Draft of a declaration by the founding authors of A Homer commentary in progress

2017.11.12 / updated 2018.08.24 and 2020.01.19, 2020.07.27 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. This draft of mine is meant as a first step leading toward a more formal declaration shared by the three founding authors of A Homer commentary in progress: Douglas Frame, Leonard Muellner, Gregory Nagy. The signatures for our joint declaration are represented by thumbnail images of the covers for three books of ours centering on Homer. The books are listed below in the Bibliography for my draft, where the URN is indicated for each one of the three books: Frame 2009, Muellner 1996, Nagy 1990.


§1. The three founding authors and editors of A Homer commentary in progress, as indicated in the Bibliography below—Frame, Muellner, and Nagy (2017-)—have recruited, as of this writing, nine other editors: Casey Dué, Mary Ebbott, David Elmer, Olga Levaniouk, Richard Martin, Corinne Pache, John B. Petropoulos, Laura Slatkin, and Thomas Walsh. The associate editors are Anita Nikkanen and Keith DeStone. The assistant editors are Daniel Cline and Angelia Hanhardt.

§2. The intellectual foundation of A Homer commentary in progress, hereafter abbreviated as AHCIP, is simple and at the same time most ambitious: of all existing commentaries on Homeric poetry, ours is the first and only such commentary that is based squarely on the cumulative research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who together created a new way of thinking about Homeric poetry. Both Parry and Lord taught at Harvard University (Parry died prematurely in 1935, when he was still an assistant professor, while Lord was a distinguished Emeritus Professor at the time of his death in 1991). The lifelong research of Parry and Lord, as summarized in Lord’s magisterial synthesis, The Singer of Tales (1960/2000/2019), proved that Homeric poetry is a system generated from oral traditions, and that the building blocks of this system are formulas on the level of form and themes on the level of meaning (Lord 1960:4). Our commentary is designed to analyze and explain this system of formulas and themes, to which we refer short-hand as a formulaic system.

§3. For a convenient introduction, we cite Parry 1930 and 1932; also, the second edition of Singer of Tales, edited by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, 2000, with a new Introduction by the two editors. A third edition has been published in 2019, and the new editor is David Elmer.

§4. In our commentary, we apply to the formulaic system of Homeric poetry a special methodology of linguistics that stems primarily from the research of Antoine Meillet and of his teacher, Ferdinand de Saussure. Our application of this methodology, as exemplified by Meillet 1925 and Saussure 1916, had been pioneered by Parry himself, who was a student of Meillet during his years as a doctoral student at the Sorbonne. The intellectual legacy of Meillet is continued to this day at the Sorbonne by researchers like Charles de Lamberterie, who has been a steadfast supporter of our commentary. For more on the influence of Meillet on Parry, we refer to de Lamberterie 1997.

§5. The founding authors of AHCIP have inherited a methodology that combines a rigorous study of Indo-European linguistics with two complementary perspectives on language as a system—perspectives that Saussure described as synchronic and diachronic. Here is a paraphrase of his description (Saussure 1916:117):

A synchronic perspective on a system has to do with the static aspect of linguistic analysis, whereas a diachronic perspective deals with various kinds of evolution of the system. So, synchrony and diachrony refer respectively to an existing state of a language and to phases of evolution in the language.

§6. Albert Lord, who followed closely the methods of Milman Parry in applying both synchronic and diachronic perspectives in his analysis of formulaic systems, makes a most revealing observation on the basis of his own systematic analysis of a sample poem stemming from the South Slavic oral traditions. “There is nothing in the poem,” Lord says about this poem (1960:47), “that is not formulaic.” Lord’s teacher Parry made a comparable observation (1928a:10–11=1971:8–9), referring to a still earlier observation by Meillet (1923:61) concerning the all-pervasive formulaic system of Homeric poetry. This idea, that everything in an oral composition is formulaic, applies to our own project. In our commentary, we aim to deliver a “proof of concept” by analyzing both synchronically and diachronically the evidence of all the Homeric poems—the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Homeric Hymns. Our commentary on these texts of Homeric poetry proves, we argue, that they all originated from a formulaic system of oral poetry—a system that Parry, following Meillet, would describe as “Homeric diction.”

§7. Our linguistic approach in analyzing both synchronically and diachronically the formulaic system of Homeric poetry provides an empirical foundation for the discoveries and discovery procedures that we assemble and organize in our Homer commentary. Such an approach does not ignore, however, the beauty of the verbal art that went into the making of Homeric poetry. We, the three founding authors of this Homer commentary, follow the example of Roman Jakobson (in the 1960s, we attended his classes as well as Lord’s), whose research in both linguistics and literature showed that there is another side to the grammar of poetry: it is the poetry of grammar, as reflected in the title of one of his books, Jakobson 1980. The formulaic system of Homeric poetry is not a machine but a special language for expressing the sublime beauty and pleasure of hearing the ‘glories’ or klea of heroes and gods.

