First posted on my classics blog, Memento, on 6 May 2015.
Most people today who encounter the Iliad and the Odyssey encounter them as books:
Yet the Homeric epics were originally oral poems. They were not read: they were listened to, as they were sung out loud by trained singers (aoidoi and rhapsóidoi). This, unfortunately, is an experience which most modern readers of Homer will never encounter. The best that most of us can do is listen to scholarly reconstructions - see here, for example.
Oral epic poems, recounting at length the deeds of cultural heroes, are quite common in traditional societies. They have certain recurring features. They are generally composed in stylised, archaic language. They are often performed by bards who accompany themselves on stringed instruments. And they are sometimes attributed to some legendary master poet. In all of these respects, the Iliad and the Odyssey are quite typical. They are not even all that long by cross-cultural standards, although in most societies it would be unusual for the whole of an epic to be performed in a single sitting.
The Greek tradition of bardic song - the tradition which culminated in Homer - goes back into the mists of time. It seems to have originated with the Greeks' Indo-European ancestors; and it was also influenced by the practices of neighbouring Near-Eastern societies. Homer himself tells us a bit about the tradition. He depicts two bards at work in the Odyssey, Demodocus and Phemius, both of whom are attached to the courts of kings. We also learn something about bardic ideology from Homer. It seems that the bard presented himself as the instrument of the Muses, the traditional goddesses of the arts. He was a kind of vessel for divine poetic inspiration. This conception of the role of the singer-poet explains why Homer's narrative has a distinctively impersonal, objective tone.
It has been known for quite a long time that the Homeric poems grew out of an oral tradition. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European scholars compared them to the folk ballads that formed part of peasant culture in their own societies. Yet it was only in the 1920s that the epics' character as oral texts was demonstrated in detail. This was due to the work of an American scholar called Milman Parry. Parry concentrated on the repeated formulaic lines and phrases that are found embedded in Homer's verse - "wily Odysseus" and "when early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared" are perhaps the best known. Formulae of this kind are a telltale sign of oral origins. Parry made two field trips to Yugoslavia in 1933-35 to study that country's living tradition of oral poetry. He died in 1935, at the young age of 33, but his research was carried on by his former assistant Albert Lord, who published a seminal work on the subject entitled The Singer of Tales in 1960.
One interesting insight that arose out of Parry's work was that bards in traditional oral cultures do not memorise their material word for word. No two performances of a single epic-type song are the same. The singers merely follow the same general plot line and construct their verses off the cuff, using a traditional stock of formulaic material but without aiming for verbatim accuracy. This is referred to in the scholarly literature as "composition-in-performance" (and, incidentally, this is where the analogy with short folk ballads breaks down: they do tend to be memorised and repeated more or less word for word). The process includes the influence of the listeners on the bard: his work product will differ depending on what kind of audience he has.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were first reduced to writing at some point in or around the 600s BC (scholars used to prefer a dating in the 700s). Quite how this happened is still unclear. It is sometimes suggested that the epics' monumental scale means that they must have been produced under aristocratic patronage. But this theory sits uneasily with the fact that the poems are not propaganda for established conservative values. The Iliad in particular is a text in a tragic vein which shows clear signs of disliking the gods, war and social hierarchy.
Epic poetry subsequently became the domain of literate scholar-poets like Virgil and Apollonius of Rhodes (and indeed Dante and John Milton). Literate writers of epic retained some of the old conventions - the odd formulaic phrase and the pretence that they were singing under the inspiration of the Muses. But by this time such conventions were just that - conventions. By contrast, the world of Homer was not one of literary craftsmanship and learned wordplay. It was closer to the campfire than the common room.