Lecture Notes for Classics160/Comp. Lit. 244: The Epic Tradition

I. Classics 160/Comp. Lit. 244: The Epic Tradition

II. Class Notes And To-Do's

III. Welcome to the primal font of Western Literature. All societies have their own myths and their own literature--these are the great stories that lie behind the culture and the tradition that has put us all together in this classroom. Enough of our society still values these works after some 26 centuries for you to be here to learn abou them now.

IV. How did it get started?

A. People have always told stories--whether to educate the young or the ever-popular goal of SHUTTING THEM UP. One of the reasons our society takes care of the elderly is that they know more stories than WE do, although this was, admittedly before Nintendo.

B. The best stories were the ones told the most often, and in the best way.

C. No matter what has happened, if people can talk and listen and the TV isn't on, they will tell stories.

V. These stories came out of all the stuff of Fantasy: Alien invaders, cities destroyed, and a lost civilization.

A. Starting in 3000 or so B.C. a civilization began to flourish in the southernmost island off the Balkan peninsula of Greece.

1. Most visible on the island of Crete, it featured contact with the alien civilization to the South and East, beautiful art, and overseas trade.

2. As this "Minoan" culture flourished, it influenced the culture of those living on the mainland, in huge palace complexes similar to those on Crete at places such as Mycene.

3. Characteristics of this period: great kings in fortified cities, prosperous and active trade and travel, tall, well-fed warriors in shining bronze...

4. Since the two cultures came to value the same things, they got to arguing about them, and what we call the "Mycenean Culture" seems to have conquered Crete at around 1370 B.C. and even taken over the weird writing syst em the Cretans had gotten from parts East.

5. Soon after that momentous event (and possibly driven by the same forces, the Mycenean civilization was hit by people called the Dorians, in later years, just as other peoples throughout the Mediterranean were also hit by strange invaders from another world--the world outside of the Mediterranean.

6. They carried iron weapons, which were cheaper than bronze, and spoke a much rougher form of language, and eventually destroyed all the great Mycenean centers and civilization down to literacy itself.

7. The main thrust of the invasion missed a peninsula off to the side called Attica, and from that, people who could, fled to Asia Minor across the Aegean. Soon, all they had left of what had been were the stories...

B. The "poets before Homer." We get to speculate about how these stories told by scattered refugees got turned into these books we're holding now.

1. Remembering a good story is a problem--but that gets easier and the listeners seem to like it often if you can turn it into a song.

2. Songs are short, after all, but you can string them together until the whole stories are told. People tend to recognize specific characters and that saves you the trouble of introducing them each time.

3. FOR EXAMPLE: The Robin Hood stories, as we have them collected into books, started out with (yecch!) folk ballads about this or that adventure with Robin Hood, Little John, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and so on.

C. The character of Allan a' Dale was supposed to have been the one writing all these ballads down at the time.

VI. End as 06 9/6/95

1. He was a traveling bard--someone who made a living traveling around, learning new stories and songs and telling people stories and songs they hadn't heard before.

2. The Greeks had these people very early--the Odyssey mentions Phemius, whom some people think is Homer's own way of inserting himself into the story (Od. 8.5)

a) The fact that Phemius is blind might well explain the legends that Homer was blind himself

b) Before the welfare state, though, the blind had to support themselves somehow.

c) We should admit, though, that being blind doesn't necessarily preclude your composing huge poems--eh, Milton?

3. People like that were traveling around Ionia, the area of Asia Minor those Mycenean refugees had settled.

4. And someone others tell us was named Homer collected those songs, re-worked them to fit his own conception of who was who and who did what

VII. How did Homer create these two monsters?

A. He almost certainly wrote them both down--Il. 6.168-9 mentions that literacy had been rediscovered (Bellerophon).

B. If you do it long enough (trust me!) writing in meter

1. (explain ancient poetry, vowel quantity, meter, dactyllic hexameter)

2. And now explain why those weird little tags get added "Strong greaved Achaians/Achilles of the Great War Cry/Fish-Breeding sea.

a) They don't hurt!

b) They fill out the meter and you get used to them.

C. Gets to be second nature--you just start thinking that way.

D. He made his own call on the myths--we know, for example, that there was a rival tradition that Poseidon was pro-Trojan. Homer didn't buy that, although he may have had to invent an entire episode to explain why Poseid on was so upset at Odysseus.

E. He wrote, however, for his story to be performed in the way he'd heard the component parts he reworked, what is called "episodic composition."

1. It IS possible to memorize these two poems word for word (Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451) and in fact we'll have a guy here next semester who has just about memorized both of them--and they're in a language he didn't grow up speaking and nobody does anymore.

2. It is NOT possible to perform these two poems cover to cover by yourself (Kopff's experiment at the American School).

3. Phemius is asked for and performs specific episodes from the larger story of the Trojan War in the Odyssey. Note how both poems are written in pieces that satisfy and are complete within themselves. THAT's what they mean by episodic composition.

4. The poems WERE performed, entirely, by hired artists using standardized and approved texts at "Homer Festivals" paid for by people such as Peisistratus. It took four days.

