Homer. A name synonomous with Greek literature and poetry. Some call him the most famous and greatest poet of the Greek society. Known for his “masterpieces” of western literature the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer’s poems have been passed down through generations and studied by many. But how did the translations, if they are, infact, the true Homeric poems, get to where they are today? Dating as far back as 1120 B.c., the poems may have gone through a dramatic number of changes from their original form. Probably the most important factor in all of this is how they were passed down through the centuries. Scholars of today disagree on the question of whether the Homeric poems were passed down through an oral or written tradition.
In order to mover further into the subject, one must have an understanding of what an oral tradition is opposed to a written tradition. An oral tradition is one of which we know from our remembered knowledge (Kirdk 199). In this case, the telling of the poem from one generation to the next orally would be an oral tradition. A written tradition is one in which knowledge is recorded in some way shape or form of writing, and passed down that way.
Many citizens of early Greek culture possessed very limited literacy. Even at the peak of Greek society, the ability to read and write was far fom universal, and the uses made of that ability, by many who possessed it, were circumscribed (Kirk 1). Most slaves were illiterate, but so were many free-born citizens. Although there were those who could read and write, their ability to understand in-depth material was limited. Thus many had to rely on oral poetry and word-of-mouth tradition.
Not much time passesd when oral tradition began to decline, due to the availability of new writing techniques. These techniques enabled the great poems to be created out of traditional and preliterate material. But it is certainly a problem of how and why the normal range of oral narrative poems was so suddenly and brilliantly transcended. This states that there must have been a fully literate culture, and a steady supply of books. But this was not the case.
It is possible, on the other hand, that some lesser use of the new technique of writing was the detemining factor in the ability to compose such long and complex poems out of pre-existing and much shorter oral songs. Many critics do not accept this however. The huge gap in quality as well as quantity being the main factor.
In essence, the poems belong to an oral culture, whether or not their monumental form owes something to the main poet’s ability to compose witht he help of writing (Kirk 2). These poems were to some extent transcribed orally too; these were works that continued to be knows, erratically and incompletely perhaps “by heart”. Once they were produced, the poems had a stifling effect on their simpler, more typically oral predecessors. The memory of earlier songs and poems were all but obliterated. Among those that contributed to this were the Iliad and the Odyssey. If this was so, then their appearance before the translation from an age of literacy to one of partial literacy seems less strange. Teh polis, or city-state, emerged as the main focus of loyalties that had earlier been directed toward persons and families, toward feudal archetypes that still reflected some of the glow of the heroic world of Homer (Kirk 3).
Emphasis on the oral nature of the Iliad and the Odyssey must be present for the understanding of the poems as poetry, as works of literature in the broader sense, and as vast and erratic forces in the cultural history of the ancient world.
The language of Homer was never spoken by any man (Kirk 4). It is an artifical, poetical construction of phraseology and vocabulary taht originated at different dates over a period of at least 200 and perhaps as much as 500 years (Kirk 4). Some parts of it are highly conventional and consist of fixed or formular phrases. Precicely how far the formular system extended, and wher eit merges with the symbolic and repetitive aspect of all language remains a question; but the need for literate poetry of any lenght to be formular in essence is confirmed by the study both of Homer himself and of surviving oral traditions. The least complex of these traditions and the poorest in expression are also the least formular (Kirk 5). This confirms that formularity increases the powers of the oral singer. This reverses a basic rule of classical literature creation-that the repeated use of fixed or conventional language is incompatible with true originality and poetical or literary power. In this respect, the oral poet behaves quite differently from teh literate one, and makes his own individual contribution above and beyond the level of traditional ways.
The diction of Homer was archaic and yet constantly renewed, and that accounts for the existence side by side of terms and linguistic forms from the Mycenaean dialect of the Achaean heroes, from teh contemporary world of Homer himself and from many anonymous generations between. Kirk believes that the elaboration and careful placing of many of the undeveloped similies must be due to the monumental comoser himself, and cannot be a random procedure inserted along the line.
The facts of the oral tradition and the special argument from teh similies have shown that the chances of obtaining consistant and accurate information, with little important interference from later generations are exceedingly remote.
Many of the narrative components, the motifs and themes of the homeric poems are no less formular than their language and phraseology. The singer acquires a wide range of standard incidents that can be varied in length and reference to suit the needs of a chosen situation. The Homeric poems were poetic songs that contained all these elements that have been discussed. Some societies taht are, or were illiterate at one point or another, had no books or writings, and thus used oral tradition to tell the stories. Somwhere along the way, a person might have written the poem down to pass on to other generations. Any way you look at it, the Homeric poems have undertaken both types of tradition throughout the course of time.