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Homeric Questions

By Gregory Nagy

Publication Year: 1996

The "Homeric Question" has vexed Classicists for generations. Was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey a single individual who created the poems at a particular moment in history? Or does the name "Homer" hide the shaping influence of the epic tradition during a long period of oral composition and transmission? In this innovative investigation, Gregory Nagy applies the insights of comparative linguistics and anthropology to offer a new historical model for understanding how, when, where, and why the Iliad and the Odyssey were ultimately preserved as written texts that could be handed down over two millennia. His model draws on the comparative evidence provided by living oral epic traditions, in which each performance of a song often involves a recomposition of the narrative. This evidence suggests that the written texts emerged from an evolutionary process in which composition, performance, and diffusion interacted to create the epics we know as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Sure to challenge orthodox views and provoke lively debate, Nagy’s book will be essential reading for all students of oral traditions.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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p. vii

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p. ix

The core of this book is a speech, the Presidential Address of the 1991 convention of the American Philological Association, which was later developed into an article.1 All along I thought of this article as a companion piece to two other articles I have published elsewhere.2 Now I have finally rewritten all three articles to suit the original idea...

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pp. 1-11

The title of this work is marked by the word Questions, in the plural. It takes the place of the expected singular, along with a definite article, associated with that familiar phrase, “the Homeric Question.” Today there is no agreement about what the Homeric Question might be. Perhaps the most succinct of many possible formulations is this one:...

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CHAPTER 1. Homer and Questions of Oral Poetry

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pp. 13-27

Parry and Lord studied oral poetry, and their work provides the key to the primary Homeric question of performance, as we are about to see. It can even be said that their work on oral poetry permanently changed the very nature of any Homeric question....

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CHAPTER 2. An Evolutionary Model for the Making of Homeric Poetry

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pp. 29-63

The massive accumulation of new or newly appreciated comparative evidence about the nature of epic in oral poetry demands application to the ongoing study of individual epic traditions. I propose here to apply some of this evidence, as collected over recent years by a broad variety of experts investigating an array of societies in Eastern...

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CHAPTER 3. Homer and the Evolution of a Homeric Text

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pp. 65-112

In searching for a historical context for the writing down of the Homeric text, the most obvious strategy is to look for a stage in ancient Greek history when the technology of writing could produce a text, in manuscript form, that conferred a level of authority distinct from but equivalent to the authority conferred by an actual performance...

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CHAPTER 4. Myth as Exemplum in Homer

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pp. 113-146

There are questions about the Homeric parádeigma, which I translate for the moment by way of Latin exemplum ‘example’, following the lead of earlier inquiries.1 In an influential article on the subject of mythological exempla in Homer, Malcolm Willcock proposes that the contents of myths cited by Homeric characters, with reference to...

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pp. 147-152

Throughout this work, the central aim was to reintroduce the vitality of performance, of oral tradition in general, to the conceptual framework of the classics. This aim addresses the need to be vigilant over tradition itself, all tradition. Earlier, I had argued that the field of classics, which lends itself to the empirical study of tradition,...


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pp. 153-173


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pp. 175-180

E-ISBN-13: 9780292796218
E-ISBN-10: 0292796218
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292755611
Print-ISBN-10: 0292755619

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 1996

OCLC Number: 70183048
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Homeric Questions

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Homer -- Technique.
  • Epic poetry, Greek -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc.
  • Oral-formulaic analysis.
  • Oral tradition -- Greece.
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