In a Platonic dialogue, Socrates describes Homer as “the best and most divine of the poets.” Not a bad blurb, if taken at face value. Such an exalted position, however, could not remain unchallenged. Homer’s excellence, not to mention his very existence, has been frequently called into question over the millennia.
Paradoxically, it was a humble folk instrument from the Balkans—the gusle—that 80 years ago dealt Homer’s lyre a nearly mortal blow. A hand-carved, one-stringed wooden box covered with animal skin, the gusle is held upright in the lap and played with a bow, like a mutant violin. As Adam Nicolson writes in his imaginative and emotional Why Homer Matters, “Nothing about the sound of the gusle is charming.” But charming or not, this musical instrument has helped reduce Homer, at least for classical scholars, to a mythical being, a mere name imposed on a poetic corpus that evolved organically over time.
In the early 1930s, a Harvard professor named Milman Parry traveled to Yugoslavia to make recordings of the Serbo-Croatian guslars, illiterate singers of traditional ballads who performed at festivals and in coffee houses. According to Nicolson, the guslars “always sang their long epic songs of battle and disaster with a kind of hard energy, loud, at a high pitch, the singer’s whole frame gripped with the effort. This was no smooth crooning but a passionate engagement of mind and body.” Each performance was different because the bard composed as he sang, with the help of a fixed syllabic pattern and word units that fit the meter.
The best way to imagine this mode of composition is to think of jazz improvisation, which may begin with the germ of a melody and is elaborated on the spot, while adhering to a traditional set of rules or chord progressions that give it structure.
The paradigm-changing claim of Milman Parry and his followers was that the Iliad and the Odyssey were the products of a centuries-old, preliterate tradition of oral composition similar to that of the guslars. The idea of the epics as designed for oral performance is not farfetched, since the Homeric epics themselves depict bards singing epic tales. (This is art taking a selfie, so to speak, roughly 2,800 years ago.)
What was new about Parry’s work, however, was his claim that the performance was the moment of composition. His chief evidence was Homeric epithets such as “wine-dark sea,” “swift-footed Achilles,” and “rosy-fingered dawn,” which sometimes seem inapposite where they appear, but each of which has a unique rhythmic shape. He argued that the epithets were not chosen to be particularly meaningful, but rather served as compositional aids to the singer, inserted on the fly into slots of the dactylic hexameter where needed. At some later date, the fluid process of extemporaneous composition was replaced by memorized performances of the poems. Finally, perhaps around 750 b.c.e., the epics were written down and became the texts we have today.
Milman Parry died in 1935 at the age of 33, when, according to Nicolson, “a revolver mixed in with his clothes in a suitcase” went off “accidentally.” His papers were published posthumously by his Yale classicist son Adam, who was also fated to die young, along with his classicist wife Anne, in a motorcycle accident in France in 1971.
The influence of Milman Parry’s ideas, fitting so perfectly with the zeitgeist, and magnified no doubt by the drama of the three untimely Parry deaths, was so domineering that any hapless classics graduate student in the 1970s or thereafter who ventured to utter the noun “Homer” followed by the verb “wrote” could expect to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of the seminar room on a rail. As a result, in the view of most classicists today, there was never a person called “Homer,” any more than there was a Theseus or a Heracles. The name Homer is just shorthand for the process of centuries-long oral composition that resulted in the two epics attributed to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey.