A question of “reception”: how could Homer ever outlive his own moments of performance?

2021.08.30 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In the cover illustration for this essay, a painter is picturing Homer at a moment of performance. Or, I could even say that we see Homer here in—not just at—a moment of performance. Homer sings, accompanying himself on his lyre. Viewing him and listening to him most attentively, in the imagination of our painter, are poets from Homer’s future “reception.” Most visible is old Dante himself, and, further away, we can spot a middle-aged Shakespeare, and, off to the side, a youngish Goethe is looking on. But these three canonical poets, representing the “reception” of Homer in future times far removed from the Homeric past, are not reading Homer here. No, they are pictured as actually hearing and even seeing that poet in a very special moment: they are witnessing Homer in the very act of his creating his own poetry. And that is actually how the ancient Greeks, in earlier periods of their prehistory and history, imagined Homer’s very own moments of poetic creation. In such earlier periods, Homer’s poetry-in-the-making was not a written text that was meant to be read. No, his poetry was an oral performance that was meant to be heard—and seen as well. In other words, the very idea of Homer in earlier periods of the ancient Greek world was linked to Homer’s oral performance, which was imagined as a composition-in-performance. But how could such a Homeric performance, as imagined in the ancient Greek world, outlive the life and times of a prototypical Homer? Or, to ask the question in a more fanciful way, how could Homer ever outlive his own moments of performance?

Bela Čikoš Sesija (1864–1931), Homer uči Dantea, Shakespearea i Goethea pjevat (Homer Teaches Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe to sing), 1909. In the Croatian Institute of History, Zagreb. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. Before I attempt to answer such a question, I must emphasize that the “reception” of Homer, grounded in the realities of ancient Greek history, was different from what is usually also called the “reception” of Homer in later times, when the poetry of Homer was no longer heard in oral performance. Contradicting the fantasy pictured by our painter, where canonical poets who lived in far later times could still get a chance to hear and to see an exquisite moment of composition-in-performance by Homer himself, the grim reality of Homeric “reception” in the poetic worlds of a Dante or a Shakespeare or a Goethe was a simple historical fact: the oral tradition of Homeric poetry was dead, and had been dead for a long time. In fact, Homeric oral poetry was already dying in the later periods of ancient Greek history. And, for the longest time by now, Homeric poetry has survived only as a written text to be read by its readers—sometimes in the original or, in most cases, in translations or in paraphrases. And here I return to my fanciful question: how, then, could Homer ever outlive his moments of in-person performance?

§2. Such a question, as I just posed it, can best be answered, I suggest, if we rethink the term “reception,” which I have so far been treating with indifference, isolating it within quotation-marks. As I have already suggested, however, a distinction needs to be made. For me, there are two different kinds of reception, and I will focus on the earlier kind. The later kind is all too familiar, corresponding to the use of the term reception in conventional literary criticism today, where it refers to the responses of readers to the written text of a given literary production. But here I introduce a different and defamiliarizing use of the term, focusing on an earlier kind of reception, referring to a “literary” production that is oral. In any given oral tradition of verbal art, the reception of this tradition by its audience—or, to say it better, by the society in which the oral tradition was generated—is not just incidental. It is essential. The reception of a textual tradition, if it gets neglected over time or even if it dies altogether, can still be brought back to life—however imperfectly—if any texts have survived. By contrast, death for the reception of an oral tradition signals death for such a tradition. An oral tradition cannot survive without reception. Even if some transcript of oral traditional performance survives, such a text cannot, of and by itself, bring back to life the structural realities of the oral tradition, and any new reception of such a text could now become simply a textual reception, even if the text imitates an oral performance or, better, serves as a script for such a would-be oral performance.

§3. With this distinction between oral and textual reception in place, I am ready to restate more clearly, I hope, an obvious historical fact: the oral reception of Homeric poetry is dead, and it died a very long time ago. But how long ago? It is difficult to give a precise answer, since only the textual reception survives, and it is only by studying the history of that reception that we have any hope of reconstructing, at least in broad outlines, the history of an earlier oral reception. 

§4. In two twin books I have produced on the subject of Homeric poetry, Homer the Classic (2009|2008) and Homer the Preclassic (2010|2009), I have attempted to reconstruct the overall reception of this poetry, going backward in time, and thus showing that the relatively later phases of Homeric reception became merely textual, while the earlier phases were still oral.

§5. In two earlier twin books on the same subject of Homeric poetry, Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (1996a) and Homeric Questions (1996b), I had attempted a different kind of reconstruction, going forward rather than backward in time. This kind of “reconstructing forward in time” was an exercise in diachronic model-building, that is, an attempt at describing the periodizations of Homeric poetry by way of applying modes of diachronic as well as synchronic analysis. When I say “synchronic” and “diachronic” here, I am following the terminology of Ferdinand de Saussure (1916:117), and I draw special attention to the fact that, for Saussure, “diachronic” was synonymous with “evolutionary.” Accordingly, in my two earlier twin-books, I referred to my reconstruction of Homeric periodizations as an “evolutionary model” for explaining the textual destiny of Homeric poetry.

§6. As I look back on my “evolutionary model” as outlined in Poetry as Performance (1996:110) and in Homeric Questions (1996b:42), I now see that some clarification is needed with regard to my thinking about what I call “period 3,” a time-frame that extends, by my reckoning, from the middle of the sixth century BCE to the later part of the fourth. In my overall reconstruction, covering five “periods” in the evolution of Homeric poetry, I view this “period 3” as transitional—to the extent that my model allows for the possibility that scribes within this time-frame could and did make copies or “transcripts” of Homeric poetry. But I emphasized, in this context, that the existence of such “transcripts” would not have killed the oral reception of this poetry.

§7. And here is where I need to make a more specific clarification, since my use of this word “transcript” in this context has been criticized as inconsistent. The criticism is made in a book by Jonathan L. Ready (2019), with whose work on Homeric poetry I generally agree. But here I must engage in some friendly disagreement concerning his relevant criticism (especially at his p. 178). Although I state, at one point (Homeric Questions p. 65), that a transcript could be used “to record any given composition and to control the circumstances of any given performance,” this statement does not contradict a more general statement I make at a later point (Homeric Questions p. 67), where I speak not about a transcript used as a “control” but simply as “an aid to performance.” I see no inconsistency here, since my point all along (starting at Homeric Questions p. 65) was that a transcript could potentially be used as an aid to performance—but not necessarily so. As for the “aid,” it could take the form of actual “control” over content, but that kind of “aid” would be an extreme case, and I left room for an opposite extreme, that is, in cases where a transcript, even if it exists, is not used at all as any kind of “aid” for performance. Accordingly, I also see no inconsistency in another relevant statement I made in another publication (Nagy 2014:100), where I say that my use of the term transcript “makes it clear that a transcript has no influence on performance.” If this statement (as quoted by Ready p. 178) is taken out of context, then, yes, I would have to restate by saying “a transcript does not necessarily have any influence on performance,” but this same statement, if it were to be read in context, would make such a restatement unnecessary. When I was saying that a transcript, of and by itself, has “no influence” on performance, I was responding to a mis-statement of my views in the work of another Homerist, Minna Skafte Jensen (2011:217), with whom I otherwise also generally agree. In this case, I disagree with her claim that “Nagy’s hypothesis attributes to the written transmission features that are characteristic of oral composition and transmission.” Contesting this mis-statement, I went on to say (Nagy 2014:100): “In fact, my point is just the opposite: period 3 is a time of oral transmission, not written transmission, and that is why I use the word transcript with reference to any possibility of existing texts.” In the same context, Jensen (2011:217) refers to “the dogma concerning the interaction between the two media [that is, the medium of oral performance and the medium of writing a text].” I quote again from my response (Nagy 2014:100): “But I posit no such ‘interaction’, and that is the point of my using the term ‘transcript’.” And, just as a “transcript” in period 3 does not necessarily influence the oral reception, the same can be said even about a “script,” in the later “period 4,” which I dated as extending from the later part of the fourth century BCE to the middle of the second. Even a “script,” though it could potentially exert more control over a given performance, would not necessarily interfere with the oral reception of Homeric poetry—at least, not in the long run.

§8. In terms of my evolutionary model of Homeric poetry, then, oral reception cannot be equated with textual reception. This model, however, is not all that far removed from a theory developed by researchers who share my interest in studying oral traditions by combining the disciplines of linguistics and anthropology. The theory can be summarized this way: oral performance can become an “oral text.” The very idea of such an “oral text”—which, to my mind at least, is simply a metaphor—is perhaps best expressed in the cross-cultural formulation of Karin Barber (2007:1–2), who describes such an “oral text” as an oral performance that is “woven together in order to attract attention and outlast the moment.” The theory of such an “oral text,” which Barber (again, pp. 1–2) describes as a process of “entextualization” (as an example of other such formulations, I cite Bauman and Briggs 1990:73), has been re-applied in a lengthy book by Jonathan L. Ready (2019) on Homeric “orality” and “textuality.” In this work of Ready, I highlight one particular formulation of his (p. 18): “So performers make an oral text: they impart textuality, the attributes of an utterance capable of outliving the moment, to a verbal act.” This formulation comes close to what I think is happening in Homeric reception: such reception, to borrow the wording of Ready, is “capable of outliving the moment.”  

