BMCR 2020.04.37

Postoral Homer: orality and literacy in the Homer epic

, Postoral Homer: orality and literacy in the Homer epic. Hermes. Einzelschriften, Band 112. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. 276 p.. ISBN 9783515120487 €54,00.

Among the luminaries of Homeric studies, one cannot deny the pride of place owed to Milman Parry and Albert Lord, for their work has done nothing less than redefine our expectations for explaining the origins of the Iliad and Odyssey. But as oralism, the theoretical school nurtured by Parry’s and Lord’s efforts to prove that Homer was an illiterate poet who relied on orally-derived formulas to compose his poetry, gained ever greater acceptance by Homerists through the 1990s, several implications of oralism, including the oddness of reimagining a long-deceased oral tradition through the written texts it is thought to have produced, revealed persistent and difficult problems still in need of solving. Perhaps foremost among the problems raised by oralism, as articulated by Michael Haslam in A New Companion to Homer (1997), is that Homeric epic “for many centuries was both oral and written, with various kinds of unfathomable interplay between the two.”[1]Unfortunately, little has changed in our understanding of the interaction between oral and written elements in the creation of the Homeric poems, although consensus on the importance of this interaction has grown over the last two decades.

Rainer Friedrich’s Postoral Homer is the culmination of a career spent highlighting the deficiencies of purely oralist explanations for the genesis of the Homeric poems, and it serves as a timely reminder of the questions that oralist scholarship unveiled but has (so far) proven incapable of answering. To this end, the book marshals several of Friedrich’s earlier articles and his 2007 book[2] to argue for the “postorality” of the Homeric poems—that is, that the poet who produced the Iliad and Odyssey was both literate and an heir to the Greek oral epic tradition, and that he plied the tools of literacy and orality in his crafting of the poems.

Friedrich divides the book in two. The first, which Friedrich titles “The Theory of the Oral Homer and Its Dilemmas,” effectively begins as an extended review (and repudiation) of oralist scholarship. While much of this section seems overly focused on Homeric scholarship from Parry through the 1980s, its methodological aims nevertheless remain sound, and Friedrich performs a useful service here in pointing out the flaws of oralist scholarship from its earliest beginnings. Much of Friedrich’s criticism of oralism centers on the overreliance by many of the theory’s proponents on the so-called “Yugoslav analogy,” that is, the notion, first put forward by Parry and popularized by Lord, that Homer was an oral poet who used the method of oral-formulaic composition found among the guslari of early 20th-century Yugoslavia. Friedrich (rightly) insists that, contrary to the belief of many oralists, this analogy does not constitute actual proof of Homeric orality, and that the real task facing Homeric scholars is to discern the roles played by both orality and literacy in the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey.

To stress the importance of this task, Friedrich next embarks on a lengthy critique of attempts by previous scholars to test the orality of the Homeric poems. He does this by systematically examining several of the qualities of oral poetry cited most frequently as proof that Homer was an oral poet; these include the presence in the poems of formulas, economy, enjambment, and themes or type-scenes. Friedrich makes several strong points here, most importantly that the “tests” in each of these categories to which the Homeric poems were subjected by oralists were generally cursory and lacking in rigor: for example, he takes both Parry and Lord to task for their repeated insistence on the overwhelming orality of the Homeric poems based on analyses of only their first 15 to 25 verses. Friedrich also criticizes the general vagueness and lack of consensus among oralists for what actually constitutes a formula, which forms the basis for the different tests of orality examined in this section. On the subject of economy, Friedrich relies on a brief summary of his 2007 book, in which he argued that, because of the coexistence of both oral and non-oral elements in the poems, schematization and economy in the use of formulas seem “residual” and even used out of “free choice” rather than necessity. He similarly notes that parataxis and added enjambment, both of which are characteristics of oral poetry, appear in the Iliad and Odyssey with a frequency similar to that of hypotaxis and necessary enjambment, which are generally associated with literary texts and thus should appear in oral ones only rarely. Friedrich’s evaluation of the use of themes and type scenes in the Homeric poems rests mostly on his comparison of the first book of the Iliad with the Yugoslav epic The Wedding of Smailagić Meho: he observes that whereas the narrative of Meho, buckling under the weight of its numerous catalogues, moves at a halting pace, Iliad 1 is brisk and comparatively tight, and advances its plot in a much steadier and more calculated fashion.

