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The Iliad as Oral Formulaic Poetry
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading

As we have seen, the Iliad was composed c. the late 8th century. By the mid-6th century the text seems to have been firmly established, with various cities in Asia Minor vying for the honor of claiming Homer as their native son. Prior to the 8th century a "text" in the proper sense was impossible, since the art of writing was first imported from the Near East c. 800-750 B.C.

[Just as the Mycenaeans seem to have learned to write through trade contacts with the Minoans, so the Greeks of the archaic period rediscovered the art of writing through dealings with Phoenician traders. The shapes and names of the characters of the Greek alphabet are Phoenician, but their phonetic values were modified by the Greeks to meet the particular demands of the Greek language. The alphabet employed in the western world today is a modified form of the Greek alphabet, inherited by the Romans from the Etruscans. See The World of Athens 7.1-5 and chapter one of B. F. Cook's, Greek Inscriptions (Berkeley, 1987).]

It is striking, then, that Homer, the product of a pre-literate culture, seems to possess such a clear knowledge of the Mycenaean civilization, which had utterly vanished some 400 years before his time. For example, Homer not only recalls a time when grand palaces existed, he knows their precise identity and location: the catalogue of forces at Iliad 2.484ff. refers to a number of Mycenaean sites (many of them relatively obscure) that had been destroyed in the general collapse of that civilization c. 1200 and never been re-inhabited. (Modern archaeologists have successfully employed this section of Homer's poem as an archaeological guidebook of sorts.) He also recalls a good deal about Mycenaean warfare: the fact that bronze weapons were used (as opposed to the sturdier iron weapons of Homer's own time), the use of chariots (which figure prominently in the Linear B tablets but were not significant in the warfare of Homer's day; note that, while he is aware of their existence, Homer doesn't have a very clear idea of their use: chariots in the Iliad are generally employed as taxicabs to ferry the heroes to and from the battle), the types of armor (most significant: Ajax's "tower-like" shield, a type of shield that appears many times in Mycenaean art but was not generally in use in the 8th century). He also recalls something of Mycenaean art: the elaborately wrought shield of Achilles in Book 18 recalls Mycenaean metalwork; Nestor's cup at Iliad 11.631ff. is very like actual cups discovered by archaeologists. Homer may even recall something of the political structure of the Mycenaean kingdoms: the relationship between the political leader Agamemnon and the chief warrior Achilles has been felt by some to reflect the relationship between the Mycenaean king (the wanax — a term repeatedly used by Homer of Agamemnon) and the military commander (the lawagetas, or "leader of the host"). [Cf. below on the Stratigraphy of the Homeric Poems.]

Because our poem is the product of a later age, there are many accretions and anachronisms in the Iliad that reflect the reality of Homer's own time. For instance, the society presented on Achilles' shield and in Homer's many similes seems to recall the simple agrarian communities of the Dark Ages. There are specific references, e.g., to Phoenician traders. Above all, Homer's presentation of the royal palaces reflects nothing of the intricate, centralized, and quite Byzantine bureaucracy evident in the Linear B tablets, nor is our poet familiar with the art of writing (the one mention of writing in the poem, at Iliad 6.168, refers rather uneasily to "murderous symbols"). The economy of the Mycenaean palaces was based very much on eastern Mediterranean models; Homer, by contrast, tends to present us with the picture of a typical Greek Dark Age household writ large, embellished with fairy tale elaborations.

For more on the "Dark Age elements" in the Homeric poems, see O.T.P.K. Dickinson, "Homer, the Poet of the Dark Age," in Greece & Rome 33 (1986) 20-37 (reprinted in Greece and Rome Studies IV: Homer [Oxford, 1998] 19-37), and E.S. Sherratt, "'Reading Texts': Archaeology and the Homeric Question," in Antiquity 64 (1990) 807-24.

The Iliad, then, presents a melange of Mycenaean and Dark Age elements that comes to be written down in more or less its final form c. the late 8th or early 7th century. The story that it tells may incorporate historical fact to some degree, but a number of the mythic patterns it invokes seem to derive from Indo-European or Near Eastern sources, or from the indigenous, pre-"Greek" religious myths of the southern Balkan Peninsula. [For example, there is evidence that Helen was originally a local fertility goddess; the story of her "rape" finds parallels in a number of fertility myths, some of which we will meet when we read Herodotus. The theme of Achilles' anger has been traced to an Indo-European mythic pattern, while his relationship to his friend Patroclus finds near parallels in the Sumerian/Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh.]

