The last minstrel

1 Homer

My title refers to Homer, not Walter Scot’s 1804 poem of feuds on the English and Scottish border. But the resonance is something to be remembered.

I’ve been reading WF Jackson Knight’s Many-Minded Homer, a collection of lecture notes written in 1939 and edited into book form in 1968 by John D Christie and published by Allen and Unwin. Aside from the astonishing fact that Jackson Knight covers topics as diverse as anthropology and literary criticism, aesthetics and mythology, and history and geography (all topics relevant to a discussion of Homer), a main effect of the book, which is very perceptive, was to suggest how often scholars are anachronistic (not to mention we lay readers). The book was very concerned with discussing the author Homer; it also examined the widest area of source material I have seen considered.

The man Homer

It is of course familiar that we know nothing of Homer and haven’t at least since the time of Eratosthenes, who edited the poems into scholarly shape in 240 BC. We probably never have known anything. All we have are educated guesses, and some detailed but imaginary ancient ‘biographies’ that seem derived from satires within Greek New Comedy of the fourth century BC, as were other so called biographies such as one about Sappho. Everything we know about Homer has been derived from an examination of his poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. It’s pretty much the same for all of ancient Greek literature. The genre of literary biography was a late development.

The anachronism I mentioned is that we are fascinated by the figure of the creative artist, the figure inspired to make a great creative masterpiece. This is quite a late preoccupation in our culture, and dates only from the 18th century Romantic movement. Oddly enough, great artists themselves don’t subscribe to it. They often refer to the writing coming from outside themselves, as they as mere transcribers. In the time of Homer, and for much later, the artist was relatively unimportant compared to the work he created.

Enormous ingenuity has been bought to bear to uncover facts about Homer; to show that use of dialect words surviving in the poems indicates he came from Northern Greece, the Greek islands, especially Chios, and eastern Asia Minor, especially Smyrna. The ascription of so called Homeric Hymns to a group called the Homeridae (sons of Homer) has been said to show that Homer’s descendants were known on the island of Chios for several generations after his death. And evidence from the poems has been used to show Homer lived either in the 12th century BC, or the ninth century or the seventh century.

2 Gerard Homer

The culture

Homer’s poems describe a custom known from other cultures, the Balkans in the 20th century and the Irish in the 18th and early 19th century: that of recitation of long poems by poets at festivals and clan gatherings. Homer mentions Phemius, and Demodocus, as well as Achilles, who retires to his tent and sings lays accompanied on the lyre. Earlier than this, Jackson Knight suggests, come hymns to gods and heroes performed in religious ceremonies. There seems to be an age, in many cultures, of the bard.

The point is that, both before and after writing was introduced to Greece about 800 BC from the Middle East, probably through contact with Phoenician traders, ancient societies were almost wholly oral cultures. Hymns and cult legends, stories about heroes and ancestors, were performed at public ceremonies throughout the Balkan peninsula, Asia Minor, the Middle East and south in Egypt. People who lived in these area in ancient times were all part of what anthropologists refer to as ‘shame’ cultures, contrasted with a later development of ‘guilt’ culture. Honour, especially of the dominant warrior caste, was a major value of these societies, and good reputation fiercely contested among the leading chieftains.

So stories about clan founders, and heroes, were an important part of religion, and came to be part of the tribes’ identity, preserving their values and history. The singer of these songs came to be a most important part of these societies, as important as kings or priests. He sang of the honour of the clan, its supreme value.

3 Apollo

The performers

The singer, or the poet (the maker) then was primarily a performer, what we now call a singer-songwriter. He worked aloud, he used existing stories as he was talking about matter all the clan was familiar with, and he performed on public occasions. He was a celebrated figure whom many would travel long distances to hear. He was the equivalent to a celebrated performer of music such as the blind harpist/composer of Meath,Turlough O’Carolan in the 18th century; or perhaps, in the 20th century AD like Casals, or Liszt in the 19th century.

It is possible the peoples who spoke the Indo European group of languages had this custom when they travelled south around 2000 BC. They certainly found it among the peoples with whom they settled, the so called Minyans in the Balkans, the Minoans in the southern Aegean islands, the Hurri and Hittite peoples of Asia Minor and the Dravidian peoples of northern India.

