and the Odyssey into five periods, beginning in the early second millennium BC as a period of totally oral and fluid poetry, followed by a more formative and “Panhellenic” period c. 750-550, with writing entering in period 3 in the form of a “transcript” of Panathenaic performances in the 6th century, developing into “script”, still in Athens, between 317 and 307, and taking form as “scripture” in Alexandria c. 150 BC. By transcript he means a text that merely records a given performance, by script one that has a direct bearing on the traditions of performance, and by scripture a written book like other ancient Greek books. He criticizes Richard Janko for considering the Iliad uniform and positing a binary opposition between multiformity and uniformity, and Margalit Finkelberg for finding a difference between a uniform Iliad and Odyssey as against a multiform Epic Cycle. Instead he maintains that the two epics were still characterized by multiformity when they reached Aristarchus, and stresses that the great Alexandrian often speaks of koinai in the plural, rather than referring to a single vulgate.

Chapter 3, Editing the Homeric text: West’s Iliad, originated as a review of this new edition. Since the two scholars disagree fundamentally over the nature of the Homeric text, their ideas of what an editor should aim at are also at variance. As against Nagy’s evolutionary model, West imagines that an original was written by the poet c. 650 BC, and has as his goal to reestablish this text as far as possible. Much of Nagy’s argumentation is concerned with Aristarchus and the question whether his scholarship built on a consultation of manuscripts or not. To West, the first great collector and evaluator of manuscripts was Didymus (late 1st century BC whereas Nagy defends Aristarchus’ authority in some detail. In the process, a certain identification between ancient and modern scholars develops with Nagy as a new Aristarchus insisting on the importance of manuscript tradition, and West as a modern Crates of Mallos, more inclined to rely on his own ability to judge what the great poet must have written in the first place. Nagy introduces a new terminology, horizontal and vertical variants, referring to different readings and variations in the number of verses respectively, and finds that especially in the question of vertical variants Aristarchus must have made his decisions on the basis of manuscripts. To Nagy, the variation in length of the early texts is to be understood as the result of such expansion and compression as is characteristic of oral performance. He sketches the principles of the ideal “multitext edition”, which should contain a base text free of arbitrary judgements, show all locations where variants are attested, and list these variants. It may be added that Nagy has in the meantime initiated such a project, to be found at the Center for Hellenic Studies website.

In chapter 4, Editing the Homeric Text: Different Methods, Ancient and Modern, Nagy is still concerned with West’s edition of the Iliad, this time occasioned by the British scholar’s monograph, Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (Munich & Leipzig 2001). Nagy criticizes West for positing an oral original of the Iliad, considering this a contradiction in terms, and dismisses his idea of a distinction between a creative oral tradition and the reproductive tradition of the Homeric rhapsodes as arbitrary and artificial. In a long list of examples, Nagy shows how West’s basic hypothesis is decisive for his solution of individual textual problems. But the most detailed discussion is directed at the question of Aristarchus’ and Didymus’ methods respectively. After stating his view on the thorny problem of Aristarchus’ ekdoseis — that they represent a new base text dating from a post-Aristarchean era, but based on his commentaries — Nagy carefully evaluates a series of scholia adduced by West as sources for ascertaining which manuscripts were accessible to which scholar and how they were studied. Especially, there are some cases in which the scholiast refers to Aristarchus and ends the note by saying “We found…” Here West understands the grammatical subject to be Didymus, whereas Nagy argues for Aristarchus.

Chapter 5, Aristarchean Questions: Emerging Certainties about the Finality of Homer’s Text, is an answer to Janko’s review in BMCR (1998) of Morris and Powell’s New Companion to Homer (1997). Again it is the authority of Aristarchus which is at stake, with Nagy energetically defending the reliability of Aristarchus as a definitive source for establishing the history and prehistory of the Homeric textual tradition. He lists thirty-three passages Janko brought forward as examples of Aristarchean conjectures, and argues that they either can be considered authentic readings, or that they were only mentioned but not actually proposed by Aristarchus. Thus the Alexandrian scholar at least gets the benefit of the doubt.

The four last chapters constitute part II, ‘Language’. Chapter 6, The Name of Achilles: Questions of Etymology and “Folk-Etymology”, and chapter 7, The Name of Apollo: Etymology and Essence, continue an approach to myth which Nagy established in his The Best of the Achaeans (1979, 1999), to analyse the etymology of a name and use it as a key to understanding the poetry and cult attached to the person in question. Chapter 8, An Etymology for the Dactylic Hexameter, discusses metrical and formulaic boundaries and their possible use as sources for performance traditions. Chapter 9, Ellipsis in Homeric Poetry, begins with explaining his use of the term ellipsis to designate an expression in which plural or dual is used to indicate not the same elements but elements closely connected to each other, such as toxa in the sense of bow and arrows. From this point of view he approaches old vexed problem in Homer: singular Athena in Odyssey 7.80 for the city of Athens, the dual of Aias for either Aias and his brother or the Telamonian and Locrian Aias, and the duals in the embassy scene of Iliad 9. This leads him to subtle considerations of systematic reinterpretations in the process of performance. Especially moving is his interpretation of “the Homeric ‘I'”, which highlights the prototypical singer of tales, elliptically shading over an open-ended succession of rhapsodes in the lengthy evolutionary process of countless recompositions-in-performance over time” (p. 173).