The curious mix of myth and history presented by the Iliad poses a number of questions. (For example: How was knowledge of the Mycenaean age preserved over generations? When and how did the Iliad come to be written down?) Above all, there is the question of Homer himself (a series of questions, actually, grouped together — appropriately enough — under the title of *The Homeric Question): Did the same man compose both the Iliad and the Odyssey? Is one poet in fact responsible for either of these poems? (I.e., is there a single "monumental" poet who conceived the idea of composing such an immense work, or are the Homeric poems merely compilations of shorter lays, stitched together to form a longer whole?) If there was such a poet, was his name Homer, and when and where did he live? — For the most part, these questions won't concern us (particularly since we won't be reading the Odyssey), but the question of the unity of the Iliad and its manner of composition will be important, because it concerns the way in which we read and interpret the poem. [See below for further discussion of the Homeric Question.]

It used to be thought that Homer was a poet like any other, i.e. a writer who sat down, pen in hand, to compose a lengthy heroic poem on the wrath of Achilles. People had always noted certain odd features about his style, particularly the repeated lines and parts of lines, and the ever-present use of formulaic phrases or "tags." Thus, when one hero responds to another, the poet again and again introduces the reply with the set line: "Then in answer again spoke ... [fill in a name]." When a warrior falls in battle, the poet again and again uses the line, "He fell, thunderously, and his armor clattered upon him." And so forth. Sometimes whole groups of lines are repeated, more or less verbatim, to describe generic scenes such as the preparation of a feast, the fitting out of a ship, or a warrior arming for battle. Even more odd is the way messengers in the poem repeat quite lengthy messages more or less verbatim for no apparent reason. And even when such verbatim repetitions are not involved, the poet has the habit of employing the same ornamental adjectives (known as *epithets) or adjectival phrases again and again when speaking of his heroes (e.g., swift-footed Achilles; lord of men, Agamemnon; resourceful Odysseus; Hector of the shining helm).

Originally these quirks of style were regarded as part of Homer's "genius." He realized, it was felt, that such repetitions would lend his poem an air of simplicity, elegance, and timelessness. Behind the individual struggles of his heroes, Homer made us see the unchanging world of nature, where the sea is always murmuring, the heavens always starry, gold always shining, and so forth. Thus the poet was felt to highlight the heroic suffering of his characters by setting them against a backdrop of timeless order and regularity. Homer, it was argued, displayed the Greek genius — found in the best Classical art — for combining the real with the ideal, leading us to see the universal relevance of his heroes' fates even as we appreciated them in all their individual splendor.


There is a good deal to be said for such a reading of the Iliad. But the stylistic oddities on which it is based are not the result of a conscious choice on the poet's part; instead, they represent a fundamental aspect of his manner of composition. This was demonstrated in the early years of this century by a scholar named Milman Parry. Parry (along with his student, Albert Lord) revealed that all of these quirks of Homer's style are typical of poetry composed and performed orally, without the aid of writing. Homer was not a poet sitting all alone, pen in hand, in a musty garret, but an oral bard performing before a live audience. Rather than reciting a set text that he had memorized in advance, he created his poems afresh at each performance. The fact that those poems were based on traditional themes helped: he did not have to create new plots and new characters at each performance but instead could draw upon a vast repertoire of traditional tales concerning the various heroes. His audience would not expect him to shock them with new twists to the story (as modern audiences tend to do) but instead would be interested in the particular significance that he was able to elicit from the traditional subject matter by his particular rendition. Even with these advantages, however, Homer's task was a daunting one, particularly given the exacting nature of the meter in which he was composing. To aid them in their task, the bards had developed an elaborate stock of set lines, groups of lines, and parts of lines that they could employ in weaving together their verse. Unlike a modern poet, who must puzzle over each individual word and phrase, the Homeric bard was able to draw upon his vast store of set phrases (or formulae) and lines. Thus the Iliad is an example of *oral formulaic verse — that is, poetry that is composed in performance by a bard who draws upon an elaborate system of set lines and phrases in composing his verse on a traditional theme.

