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  • Individual Poet and Epic Tradition: Homer as Legendary Singer
  • John Miles Foley

On je pjevac bio sto ga nije bilo u Hercegovini. He was a singer like no other in Hercegovina.

Ibro Basic on Isak

From the beginning since all have learned according to Homer . . .

Xenophanes of Colophon on Homer

This essay has three linked goals, all of which emerge from a comparison of Homer with the “legendary singer” figure associated with South Slavic oral epic. First, it seeks to demonstrate how the legendary singer, although represented as a once-living individual by the lesser, real-life bards who follow in his footsteps, is also a way of designating the poetic tradition. By anthropomorphizing tradition, this strategy avoids the impossible choice that modern criticism often imposes between the gifted poet and his inheritance. In the process, the latter-day guslar also creates an empowering lineage for himself, a genealogy that certifies him and his peers just as the poetic tradition certifies and fills out any given performance of an epic narrative. Second, the identity of the legendary singer as an instance of tradition illustrates a fundamental compositional (and receptional) feature of South Slavic and Homeric epic poetry: variation within limits. Just as phraseology and narrative patterns show a measured multiformity that reflects both their traditional structure and the singular demands of each particular usage, so the concept of the master bard—called by different names, accorded different biographies, and credited with different [End Page 149] extraordinary feats—adapts a continuing, immanent presence to the particular demands of the local context. Third, I will argue that to understand the legendary singer—whether the idealized guslar or Homer—we must look beyond the shifting surface of inconsistent details toward what each nominal figure signifies. Via a process that has been termed “traditional referentiality,” these shifting signs or sêmata stand as concrete parts designating intangible wholes, and we read the signs—and the singers—best when we accord them both their individual, situation-specific and their traditional values. 1

Oral Tradition and the Legendary Singer

The research conducted by Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the former Yugoslavia, now more than sixty years ago, opened a window on the Homeric poems in particular, and on many ancient and medieval works in general. It has fostered the formulation of hypotheses based on an analogy between a living, observable oral tradition, on the one hand and, on the other, manuscript texts that reveal a striking number of similarities to performances from that living tradition. From the original juxtaposition have stemmed analyses of phraseology and narrative pattern that were in turn carried into other traditions. The methods introduced by Parry and Lord, comprising the so-called Oral Theory, spread quickly and widely, especially under the influence of Lord’s The Singer of Tales, and to date more than 100 language areas have been affected by the approach they initiated. 2

At the same time, as with any statement radical enough to shake the status quo, reasonable objections arose in response to their “strong thesis.” With anthropological reports from other living traditions leading the way, subsequent scholarship has clearly demonstrated that certain original tenets of the Oral Theory need revision. For one thing, we know beyond doubt that oral tradition and literary works are not mutually exclusive categories but rather points on a spectrum, and that we must [End Page 150] carefully examine each work or tradition on its own terms and, where possible, within its own particular social context (cf. Finnegan 1988; Zumthor 1990; J. Foley 1996a, 1998). For another, we have learned that while recurrent phraseology and narrative patterning are typical of many oral traditions, such stylistic features cannot be reduced to universal forms with unitary definitions, much less be interpreted as litmus tests for “oral” or “written” provenance. In both of these areas, differences deserve full consideration alongside similarities. 3 Perhaps most importantly in the long run, we have also realized that we must come to grips with the interrelationship of traditional structure and Homeric art. If the Oral Theory is to assume full partnership in any approach to the Iliad and Odyssey, then the poems’ excellence must be explained as drawing from...

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pp. 149-178
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