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The Odyssey: How the Odyssey Survived

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

It's often said that the poems of Homer are the nearest thing the Greeks had to a Bible. That's not exactly true. The Greeks didn't revere his poems as religious texts. But they did have a status in their eyes that is comparable to a religious text such as the Bible, say, for Jews and Christians or the Koran for Moslems. Another reason for comparing his works to the Bible is because it was Homer, very largely, who gave the Greeks their idea of the Olympian deities as anthropomorphic beings with emotions just like ours.

The poems of "Homer" are among the first surviving Greek literary productions. The only other surviving Greek literature of comparable antiquity are the poems of Hesiod, who composed two much shorter epic poems, Theogony and Works and Days. Fascinating though Hesiod is, he doesn't come close to rivalling Homer. There were lots of would-be poets composing stories based around the Trojan War cycle when Homer was putting together his epic poems. But their works haven't survived – or rather, they've survived only in fragments. We call those fragments collectively the Trojan Cycle. The Iliad and the Odyssey don't cover much of the Trojan War. The Iliad covers a period of about ten days close to the end of the war. The Odyssey is about the travails of just one returning combatant, Odysseus. There's a brief reference, just a few lines long, to the Trojan horse episode in the Odyssey.

But for our knowledge of the events of the Trojan War overall, we are dependent on other sources, such as Greek tragedy. The tragic poet Aeschylus, for instance, said that his plays were based on "scraps from the table of Homer." A wonderful image. But back to Homer's contemporaries – or near contemporaries. The reason why the work of no other epic poet apart from Hesiod has survived is because later Greeks didn't think they were worth preserving. Homer was so darn good that he killed off all the opposition, so to speak. Which interestingly means that his poems, the earliest literary creations, are in some sense at the end of a long line of literary creation.

We don't know whether Homer was literate, and even if he was, I don't believe there were many copies of his poems floating around the Greek world in the seventh or even the sixth century BCE. Homer survived in the first instance because bards, also known as rhapsodes, remembered his poems in their entirety. One of the characteristics about poetry is that it is much more memorable than prose. At the same time, it's more vulnerable to change; what we call interpolation. Anyone can introduce or omit a line or a passage or change a line or a passage either deliberately or by mistake. And this may well have been happening for the first 150 years or so of the poem's existence.

And then, around the mid-fifth century in Athens, steps were taken to establish what we might call an authorised version of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This occurred under the auspices of a tyrant called Pisistratus. The word turannos in Greek doesn't mean the same that the word "tyrant" does in English, by the way. It just means someone who holds unconstitutional power, though the word did come to acquire a negative connotation in Greek over time. But in fact, Pisistratus was a pretty decent guy. He ruled Athens from 546 BCE till his death in 527 without committing any atrocities. He wanted to put Athens on the map, so to speak, and he did this in part by enhancing Athens' cultural prestige. And one of the ways he did this was by making Athens the custodian, so to speak, of the poems of Homer. He did this by ordering what is called a recension. That is to say, he got some people to establish as best they could authoritative versions of the two poems. They'd been free-floating for 150 years, like I said. Now the texts became pretty much fixed for all time.

We'll never know what the texts of the two poems might have been until Pisistratus ordered the recension. Most scholars would agree that the texts were fairly stable before that, but it stands to reason that he wouldn't have ordered the recension unless there were concerns. And we know for a fact that some changes were introduced at this time because there are some words in the poems that are in the Attic dialect, Attica being the territory surrounding Athens. Pisistratus also revamped something called the Panathenaic Games, games that were celebrated in honour of Athena. And one of the competitions he introduced was recitations of the poems of Homer, and this accorded them high status.

Much later, around 275 BCE, the first head of the library of Alexandria, a man called Zenodotus, undertook to do further revision on the texts by collating, that is to say, collecting, a number of manuscripts that had different readings and determine which was correct. Evidently, the poems had been circulating in slightly different versions. That's not surprising. Pisistratus' recension wouldn't have been universally accepted. It may also have been Zenodotus, who was the first to divide the poems into 24 books. Then in 200 BCE, as we've seen, another Alexandrine scholar called Aristophanes conducted further investigation. He was the scholar who decided that the Odyssey actually ended at line 296 of Book 24 – i.e., before the bloodbath that follows.

In this period, which we call the Hellenistic era, numerous copies of Homer's poems were circulating throughout the Greek-speaking world. We know this from the fact that scraps of the poems have been found on papyri, the chief writing material in the ancient world. Papyri are fragile and don't usually survive, but they have survived in quantity in the sands of Egypt. And what they tell us is that Homer was the most popular Greek author of all because more scraps of papyri have survived of his work in Egypt than of any other author by far. And though no papyri have survived from elsewhere, it's reasonable to assume that Homer was equally popular throughout the entire Greek-speaking world.

Homer remained popular in the Roman era. Educated Romans studied Greek, so they grew up, so to speak, reading Homer. His works, like the works of all the other Greek authors who have survived, were preserved by medieval monks, who copied his poems onto manuscripts. More than 70 of these manuscripts of the Odyssey survive in codex form (i.e., in the form of folded quires of paper sewn at the back).

In c. 1400, handwritten editions of Homer started to circulate among educated circles in Italy, and then in 1488, the first printed edition of Homer was published in Florence. The Greek language, knowledge of which had almost disappeared from western Europe, now began to revive. In the final lesson, we're going to talk about the poem's legacy – what the Odyssey has meant to subsequent generations up until the present day and how it has inspired writers in particular.

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Written by

Robert Garland