The sophistication of the poetic tradition of which Homer is a product was demonstrated by Parry through a study of various heroes' names. Parry studied the epithets associated with the more important characters in the poem and found something interesting. Before looking at Parry's findings, however, it is necessary to examine the makeup of Homer's verse. The Iliad is composed in *dactylic hexameter — that is, each line consists of six metrical units (hexameter), the basic metrical unit being the dactyl (a long syllable followed by two short syllables [ ̄ ̌ ̌ ], named after the Greek word for "finger" [extend the index finger of your left hand and you will see why]). Thus the basic pattern of each line in the Iliad is diagrammed as follows (the final indicates a syllable that can be either long or short (anceps) — note how the last foot is cut short (syncopation), a device that serves to highlight the end of each line and so distinguish one line from another):

̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄

To avoid monotony, the poet could vary the line by substituting a single long syllable in place of two short syllables at different places, and by inserting various pauses in the line. These pauses tend to occur at certain fixed places. The three most common are indicated below by double straight lines:

̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄ || ̌ || ̌   |   ̄ ̌ ̌   ||   ̄ ̌ ̌   |   ̄

For an English equivalent, consider M. W. Edwards' version of Iliad 16.667-70 (Homer, Poet of the Iliad, pp. 46-47):

"Go if you will, my dear Phoebus, || and wash from his wounds the dark bloodstain,
drawing out of the fight Sarpedon; || Phoebus, thereafter
bearing him far, far away || cleanse him in the streams of the river;
smear him with heavenly oil || and clothe him with garments immortal."

What Parry discovered in examining the main characters' names is that, for each of these characters, Homer had at his disposal a single formulaic phrase that would fill the metrical space following each of the three main pauses diagrammed above (cf. Lattimore 39). That is, in composing a particular line, Homer had only to develop the first "half" of the line (up to the pause); the second "half" he could immediately fill in by drawing upon a set formulaic phrase such as "swift-footed Achilles," "resourceful Odysseus," or the like. (That is why you will find the most memorable of Homer's formulaic tags come at the end of the line; the first "half" of Homer's lines also use formulaic phrases, but they are less easy to illustrate in English.) This may not seem overly impressive, but consider the following. Greek is an inflected language. Unlike English, where word order is crucial in determining sense (e.g., "Man bites dog" has a quite different meaning from "Dog bites man"), in Greek word order is, relatively speaking, a matter of indifference. Instead, each noun is marked by an inflectional ending that indicates, to use the above example, who is biting whom: "Dog[x] bites man[y]" means the same thing in Greek, no matter what order the words are in. [English originally had such inflectional forms, some of which remain: contrast "I" and "me", "she" and "her", "we" and "us", "who" and "whom", etc.] Thus the name of every hero in Homer appears in four different forms, depending on whether the hero is the subject of the sentence (i.e., the person doing the biting), the object (i.e., the person being bitten), etc. As a result, Homer often needs four different formulaic phrases for each hero in order to fill each of the pauses indicated above.

Parry's findings are important for a number of reasons. First, they give us a sense of how formulaic language can help the oral bard in his task: Homer need not worry about every individual word but can draw upon his stock of formulaic phrases as the building blocks of his verse. Second, Parry's study suggests that we must employ a different set of criteria in evaluating Homer's verse than we would with a modern poem. Unlike Pope (with his emphasis on "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed"), Homer is not going to strive for originality or pointedness of expression: often his language will be determined by metrical considerations such as those outlined above rather than by a desire to communicate a particular nuance or achieve a particular effect. (A furious scholarly debate rages over the degree to which the Homeric bards could, on occasion, break out of their "formulaic" mode and, like a modern poet, express subtle nuances through the use of a telling word or phrase.) Third, Parry placed a good deal of emphasis on what he termed the "scope and economy" of Homer's formulaic system. Homer has a formulaic phrase for every major character to cover every necessary metrical pattern: i.e. there are no gaps in his formulaic system that would leave him unable to complete a particular line automatically. (This is what Parry meant by "scope.") Moreover, Homer generally has only one formulaic phrase to cover every contingency: there are no redundant formulae (hence Parry's reference to economy). Parry argued that such an elaborate system could not be the invention of a single individual but must have been worked out by generations of bards who gradually developed and refined the stock of formulaic phrases. A lengthy oral tradition of this sort, employing formulaic phrases that became set or fossilized, would be likely to retain memories of the distant past but to incorporate subsequent additions or anachronisms introduced by later bards over the years — precisely what we have found in the Iliad. (As a result, scholars have attempted to separate the various historical "layers" of Homer's poems, as in an archaeological dig: one can almost speak of a "stratigraphy" of the Homeric poems. Cf. above on Bronze Age Elements in Homer.) Finally, Parry's researches into oral formulaic technique suggest that the questions raised regarding the identity "Homer" need to be revised somewhat (see above on the Homeric Question). In a sense, the Iliad does not have a single author: the story it tells and the characters it presents are not the invention of a single poet but of a lengthy oral tradition. Even the language of the poem is traditional, developed by generations of bards over the centuries. If we can speak of an "author" of the Iliad, it is only in the limited sense of the individual who decided to cast his traditional material in this particular form. In this sense, "Homer" (whoever he was, and whenever he lived) is to be identified with the poet who conceived a monumental epic dealing with the theme of Achilles' wrath. Ultimately, we will discover that it is the wrath theme that provides the principal clue to the poem's unity and to its significance.

