The Homeric epics, which tell stories of war, heroism, and coming home, have endured for perhaps 3,500 years. From their start as performances by oral poets to the books we read today, the tales have been told and retold in many forms, and they continue to evolve.
Our texts today are based on 10th-century manuscripts whose original sources have disappeared, although fascinating fragments of earlier scrolls and codices survive, along with ancient editors’ helpful or confusing comments. Archaeology still sometimes produces new evidence: a Roman clay tablet with the earliest verses of the Odyssey yet found on Greek soil was recently discovered at Olympia. Egypt produces remnants of Odyssey papyri, like an editor’s commentary used as toilet paper, and scraps of a papyrus scroll possibly used to wrap a crocodile mummy.
The epics got their start as rousing musical performances at communal gatherings. Over time they also became a required cornerstone of education and even an emblem of Greek self-identity. Their importance as essential communal knowledge ensured that they were written down and hand-copied for two millennia.
The Iliad, about the Trojan War, was more influential in the ancient world, and Plutarch says Alexander the Great carried a copy with him. The Odyssey is more popular today. It features an engaging and clever hero and heroine, love and sex (although not for her, until he gets home), and a ten-year return from war plagued by overwhelming mental, physical, and divine obstacles.
Odysseus’s natural leadership, smarts, and cool head are exceptional, and he is entertainingly deceptive and tricky. His most famous adventures are action-thrillers, stories poets have re-told and artists have illustrated in their own different ways from antiquity to today.
The Getty’s collections reflect some of the many marvelous beings who populate the Odyssey. The hero’s daring escape from the cannibal Cyclops, a popular scene, adorns a vessel for mixing wine and water. Sirens, the dangerous female human-bird hybrids whose songs lured sailors to their death, have seized the imagination of many artists through time. Odysseus was the only man to hear their song and live.
The Odyssey as musical performance
Most scholars believe the stories of the Odyssey were performed orally for hundreds of years before they were written down. They include descriptions of Mycenaean Greek objects from about 1500-1100 BC mixed in with descriptions of material culture from later times. When alphabetic writing was introduced to Greeks by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, the stories could be recorded in writing.
Repetitions in the written texts and other markers of oral composition suggest that bards, poets who recited or sang to music, entertained their audiences by composing exciting stories in the moment, within a template of fixed meter and formulaic descriptions of gods, people, and recurring events such as dawn and feasting. Repeated phrases helped listeners anticipate and process transitional moments, as did shared knowledge of heroic storylines.
Musical storytelling in the Odyssey follows a good meal accompanied by wine and provides entertainment outdoors after athletic contests. At times, listeners are inspired to dance. The bards, male performers attached to kingly households, improvise from a large repertoire of tales as the spirit moves them, and they take requests. Their musical instrument is a kithara, a relative of the lyre and the modern guitar.
We first meet a bard in the palace of Odysseus. The unwelcome suitors of Penelope, the hero’s loyal wife, force the household poet Phemios to sing of the war. Later, in the palace of the Phaeacian king, Odysseus weeps at the song of the bard Demodokos.
Then in came the arrogant suitors, and all immediately
settled themselves in rows on seats and benches,
and heralds now poured water over their hands, while maids
brought them bread by the basketful, and youths
filled the bowls to the brim with drink for them, and they
reached out their hands to the good things ready for them.
But when they had satisfied their desire for food and drink,
the suitors’ minds now turned to other pleasures,
to singing and dancing, a feast’s proper complement,
and a herald brought out for Phemios his well-tuned lyre–
he sang for the suitors only because he was forced to–
and he struck a chord, introducing his own fine song.
(Peter Green, The Odyssey I.144-155, 2018 [UC Press])
From singing to reading texts
Many scholars believe that oral tales started to be written down in the 700s BC and that the two epics of today—too long to perform—had been crafted by the 600s BC. During this time, Homer became firmly attached as “the author.” Was he a legendary figure from the distant past whose name was associated with the oral stories? A famous poet who participated in writing down performances? Two different famous poets? You will not find scholarly agreement.
With writing established, were people soon reading the Odyssey for entertainment? Hardly. Poets still performed at religious festivals and competitions, and poets and guests continued to play music and recite Homeric verses at Greek symposia (drinking parties), although eventually—and slowly—poets of Homeric tales turned to memorization instead of inspiration.
By the time Alexander the Great brought the Iliad with him to Persia in the late 4th century BC, the epics were firmly entrenched as essential but written knowledge, to be read, taught, and memorized. Performers of Homer still sang, but they probably no longer improvised.
Are we reading the same texts Alexander read? Probably not. Despite increasing respect for the written word, variations of Homeric tales still circulated, which was inevitable during the transition from oral composition to writing. It took many centuries for ancient and medieval scholars to standardize the epics. Translators worldwide debate and interpret these “fixed” versions today.
The Odyssey today
The two latest English translations of the Odyssey were published within months of each another: one by Emily Wilson, in late 2017, and one by Peter Green (who is quoted above describing Phemios the bard), in early 2018. These are very different Odysseys and they will appeal to different readers.
Green’s more traditional approach aims to adhere closely to the ancient Greek, and to give a sense of its rhythmic power as an oral medium. Wilson’s translation has generated press, praise, and outrage as a readable modern version that streamlines the text, hides repetitions, and rethinks vocabulary for a contemporary audience. Wilson and Green’s Odysseys illustrate that translations are interpretations. In fact, translators are in many ways modern bards in a new medium, each telling a somewhat different tale to readers with a new understanding of gender, politics, and war. Meter, pace, and word choices have a dramatic impact on the stories.
So if you couldn’t get through the Odyssey a teacher made you read in high school, it is not too late to start over. The storytelling continues…
Want to learn more?
Elton Barker and Joel Christensen’s Homer: A Beginner’s Guide provides an overview of the epics and their influence into modern times. For a look at one scholar’s views on oral transmission, see Gregory Nagy on Orality and Literacy. Here is an approach to Homer as a compilation, a “multitext.” And here, Stephan Hegel reconstructs ancient Greek music.