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Number 30 in this series. Link to all items here.

Homer, Vico, Naples & the Ur-Google

Prof. Vico: "Homer, are you aware of school
policy on plagiarism
Homer: " dog ate the original." 

I don't think there are many people—not just scholars, but real people—left in the world who think that a single poet named Homer ever sat down and cranked out both the Iliad and the Odyssey. There used to be, but then various points of view arose and discussions grew heated. Scholars get along with one another about like Achilles and Hector did.

The questions are: How many “Homers” were there? Is there at least one whom we might call a great poet? Or is it all a collection of folk tales passed on—perhaps through repetitive, formulaic song—from generation to generation until someone learned how to write? If that is the case, isn’t that just glorified stenography? These are not easy questions, which is fine, since I have no answers.

Although the ancients used to wonder how Homer did it, they were pretty sure that there was a Homer (maybe two). Then, along came Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) and said bluntly (in “The Discovery of the True Homer,” a section of The New Science): “We must suppose that the two poems were composed and compiled by various hands through successive ages...” and “The first age invented the fables to serve as true narratives...the second altered and corrupted them. The third and last, that of Homer, received them thus corrupted.” Says Vico, “...the Greek people were themselves Homer.” Independently of Vico and somewhat later, German scholar, Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) voiced pretty much the same opinion; thus, the entire 19th century was divided between "analysts" and "unitarians." The former were nit-pickers of language who pointed out all the anachronisms and inconsistencies in style (thus, one person could not have written both works); the latter worshiped the Romantic ideal of the single great mind and were simply offended that our greatest epic literature was a collection of tales handed down by countless anonymous folk-singers and poets until someone wrote it all down.

The battle lines between the two camps were fairly evenly drawn for a while until Homeric scholarship was revolutionized in the early 20th century by Milman Parry (1902-1935). He showed that Homeric style made extensive use of fixed expressions, or 'formulas.' This formulaic structure was, itself, composition—oral composition, very different from written composition, which came later. Parry and others showed that it was entirely plausible to suppose that the two poems were, indeed, composed and compiled by various hands—or voices, if you will, and passed on by the power of mnemonic formulas. If it is helpful, you may wish to think of this as "Old MacHomer had a farm...and on this farm he had some Laestrygonians." In any event, most Homeric scholars today have bought into Parry's idea to varying degrees.

In his introduction to Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, Bernard Knox sums up the controversy nicely in a way that does not necessarily make you choose between the 'oral' or 'literary' camps or even between one or many Homers. He says that while some of Parry's claims are extravagant and need revision,* it is certain that "Homer's unique style does show clearly that he was heir to a long tradition of oral poetry." Citing Geoffrey Kirk (The Songs of Homer, Cambridge, England, 1962), Knox says that the "epics were the work of an oral 'monumental composer' whose version imposed itself on bards and audiences...[but that]...writing [starting in the last half of the eighth century] did indeed play a role in the creation of these extraordinary poems [and that] the phenomena characteristic of oral epic...are balanced by qualities peculiar to literary composition."

*[note: Among the "extravagant claims" is one that says that as much as 90% of The Odyssey and The Iliad is formulaic. That is simply much too high. Also, the idea that an 'oral poet' cannot also be literate, while it may be true in the area of Parry's research in the Balkans, is demonstrably not true in at least some other folk traditions. Thus, goes the counter-claim, it is plausible that the Homeric epics are the result of both traditions, whether you mean one Homer or many. In any event, in the words of Ruth Finnegan, "The basic the continuity of oral and written literature. There is no deep gulf between the two: they shade into each other both in the present and over many centuries of historical development, and there are innumerable cases of poetry which has both 'oral' and 'written' elements. (Finnegan, p. 24).]