Throughout his extended testing of the orality of the Homeric poems, Friedrich argues that the picture of Homeric orality that emerges from a more thorough and disciplined examination of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the presence of oral and non-oral elements varies considerably throughout each poem, and that this mixture of oral and non-oral (i.e., literate) qualities speaks to the possible use of both oral and literate techniques in the creation of the epics. Friedrich’s arguments in the first half of the book are generally well made. While his criticisms of Parry, Lord, and their ideological descendants seem at times nitpicky or truculent, this style of argument brings with it a certain amount of charm, and is especially redolent of early 20th-century scholarship and its seemingly endless quarrels between analysts and unitarians. But Friedrich himself occasionally falls victim to the same faults for which he so enthusiastically criticizes oralists, such as in his comparison of Meho with Iliad 1: the first book of the Iliad is noticeably tighter and more “engineered” than some of the other books, yet, as Friedrich himself observes, variation from book to book in the inclusion of oral and non-oral elements would dictate that there should be books in the Iliad that match Meho’s pacing more closely. Friedrich might have proven his point more effectively here by examining one such book in addition to Iliad 1, thus demonstrating on a larger scale and with multiple samples the effects of oral and non-oral techniques on the Iliad’s creation.

The second half of the book, “The Theory of the Postoral Homer,” mostly serves to advance Friedrich’s own theory of the role of orality in the composition of the Homeric poems and is insistent that “neither Homeric orality alone nor Homeric literacy alone” can explain the coexistence of oral and literate elements in the poems (159). He selects the term “postoral” because it “signals the entrance of literacy into the oral tradition from which the Homeric epic had originally arisen” (160). Yet before embarking on an expansion of his theory of postorality, Friedrich offers an overview of the evidence for and theories of the development of literacy and the Greek alphabet in the 8th century BCE, and argues that the general thrust of the evidence supports the idea that oral poets likely came in contact with literacy much earlier than was supposed before the 1990s. He follows this with an extended look at Adam Parry’s 1966 essay “Have We Homer’s Iliad?,”[3] in which the younger Parry argued for classifying the Iliad as a “transitional text” that was the product of an oral tradition into which literacy had been introduced.

Friedrich then enumerates the theoretical qualities of a postoral Iliad, which include distant references in the poem’s narrative, thematic variability, and the non-schematized nature of Homeric similes. Moreover, Friedrich also invokes neoanalyst scholarship, and argues that the different phases of development for the Homeric epics previously advanced by other scholars require that the poets involved in that development were literate. Building on this idea, he theorizes that various episodes and scenes from an earlier, more expansive narrative of the Trojan War served as component parts for the Iliad and that a literate poet adapted these episodes to fit into a story centered on Achilles and set in the tenth and final year of the war. Finally, Friedrich endeavors to prove that the reliance of the Iliad on êthopoiia (“characterization”) is evidence for the literary craftsmanship involved in its creation, and he devotes twenty pages to examples of how the complex emotions and personalities of the principal characters are highlighted and developed throughout the poem. Although the underlying idea of this final portion of the book is sound enough, its journey into the realm of literary commentary contrasts starkly with the chart-heavy, closely analytical style of the preceding 220 pages and feels largely unnecessary, or at least overlong. In addition, I cannot help but feel disappointed that Friedrich spent so much of his book building the case for postorality only to devote a relatively small portion of the work to explaining the theory. A more robust model or a detailed comparison with another postoral tradition would have made the book feel more complete—as it stands, Postoral Homer makes a fairly convincing case for the existence of postorality, but not for what postorality actually was or how it might have functioned.

Overall, Postoral Homer performs two useful services. First, it provides an excellent overview of major oralist scholarship through the 1980s, and Friedrich’s combative approach in his review of this vast expanse entertains even as it ably points out the flaws of oralism’s many forms. But also visible here is the other significant shortcoming of the book, namely its general failure to take account of more recent work on orality and beyond. Friedrich occasionally acknowledges the scholarship of Gregory Nagy, albeit with derision and dismissal, but the work of Nagy’s students and other more recent scholars remains largely ignored, lamentably so in the case of José González’s magisterial The Epic Rhapsode and His Craft.[4] Absent also are more recent works exploring neoanalysis, like Malcolm Davies’s The Aethiopis.[5] Indeed, Friedrich’s focus in this book on eviscerating older oralist scholarship to the exclusion of nearly everything else almost makes it seem as if he has attempted, like Odysseus in the Nekyia, to revitalize the shades of Parry and Lord for one last argument.

These faults notwithstanding, Friedrich’s Postoral Homer offers a timely reminder that the next, as yet largely unexplored region of Homeric scholarship is in the interplay between oral and written elements in the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey. For anyone still in need of convincing that this should be the case, Friedrich’s book is much recommended.


[1] Haslam, M. (1997) “Homeric Papyri and Transmission of the Text,” in I. Morris and B.B. Powell, eds., A New Companion to Homer: 55-100. Leiden: Brill.

[2] Friedrich, R. (2007) Formular Economy in Homer. The Poetics of the Breaches. Hermes Einzelschriften, 100. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

[3] Parry, A. (1966) “Have We Homer’s Iliad?,” Yale Classical Studies 20: 175-216.

[4] González, J.M. (2013) The Epic Rhapsode and His Craft: Homeric Performance in a Diachronic Perspective. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

[5] Davies, M. (2016) The Aethiopis: Neo-Neoanalysis Reanalyzed. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.