Parry and Lord’s oral-formulaic theory is at the base of Nagy’s evolutionary model, and throughout the book he keeps returning to central aspects of the theory. However, he dismisses far too lightly an observation by Janko, which he quotes on p. 30. The variation typical of oral epic as it is being studied in our days is not just a question of one formula rather than another, but of content, and as is pointed out by Janko in the quoted passage, the preserved manuscripts of medieval European epic too bear witness to much greater fluidity than what is found in either horizontal or vertical variation of Homeric transmission. Nagy refers (p. 57-58 and 118) to a famous passage of Milman Parry’s, which suggests that he himself considered the variants mentioned in the scholia or documented in early papyri to be signs of oral composition, but the quote belongs to an article published in 1930, well before Parry’s own fieldwork (1933-35), and there is nothing in Parry’s published fieldwork notes to suggest how his Serbo-Croatian experience influenced this part of his Homeric studies. Besides references to Parry and Lord, Nagy adduces a volume of articles about Indian oral epic.3 But again, compared to the multiformity described there, or in the studies of Indian epic published by such scholars as Brenda Beck, Gene Roghair and Lauri Honko,4 the Iliad and the Odyssey are strikingly uniform, as maintained by Janko as well as by most other Homeric scholars.

As a matter of fact, Nagy’s evolutionary model does not really find support in modern fieldwork. The idea that an oral epic tradition gradually narrows down to only two dominating texts, however great, is to my knowledge unparallelled (and certainly not supported by Stuart Blackburn’s article in the volume mentioned above). Nagy states that oral traditions may be relatively more or less multiform, but he does not discuss which parameters are at work, for instance social factors such as the status and training of singers, performance conditions, nature of the audiences, secular or cultic functions, or intrinsic characteristics such as metre or music. He does admit in a note that fluidity and rigidity are not necessarily characteristic of earlier and later phases of a system (p. 27, n. 8), but nevertheless he proceeds as if time were the main formative factor and builds his evolutionary model on the idea that the process was one of progressively less fluidity as the Homeric poems developed during the centuries.

When it comes to the question of editorial method, it seems unfair to criticize an editor for having established his overall hypothesis of the history of the text and then proceeded accordingly. Also, the rigidity with which Nagy maintains that the concepts of an original text and oral composition are mutually exclusive (p. 79) is off the mark as a criticism of Janko and West, who — each in his way — posit an orally composed text at the beginning of the transmission of the texts we know. These imagined basic texts are “originals” in the sense in which Lord implements the term in a passage quoted twice by Nagy (pp. 26 and 168): “From one point of view each performance is an original”.

On the other hand, when Nagy criticizes West for making unsystematic emendations of the text as well as for his attempts at establishing an older level of the language than what is transmitted in the medieval manuscripts it seems well founded. Exactly for these reasons, West’s Iliad, for all its tremendous learning, is not the obvious substitute for Monro & Allen who have reigned supreme now for almost a century. It is a pity that Nagy seems much less interested in van Thiel’s editions, which he mentions only sporadically, either dismissing them as far too pessimistic as to the chance of reconstructing earlier phases of the text than what the medieval manuscripts give (for instance p. 44), or praising them for their reliability and even stating that they would do as the base text in an ideal multitext edition (p. 71). According to the present reader, in choosing to represent the medieval transmission as clearly and simply as possible in his edition van Thiel made the sensible decision, not least if we want to accept Nagy’s principle of keeping in mind the diachronic aspect of the text. Since van Thiel so carefully offers the synchrony of the manuscripts, it has become easier for the reader to judge the variants represented by other branches of the transmission. Homeric scholarship is in a fantastic situation now when finally we have been given not only one, but two new editions, which even complement each other perfectly. But it is van Thiel’s editions, not West’s, that deserve to take over from Monro & Allen the dominant position as the everyday Homer.

Even to a reader who remains unconvinced of the validity of the evolutionary model, this book is exciting, mainly because of the author’s learning and the passion with which he argues his case. The book offers detailed interpretations of complicated Greek passages as well as great overall views, and of course, Nagy’s ongoing project of establishing a profound understanding of the Iliad and the Odyssey as oral poetry is still the most ambitious and interesting activity in modern Homeric scholarship.


1. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter, Cambridge MA 1974.

2. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge 1996.

3. Blackburn, Stuart H. & al. (eds.): Oral Epics in India. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1989.

4. Beck, Brenda E.F.: The Three Twins. The Telling of a South Indian Folk Epic. Bloomington, Indiana 1982. — Roghair, Gene H. (ed.): The Epic of Palnadu: A Study and Translation of Palnati Virula Katha, a Telugu Oral Tradition from Andhra Pradesh, India. New York 1982. — Honko, Lauri: Textualising the Siri Epic. Helsinki 1998. — Honko, Lauri & al. (eds.): The Siri Epic as performed by Gopala Naika. I-II. Helsinki 1998.