What is the authority for Homer's texts?
August 29, 2007 10:34 PM   Subscribe

The 'original Greek text' of Homer's Odyssey and/or Iliad: what actually is meant by this? And what is the authority for this 'original'?

It's a common enough phrase. But to what text, exactly, does it refer? I mean, to what physically-existing book or book-equivalent?

My internet research reveals that the first printed edition of Homer's work appeared in 1488, in Italy. Is this the 'original Greek text'? Or some other publication?

In any case, any printed version of Homer's work is going to post-date the composition by about 2000 years. So what is the authority for any printed work? For example, do actual fragments of BCE papyrus exist to cover the entire text of the Odyssey and Iliad? Or do we, in fact, take an enormous amount on trust of some mediaeval or renaisasance scribe?
posted by londongeezer to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 


Slight derail, is there an available volume that is inclusive of both the minus and plus verses? A concordance if you will.
posted by jadepearl at 10:47 PM on August 29, 2007


It could mean a couple of different things. It could simply refer to the Greek original from which any particular translation or translator has worked ('This phrase is more colorful in the original Greek').

More often the reference is to a reconstructed text edited by scholars and based on surviving manuscripts and information about lost manuscripts cited in early printed editions. This edited text attempts to get as close as possible to an 'original,' but that is an ideal not actually achieved in most specialists' eyes.

Making it all a fun question is the oral basis of Homer's poems -- there is definitely a genius poet behind the epics we have, but the generative moment(s) involved oral performance from an internalized storehouse of themes, phrases, metrical patterns, that would (according to comparative ethnography) vary within an accepted range in any particular instance.

Classicists mostly imagine that in antiquity a more or less 'critical' or even somewhat manufactured text of Homer was stabilized, possibly in Athens, probably for the purpose of competitive recitation - ancient poetry slams.

Some of the evidence for the text does indeed come from papyri, as do many of the data for theories of early editing.

Great question LG
posted by Rain Man at 10:49 PM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


seconding Pater's ref
posted by Rain Man at 10:50 PM on August 29, 2007


jadepearl--What you are thinking of isn't really a concordance, but a critical text. I have the Loeb Classical library edition of the Iliad, and it does note some variant readings throughout, although I don't know if it is exhaustive, or the best critical text available. I'm interested in classics, but it's not my field. Maybe someone else will know.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:55 PM on August 29, 2007


The textual tradition is vast, especially if one wants to collate all known variants. More informative on 'significant' variants than what the Loeb offers would be something like the Oxford Classical Text edition by T. W. Allen and others. The multi-volume commentaries on the Iliad (ed. by G. S. Kirk et al) and the Odyssey (A Heubeck, S. West et al) have useful discussions of significant variant readings.
posted by Rain Man at 11:01 PM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Homer was a Wiki.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:50 PM on August 29, 2007


Thanks so far, esp P Aleithias for his very useful link. Further digging by me reveals a lot of material on Wikipedia under "Homeric scholarship" (should have found it earlier), including the info that the Iliad we have today is derived from a 10th century CE manuscript in the Vatican. Earlier than 1488, but still composed a long way after Homer's time. Homer was a Wiki is also a nice idea :)
posted by londongeezer at 12:01 AM on August 30, 2007


I doubt if there was ever -- at any time -- an "authoritative" text per se. Think of it less as a text and more as a jazz performance. If a performance was given in town "X", there's a real good chance that local lore or the genealogy of the local nobles made it into certain passages. The work is replete with epithets -- phrases used to fill out the meter if the bard wants to do a bit of free-styling.
posted by RavinDave at 12:41 AM on August 30, 2007


It's worth pointing out that some translations of Homer, in fact many of the "official" ones published by the likes of Penguin, are considered works of literature in their own right (for example, EV Rieu's Odyssey). So this is why references have to be made to "original" text--it's a method of distinction, almost to remind people that modern translations are actually translations.
posted by deeper red at 3:33 AM on August 30, 2007


Yes, point taken about the absence of a single original authoritative text (originally it was presumably an oral epic). But I have a desire to get a little bit closer to the bottom of our contemporary version. What actually are the parts (the pieces of patchwork) out of which, say, the Odyssey is stitched together? What is the earliest authority, say, for the phrase "wine-dark sea"? Could it conceivably be a mediaeval interpolation? Not an entirely trivial question, given its hallowed place in Western culture.
posted by londongeezer at 4:31 AM on August 30, 2007


This is part of the reason that the commentaries for the books of the Odyssey are ten times longer than the books themselves. You're reading along (which for me was at the pace of about a line every five minutes) and think, "Huh, I know what all the words mean and I think I understand the structure, but boy, that makes absolutely no sense." You flip to that section of the commentary and see an eight page note starting with, "There is some debate about..."
posted by MarkAnd at 4:37 AM on August 30, 2007


Wine-dark sea. The question of how we got the popular English phrases from the Iliad is going to be an easier question to answer. In fact, this is something you can figure out for yourself pretty easily given some patience. The tradition of translating Homer isn't that old. Just start reading translations. If you only have time for one, I suspect that Chapman's will be the most rewarding in terms of "AH HA! That's where that comes from!"
posted by MarkAnd at 4:46 AM on August 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


The question of how we got the popular English phrases from the Iliad is going to be an easier question to answer.