§9. Such a mentality of “outliving the moment” in Homeric performance is encoded, I think, in the mythological framework of a literary form that I have described in earlier work as “Life of Homer” narratives. In the text of such “Lives” of Homer, Homeric poetry as oral performance is alive because Homer, the performer, is still alive. But how does such performance stay alive when Homer’s poetry is no longer performed by Homer? The answer, I think, is to be found in what the “Lives” actually narrate about Homer’s moments of performance.

§10. In a detailed article where I sum up my overall work on the “Lives” of Homer (Nagy 2015.12.18, linked here), I offer a formula that can help explain why the genre of these “Lives” can keep Homer himself “alive” as the ultimate master of oral performance, just as the Provençal genre of the vida, as I showed in my previous essay for Classical Inquiries (2021.08.23, linked here), can at least help keep alive the lives and times of a generic troubadour. In what follows, I epitomize the first ten paragraphs of the detailed article of mine that I have just cited, while leaving out the details that I have collected there:

§10.1. The article centers on the surviving texts of “Life of Homer” narrative traditions, to which I will refer hereafter simply as Lives of Homer:

I offer the following system for referring to these Lives, as printed by Allen 1912:

V1        = Vita Herodotea, pp. 192–218
V2        = Certamen, pp. 225–238
V3a      = Plutarchean Vita, pp. 238–244
V3b      = Plutarchean Vita, pp. 244–245
V4        = Vita quarta, pp. 245–246
V5        = Vita quinta, pp. 247–250
V6        = Vita sexta (the ‘Roman Life’), pp. 250–253
V7        = Vita septima, by way of Eustathius, pp. 253–254
V8        = Vita by way of Tzetzes, pp. 254–255
V9        = Vita by way of Eustathius (Iliad IV17), p. 255
V10      = Vita by way of the Suda, pp. 256–268
V11      = Vita by way of Proclus, pp. 99–102

These Lives, I argue, can be read as sources of historical information about the reception of Homeric poetry. The information is varied and layered, requiring diachronic as well as synchronic analysis (as always, I use these terms as defined by Saussure 1916:117).

§10.2. The Lives portray the reception of Homeric poetry by narrating a series of events featuring “live” performances by Homer himself. In the narratives of the Lives, Homeric composition is consistently being situated in contexts of oral performance. In effect, the Lives explore the shaping power of positive and even negative responses by the audiences of Homeric poetry in ad hoc situations of oral performance.

§10.3. The narrative strategy of each of the Lives can be described as a staging of Homer’s reception. This staging takes the form of narrating a wide variety of occasions for Homeric performance. A premier occasion, as we shall see, is what can best be described as a pan-Hellenic festival.

§10.4. The Lives of Homer, especially as represented by the Herodotean Vita (= ‘V1’) and by the Certamen (‘The Contest of Homer and Hesiod’ = ‘V2’), highlight the performances of Homer at pan-Hellenic festivals. The background for such highlighting is the overall pan-Hellenic significance of performing Homeric poetry. To appreciate more fully this significance, I concentrate on the testimony of the Lives concerning the reception of Homer in two areas: (1) the Aeolic and Ionic cities of Asia Minor and outlying islands, and (2) the island of Delos, retrospectively figured as the notional center of the future Athenian Empire.

§10.5. The reception of Homer in these two areas has to be understood in the context of the festivals where Homeric poetry was performed, Here I introduce the term “aetiology” as a way of backing up the point I have just made about these pan-Hellenic festivals as the premier occasion of Homeric performance. By “aetiology,” I mean a myth that directly motivates a ritual (Nagy 1999:279). And two most relevant examples of ritual in this case are (1) the very idea of a festival and (2) the more basic idea of a sacrifice. Both ideas, sacrifice and festival, are conveyed by the Greek word thusia, which means not only ‘sacrifice’ but also, metonymically, ‘festival’. The second meaning is clearly attested in Plato Timaeus 26e, where thusia actually refers to a pan-Hellenic festival: in this case, the referent is none other than the premier festival of Athens, the Panathenaia (Nagy 2002:83). In the days of Plato, it was on this occasion, the Feast of the Panathenaia, that the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey were  formally performed in Athens (Nagy 2002:9–22). I signal from the start the relevance of the Panathenaia and, more generally, of the word thusia, to my overall argument.

