What Does an Oral ‘Homer’ Mean?

The ‘modern’ Homeric ‘Question’ simmered for many centuries before it received its most clear articulation at the end of the 18th century when Wolf, who had been working on an edition of the Homeric text, published his Prolegomena.  He was one of the first to argue persuasively for the oral derivation of the Homeric poems. In the (declining) style of the time, Wolf published in Latin.

The full Latin text is available from Google books and on the Homer Multitext Project website. A fine translation was published in English in 1985/1988 by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and James E. G. Zetzel.

Friedrich Augustus Wolf, Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) section 23


“But what if the suspicion of a few scholars is likely, that these and the other compositions of those days were not written down but were first created by poets using memory and circulated as songs and then were ‘published’ widely by the singing of rhapsodes who were trained by their particular discipline to learn them? And if because of this, before they were fixed in writing, what if many changes naturally occurred either intentionally or by chance?

What if, for this reason itself, as soon as they began to be written, they exhibited many divergences and soon added new ones from the hasty adjustments by those who were eager to polish them and to align them with the best laws of the poetic art and their own custom And what if then this whole creation and series of two eternal songs are not of a single poet whom we are used to crediting for his genius but more from the dedication of a more polished time and thanks to the collected efforts of many—that the very songs from which the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed did not have a single author and this can be argued from likely propositions and reasons? What if, I ask, we must take up a belief different from the popular one about all of this, what then will it mean to restore the ancient gleam and original form to these poems?”


At vero, si nonnullorum probabilis est suspicio , haec et reliqua Carmina illorum temporum nullis litterarum mandata notis, sed primum a poetis memoriter facta et cantu edita, tum per rhapsodos, in iis ediscendis propria arte occupatos, canendo divulgata esse; ex quo, antequam scripto velut figerentur, plura in iis vel consilio vel casu immutari necesse esset; si hanc ipsam ob causam, statim ut scribi coepta sunt, multas diversitates habuerunt, mox novas subinde adsciverunt temeritate et coniecturis eorum, qui ea certatim expolire, et ad optimas leges poeticae artis ad suamque consuetudinem loquendi corrigere studebant; si denique totum hunc contextum ac seriem duorum perpetuorum Carminum non tam eius, cui eam tribuere consuevimus, ingenio, quam sollertiae politioris aevi et multorum coniunctis studiis deberi, neque adeo ipsas docdd, ex quibus Ilias et Odyssea compositae sunt, unum omnes auctorem habere, verisimilibus argumentis et rationibus effici potest; si, inquam, aliter de his omnibus, ac vulgo fit, existimandum est: quid tum erit, his Carminibus pristinum nitorem et germanam formam suam restituere?


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