VIII. That would indicate that Homer succeeded in telling a good story

1. The Rhapsodes started singing his stuff--or chanting it--and it got to the point that people who specialized in just doing Homer were calling Homeridae (sons of Homer) and selling themselves that way.

2. Again, Peisistratus's festivals make it clear that people were reading from a writen text of his collection as early as the mid-6th B.C. You first need those to help train the next generation of rhapsodes, and then ot her people find that buying those are cheaper than actually hiring a rhapsode.

3. For Shakespeare, we know that there were good and bad quarto editions of his various plays before the first great effort to collect them all (to make money) into the First Folio, which wasn't bad, but it wasn't perfec t, either.

4. Since then, people have been comparing texts that don't agree with each other--people such as Garrick & Keane cut and REWROTE much of Richard III, e.g.

End as of 9/9/95

5. We think that much the same thing happened with Homer's text but in fits and starts.

a) Athens, for example, only has a few legends from the Heroic Age of Mycenean civilization. They did everything they could with Theseus and by having people such as the Sons of Heracles coming to Athens, not to mention Heracles themselves.

b) One of the explanations for the catalogue of ships (2.480-760) is that the various local communities--or the bards who wanted a friendly reception at this or that community--put themselves into the story.

c) Just take a look at Athens' entry in 2.544-556. Sounds like the roll call at a political convention, doesn't it?

6. Peisistratus and others had funded readings of Homer to make themselves look good--starting in the very later 4th Century B.C. the rulers of Ptolemaic Egypt and Pergamon sought to make themselves look good by funding t extual criticism of Homer.

a) The Great Library at Alexandria (which got its start as a defense plant) was founded by Ptolemy I who funded some awfully brilliant people to move there and try to establish what Homer actually wrote.

b) I should note that in so doing the idea of Classical Studies was born, and a good chunk of what's going on in Academe today.

c) They did a pretty good job of weeding out the interpolations and not too bad a job at doing something we're quite sure Homer didn't--chopping each epic into 24 books.

d) There was a reason for that--explain papyrus rolls (scapi) and the 30 foot working maximum, sheets and umbilici, etc.

e) The job was more finished than any other achievement of Classical scholarship, but you'll not be surprised to hear that there are still substantial numbers of people working on it now.

IX. All right--that's how we got the books--Now what about what's IN THEM?

A. But first--WHY were those Alexandrian and Pergamene scholars working so hard to establish that text?

1. Western civilization now has what used to be and what a great many people still think was a recorded standard of morality--the Bible

2. Homer offered a readable, intelligent guide to individual conduct, survival, and relationship to the supenatural and other untrollable events. Do I have to paint you a picture?

B. AND having said that, why should you care?

1. Because the moral code that shaped these books and the civilzation that valued them so highly isn't the same one that you're reacting to now.

2. The Christian moral code that supplanted the one expressed here had something dramatically different to offer, as Jesus Himself put it, "You have heard it said that you should love friend and hate your enemy...Isn't th at what the pagans do?

3. When Achilles lets the Greek army get butchered while he "sulks in his tent," and Odysseus slaughters suitors begging for mercy, they're responding to that moral code.

4. It's a function of changing values.

a) The quintessential Greek value was arete which we very badly translate at "virtue," although if we knew our Latin that wouldn't be so bad (that which characterizes a proper man).

(1) By Plato's time, arete could be the special property that made water satisfying to thirst

(2) Aristotle would talk of arete being the mean between two vices

(3) But in Homer's time, when they were trying to rebuilt a civilization, arete was true to its etymoligcal origin and meant, primarily, skill in warfare--out of which people stopped being driven cattle and started to beco me men and women again.

5. Other values also differ, others have remained absolutely constant

a) Christianity values humility (Grant), vs. the ancients time, kudos, kleos and gloria (Alexander).

b) Christians lived their lives with an eye to the hereafter, to Homer the hereafter was this big cave full of bats and meeping, mindless ghosts and little else--Od. 11, Achilles about preferring to be a sharecropper to b eing lord of the dead, 11.575-80, and the only happiness anybody had at all down there was knowing that people were still talking about you up here=immortality.

c) We're not talking about aliens, here, note--but very human people with some values that have remained universal.

(1) Consider the picture of Hector, the great Trojan warrior, chewing out his brother for starting this stupid war (6.325-330), longing for Andromache, who loves him (Il. 6.370ff.) fighting because he does not want his wif e and little son dragged off to be slaves (6.445) and because he does not want to let his comrades down (6.440-445). The U.S. Army spent thousands finding out that that is the best so called "Combat Motivator. (Devils in Baggy Pants, Hillbilly. and the Iliad).

(2) When Hector dies Helen remembers that he was always kind to her (24.762-775). Is there anything more gut-wrenching than Hector, doomed, taking off his war helmet because it frightens his doomed little son (6.465-475), and praying over Astyanax as he embraces him?

d) The Iliad ends, in fact, when Achilles watches Priam weeping over his own dead son, and realizes that his old father will soon be doing the same for him. (Il. 24.507-540). Even the gods are helpless to prevent the mis eries we inherit with our first breath.

To Notes as of 9/29/95