Indeedy, and the Penguin Homer in English is very good. Also, the Cambridge companion to Homer.

Outside of the textual tradition for the Greek, which is a huge, sprawling subject, there's also a textual tradition of Homer-In-English, because even grammar-school pupils amo-amas-amatted to the eyeballs weren't nearly as familiar or proficient in Greek.

So the task for the modern English translator is to combine the best scholarship on the Greek text (which combines the manuscript tradition with whatever related linguistic stuff gets unearthed by the papyrologists) with that weighty English literary history. It's similar to the task faced by modern Bible translators: the King James Version weighs heavily on the language.
posted by holgate at 6:32 AM on August 30, 2007


What actually are the parts (the pieces of patchwork) out of which, say, the Odyssey is stitched together?

Impossible to answer. All we have is the medieval reproduction of the ancient text; that the Odyssey is "stitched together" is just a theory, and whether it's correct or not there's no way of going beyond the text we have. And for practical purposes the "original Greek text" is what you see in an OCT or Teubner edition (the variations are extremely minor).

What is the earliest authority, say, for the phrase "wine-dark sea"? Could it conceivably be a mediaeval interpolation?

No. There are no "medieval interpolations" in the text of Homer; there are doubtless misreadings that accumulated between the official Athenian fifth-century text and the earliest MSS we have, but nobody deliberately changed the text. How would they have gotten away with it? Everybody knew the text of Homer; it was the foundation stone of Greek culture. Could you get away with interpolating something in Shakespeare?
posted by languagehat at 6:51 AM on August 30, 2007


There are no "medieval interpolations" in the text of Homer; there are doubtless misreadings that accumulated between the official Athenian fifth-century text and the earliest MSS we have, but nobody deliberately changed the text.

This is actually a big debate in Homeric scholarship. I haven't bothered to read anything about this since my Homer classes in college, but I seem to remember that the prevailing 19th century opinion was that a good portion of the texts were interpolations. Whether the work of unifying all the disparate manuscripts was completed by the time of medieval transcriptions, I have no idea, but it's not a crazy notion to suggest that the text was still pretty fluid.
posted by MarkAnd at 7:08 AM on August 30, 2007


This is actually a big debate in Homeric scholarship.

I think you're thinking of the debate over whether "Homer" was a single person or not, and the related debate over whether the texts were composed more or less as we have them (as long poems) or patched together from earlier poems dealing with single episodes. The latter was a common opinion back in the first flush of excitement over the Perry-Lord "oral epic" discoveries, but I believe scholarship has moved away from it. Anyway, nobody (as far as I know) thinks there were medieval interpolations. Medieval and ancient are two different things.
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on August 30, 2007


I think you're thinking of the debate over whether "Homer" was a single person or not, and the related debate over whether the texts were composed more or less as we have them (as long poems) or patched together from earlier poems dealing with single episodes. The latter was a common opinion back in the first flush of excitement over the Perry-Lord "oral epic" discoveries, but I believe scholarship has moved away from it. Anyway, nobody (as far as I know) thinks there were medieval interpolations. Medieval and ancient are two different things.

With trying to parse your words too carefully, I think it depends on what you mean by interpolations. I'm just flipping through my Iliad commentaries and every third or fourth note is concerning questions about medieval corrections. If you were saying that nobody sat down in 14th century France and re-wrote Homer from scratch, I agree with that, but the question of where one particular word came from is more difficult. I don't know. If you're up on the scholarship of this, I'll defer to you.
posted by MarkAnd at 7:40 AM on August 30, 2007


(With=without)
posted by MarkAnd at 7:40 AM on August 30, 2007


MarkAnd has a point. We're talking about a text that was apparently subject to textual scholarship in antiquity. We've got a period of medieval and renaissance transmission that pre-dates things like the re-discovery of the digamma, and was thus potentially subject to overzealous 'correction'.

Could you get away with interpolating something in Shakespeare?

As a 'correction'? Sure. But this is a quibble on what counts as editorial conjecture and what counts as interpolation.

