Teaching the Homeric Question(s)

Homer is a foundational text for our discipline, and there has been a massive amount of scholarship about him and his poems.  Much of this work is detailed and complicated, and it draws on data points in many fields: Greek philology, archaeology, and Hittite studies. Many undergraduates do not possess the skills to grapple with this data–the ability to read Greek, for instance–especially at the beginning of a semester when Homer is usually taught.  So, how do we teach Homer in a way that students will understand the relevant problems?

First, we need to ask ourselves: how much do students need to appreciate the orality of Homer’s epics and the complexity of its time frame?  For example, in my mythology class, I do not teach mythology as a single unified body of stories.  I teach it more as “mythologies”–stories that are told often, develop over time, and change to fit their circumstances–much like Albert Lord and Milman Parry’s ideas regarding bards. In that class, students need to understand the Homeric Question. In others, such as a course that briefly mentions the archaeology of Troy, they will not need to.

To explain the Homeric question, after students have been introduced to the problems by the introduction to their/an edition of the Iliad, I would divide the class or unit into three sections:

First, “why could an inhabitant of fifth century Athens not have read an account of the Trojan War written during the Trojan War or soon thereafter?”  I get my students engaged with the issue and, as a class, we analyze the assumptions in this question:

It assumes that there was an account of the Trojan War written during or soon after the war. You can discuss how Linear B was primarily used for accounting purposes, so it likely did not record an account of the war.  Even if it did, the people of Greece forgot how to read Linear B during the Dark Ages.  After the Dark Ages, when Greeks began to write again, they adapted the Phoenician alphabet and some of the early writing (like Nestor’s cup from Pithekoussai or the pots from Methone) was poetic and contained potential references to the Trojan War (i.e. Nestor). So there existed no account that they could read.

It also assumes that there was a Trojan War. Archaeologically, this has been hard to confirm.  Depending on the course, it may be a distraction to discuss all the issues with Heinrich Schliemann and his excavation of Troy, but it may be helpful to point out that he dug straight down through many layers of Troy and called things by deceptive names (e.g. the “Jewels of Helen” from Troy II).  It is probably most helpful to discuss two finds from the recent University of Cincinnati and University of Tübingen excavations: (1) the Luwian seal and (2) the fortifications of Troy VI’s lower city (below).troy-vi-gate Homer provides a nice description of a gate like this:

“And they built within these walls gates strongly fitted that there might be a way through them for the driving of horses; and on the outer side and against it they dug a deep ditch, making it great and wide, and fixed the sharp stakes inside it.” (Iliad 7.438-441)

There’s only one problem.  In the Iliad, the Achaeans build this gate. At Troy, it is the Trojans’ gate.  This serves as a clear example of how literature and the archaeology of Troy/the Aegean Bronze Age do not quite line up with the idea of Homer as a reliable account of the war.  From here, you can mention the Luwian seal as a rhetorical device to lead the discussion towards the Hittite Empire and its documents, such as the “Treaty of Wilusa,” that have many close parallels between names of people and places: Wilusa/Ilion, Aleksandru/Alexandros, and Ahhiyawa/Achaeans.  Then, you might rattle off the various parallels or near parallels in archaeological discoveries and Hittite documents to objects and events in the Iliad.  The goal is not for students to remember all these details, but so that they get a sense that it is likely that Homer is representative of a memory that the Mycenaeans attacked the Hittites, possibly at Troy, and that Troy was destroyed.  This memory/memories had to be passed down orally, the story was embellished over time (including with the participation of gods), and that it seems to have some basis in (an) historical event(s).

Second, “If it makes logical sense to say that the Iliad and Odyssey were orally transmitted, what evidence in the texts is there for this?”  I would describe different features of oral poems, such as the epithet system and type scenes that lead to Lord and Parry’s important contributions.  After they have heard about these epithets and such, this is a great opportunity have students hunt through the text for epithets and stock phrases that would help an oral poet compose the poem on the spot and/or memorize it.  Similarly, I show the poem’s orality by reading a small portion of the Iliad aloud and ask students if it is more entertaining to have heard the poem than when they read it silently at home.  I would also inform students about rhapsodes, the Peisistratean recension, and how cities had different texts of Homer–and even how Plato’s text of Homer does not always match our standard editions.  It may also be helpful to discuss Homer’s two different versions of why Hephaistos was thrown from Olympus and who cared for him when he landed on earth.

Third, depending on your comfort level, timing, and the course, you could also discuss how the visual versions of the Trojan War myths on pottery also suggest that the Homeric poems were transmitted orally and not entrenched in Greek culture until the 5th Century BC. To show this, I select examples from my students’ reading and Steven Lowenstam’s As Witnessed by Images–the Ransom of Hector works very well because Achilles is portrayed very differently on the pots and in the Iliad.


Things to Consider

  • This is a very detailed way to introduce the Homeric Question, and this level of detail may be overwhelming, inappropriate, or unnecessary for some classes.  So, what do they need to know? In your particular class, can you just leave it at “Homer was an oral poet.” and these are a few of the implications of that?
  • This is still a very complicated way to introduce the Homeric Question, but it is an improved version of the seemingly successful lessons that I used in my mythology class this semester.
  • Similarly, this lesson plan can still be improved and I welcome your input on how to improve it.
  • Since high school and undergraduate students tend not to appreciate the value of literature reviews (and can be easily confused by them), I would avoid reviewing the scholarship on the Homeric question. Just report the finds and conclusions of the scholarship.
  • My lesson plan here follows Gregory Nagy’s interpretation of Homer.  You or the person who translated your edition of the Iliad may disagree with Nagy.  For example, I like Barry Powell’s translation because it is often easier for students to read, but he does not agree with Nagy.  Therefore, students may have a harder time finding epithets or type scenes that fit with Parry and Lord’s thesis–and so accepting that Homer is an oral poet.

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