A few years ago, I completed a course through the Open University called ‘Homer: Poetry and Society’. The final assignment was an essay which I had to set myself. I got to choose a question, and answer it. I always liked the essay, and so I thought I would share it here.
Find representative examples, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, of simultaneous events which are reported as being successive. Examine this technique, and consider the reasons the poet may have had for using it.
It widely believed that Homer’s poems owe a great deal to oral methods of composition, but we owe our knowledge of them to the fact that they were, at some point, written down. It is tempting to consider the ways in which a story aimed at a listening audience would differ from one which had been written down, for a literate, reading audience, and to see if we can detect any trace of an interface between the two forms in the structure of the poems. It is my belief that the works of Homer do straddle this interface, owing the vast bulk of their matter and style to the oral tradition, but betraying, in some details, an intention to bend and break the rules of the oral technique for artistic effect. Because of the stylistic norms which the poet was working in, the reporting of simultaneous events was impossible, and he/she was forced to innovate to allow the complex temporal structure of the poems.
It will first be necessary to describe the strict linear nature of oral composition, and then to demonstrate, through examples, how the poet got around the limitations imposed.
The Linear Nature of Oral Composition
One of the ‘signature’ features of Oral compositions is the use of ‘ring-composition’ (Learning Guide 1, page 29). This is a technique which leads the listener away from the central narrative, and then leads them back again. Willcock conjectures that ring-composition ‘probably originated as a mnemonic method for the oral bard.’ (Companion the The Iliad, page 10). I would argue that it is more likely that its use aids the listener. The bard is essentially performing a play, with many characters, but without (we presume) the use of quick costume changes or other scenery to give his story texture. He therefore has to be especially careful, when leaving the ‘scene’ that the departure is signaled to the audience, and the return is made equally obvious. A classic example, the Story of Niobe (Iliad 24:599-620), might be rendered thus:
599-601 A1 Take your son back later
601 B1 Let us eat
602-3 C1 Niobe ate
603-6 D1 Niobe’s children
607-8 E1 Niobe’s offence
609-12 D2 Niobe’s children
613 C2 Niobe ate
618-19 B2 Let us eat
599-601 A2 Take your son back later
There is no logical reason for A2, B2, C2 or D2 to be present in a written text, but there are strong reasons for them to be present to a live audience.
There is modern evidence which bears out the necessity of careful flagging when changing the ‘scene’ in a linear narrative. Television and radio news today (another purely oral medium) follow exactly the same ‘nesting’ patterns outlined above, a typical example of which I have outlined below:
A1 Presenter: ‘Disaster at X. Reporter on the ground has this report…’
B1 Reporter on Ground: ‘This is the nature of the disaster…’
C1 Edited footage of interviews and scenes on the ground
B2 Reporter on Ground: ‘This is Reporter Y, at X for Z News…’
A2 Presenter: ‘That report was by Reporter Y’
Again, A2 and B2 serve no purpose other than to return us to the starting point and ensure we know when one item ends and another begins. The fact that such recent innovations as television news borrow this technique (without, we presume any reference to classical oral tradition) bears out its use to the listener.
This ‘nesting’ occurs in many other parts of Homer’s narrative. For example, when direct speech is used it is vital that the audience are aware that someone other than the narrator is ‘speaking’. So, the poet is careful to devote a whole line to introducing the speaking character, and another line to complete the speech. For instance, Odyssey 4, 59-65:
59 A1 ‘Then in greeting fair-haired Menelaos said to them…’
60-64 B1 Direct Speech
65 A2 ‘So he spoke…’
The Reporting of Simultaneous Events
One of the side effects of the linear nature of the oral narrative is that it is always moving forward. To the listener, and events occurs as the narrator describes them, and the action moves forward one line at a time. If he/she describes an explosion, for example, from the vantage point of one character, and then goes back and describes it from the viewpoint of another character, that listener would count two explosions, and be in danger of believing that one explosion happened twice. It is exactly this sort of confusion that the ‘nested’ nature of the oral narrative is designed to prevent.
As Bowra writes ‘Time presents [a] difficulty to the oral poet. He has no easy was to depict contemporaneous actions. In a book this presents no difficulty, but the oral poet, with his concentration on one thing at a time has no ready means to suggest that something else happens somewhere else at a given time. His method is to neglect the difficulty and present as happening in sequence events which really happen simultaneously’ (Heroic Poetry page 313-4)
There are several points in the poems where this problem could occur, and the poet resolves it by leaving the exact sequence of events in an ambiguous state. I will describe two famous examples below.