It is quite possible then that a version of ‘Homer’, a long poem telling of a glorious war, or an adventurous return from it, may have existed as early as 4000 BC in some of these areas. All over the lands the ‘Achaeans’ or ‘Danoi” settled there would have been singers of these songs, and the songs would have cross fertilised  and augmented each other, as individual performers took an effective set piece from one song and added it to another. In what was referred to as ‘Hellas’, lands where Greek was spoken (the Black Sea, Turkey, Alexandria, the Greek islands, the Balkans, the lands on both sides of the Adriatic, southern Italy and Sicily, and parts of France and Spain) the singer was known as ‘Homer’. The word means ‘hostage’ and perhaps preserves a story that in a nameless war one of these tribes captured a valuable performer and ransomed him for a huge sum. That would have been worth boasting about.

Each performer would have been known (Phemius, Demodocus), but once outside their native culture, perhaps remembered as the hostage (Homer). They could have had a diplomatic function as well as a poetic one. These men travelled widely, as poets did also in 6th century BC Hellas. They knew and could perform in several languages, as required by the tribes they performed for. They were valued not only as repositories of lore about ancestors, gods and heroes, but as musicians. They strummed the kithara, a large lyre, the instrument of a god (in Greece, of Apollo). They sang, or chanted, their words, and knew how to project their voice so all could hear. They were dramatic in their delivery, taking on different voices for different characters. The drama of ancient Greece began with these performances of ‘Homer’.

4 O'Carolan


So for perhaps three thousand years these songs were sung in Asia and Europe, and as generations died, the songs’ performances were forgotten. Then, in about 1000 BC, performers began to write their performances down. Some of these writings would have been better than others. But they could now be remembered by others than the performer, unlike perhaps, better ones, which had vanished after a performance for lack of writing. Written versions began to proliferate, bringing into existence editors such as Eratosthenes, himself a great poet, determined to create uniformity of text, even though, perhaps, such uniformity never existed before written versions of the poems came into existence.

The media evolved from unrecorded performance to written, from disparate recensions to more uniform ones, and finally to an accepted text. Somewhere in the process is a great poet, but we don’t know where.

Probably no art at all was first involved. The song was sung for the glory of the clan leader or the owner of the shrine. That was enough. But as the songs were elaborated, and grew longer, a metre was introduced, the hexameter. This was a very utilitarian idea. It made it easier for the poet to remember lines, and made it easier for audiences to follow the sequence of events. The early emphasis was all on story, on saga.

Somewhere in this process a great poet, with an unusual command of language, recast the story, developed the characters, retained much that was old and added much that was new. Was this Homer? For all we know Homer might be a generic term, or the name of an untalented ancient performer which happened to be preserved. But we want it to be the name of a great poet, and so, in Jackson Knight’s books and in countless others, we pursue him in the poems he left behind.

But we can’t pin him down. He may have lived in the lands of Sumer, been a Hurrian or a man of Thessaly, born before the time of cities or of the generation immediately before that of Eratosthenes. We can’t know, because we can’t tell when the excellence of the poems began. And we don’t know if ‘Homer’ was the source of it. The author may have been composite, as the author of a play or film is today. The poems though still tell a good story.

5 dylan greenwood 1963

Homer’s sources

Jackson Knight has an interesting chapter on the sources of Homer. He starts by noticing the similarities of Homer’s organisation of material to that of the Bible, and contrasts it with the more structured organisation of poets like Vergil or Milton.

Certain heroes in the Bible bear a remarkable resemblance to heroic figures in epic literature. Samson, whose long hair was a source of his strength, is a similar figure to Enkidu, the companion of Gilgamesh of Sumerian Uruk, a ‘natural’ man characterised by his long hair, who battles a lion and falls in love with a woman who cuts his hair and otherwise civilises him, leading to his death. Samson is a retelling of the Enkidu myth, and shows how important Sumer (the land of Abraham) was in forming Hebrew culture.

Transference of myth

The discoveries at Ras Shamra have revealed the Hurrian, Hittite and Assyrian origin of many of the stories of Hesiod, thought by some to be a contemporary of Homer in the seventh century BC. Asia Minor is probably the origin of many Greek gods, such as the divine pair Apollo and Artemis. A tablet of Ras Shamra contains a catalog of ships similar to Homer’s. Others contain myths of the underworld which is imagined as a huge city with walls in which are seven gates, besieged by heroes who rescue others who have died. This is considered very close to the epic of Boeotian Thebes. The Hittite word for city, ‘wili’, has been linked to the other name for Troy, Ilion (originally wilion).