§8. Each comment in AHCIP concludes with an author-stamp and a date-stamp. Each comment by each author, as represented primarily by the editors, is part of a collaborative process, and the collaborators include not only the editors but also a wider grouping of authors who represent two or even three younger generations of researchers who are being recruited to participate in our project. These authors are asked to contribute comments that correspond to their areas of special expertise. As in the case of the principal authors, paragraphs written by contributing authors conclude with an author-stamp and a date-stamp.

§9. For an introduction to the kinds of comments that will appear in AHCIP, we refer to the sampling assembled in Nagy 2016–2017, the URN for which is indicated in the Bibliography.



AHCIP = A Homer commentary in progress. See Frame, Muellner, Nagy, and others, 2017-.

Dué, C. and Ebbott, M. 2010. Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary. Hellenic Studies Series 39. Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Due_Ebbott.Iliad_10_and_the_Poetics_of_Ambush.2010.

Elmer, D. 2013. The Poetics of Consent. Collective Decision Making in the Iliad. Baltimore.

Frame, D. 1978. The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. New Haven. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Frame.The_Myth_of_Return_in_Early_Greek_Epic.1978.

Frame, D. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Hellenic Studies 34. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Frame.Hippota_Nestor.2009.

Frame, D., L. Muellner, G. Nagy, and others, eds. 2017-. A Homer Commentary in Progress. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.eresource:Frame_Muellner_Nagy.A_Homer_Commentary_in_Progress.2017.

García Ramón, J.-L. 2011. “Mycenaean Onomastics.” A Companion to Linear B: Mycenaean Greek Texts and their World, vol. 2. (ed. Y. Duhoux and A. Morpurgo Davies) 213–251. Louvan-la-Neuve and Walpole, MA.

Jakobson, R. 1980. Selected Writings III: Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry. Preface by S. Rudy. The Hague.

Lamberterie, C. de. 1997. “Milman Parry et Antoine Meillet.” In Létoublon 1997:9–22. Translated as “Milman Parry and Antoine Meillet” in Loraux, Nagy, and Slatkin 2001:409–421.

Létoublon, F., ed. 1997. Hommage à Milman Parry: le style formulaire de l’épopée et la théorie de l’oralité poétique. Amsterdam.

Levaniouk, O. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies 46. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Levaniouk.Eve_of_the_Festival.2011.

Loraux, N., Nagy, G., and Slatkin, L., eds. 2001. Antiquities: Postwar French Thought III. Edited by R. Naddaff. New York.

Lord, A. B. 1960 (/2000/2019). The Singer of Tales. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24. Cambridge MA. 2nd ed. 2000, with new Introduction, by S. A. Mitchell and G. Nagy. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_LordA.The_Singer_of_Tales.2000. 3rd edition by D. F. Elmer, 2019. Hellenic Studies Series 77, Publications of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 4.

Martin, Richard P. 1989. The Language of Heroes. Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Martin.The_Language_of_Heroes.1989.

Meillet, A. 1921–1936. Linguistique historique et linguistique générale. I–II. Paris.

Meillet, A. 1923. Les origines indo-européennes des mètres grecs. Paris.

Meillet, A. 1925. La méthode comparative en linguistique historique. Paris.

Muellner, L. 1996. The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic. Ithaca. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_MuellnerL.The_Anger_of_Achilles.1996.

Nagy, G. 1979/1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Best_of_the_Achaeans.1999.

Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Pindars_Homer.1990.

Nagy, G. 2016–2017. A Sampling of Comments on the Iliad and Odyssey. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.A_Sampling_of_Comments_on_the_Iliad_and_Odyssey.2017.

Parry, A., ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford.

Parry, M. 1928a. L’épithète traditionnelle dans Homère: Essai sur un problème de style homérique. Paris. tr. in Parry 1971:1–190. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Parry.LEpithete_Traditionnelle_dans_Homere.1928.

Parry, M. 1928b. Les formules et la métrique d’Homère. Paris. tr. in Parry 1971:191–234. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_ParryM.Les_Formules_et_la_Metrique_d_Homere.1928.

Parry, M. 1930. “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making: I. Homer and Homeric Style.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 41:73–148. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:ParryM.Studies_in_the_Epic_Technique_of_Oral_Verse-Making1.1930.

Parry, M. 1932. “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making: II. The Homeric Language as the Language of an Oral Poetry.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 43:1–50. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:ParryM.Studies_in_the_Epic_Technique_of_Oral_Verse-Making2.1932.

Rau, J. 2008. “Δ 384 Τυδῆ, Ο 339 Μηκιστῆ, and τ 136 ᾿Οδυσῆ.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 104:1–18.

Saussure, F. de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Critical ed. 1972 by T. de Mauro. Paris.

Slatkin, L. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies 16. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Slatkin.The_Power_of_Thetis_and_Selected_Essays.2011.

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