Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Minna Skafte Jensen, Writing Homer: a Study Based on Results from Modern Fieldwork. Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica 8, 4. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2011. Pp. 440. ISBN 9788773043615. DKK 375.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Joel Christensen, The University of Texas at San Antonio (

Version at BMCR home site

At some point the Iliad and the Odyssey made the very real and material leap from idea to object. In Writing Homer, a culmination of decades of publication, Minna Skafte Jensen dispenses with extreme competing positions (West's imagined literate poet and Nagy's evolutionary model) as anachronistic and heedless of the evidence and argues that the Homeric epics were composed orally, dictated and written down around 522 BCE in Athens under the sponsorship of Hipparchus by a team of scribes headed by the Onomacritus known from Herodotus (7.6.3). A Panathenaic victor, Cynaethus (according to a scholion toNemean 2.1, composer of the Hymn to Apollo) performed an expanded version of the "Wrath of Achilles" to commemorate his accomplishment. The recording lasted 24 days; a later rhapsode repeated the feat in expanding the "Homecoming of Odysseus". The official texts, prepared and transcribed, were deposited in the Acropolis. Three votive statues of scribes were dedicated in commemoration.

Jensen has published parts of these suggestions before1 and she supports her conclusions with a wealth of material drawn from modern oral traditions, taking on the sacred tenets of many oralists, textualists and neoanalysts with an evenhanded tone and a transparent logic that must be respected even if her conclusions are not believed. The first part of the book (chapters 1-4) presents the details of fieldwork in modern oral traditions; the second half re-examines the performance and textualization of Homer in the light of these more recent analogues.

Chapter 1 ("Epic Fieldwork") introduces six modern oral epic traditions (Nyanga Mwindo Epic; Tamilnadu Brothers' Epic; Telugu Epic of Palnadu; Arabic Sirat Bani Hilal; Tulu Siri Epic; and Karakalpak Epic of Edige) followed by a discussion of methodological obstacles (e.g., a common cross- cultural definition of "epic", studying the normal rather than the exceptional, and the impact of the scholar in eliciting special performances). Chapter 2 ("The Oral-Formulaic Theory Revisited") surveys four aspects of oral-formulaic theory (diction, formula, theme and adding style) and argues that, while Milman Parry's terminology is most appropriate for Homer, all oral traditions seem to exhibit some degree of "formulaicness". More substantially, Jensen criticizes the loose definition of "theme" in oral-formulaic studies for covering both type-scenes and story patterns.

In chapter 3 ("Oral Epic in Performance") Jensen identifies "the time-span available and the competence of singer and audience" (82) as decisive factors in creating longer songs for modern oral epics and then focuses on the characteristics and identities of epic singers. Here, Jensen shows that training and performance structure affect the nature of a longer song. Most interesting in the discussion of the way oral poets learn and work is the assertion that memorization and composition in performance are not mutually exclusive; instead, as Jensen effectively argues, memorization is the means by which novice singers first begin to develop the knowledge and skill required to compose.

The variation that develops with a singer's skill is the subject of Chapter 4 ("The Flexible Oral Epic") which contemplates the seeming paradox that oral traditions are continually changing (on a synchronic level) but relatively stable (from a diachronic perspective). While the paradox diminishes from the perspective of both genre and tradition (audience expectation and forms of transmission limit change and preserve core character), nevertheless, Jensen's survey of variation shows that no component of a song in an oral tradition is immune to change. Despite the fact that the "mental text" of an individual singer will stabilize over time, when a new singer learns a song (or a singer learns a new song) significant variation occurs.

In Chapter 5 ("Homeric Performance"), Jensen applies modern evidence to the performance of the Homeric poems and surveys relevant literary evidence (topoi from the epics, Plato's Ion, and theVita Herodotea) and details concerning the Panathenaea to argue convincingly that the Homeric epics were recited by professional singers and that rhapsodes of the classical era are the equivalent of epic singers: Jensen shows that rhapsodos and aoidos are synonymous and that distinctions arise from scholarly prejudices. When it comes to the debated events of the Panathenaea, Jensen argues that the rule to compete ex hypolepseos or ex hypoboles induced competitors to choose parts from any song of the Homeric tradition (since "Homer" in this period did not denote the two epics alone) in a turn-taking similar to the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod. Most surprising for many classicists may be Jensen's conclusion that comparative evidence provides no support for rhapsodes performing the Iliad and Odyssey as we know them. From comparative material, Jensen also asserts that it is unlikely rhapsodes would have used or promoted written versions of the epics.

The issue of the singer's written text is not a red herring—in the following chapter ("Transitional Texts"), Jensen suggests that too many scholars have misunderstood Albert Lord's statement (later modified) that a text can only be oral or written.2 Instead, Lord's observation indicates that oral poets rarely depart from their traditional craft. Even under pressure from multiple forms of modern media, oral traditions tend to maintain their conventions. For archaic Greece, however, no modern analogy corresponds to the introduction of writing. To illustrate the limits of early Greek composition in writing and dispel the notion that the use of writing explains the sophistication of the Iliad and Odyssey, Jensen compares the Homeric epics to Herodotus' Histories and concludes that the epics are more sophisticated because they were orally composed.

If not transitional texts, what are the Homeric epics? Chapter 7 ("Gradual Fixation"), in dismissing Nagy's popular evolutionary model, examines modern examples from oral traditions along with the Gilgamesh poems to show that our epics exhibit the type of variation evident in longstanding textual transmissions rather than the deeper variation common to different performances of the same oral tradition. According to Jensen, the uniformity of the epics (noted by other scholars), must be due to a single recording. Jensen turns to studies of ancient art to argue that our poems were largely unknown to the larger public.