Some words in Homer are thought to have Phoenician origins. ‘Ereb’, west, is thought to be Erebus or Hades in Homer; ‘aia’, hawk, is Aiaia, Circe’s (Kirke) island, and hawk in Greek is kirkos, suggesting part of the story of Odysseus concerning Circe may have originated in a Phoenician oral epic tale. Many scholars think the Phaeacians are really the Phoenicians. It could very well indicate that one singer at least in Greece knew Phoenician stories and may even have been of Phoenician origin (hostage).

6 musicians from Egypt

Common cultures

Scholars have suggested various origins for components in the Homeric poems, from Minoan, Phoenician, Hurrian or Hittite or even Egyptian cultures. What makes this more possible still is that these enquiries all suffer from an anachronism many writers on Homer share. Nationalism. Writing from a time when nation states are the norm, conflict between nation states has been devastating, and also needing to distinguish between various ancient cultures, writers on Homer speak of Greeks, Hittites, Phoenicians, Minoans etc and emphasise their distinguishing characteristics. But for anyone living 2000 BC to 1000 BC this would not have been so apparent. Most of the tribes had similar customs and ways of life. There were great similarities in their culture and religion (even with the Hebrews). Bards would have moved freely between cities, telling of the stories of gods and heroes and ancestors.

This is what would have distinguished these peoples. Their descent from heroic founders, or gods. Language would not have been the barrier we imagine, we with a culture entirely dependant on written sources. The Hittite and Egyptian courts exchanged correspondence and sent emissaries to each other. The Minoans and Mycenaeans after them fought in the Egyptian army. The Phoenicians traded among all these cultures. Stories would have circulated with a scope and rapidity we would find hard to realise. Mercenaries of all these cultures travelled the world, as did traders, and stories were the medium of exchange as much as money. Slavery was common, the result of capture in a war, and many were uprooted from their own culture and transplanted to another.

What needs to be emphasised is the common elements in Homer’s culture, embracing all these people, whether he lived in the 15th, 12th or ninth century BC.

Jackson Knight’s book suggests many other lines of enquiry, from ancient religious practices, the theories of Jung, the function of epic recitations, oratorical origins of ancient literary structures and so on.

We end up, despite Jackson Knight’s own beliefs, with a Homer who could have lived between 4000 BC and 750 BC, in Greece, the Middle East or Asia Minor, been of Sumerian, Semitic, Turkish or Greek extraction, been a traditional reciter or a poet who composed by writing down his poem, or been an editor who integrated diverse material into one great poem, as editors were doing in the seventh century with many of the books of the Bible. ‘Homer’ may not be a personal name, or be a fictitious one, there may have been several men whose combined work was called ‘Homer’, or just one man who was one of the most gifted poets who ever lived.

We end up, as we started, with the poems. They are still worth the read, still substantially as Eratosthenes left them, 2300 years ago. Perhaps he is the ‘Homer’ we are seeking, a great poet who came from Libya.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “The last minstrel

  1. Barry Powell, in the introduction to his translation of “The Odyssey,” suggests that the Greek alphabet, which was the first to have vowels, was created for the purpose of recording oral poetry, and specifically Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

    1. Perhaps. Yet the other ancient alphabets we know of arose to record commercial or diplomatic transactions. And there were many bards who had already recorded the poems in memory, perhaps over centuries. So why write them down? Was it because ancient scholars saw that one version in particular was very good? We need one of Stanley Kubrick’s black monoliths to get the answer.

      Writing down the poems would not have helped at their performance. No bard would get far putting down his kithera and scrabbling in a bag of incised clay tablets for the one he wanted; or rolling out and searching for a passage in a long scroll. The letters in ancient writing were run on, no word breaks. The poems must have been written down for a non performance occasion. Perhaps after a religious festival and epic poetry contest the winner may have been expected to leave a copy in the god’s temple. This is what happened at Athenian drama festivals. Or a bard might have founded a school to teach more than the single apprentice at one time. These would have been daunting poems to learn for an apprentice though. Perhaps they were stolen by a Greek in Syria, transcribed from a recital and shipped back to Greece as contraband. Similar things happened to some of Shakespeare’s plays. My guess is that it would not have been until the time of Alkaeos and Psappho when the poet was sometimes not the actual performer of the poem that Homer’s poems were written down. Perhaps as a consequence of the winning of a prize, which might explain why there are so many ‘Homers’.

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