World Literature (Eng251)

Homeric Poetry

Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI

Before they have writing, people transmit their history to future generations orally. Oral poetry employs a large number of "formulas," patterns that can be used over and over again to complete the rhythm of a line. This helps the poet to compose by just plugging in blocks of words instead of having to constantly recombine groups of words into poetically attractive phrases.

Homeric formulas are phrases that are used repeatedly to describe a person, place or thing. Each phrase fits into a particular metrical slot in a line of poetry. For example, here are pairs of epithets reserved for a single hero with a major role in Homer:

Multiple epithets for two Homeric Heroes

hero's name epithet syllables frequency in Iliad and Odyssey
Odysseus polymetis (of many devices 4 82
  polytlas (much suffering) 3 38
Achilles podus okus (swift of foot) 4 31
  podarkes (strong) 3 21

Adapted from Milman Parry, The Traditional Epithet in Homer.

In each case the first example has four syllables and the second has three, but the meanings are not much different. Some of these formulas are "fixed" and can be used wherever there is a space in the line that needs a certain rhythm; others are adapted to the particular meaning of an event. They help a poet to compose by providing ready made or easily adaptable parts for the poetic line. Such formulas could be easily remembered, even if their language became archaic.

Rhapsodes recited Homer's poetry. They were professional singers who probably accompanied themselves with simple stringed instruments. They sang for their suppers, rather like Demodocus in the Odyssey. The Homeric poems were first written down in the sixth century BC, from dictation by the Homeridae, rhapsodes who recited Homeric stories.

 (c) Thompson:7/10/1998; updated 06/05/2008