Homer and the Web

At Harvard in the 1930s, Professor Milman Parry and his student, Albert Lord, revolutionized Homeric studies by proving that Homeric poetry is a “system” generated from oral traditions spanning more than a millennium. When they studied the oral traditions of South Slavic songs, they saw deep structural and systemic analogies to how performances of Homer’s epic poems might have sounded and been experienced. As Lord named him in his seminal 1960 book, Homer was “The Singer of Tales.”

Lord’s students and successors, Greg Nagy, Douglas Frame, Leonard Muellner, and David Elmer, want to create a new form of a commentary to Homer envisioned as a proof of concept that Homer’s language stemmed from a formulaic system of oral poetry. An open, web-based, living commentary to the Iliad, Odyssey, and Homeric Hymns will harvest resources from the larger Homer Multitext Project sponsored by the Center for Hellenic Studies. Called “A Homer Commentary in Progress,” the team believes it will become an exemplary toolkit for a new form of scholarly publication that will revolutionize how multi-author and multi-modal forms of knowledge are rediscovered and transmitted across generations and millennia.

Sitting against a backdrop of a manuscript page of Iliad Book 18, Nagy, Elmer and Muellner talk about Homer. However, their story begins to sound like a story about the Web. When they explain the nexus of variations and patterns woven into Homeric texts, the interactive Professor Nagy discusses the project character of Homer’s audience, the interconnected and temporal system of formulas and themes, and the conversational, multi-author nature of the Homeric tradition, their project exemplifies every major shift in knowledge brought by the digital revolution — the connectivity and modularity of knowledge systems, the combinatorial nature of language (and innovation), the limits of the text, and the provisional nature of knowing.

The project’s first goal is to create a prototype of an online commentary to the Iliad. No existing edition, including the most complete manuscript of the Iliad, Venetus A, contains “all of Homer,” and Homeric scholars have had to grapple with the variations of the different preserved texts to recreate the underlying oral tradition. Professor Nagy compares two versions of a passage from rhapsody no. 18Friedrich August Wolf already sensed the existence of this larger system in his Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795 and today, Greg Nagy, a teacher of the beloved Ancient Greek Hero course at Harvard, wants to bring the thrill of a chase for the hidden Homeric world to everyone.

Only a systematic commentary that takes account of the whole system can draw connections between parts, synchronically, and across time, diachronically, by using the hyperlinked structure of the Internet. The commentary will be better suited to convey the composition in performance, each time anew.

This new form of commentary will demonstrate the versioning, substitutions, adaptations, and combinatorial nature of a formulaic system where connections define new meanings. The open, collective, and interactive form will be a better instrument to convey the interactivity of a Homeric audience —knowledgeable and active listeners— than a traditional commentary.

With authority built on scholarly dialogues and conversations about the Homeric system rather than a canonical text, the commentary—like Homeric poetry in performance—will be an open-ended form of a new kind of scholarly publication.

Though endlessly revisable, the commentary will allow for a precise attribution of credit through the specification of authors and timestamps. “Micro-credits,” a term borrowed from multi-author publishing in physics or biomedicine, can now be given to an undergraduate, for example, who helps annotate a Homeric text. And like a github for data, the commentary will provide an accurate record of past versions, annotations, and annotation procedures.

The world of “the singer of tales” was abuzz with celebrations and performances, dances and recitals. Let’s end with Greg Nagy, in performance, reciting his translation of a passage from Odyssey Rhapsody 8.