READING HOMERIC POETRY


A Project for Independent Study in Greek




There is a widespread interest these days in Homer as a classical Greek author and in the whole area of bardic and ethnic poetry. Since this ranges far wider than a series of college courses or a Greek major, and is becoming important for many people in all walks of life, it seems the right time to invoke the spirit of the Homeric world and consider a way of approach the Iliad and the Odyssey in the original Greek, as a matter of personal learning on your own.I seriously suggest Independent Study as a good way to get into reading in the wonderful world of Homeric epic, whether you are a college student or someone coming back to Greek later in life. The first object is to get a more immediate reading knowledge than a slow-moving class offers, while second critical aim is to graspthe verse naturally as poetry with an authentic pronunciation. A third would be to do something on your own, become an "autodidact" as an experiment in learning, doing something you do on your own and for your own benefit.

An online "Homer Project" is curently being developed, which plans to present Greek text in learnable segments with basic comment on the language. Along with this will be a Chat organized in weekly sections open for questions, many of which will be answered by teachers or advanced grad students in the field. More material can be added later if the number of participants grows and more help is needed. When this is up and running, a note will be found here for communicating with the Project.

To start with, let's assume that you have finished a first year study of Greek with Athenaze or a similar lesson-course. Or perhaps you did Greek some time ago and are interested in doing a review and progressing to some literary reading in Greek. The logical pathway if you are in college is to take a second year course in Greek, but that may not be offered in your alternate year, or it may not be offered at all.

Or it may be that the course which is offered as Greek 201 is not what you want, what you went through those boring lessons of the introductory year for. Xenophon and Herodotus are authors well worth reading, and Plato's Apology of Socrates is even better as a preface to Plato's style and thought. But if it is poetry and the poets you are really after, then Greek 201 may not serve your purposes at all. These days with tight curricula and many requirements, there is only so much time alotted for ancillary courses, and two years of Greek is all most people will get in the rush toward the B.A.

If any of the above are factors in your situation, consider doing a Homer course on your own. If in college this can usually be arranged as Independent Study fore a serious student with a reason. Or if not a student at this point, going it alone will come to mind first, with the question : Is it feasible?

Yes, it is entirely reasonable to start the study of Homer on your own. There are many reasons for doing Homer after a year of preparation, which I will discuss in detail. But there are also reasons for learning something difficult and complex on your own, and I would like to expand this as a problem in our American system of learning.

Americans have always assumed "learning" to be the function of a teaching institution with a well laid out program. If you have any question about our over-emphasis on Institutionalized Schooling, take a look at Ivan Illich's now classic book "Deschooling Society", an early protest against canned learning in a school setting. We have become so used to "taking a course" when we want to learn something, that we have largely forgotten that it is the learner's responsibility to go out and find what is to be learned, and learn it on a direct and personal level. No teacher, no interface, no excuses for failure, and above all, no testing other than your own estimate of your ability and the functionality of what you have mastered.

Teachers can be useful when there are problems to be solved and the tutorial session with an experienced expert is a fine opportunity to iron out confusions or set new goals. Or in the case of highly complicated matters, as in higher math or an advancing language study, the teacher can serve as a super-schoolmaster and help on a practical level. Some well-meaning teachers feel that this is their main role, serving as academically qualified "aides-to-students", which incidentally defeats the notion of the "Professor" as someone who has something important to communicate and actually profess.

The "Lesson Method" of teaching Greek, with each lessons covering a small chunk of grammar with "sentences" to translate, evolved around l890 when Greek as well as Latin was a requirement for all students in college, whatever their interests or abilities. By progressing step by step, it could be guaranteed that every student had some basic knowledge of Greek, whether it would be interesting or useful in later life, or not. But as the century rolls over, those who undertake the study of Greek are a special group, highly motivated and generally a linguistically talented class, or they would not be doing that work in the first place. They can learn much faster than the old lessons went, they can absorb much of the structural approach of modern Linguistics, and their eagerness to read genuine text in the original Greek will carry them far along the road to a "reading knowledge".

So for anyone who has a preference for learning on his own, becoming in a sense an "autodidact" and taking responsibility for serious learning as a natural function of study, a project of Independent Study can follow very well upon that first-year Introduction to Greek. I have found over the years that the things which I learned on my own were the things most firmly learned. And I was able to develop my own thinking independently, without learning the teacher's preferences as I went. This may not be the easiest row to hoe, but I recommend it strongly as the one which is likely to produce the best crops. If you are up for being an Autodidact in second year Greek, bear with me and see if the following pages make sense to you.

There are many reasons for learning to read Homeric Greek first, although the Classical fraternity has fixed upon Attic Greek as the standard of the language. It is true that Attic is the base for philosophy, rhetoric, post-Herodotean history and oratory. But Attic drama (or what we have left of it) is Doric not Attic in the important and beautiful choral passages, and the thin trail of poetry coming down from Sappho is Aeolic. If your aim is Plato and philosophy, Attic is in fact mandatory, but if you have other directions in mind, Attic with its contracted forms in noun and verb is not the via diretta.