1: Iliad Book 12
Here, the poet departs from his usual method of describing battle scenes i.e. through the eyes of one warrior who is given an Aristeia. The Aristeia method is ideal for oral composition; as the events are focused on one individual they can easily be described in a linear way. In The Iliad Book 12, however something more complex is attempted. Willcock says ‘It is pretty clear that this is not traditional material but is invented for the present scene by the poet of the Iliad’ (Companion, page 139). Here the Trojans divide themselves into five groups, who all attack the Achaen walls.
Groups Lines Description
1-33 Narrator: The wall will fall, but not yet.
34-59 Battle: Trojans stop at the ditch
60-79 Poulydamas: Let us dismount
80-87 All dismount, form into groups
88-107 Division of men, charge
1 108-174 Asios’ attack
175-180 Narrator: Too much happening at once!
1 181-194 Asios’ action defeated
2 195-209 Hektor: portent of the bird
2 210-229 Poulydamas: Let’s not attack the ships
2 230-250 Hektor: Coward – onwards!
251-264 Zeus backs Hektor
X 265-289 Aiantes inside the walls
3 290-328 Sarpedon: Attack!
3-X 329-396 Menestheus sees Sarpedon – Calls for Aiantes, who attack
3-X 397-399 Sarpedon breaks down the wall
3-X 400-412 Aias attacks Sarpedon
413-441 General Meleé
2 442-472 Hektor’s Deeds, ending with smashing the wall.
This passage is a brilliant compromise between the linear nature of the oral technique, and the thrilling innovation of a multi-layered narrative. It is clear that all division are attacking more or less simultaneously – as the poet expressly states in line 175. But it is perfectly possible to read this account in a linear way, because of the insertion of lines 195-209, which have Hektor waiting for a portent before joining battle. This is, to say the least, illogical – the other divisions seem to feel no need for this. It is tempting to see the insertion of these lines being there to allow the poem to conform to the conservative conventions of the oral tradition, even though the rest of the book is clearly breaking with the traditional description of a battle.
2: Odyssey Books 1 to 5
Book 1, line 26 of the Odyssey, describes a council of the gods. Athene (48-62) begs leave, in the absence of Poseidon, to help Odysseus return home. Hermes is dispatched to Odysseus by Zeus (84-7) and Athene goes to Telemachos (85-95). We follow Athene to Telemachos, and follow him further to Pylos and Sparta, and stay with him until the eve of his departure from there (Book 4:624). We then return to Ithaka and find the suitors planning to ambush Telemachos on his return, at the end of Book 4. At the start of Book 5 Athene returns to Olympus and repeats her plea to Zeus, who, rather indignantly (Book 5, lines 23-24), commands her to do the things she was supposed to do in Book 1. Jones writes ‘Possibly Homer felt the sea-change in the story at this point was so violent that he needed to adopt special tactics to keep his listeners up to date…’ (Homer’s Odyssey, page 48).
Again, the poet is keeping to the letter of the law with regard to the oral technique, but he/she is flouting the spirit of it. Artistically it is very desirable to have Books 1 to 4 and Books 5 to 14 working simultaneously, with the two narrative strands combining in book 15. This way, it is possible to hold back the introduction of Odysseus until his absence has been truly emphasised, and to leave a cliff-hanger ambush at the end of book 4. (The use of direct speech from Books 9 – 12 to fill in the ‘back-story’ is another example of adding temporal complexity within the linear rules.)
However, the insertion of lines 23-24 in Book 5 make it perfectly possible to read the whole narrative as linear, even though it does stretch credulity. The poet obviously felt that the artistic gains outweighed the risk of confusing his audience.
Homer was clearly steeped in the traditions of oral story telling. Stories had been told in a particular way for a very long time, and his/her audience would have expected the rules to be obeyed. If he had strayed too far from their expectations, he would have risked confusing them. It is possible however, the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed at a time when story telling was presented with new possibilities as a result of written composition. The mechanics of reading a text, instead of merely hearing it, would have presented many new opportunities, such as increasing the complexity of plots, making narratives last much longer than a poet could recite, and giving the reader time to read and re-read at his/her own pace, and to reflect. Change in technique would have come very slowly, however, and it may be that the ‘explanation’ lines outlined above allowed an innovative poet to push the old methods to the breaking point, while exploring the possibilities of the written medium
The Iliad of Homer, trans (R. Lattimore) 1951, The University of Chicago Press
The Odyssey of Homer, trans (R. Lattimore) 1967, HarperPerennial
Homer’s Odyssey, Peter Jones, 1999, Bristol Classical Press
A Companion to the Iliad, M. M. Willcock, 1976, The University of Chicago Press
Heroic Poetry, C. M. Bowra, 1966, Macmillan