BMCR 2008.01.50

Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic

, Rediscovering Homer : inside the origins of the epic. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. xxvii, 266 pages : maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0393057887 $15.95.

Table of Contents

Andrew Dalby (hereafter D.), author of several books on language and food culture in the ancient world, has written a well-organized and straightforward book on the Homeric question. In Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic, D. largely succeeds in faithfully representing for a popular audience the communis opinio on the tortuous subject of the origins of the poems. While classicists can surely be thankful on that score, there remain some minor points and one major point—the poet’s gender—which are sure to be cause for contention among specialists.

D.’s book has received attention from such popular publications as Salon, Slate, and the Financial Times. This review will judge D.’s book from the point-of-view of a classicist, with an eye toward whether this work might serve a useful purpose in the context of the academic discipline. Readers interested in the popular reception of D.’s book should turn to one of the aforementioned publications.

Rediscovering Homer is divided into three parts. Part One, “The Poems,” attempts to place the poems in their literary and historical context. D. primarily uses what the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves have to say about poetry to illustrate the poetic forms in use in contemporary Greek culture. D. also discusses some of the dynamics of the transmission of texts in an oral tradition. He uses Plato’s account in the Symposium of how Athenians passed along knowledge of the conversation that serves as the subject of the dialogue. This passage serves as a demonstration of the kinds of uncertainties attached to an orally transmitted story.

There are a couple points of D.’s discussion that are questionable. His treatment of κλέα ἀνδρῶν ἑρώων is rather too dismissive (14-15). He asserts that in Il. 9.524-25 this phrase means just “oral tradition”; however, Phoenix uses the phrase here to introduce the epic exemplum of Meleager, whom neo-analytical critics have shown is the subject of his own epic-poetic tradition.1 In other words, Phoenix’s reference is implicitly to epic poetry.

The usefulness of the Symposium analogy is limited. The manner in which informal reports of dinner conversations passed among Athenian gentlemen is quite different from the way epic traditions circulated. Epic traditions are preserved in poems that have a traditional phraseology as opposed to free conversation, and epic poetry was performed in formal settings by a professional class of singers as opposed to the amateurish recountings of ordinary Athenians.

From these considerations of poetic form, D. next attempts to show what actual relationships exist between the narrative of the Iliad and the pre-historical events of Greece. In this pursuit D. is chiefly indebted to Joachim Latacz’s Troy and Homer (Oxford, 2004), as is apparent from his assumption that Late BA realities underlie the traditions of the Trojan War. There is an odd circularity to the argument for some real antecedent for the Trojan War around 1200 BC. D. asserts that Troy VIIa was destroyed “at the right period” (32), by which he presumably means the traditional date for the fall of Troy, just after 1200 BC. But D. freely admits “we have no reason to hope that the traditional date of the Trojan War corresponds to any kind of reality” (35). Just about all of the details that D. discusses as possible real historical ingredients have been proposed, criticized, defended, and re-proposed elsewhere, most recently in the intense critical discussion about Latacz’s book. It is not my intent to beat once more that dead horse. But we may simply note that D. routinely takes Latacz’s optimism one step further and sets the bar very low for the precision of observed connections between historical events and the poems. To take one example, D. directly connects the Alaksandu of the famous Alaksandu treaty with Homer’s Alexander—something Latacz was not so bold as to claim.

Following the post-Finley consensus, D. finds the society depicted in the poems “convincing and consistent. It hangs together” (64). Oral poets present heroic lives to their audiences as “very much like their own life, with identical problems and identical solutions, but slightly bigger and better” (65). D.’s discussion on the role of women in Homeric society is relevant to his later claims about the poet’s gender. Homer presents us with female figures (e.g., Penelope) who exhibit a degree of power unusual in early Greek society, where “[w]omen had no political status” (86). Yet D. overlooks that the power these women posses is domestic, not political. Penelope’s sphere of action is circumscribed by the household. The very instruments by which she exercises her power over the suitors are those epitomizing expressions of female domestic virtue—the loom and the distaff—with which she delays the decision of marriage. But to D., women’s power in the poems makes us “wonder to what extent the traditional story has been subverted by an inventive, thoughtful, and mature poet” (88).

The heart of D’s book and its most original material comes in Part Two, “The Poet.” Here, D. discusses the Homeric question in it most pointed sense. Who authored the texts we call the Iliad and the Odyssey and how? D. puts the different facets of the problem like this: “Why did they [the poets] sing? Why did the audience attend? Why did someone decide that oral performance was not enough and that the new medium of writing would serve better?” (91). As to the authorship of the poems, D. thankfully sets forth a seemingly conventional answer: the poems “are the work of the same poet, who rethought, with greater self-confidence, the views on human society and morality that underlie the Iliad” (92). On the date of Homer, he largely follows Martin West, placing Homer after Hesiod in the mid-7th century. To illuminate the sort of author that lies behind the epics, D. gives a faithful account of what the poems themselves (and Hesiod) say about poets.

D.’s unitarian view of the two poems does permit some differences between them. The geographical vision expressed in the Odyssey is broader and shows some awareness of the real Mediterranean. Fictional locations like Scherie reflect a geographical reality, at least partially familiar to the poet of the Odyssey now after the process of colonization has begun. D. sees another difference between the poems in the way that the Odyssey“subverts” Iliadic ideals. The Odyssey undermines “the value and efficacy of aristocrats” (121). It questions the reliability of traditional oral narrative poets. And most importantly for D., it subverts gender expectations: “If there is any one issue on which the poet is bold enough to subvert everyday assumptions, it is on the relative position of men and women” (126). Yet the cases of gender “subversion” D. presents are not particularly compelling. To cite one example, D. adduces Athena’s adopting the male role of Mentor.

When it comes to D.’s (mostly) original thesis that “Homer” was a woman,2 he takes full advantage of the factual vacuum about the author of the poems to invent a new “Homer,” the poet he would like to be the author of the poems. To let D. speak for himself: “Now we are free to reap our reward for refusing to identify the legendary oral poet Homer with the creation of the Iliad and the Odyssey” (129). In all fairness, D.’s precise arguments are quite reasonable. Only their inconclusive limitedness vitiates their usefulness: “Since we begin with no facts at all about the poet who saw the Iliad and the Odyssey written down, no one can deny that she might have been a woman” (141); or, as the concluding sentence of the chapter on the poet’s gender has it, “It’s enough at this stage to have shown that there is no direct evidence of the poet’s identity and therefore no justification for the customary assumption that the two epics were composed by a man” (153).

D. has two principal, positive arguments for female authorship. Firstly, the poems show a female sensibility: the Odyssey, for one, “quietly and subversively build[s] a woman’s viewpoint into the traditional framework” (152). Secondly, the poems’ context argues for female authorship. As D. rightly points out, poems of this scale were not likely to have been recorded from a single performance under normal circumstances. D. thinks a private performance, specially commissioned for the purpose, would have been the occasion for their recording in writing. Due to the more private nature of female poetic performance in archaic Greece, according to D., we should consider a woman a more natural poet for such a private, personal commission. As interesting as these speculations are, they remain very much inconclusive.

The remaining Part Three of D.’s book, “The Response,” treats the reception of the poems. D. believes that the evidence for the earliest awareness of the poems begins to show up around 600 BC. He cites some depictions of Homeric-seeming narratives on vases that appear about that time, though D. fails to acknowledge that the use of these motifs may only signal an awareness of the heroic tradition in general or a familiarity with the particular Homeric episodes that are depicted (such as the blinding of the Cyclops), meaning the full-scale epics we have may not yet have existed. The remainder of D.’s discussion on the reception of the poems is conventional and effectively succinct. He quickly moves through the Homeridai, Athenian performative and pedagogical uses, the Alexandrian editorial project, Roman influences, and on down all the way to Milton.

D. ends by recounting the “rediscovery of orality.” He gives an accurate history of the emergence of a scholarly awareness of the oral nature of the Homeric poems. Starting from 18th and early 19th centuries with the likes of James Macpherson and Elias Lönnrot, D. recounts the way that European scholars began to acknowledge oral traditions and written poems derived from them as full-fledged literature. This rediscovery culminates in the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, and D. gives a concise, very fair portrayal of their groundbreaking research. D. justly critiques Lord’s conception of a sharp divide between orality and literacy. Many scholars now accept some sort of “mixed textual tradition” (194) in the way the epics have come down to us.

After closing with a final summarizing chapter, D. appends a “Guide to Further Reading” that gives his judgments on some English translations and competently surveys some modern scholarship on the poems. As is to be expected and is only appropriate for a book like this, he heavily favors Anglo-American work.

In the end, despite its one significant flaw of an unconvincing theory about the female authorship of the poems, Rediscovering Homer is a very fair, readable, and enjoyable discussion of the major issues involved in the Homeric question. D. is to be commended for writing a book that presents the long and often tedious history of the Homeric question in a lively and engaging way for non-specialists. And this is no small feat at a time when the increased specialization in our scholarly (sub-)disciplines threatens to make our work seem ever more irrelevant outside the academy. In view of its good qualities, teachers would do well to consider this book as a text for undergraduate courses on Homer.


1. J. Th. Kakridis, Homeric Researches (Lund, 1949), 11-42.

2. D. is well aware of Butler’s theory about the “authoress of the Odyssey.” For an interesting analysis of Butler’s reading, see Mary Ebbott’s “Butler’s Authoress of the Odyssey: gendered readings of Homer, then and now,” ( Classics@ : Issue 3).