But behind the Greek of every educated Hellene throughout the ages lies the huge shadow of Homer. It is not only the words and wording of Homer which every Greek learned as a child as his first reading-book. But it is also the social and ethical outlook which Homer embodies, which was the educational and moral backdrop for all Greek culture. Everything goes back to Homer, something which any literate Greek in the streets of Athens could have told you without hesitation. The Iliad was a Greek's "Reader", and the thought as well as vocabulary of Homer filtered into all subsequent writing. I was once surprised to find that a great percentage of the words in the first Choral Ode of Aeschylus' Agamemnon was also found in Iliad Book I! Of course this is not more surprising in this than the constant surfacing in English language literature of words and phrases read early in life in the King James Bibl, and it is not unreasonable to see Homer as the Bible of the Hellenic world.

From our point of view, Homer is a good linguistic first-step into Greek because he reveals an earlier stage of the Greek language which only slowly was metamorphized into our Attic standard. The "contracted" forms of noun and verb which we learned in Attic are still uncontracted in Homer, and much easier to comprehend with a light dose of linguistic history. There are problems with the Homeric Language indeed, iciosyncratic grammatical forms and large vocoabulary, but these are no block to a reader watching the crisp and explicit thread of Homeric storylines. This might be a good point at which to enumerate some of the hard spots in learning Homer.

1) There IS a large vocabulary, with many words which were not in your first year textbook. Some are ancient words which were later replaced in common parlance, some are ritual words peculiar to Homer's world. And some are the words of poetry which were part of a developed poetic diction, embraced not only be Homer but by a dozen authors in the Epic tradition, most of which was lost at an early date.

2) The uncontracted forms of certain diphthongs will be new to you, but there are also odd forms which vary from passage to passage, forms which come from different MSS traditions, also forms which are quite idiosyncratic. Homeric language is no humdrum parlance from daily life, it is a highly polished and ancient literary art, which like Shakespeare's plays has problems and queries and conundrums. This variability is part of the language, the special identity of the Homeric world.

3) The verse must be read as verse, that is it must be read aloud with acoustic sense and musical appreciation. Greek has vowels which can be long or short in duration, these are properties of individual words and syllables and are as much a part of the Greek language as the musical pitches are a part of Mandarin Chinese. The form of Homeric verse is in a fixed style, in each line there are six "beats" or small groupings of syllables, no more or less. And these lines are made up of only two grouping (called "feet"), the dactyl with a long followed by two shorts, and the spondee with two longs. Note that when we speak of "long" we mean long in duration, not heavily accented!

One problem we must squarely face is that for years we academicians have ignored the length of these critical vowels in reading. A first lesson we have to teach ourselves is to recognize the difference between long and short, stepping quickly over the shorts while lingering with the longs. This is half of the musicality of the Greek dactylic line, it must be done right since you are reading musical poetry, which is different from Greek.

4) But there is another problem when we consider the Greek "accents", the traditional acute, circumflex and grave. For some unreasoning reason, we Classicists have turned all three of the distinctly different accents into loud stress-beats, and as we learn Greek we use these to read our prose with accent-based Stresses. BUT when we turn to poetry, we are told to forget these stresses (the misapprehended pitches!) and now count out our Durations, with long-short syllabification. But by common practice, we do this with the longs used not as durations, but as loudly stressed syllables. What we have done is perhaps historically explicable as following the stress-patterns of the modern European languages, but it is not rational to use this to completely replace the sensitive durations and pitches of ancient Greek. I cannot emphasize how much sensitive sound is lost.

By this curious alchemy of gold into lead, we have completely ruined the musicality of Greek poetry. Let me try to make a fresh start here:

a) Homer's verse must be read with long and shorts, the long under a circumflex being actually tri-moric or "overlong". Consider this like quarter and eighth note in our musical notation system.

b) On top of this, we want to read the pitches ("accents") as musical tones, the acute being near a musical fifth above the base line, which is either unmarked or noted as converted with the grave. The circumflex has three parts, up-going, holding, and down-sliding, for which we allow three quarternotes of length approximately. For a fuller account of this system and our problems with its interpretation take a look at the detailed account, linked below, which is firmly based on reliable linguistic data.

These things would have been easier to understand if we had started Greek in the right way at the beginning. But after a year of mis-beguided Attic study, with Beats replacing Pitches while Syllabic Length was ignored, we now have several things to unlearn. My advice is to unlearn slowly, get a few lines of the Iliad read correctly with its patterns of slow and fast motions (lengths) gliding under a web of musical pitches (the accents). Then absorb and memorize this patterning, and let it serve as an acoustic and metrical template for the text as you delve further into the Greek. It may seem a lot of bother and complexity, but it is certainly worth the trouble since you are dealing with real poetry. Homer's verse-sound may be formal and highly patterned in its archaism, but above all it is acoustic-poetry in an age which had not yet learned how to write. The musical sound must ring out true or there is no poetry in there at all.