§10.6. I argue that the Lives of Homer functioned as aetiologies for festive occasions where Homeric poetry was seasonally performed and that they must be viewed as myths, not historical facts, about Homer. To say that we are dealing with myths, however, is not at all to say that there is no history to be learned from the Lives. Even though the various Homers of the various Lives are evidently mythical constructs, the actual constructing of myths about Homer can be seen as historical fact (Nagy 1999:ix paragraph 7, with note). The claims made about Homer in the Lives can be analyzed as evidence for the various different ways in which Homeric poetry was appropriated by various different cultural and political centers throughout the ancient Greek-speaking world.

§10.7. Here I need to highlight again my main point about the Lives: all the claims about Homer, in all their varieties, specifically picture Homeric poetry as a medium of oral performance, featuring Homer himself as the master performer.

§10.8. For analyzing diachronically as well as synchronically the reception of Homer as reflected in the Lives, I propose to build a model for the periodization of this reception. Such a model needs to account for the accretive layering of narrative traditions contained within the final textual versions of these Lives. I posit three periods of ongoing reception: pre-Panathenaic, Panathenaic, and post-Panathenaic. By ‘post-Panathenaic’, I mean a period of Homeric reception marked by the usage of graphein ‘write’ in referring to Homer as an author. This usage needs to be distinguished from the usage of the Panathenaic and pre-Panathenaic periods, when Homer is said to poieîn ‘make’ whatever he composes, not to graphein ‘write’ it.

§10.9. The post-Panathenaic period is exemplified by sources like Plutarch and Pausanias, in whose writings Homer is already seen as an author who ‘writes’, graphei, whatever he composes. I cite a few examples: Plutarch De amore prolis 496d, Quaestiones convivales 668d; Pausanias 3.24.11, 8.29.2. The Panathenaic period, by contrast, is exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, in whose writings we still see Homer as an artisan who ‘makes’, poieî, and who is never pictured as one who ‘writes’, graphei. For examples of expressions involving ‘Homer’ as the subject and poieîn as the verb of that subject, I start with Aristotle De anima 404a, Nicomachean Ethics 3.1116a and 7.1145a, De generatione animalium 785a, Poetics 1448a, Politics 3.1278a and 8.1338a, Rhetoric 1.1370b. I cite also Plato Phaedo 94d, Hippias Minor 371a, Republic 2.378d, Ion 531c–d. I note with special interest the usage, here in the Ion and elsewhere, of poiēsis as the inner object of poieîn. Of related interest are collocations of poieîn with generic ho poiētēs ‘the maker’ (= the Poet) as subject, referring by default to Homer: the many examples include Plato Republic 3.392e (ὁ ποιητής φησι) and Aristotle De mundo 400a (ὥσπερ ἔφη καὶ ὁ ποιητής).

§10.10. I translate poieîn as ‘make’ in order to underline the fact that the direct object of this verb is not restricted to any particular product to be made by the subject—if the subject of the verb refers to an artisan. In other words, poieîn can convey the producing of any artifact as the product of any artisan. It is not restricted to the concept of the song / poem as artifact or of the songmaker / poet as artisan. To cite an early example: in Iliad 7.222, the artisan Tukhios epoiēsen ‘made’ the shield of Ajax. By contrast with the verb poieîn, the derivative nouns poiētēs and poiēsis are restricted, already in the earliest attestations, to the production of songs / poems. I stress the exclusion of artifacts other than songs / poems or of artisans other than songmakers / poets. The noun poiēma has likewise been restricted, though not completely; in the usage of Herodotus, for example, poiēma still designates artifacts other than song / poetry (1.25.1, 2.135.3, 4.5.3, 7.85.1). As for the compound noun formant ‑poios, it is not at all restricted to song or to poetry.

§11. This Greek word poiēma, the earlier meaning of which is ‘artifact’ and the later meaning of which is simply ‘poem’, brings me back to the description, by Karin Barber (2007:1–2), of an “oral text” as an oral performance that is “woven together in order to attract attention and outlast the moment.” Barber’s metaphor, “woven together,” reminds me of the etymology of the word “text,” the metaphorical meaning of which is a “web” that is “woven” (Latin textus)—an artifact that is ever attracting attention, ever outlasting the moment.


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