Homer - Problems of Authorship

Problems of Authorship

For more details on this topic, see Homeric Question.

The idea that Homer was responsible for just the two outstanding epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, did not win consensus until 350 BC. While many find it unlikely that both epics were composed by the same person, others argue that the stylistic similarities are too consistent to support the theory of multiple authorship. One view which attempts to bridge the differences holds that the Iliad was composed by "Homer" in his maturity, while the Odyssey was a work of his old age. The Batrachomyomachia, Homeric Hymns and cyclic epics are generally agreed to be later than the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Most scholars agree that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardisation and refinement out of older material beginning in the 8th century BC. An important role in this standardisation appears to have been played by the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival. Many classicists hold that this reform must have involved the production of a canonical written text.

Other scholars still support the idea that Homer was a real person. Since nothing is known about the life of this Homer, the common joke—also recycled with regard to Shakespeare—has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name." Samuel Butler argues, based on literary observations, that a young Sicilian woman wrote the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further pursued by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter and Andrew Dalby in Rediscovering Homer.

Independent of the question of single authorship is the near-universal agreement, after the work of Milman Parry, that the Homeric poems are dependent on an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets (aoidoi). An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems contain many formulaic phrases typical of extempore epic traditions; even entire verses are at times repeated. Parry and his student Albert Lord pointed out that such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in a predominantly oral cultural milieu, the key words being "oral" and "traditional". Parry started with "traditional": the repetitive chunks of language, he said, were inherited by the singer-poet from his predecessors, and were useful to him in composition. Parry called these repetitive chunks "formulas".

Exactly when these poems would have taken on a fixed written form is subject to debate. The traditional solution is the "transcription hypothesis", wherein a non-literate "Homer" dictates his poem to a literate scribe between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. The Greek alphabet was introduced in the early 8th century BC, so it is possible that Homer himself was of the first generation of authors who were also literate. The classicist Barry B. Powell suggests that the Greek alphabet was invented ca. 800 BC by one man, probably Homer, in order to write down oral epic poetry. More radical Homerists like Gregory Nagy contend that a canonical text of the Homeric poems as "scripture" did not exist until the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st century BC).

New methods try also to elucidate the question. Combining information technologies and statistics, the stylometry allows to scan various linguistic units: words, parts of speech, sounds... Based on the frequencies of Greek letters, a first study of Dietmar Najock particularly shows the internal cohesion of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Taking into account the repartition of the letters, a recent study of Stephan Vonfelt highlights the unity of the works of Homer compared to Hesiod. The thesis of modern analysts being questioned, the debate remains open.

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