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"Reading" Homer through Oral Tradition

From: College Literature
34.2, Spring 2007
pp. 1-28 | 10.1353/lit.2007.0015


Twentieth-century research demonstrated that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey began as part of an ancient Greek oral tradition, and were passed down by word of mouth through generations of oral poets before and for some time after the invention of the alphabet. As the twenty-first century dawns, the modern (re)discovery of these unwritten origins is exerting an enormous influence on how we understand and teach the poems, presenting new answers to the ages-old "Homeric Question"–Who was Homer?–and suggesting comparisons with living oral epic traditions on five continents. By paying attention to the trademark structures and idiomatic values of Homer's language, the bequest of oral tradition, we can "read" the poems more faithfully. The perspective from oral tradition solves such stubborn and longstanding challenges as the heavy repetition of phrases and scenes, as well as the non-chronological order and anti-climactic ending of the Odyssey. Oral tradition can also show how Penelope emerges as a full-fledged hero–in some ways even more central a figure than her husband Odysseus.

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