If you go back a bit to the pre-Parry period, you find some strange scholarship that not many people took seriously even at the time. Samuel Butler (best remembered today as the author of the utopian novel Erewhon (an anagram of "nowhere") proposed in the 1890s in The Authoress of the Odyssey that there were, indeed two authors: the man who wrote The Iliad and sometime later the woman who wrote the Odyssey. What's more, the latter was a Greek woman living near Trapani on Sicily in the year 1000 b.c., and all of the marvelous wanderings of Ulysses after the Trojan War and back home to Ithaca involved nothing more than a trip from Trapani around the island of Sicily and nearby small islands and back to Trapani. Even more, she wrote all this while using a copy of the Iliad "before her much as we have it now" for reference. Butler says:

...the theory that the Iliad and Odyssey were written each of them by various hands, and pieced together in various centuries by various editors, is not one which it is easy to treat respectfully ...The theory is founded on a supposition as to the date when writing became possible, which has long since been shown to be untenable.

I don't know if the origins of Greek writing were controversial in the 1890s, and Butler doesn't expand on "untenable." Today, there is no controversy; Greek writing did not exist before the year 800 b.c. Thus the idea of the lone Greek/Sicilian poetess writing the Odyssey in the year 1000 b.c. and even using a copy of the Iliad written before that time is—well, untenable.  Butler frequented and loved the town of Trapani, and his arguments are largely based on geographical similarities between rivers and mountains near Trapani and the descriptions of places in the Odyssey. Also, he says, the Iliad was clearly written for men by a man since it is full of men practicing male violence and deceit. The Odyssey, on the other hand, was clearly written for women by a woman since it is full of women doing womanly things. (Practicing female violence and deceit?) The London Times said in its obituary for Butler that he was always up for a good hoax and enjoyed them immensely. It adds, however, that he may have wound up believing this one.

It is worth noting, however, that Butler had at least one solid supporter—Robert Graves, who says in The Greek Myths [170.1]: "Apollodorus records (Epitome, vii. 29) that 'some have taken the Odyssey to be an account of a voyage around Sicily'." Graves summarizes Butler's views and then says, "It is difficult to disagree with Butler." (But knowing what we do today about the history of Greek writing, it is not at all difficult.)

So, who was Homer? Possibly the editor in Alexandria in the second century b.c. who finally gathered up and put together all the scraps of fables finally committed to writing after long centuries of oral history. Maybe he also ur-googled all the folk singers in the area who could still recite from memory and said, "Start singing, guys. Go slowly, please, because I have to get it all down. This 'writing' stuff can be tricky."

Finally, Vico does point out that at least one plausible etymology for the name "Homer" is homou, meaning "together" plus eirein, meaning "to link." Thus, he says, it is "natural and proper...[to apply]...the name to a putter together of fables."

Nevertheless, when you give Homer his final grade this term, be kind.

Many thanks to Prof. Warren Johnson for suggesting this topic to me and to Prof. Richard Kidder for helping me with the big words. Any errors or gross oversimplifications I have committed are clearly their fault and not mine.


Butler, Samuel. The Authoress of the Odyssey, Where and When She Wrote, Who She Was, the Use She Made of the Iliad and How the Poem Grew Under her Hands. London: A.C. Fifield, 1898.

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: its Nature, Significance, and Social Context. Cambridge, England. 1977.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths, 170.1. Moyer Bell Limited, Mt. Kisco, New York, 1988.

Haddock, B.A. "Vico's 'Discovery of the True Homer': A Case-Study in Historical Reconstruction." Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1979), pp. 583-602. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles; introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. Penguin Classics. New York, London, 1996.

Parry, Milman. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, edited by Adam Parry. Oxford University Press, 1971.

Vico, Giambattista. "Discovery of the true Homer" is Book III of La Scienza nuova seconda (Naples, 1744). The section was not in Vico's earlier edition from 1725. A convenient Italian version is Giambattista Vico, Opere, ed. Fausto Nicolini (Milan and Naples, 1953); an English translation is The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968).

Wolf, Friedrich August: Prolegomena zu Homer. 1795. Reclam, Leipzig, 1908. (German edition). An English version is Prolegomena to Homer. 1795. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J. 1985.

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