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Listening to Homer

Tradition, Narrative, and Audience

Ruth Scodel

Publication Year: 2002

The Homeric poems were not intended for readers, but for a listening audience. Traditional in their basic elements, the stories were learned by oral poets from earlier poets and recreated at every performance. Individual nuances, tailored to the audience, could creep into the stories of the Greek heroes on each and every occasion when a bard recited the epics. For a particular audience at a particular moment, "tradition" is what it believes it has inherited from the past--and it may not be particularly old. The boundaries between the traditional and the innovative may become blurry and indistinct. By rethinking tradition, we can see Homer's methods and concerns in a new light. The Homeric poet is not naive. He must convince his audience that the story is true. He must therefore seem disinterested, unconcerned with promoting anyone's interests. The poet speaks as if everything he says is merely the repetition of old tales. Yet he carefully ensures that even someone who knows only a minimal amount about the ancient heroes can follow and enjoy the performance, while someone who knows many stories will not remember inappropriate ones. Pretending that every detail is already familiar, the poet heightens suspense and implies that ordinary people are the real judges of great heroes. Listening to Homer transcends present controversies about Homeric tradition and invention by rethinking how tradition functions. Focusing on reception rather than on composition, Ruth Scodel argues that an audience would only rarely succeed in identifying narrative innovation. Homeric narrative relies on a traditionalizing, inclusive rhetoric that denies the innovation of the oral performance while providing enough information to make the epics intelligible to audiences for whom much of the material is new. Listening to Homer will be of interest to general classicists, as well as to those specializing in Greek epic and narrative performance. Its wide breadth and scope will also appeal to those non-classicists interested in the nature of oral performance. Ruth Scodel is Professor of Greek and Latin, University of Michigan, and former president of the American Philological Association. "Ruth Scodel's Listening to Homer proves it is still possible to explore the workings of epic without recourse to a battery of jargon or technicalities. This is not a 'one big idea' book but a rich . . . set of reflections; it makes refreshing reading . . . ." ---Greece & Rome "This is an important book, putting the receiving rather than the sending side of the performance of the Homeric epics center stage. The many observations on narrative technique are often new and worthwhile." ---Irene J.F. de Jong, Gnomon

Published by: University of Michigan Press

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What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Tradition?

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pp. 1-41

No term appears more often in the study of Homer than tradition. But what exactly is tradition, and why does it matter? Most Hellenists have long since accepted that for many generations before the Homeric poems were composed, Greeks had listened to the tales of heroes as bards...

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Textualization and the Newest Song

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pp. 42-64

Oral poets usually perform for audiences whose tastes and responses they can hope to predict. Often, the audiences are local, and a poet may perform many times for the same individuals and come to know their tastes precisely. In some traditions, much of the liveliness of particular performances comes from spontaneous interaction between the poet and...

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Homeric Rhetorics: Traditionality and Disinterest

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pp. 65-89

Homeric epic relies on rhetorics of traditionality and disinterestedness. The epics remind the audience that earlier audiences heard these same stories, and they emphasize their own repetition of the familiar. At the same time, the rhetoric of disinterestedness implies that epic song, despite its traditional content, depends for its transmission not on oral...

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Homeric Exposition

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pp. 90-123

The poet confronting a large and unfamiliar audience faced difficulties with exposition as well as with authority. If he did not know exactly what songs they had heard before and in what version, he did not know what they already knew. Since only stories of the origin of the world (Genesis, Hesiod’s Theogony) can begin at the beginning, narratives...

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Abbreviated Narrative

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pp. 124-154

The main narrative of both the Iliad and the Odyssey expects a general, fundamental knowledge of earlier epic stories but does not rely on the audience to know many details. The poet tells his audience what it needs to know as the need arises, and the attentive listener can easily follow without extensive prior knowledge. However, this is not always true of...

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Narrative Teases

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pp. 155-172

The Homeric poems make themselves accessible to listeners who have only a general familiarity with the traditional stories; those who know more will enjoy them more. However, their rhetorical strategy constructs an extremely knowledgeable narrative audience. Homeric narrative is thus not always transparent, and there is a significant gap...

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The Social Audience

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pp. 173-212

The Homeric epics practice considerable mystification in the interest of capturing the widest possible audience. They create a narrative audience of connoisseurs. Inviting everyone into the audience, they expend considerable narrative effort to make themselves accessible and to bridge the distance between the narrative and authorial audiences. At...

Works Cited

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pp. 213-223

General Index

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pp. 225-228

Index of Passages Cited

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pp. 229-235


E-ISBN-13: 9780472026586
E-ISBN-10: 0472026585
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472033744
Print-ISBN-10: 0472033743

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2002