Anyway, the specific example is oinops pontos, which is literally 'wine-y sea', and oinops is used elsewhere in Homer (LSJ entry), which makes it an unlikely addition. It's just that we're not quite sure of the force of the adjective, though we know it's a poetic formula, hence the relative freedom for translators to tweak it. (Imagine a future civilisation trying to translate 'steely grin'.)
posted by holgate at 10:10 AM on August 30, 2007


Thanks to everyone who has chipped in. Re Wine-dark sea: I'm aware it is a translation, and there could be alternative translations, but I was interested to establish the oldest manuscript in which the (original Greek? vulgate Latin?) phrase, from which the translation is made, appears. Re: stitching together: I realise that ancient papyri bearing the entire epic are not extant, but I am interested to know exactly which mediaeval manuscript or manuscripts form the basis for our translations (particularly of the Odyssey, the Iliad is clearer-cut, as I understand - see my note above): I think some of the references given above will help me. Re: interpolations: I think (on my limited research) I incline to MarkAnd rather than languagehat, i.e. to the understanding that verses may have been interpolated long after the BCE era in Greece when the epics were (as it were) still-living organisms, if only for the reason that both "plus" and "minus" verses are deemed to exist, that is, verses which exist in mediaeval texts but are not found on ancient papyri bearing the same passages, and verses which do exist on papyri but which are not in the mediaeval texts. However, I can see this is a very big and in the end quite fuzzy-contoured subject. Many thanks to everyone who has contributed.
posted by londongeezer at 10:21 AM on August 30, 2007


Thanks also holgate for the links. I must say that the degree to which (plainly) so much of the translation of Homer (and also, perhaps, the concatenation of his 'oeuvre') is a matter of speculation makes the whole subject extremely interesting.
posted by londongeezer at 10:27 AM on August 30, 2007


I think it depends on what you mean by interpolations. I'm just flipping through my Iliad commentaries and every third or fourth note is concerning questions about medieval corrections

Oh, it absolutely depends on what you mean by interpolations. I was going by the "oinopa ponton" example; there is zero chance that that is a later interpolation (and londongeezer, I think you've misunderstood the links if you think that entire verses were added in the Christian Era). Sure, minor corrections/emendations have been made all along (and are still being made with every new edition), but I don't think that's a reasonable interpretation of "interpolation."
posted by languagehat at 10:31 AM on August 30, 2007


Well, I may have misunderstood the links, and call me a cynical old londongeezer, but I would have thought it not out of the question that verses were added CE (although I adduce no evidence). I mean, worse things have happened, as it were, and we can't really make a blanket assumption about the transmission of the epic over 1000+ years, can we? However, that's not the main thrust of my interest, which is more directed towards the nature or authenticity of the 'Homer experience' as a whole.
posted by londongeezer at 10:38 AM on August 30, 2007


Homer was the entire basis of Greek education until the end of the Byzantine Empire (though of course Christian classics were added). Every literate Greek knew whole swaths of Homer by heart and had read the entire thing more than once. Just how do you envision this verse-adding happening? Picture some guy quoting Shakespeare: "To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, And feel terrible and really bad, Or..." Do you think that would somehow be accepted?

I'm all in favor of cynicism and questioning authority, but I don't think you're seeing the situation clearly. Once the text was codified in fifth-century Athens, that was it; all manuscripts derived from that Athenian version, and official texts (like those used in schools) were checked against accurate versions.

And note for comparison that the Vedas have been reproduced for many centuries, mostly orally until recently, with essentially no alteration (since ancient formulas that have been incomprehensible for two millennia have survived unaltered). Sacred texts don't get messed with easily.
posted by languagehat at 10:57 AM on August 30, 2007


I beg to differ with you, languagehat, at least in the degree of your certainty. Your comparison with the Vedas is interesting for a reason opposite to that you advance, I think. The Vedas are a sacred text, claimed as divine revelation, and this is precisely what the Homeric epics are not. I take your points about the codification of the text at some point (although we're talking about "interpolation" centuries later) and about the learning by heart by Greeks (when, by the way? BCE or CE?), but this doesn't make the texts into a liturgy. I consider human nature, the urge to add, embellish, tinker; the scarcely-connected seats of learning in the Dark Ages, where some scholar, a monk let's say, may have felt it behoved him to fill a lacuna (as he saw it) in the version of the text he possessed, and this by some vagary is passede down and accepted into the canon etc. etc. All speculation, but it has the ring of truth when we consider human nature, and is circumstantially supported by the discordance of plus and minus verses. Maybe Homer was considered 'sacred' and thus inviolable in the 5th century CE, but I suspect not, by our standards and also by the standards of Hindu priests preserving the Vedas. A more apt analogy, to my mind, might be the horrendous disfigurings visited in the 18th and 19th centuries on masterpieces of Renaissance painting: the painting-over of originals to meet contemporary taste. And these were valuable works by recognised masters which, yet, our not-too-distant forebears believed they could improve! You may well be right about the Homeric texts, but I can't, quite, share your confidence.
posted by londongeezer at 1:14 PM on August 30, 2007


I'm going to incline towards languagehat on the point of substantial addition/subtraction. We're dealing with a text that was subject to critical scholarship and recension in fifth-century Athens, so we're dealing with a far clearer textual history than, say, King Lear.

There's the standard tweaking that comes from scribal transmission, but any substantial medieval interpolation would have to come from someone who knew enough Homeric Greek to compose new verses to fill lacunae or similar, in a way that would not only pass muster, but somehow end up in the received tradition.
posted by holgate at 5:48 PM on August 30, 2007


« Older help with a couple question on mac/osx: kerning on...   |   Where did the big bang happen? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.