Homer's use of formulaic language often leads to certain incongruities (many of which are noted by Lattimore). For example, the Achaeans will be "strong-grieved" in Homer whether they are wearing armor or not. Achilles will be "swift-footed" even when he is sitting down. The heavens will be starry even when it is daytime (as at 15.371). Aphrodite is "laughter-loving" even when she is crying (5.375). And so forth. A more interesting example of Homer's oral technique leading to difficulties can be found at 13.658. Despite the numerous deaths of incidental characters in the poem, Homer rarely forgets when he has killed someone off. (I.e., few characters die only to pop up again later on in the poem.) The father mentioned at 13.658, however, is actually King Pylaimenes, who was killed at 5.576. The pathetic scene of a grieving father is a generic one which the oral poet here draws upon, forgetting that this particular father is already dead. Note as well Paris' curious feat at 3.355-60 (cf. 7. 249ff.): follow the path of Menelaus' spear and ask yourself how a warrior manages to dodge a weapon that has already shorn through the middle of his shield, his corselet, and his tunic (i.e. undershirt). Here the poet, rather awkwardly, has combined two generic scenes: a description of a spear's journey as it actually hits its mark (e.g., 11.434-38), and a description of someone dodging a spear so that it misses altogether.

In contrast to literate poets such as Vergil, Milton, Shakespeare, or Eliot, the oral poet is not going to display his skill in his selection and placement of individual words, or in the originality with which he renders particular passages. His virtues are going to lie elsewhere: in the skill with which he employs the traditional formulae and the manner in which he molds his traditional theme. You will find in Homer, as in other oral bards, an emphasis on the forward flow of the action and on externals; he is not going to present the brooding reflections and intimate personal asides found in some modern poets (e.g., the Romantics), nor is he going to step back and provide lengthy analyses or assessments of individual characters or events. Instead, Homer allows his characters and their actions to speak for themselves, adopting a distanced, objective view of the events he narrates. This narrative stance gives Homeric poetry much of its power; in particular, it leads him to present scenes with a directness and a vividness that anticipates later drama. (Reread, for example, Homer's presentation of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in Book 1: lines 57ff. present what is virtually a dramatic "script," complete with stage directions.) On the whole, oral poetry of this sort is characterized by a general expansiveness: the bard is not in a hurry to get on with his story but develops his tale at a leisurely pace. You will find, e.g., the frequent use of tautological expressions of a sort that would be anathema to a modern poet, but are part of the stock in trade of the oral bard. In fact, one of the ways in which Homer will emphasize the importance of a particular scene or a particular event is through expansion (or what has been called emphasis by accumulation): when the bard presents a particularly elaborate version of a generic scene (e.g., that of a warrior donning his armor), or expands a passage through the use of a particularly elaborate simile or digression, you can be fairly certain that the scene or event to follow will be of particular importance. (Consider the case of Patroclus: a number of heroes take center stage at different points in the poem and enjoy a series of successes in battle (known as an *aristeia), but the aristeia of Patroclus fills nearly all of Book 16; battles over the body of a fallen warrior are common, but that over the body of Patroclus fills Book 17. This expansion reflects the crucial role of Patroclus' death in the development of the plot.)

A couple of problems remain. The other oral poets studied by Parry and his disciples tend to compose short lays of some few hundred lines at most, usually as entertainment at a banquet or religious festival. Just such bards are shown at work on several occasions in the Odyssey. The Iliad, by contrast, is 15,693 lines long and would take several days to recite in its entirety. Just what the motive might be for an oral bard to create a composition of such length remains obscure. The poem could be performed piecemeal, but many of its episodes probably existed as independent lays before being incorporated into the Iliad proper; moreover, many episodes draw their significance directly from their relation to other sections of the poem — performed in isolation, they have little apparent intrinsic interest. In fact, we will discover that the Iliad, for all its length, displays a definite structure which is integral to the poem's significance: performed piecemeal, this structure would be lost. Also, the other oral traditions studied by Parry and Lord as parallels for Homer are not at all of Homer's caliber or sophistication: what Parry and Lord treat as merely a difference of scale is felt by many modern scholars to represent a difference of kind. Considerations such as these have led some scholars to argue that, while the Iliad represents the culmination of an oral tradition, its scope and quality suggest the use of writing.

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