How does one ‘read’ Homer? The debate has been going on for some time. In his Homeric Questions, Porphyry presents a classic answer:
“Because I think to best to make sense of Homer through Homer, I usually show by example how he may interpret himself, sometimes in juxtaposition, sometimes in other ways. Such an interpretation is possible contained within the line for the epithet Eirokomôs*:
“Appearing like an old women, a wool-carder, who was born long ago, she addressed her” (Il. 3.386)
Who is the eirokomos? She, they say, is one who makes wool pretty. So, someone who adorned wool would be a “wool-carder” [imagining that the komos part is related to komeo, which means “to tend”]. And to “adorn” is to “make beautiful”, as when one “adorns the horns by pouring gold on them so that the goddess might delight when she sees the decoration” (Od. 3.437)
᾿Αξιῶν δὲ ἐγὼ ῞Ομηρον ἐξ ῾Ομήρου σαφηνίζειν αὐτὸν ἐξηγούμενον ἑαυτὸν ὑπεδείκνυον, ποτὲ μὲν παρακειμένως, ἄλλοτε δ’ ἐν ἄλλοις. τῇ τε γὰρ εἰροκόμῳ παράκειται συνεζευγμένη ἡ ἐξήγησις·
γρηῒ δέ μιν εἰκυῖα παλαιγενέι προσέειπεν
εἰροκόμῳ (Γ 386).
τίς οὖν ἡ εἰροκόμος; ἥ οἱ, φησὶν, ἤσκειν εἴρια καλά· ἡ γὰρ ἀσκοῦσα τὰ ἔρια
εἴη ἂν εἰροκόμος· ἀσκεῖν δὲ τὸ καλλωπίζειν, ὡς τὸ χρυσὸν κέρασι
περιχεύει ἀσκήσας, ἵν’ ἄγαλμα θεὰ κεχάροιτο ἰδοῦσα (γ 437).
*This epithet is a Homeric hapax legomenon (it only occurs once!) that means “wool-carder”. In this scene, Aphrodite at first takes the disguise of an elderly servant as she addresses Helen.
Although I am not much convinced that Porphyry displays well here what he set out to do, this is the earliest example of a method tried and true in Homeric scholarship—to figure out what is conventional in Homer or assumed by the texts in order to explain problematic passages.
The older I get, the more sure I am that too many errors of communication and understanding are committed because we fail to understand elements of a system by the assumptions of that system first and foremost…
Although this is our earliest extant reference to what is attributed now to the principles of the Alexandrian librarian and editor Aristarchus, the D Scholia to the Iliad (5.385) provide an important testimonium:
“Aristarchus believed it best to make sense of those things that were presented more fantastically by Homer according to the poet’s authority, that we not be overwhelmed by anything outside of the things presented by Homer.”
᾿Αρίσταρχος ἀξιοῖ τὰ φραζόμενα ὑπὸ τοῦ Ποιητοῦ μυθικώτερον ἐκδέχεσθαι, κατὰ τὴν Ποιητικὴν ἐξουσίαν, μηδὲν ἔξω τῶν φραζομένων ὑπὸ τοῦ Ποιητοῦ περιεργαζομένους.