The Evolution of Homer

Every now and then The Intersection likes to pay tribute to the family that has been kicking it in Springfield for the last 20 years. Today we present Evolution... Simpsons style:

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And here I thought this would be an analysis by which oral histories of conflicts at the end of the Greek Bronze Age were formalized into tales skeletally memorized by traveling bards making use of stock phrases to extemporize...

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 12 Mar 2009 #permalink

Well you bring up a favorite topic and good question...

Was there really a single blind bard who composed my favorite epics? For even if Homer existed, surely The Iliad and The Odyssey evolved tremendously over time. In fact, they still are as evidenced by the travesty that was the 2004 movie 'Troy'. (Brad Pitt or not, you can't just go killing off the character Menelaus when he has to go on to appear in The Odyssey 10 years later.)

Well then, you might want to read The Singer of Tales, by Albert B. Lord, which is about Homer, although the author relies heavily on data gathered from traveling bards in Yugoslavia in the 1930s. From the Forward:

"This book is about Homer. He is our Singer of Tales. Yet in a larger sense he represents all singers of tales... our book is about these other singers as well. Each of them... is as much a part of the tradition of oral epic singing as is Homer, its most talented representative."

The basic point he makes is that such bards memorize only the skeletons of the tales, and then put together each performance on the fly, relying on a large set of standard phrases that fit the metrical requirements of the moment. This is why we see so many repetitions of "wine-dark sea", "owl-eyed Athena", and -- what *was* that phrase for wily Odysseus? As a result, the tales grew and merged with older tales. The evolution of the Arthurian legends is understood in much greater detail, and we can apply its lessons to Homer. For example, the original hero of the Arthurian legends was probably Kay (Caius), who was replaced by Arthur, who was in the process of being replaced by Lancelot when printing froze the legends in place.

Anyway, it's really neat stuff. And don't be too harsh on "Troy". The great thing about these huge cycles is that they are so plastic, they can be used to address any artistic theme. The Arthurian legends were originally about the hopes of cultural resurrection for the Breton Celts, and were then hijacked to become models of chivalric courtesy for French audiences, and in modern times were grabbed for social satire (Mark Twain), cartoon fun (Disney), Broadway romantic musical (Camelot), feminism (Mists of Avalon) and dark cinema (Excalibur). I can't wait for Odysseus traveling around the Mediterranean on a raft accompanied by an runaway slave. Or how about Iraq as Troy and Obama as Odysseus who comes up with a Trojan Horse that works in the OTHER direction? ;-)

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 12 Mar 2009 #permalink HUGE internet crush now - Simpsophilia was the tipping point.

By OneHandClapping (not verified) on 13 Mar 2009 #permalink