Chapter 8 ("The Iliad and Odyssey in Context") explains this divergence: within the pervasive Trojan war tradition, "Homer" referred to oral epic performance throughout antiquity; it is only in literary studies, educational contexts and among the elite that "Homer" is the author of our epics. Accordingly, the Iliad and Odyssey are typical episodes that have undergone uncommon expansion. The demands of an expansion, when a singer would supplement his "mental text" of the "Wrath of Achilles" or the "Return of Odysseus" with doubling and mirroring, Jensen suggests, explain many of the inconsistencies and borrowings identified by classical and neo-analysis. Jensen's contention about this cultural divide is one of the more important contributions of this book. Where the evolutionary model sees the lesser frequency of references to scenes from our Iliad and Odyssey as indicative of a developing tradition and the absence of the text, for Jensen ancient evidence proves that "Homer" meant more than these epics into the Roman era and that modern analogies support the separate coexistence of a silent, fossilized text and a living oral tradition.

In chapter 9 ("The Dictation of the Iliad and the Odyssey"), which applies modern evidence to the process of recording the Homeric epics, Jensen mines ancient evidence to contend that Cynaethus recited the Iliad for Onomacritus and his team. In the process of this discussion, she makes several keen observations on how a rhapsode's expansion of a "mental text" explains some classic textual problems (mostly interpolations; e.g., Il. 2.558, 7.333-42, 9.182-198, book 10, Od. 4.512-23, 7.80-81, and 11.601-5). Jensen argues effectively that segments like the Salamis passage in the Catalogue and book 10 were not regularly part of the rhapsode's "mental text" but were incorporated for exceptional expansion or for the sake of the Athenian context (as with the Salamis passage or Herakles in the Nekyia of Odyssey book 11).

Chapter 10 ("Twice Twenty-four Books") presents the 24-book structure as a part of the original recordings against a consensus that later editors made the division. Jensen also supplements her contention that two different rhapsodes performed the two epics by examining book endings and beginnings. Her analysis of the narrative and formulaic structure of the individual books, supported both by recent literary arguments3 and examples from modern performances, is rather persuasive. The additional proposals that each rhapsody was the performance of one evening and that the Odyssey recording was made to parallel the Iliad are attractive but more speculative.

Chapter 11 suggests that three statuettes, held in the Acropolis Museum (Acr. 144, 146, 629) were dedicated to commemorate the recording of the epics. While the proposal is not without its charm and the discussion of archaeological detail is very interesting, the offerings, produced as an additional "proof" that the recording occurred between 522 and 510 BCE, do not seem to have a demonstrable connection to Homer or the epics. If the statuettes are exceptional as votive offerings, it does not necessarily follow that they would be connected to another exceptional, and otherwise unsubstantiated, event. Chapter 12 offers a summary of the book's main arguments.

Generally, this book is a brisk and compelling read, especially as an introduction to the modern source texts and problems of the textualization process. The diffuse structure and chapter-ending summaries invite browsing; the presentation is marred at time by some sloppy copy-editing and typos (e.g., incomplete parentheses, un-indented block quotes (242), and typos of varying severity such as "Finkelstein" for "Finkelberg" (230) and "Spartiats" (276)). Jensen is fairly transparent with her data and, in saving so many of her Homer-specific conclusions for the book's end, allows a reader to mull over the evidence. As a result, Jensen's proposals are strongest when talking in general terms, lucid in describing the conditions of performance, dictation and textualization, and quite relevant in discussing the consequences of different social and cultural pressures. However, the book is sometimes abrupt and arbitrary with sparse classical evidence.

I find Jensen's arguments about a single moment of writing persuasive (though not wholly); less convincing is her insistence on a "single Homeric genius", a "rhapsode as the recomposer of each poem" (229) or the specific context. She implies, it seems, that the genius of the poems is due to the talent of a single man rather than the tradition and the circumstance and dismisses with limited discussion the idea that multiple rhapsodes could have been part of the recorded performance.

To be fair, Jensen concedes that her proposal is speculative, but insists that it, unlike others, is based on a "documented comparative framework" (300). The overly specific nature of her proposal should give anyone pause; the willing use of serendipitous data (Cynaethus, Onomacritus, the votive statues) will probably be unconvincing to most. But Jensen's marshaling of comparative data, her rather convincing argument about the types of variations that occur when different performances of an oral tradition are recorded, and persuasive re-evaluation of competing social-class-specific definitions of "Homer" demand consideration.

When it comes down to it, the Homeric epics were written down at some point and the occasion probably was both exceptional (in that it took place only once) and mundane (in that few outside of the experiment took notice of it). How much evidence could such an event possibly leave? Jensen's discussions are good correctives for a romantic resistance against contemplating the textualization of the epics and a fine contribution to dictation theory.


1.   M. S. Jensen, The Homeric-Question and Oral-Formulaic Theory (Copenhagen 1980); "Dividing Homer: When and How Were the Iliad and the Odyssey." (SymbolaeOsloenses), 74 (1999) 5-35,73- 91).
2.   A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge 1960, 2000) 124-138.
3.   E.g., B. Heiden, Homer's Cosmic Fabrication: Choice and Design in the Iliad (Oxford, 2008).

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the poems were orally composed, dictated, and written down at a single time, but in 522 BC? If you can believe that, then you can believe anything. We should stick with the archaeologpical, linguistic, and historical evidence that places Homer in the 8th century BC. Jensen's wild speculation calls into question everything she says about Homer.