Here I should mention the general problem of Trans-verbalization. Classicists have a bad habit of having students read (silently) the Latin or Greek words and simultaneously come out with an English translation. This has been reinforced by the lesson-book approach, and by teachers who are suspicious of students not getting all the grammatical details right. It has been the greater part of a century since we stopped teaching French or German with simultaneous translation to English, and no modern linguistically trained teacher of any modern language will ever recommend Englishing of a text, except as a device to elucidate a difficult sentence or passage. It is simply not done, and I insist that if you are going to read Homer, you must read him in Greek, and you must read the Greek aloud as Greek. This means staying with the tortuous grammatical layout of a Greek line, and thinking it through as it stands in Greek. Remember that Homer was functionally illiterate, in his world the only "Iliad" was the acoustic Iliad, and you in your turn must take it this way, you should follow suit. Besides, auditory learning is stronger, more immediate and far more effective than visual learning in a language.




There is an overwhelming body of detailed commentary and critical literature on Homer and the Epic Tradition, dating back centuries toward the Renaissance. The matter of the famous divisionist "Homeric Problem" is largely ignored nowadays except for a reference, which I can summarize briefly, as part of the history of Homeric criticism in the modern world. One can hardly imagine the hundreds of Ph.D. theses on every aspect of Homeric epic, from archaeological details to art representations to Near Eastern connections......... ad infinitum if not ad nauseam. Much of this corpus is the business of advanced scholars hardened in their ways, much is speculative or irrelevant. But the focused attention of centuries of sharp minds on Homer and his world points up the length of the Homeric shadow on the West. It is no surprise to find the British Prime Minister Gladstone writing books on Homer mid 19th century, since Epic was still part of the Western way of thinking. Or Joyce incorporating far more than an allusion and a name in Ulysses, pursuing the epic mode of thinking into an Epic of his own in Finnegan's Wake.

Great art does not die, but like plants it does require attention, water and periodic repotting. The repotting of Homer in this century has by necessity been through the art of translation, which has in many respect replaced Homer as a "Greek" writer in the American education system. It is true a hundred thousand students now read Homer in English where a century ago a fraction read Homer with understanding in Greek. But this is a different Homer, even with the best and most sensitive of translations read in a college course in "Classics in Translation".

This is why I encourage you, as a special student who is reaching toward or has reached through the first veil of the Greek language, to go on into Homer directly, and master his language and thought and outlook as something good for you now, a permanent possession for life. If you read nothing more than Homer in Greek, but read that well and solidly, you have been abundantly paid for your years' price of admission. Years later with a Loeb Library edition of the Iliad in your hands, eyes mainly on the Greek with occasional help from the facing English page, you can still mine deep thought and valid social behavior from this tri-millennial ancient text. Authentic, crystal-clear, explicit with no fudge or fumbling -- -- the Homeric poems are still there waiting to be read again.




Now we should get down to practical procedures, what books are available for the text and useful linguistic aids, and also a short list of background reading which will bring the Homeric corpus into much clearer focus.

1) Clyde Pharr: Homeric Greek; a book for beginners. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press [c1959].

This is a good book written decades ago, which leads you directly into the beginning of the Iliad from a bare start. If you have done your one-year introduction, beginning with Pharr will be useful as something of a review, while introducing new features of the Homeric language as the text progresses. This book has what you will need for learning Homeric Greek. Pharr who died in l972 after a long life, was far in advance of his time, and this book was republished several times, last by Univ. of Oklahoma where you can online order a new copy at "oupress@ou.com". Or you may find a usable library copy or search for a used one. (I found several used copies on www.bookfinder.com right off...) This is your introduction and a better guide than any book I can think of, since it is based on original, unedited Greek text.

Pharr is reprinted by Univ of Oklahoma Press, along with the Goodspeed Vocab-Lists I have noted below, as well as the Autenreith Homeric Dictionary. The easiest way to get these three books is from the University, which maintains a list of publications, (www.ou.edu/oupress), as well as online-ordering at: oupress@ou.edu. AMAZON also list these same items at same price.

2) Most college libraries will have a copy of Seymour's Homeric Grammar, which is somewhere between an introduction and a manual, intended for the college clientele of a century ago. I would take a look at it in order to be able to navigate later, and use it for a reference book when you get stuck. (Thomas D. Seymour: Introduction to the language and verse of Homer. Boston, Ginn, 1895.)

3) It was back in the l880's that Goodspeed and Owen put together a list of Homeric Vocabularies, which lists the whole of Homeric words in series by frequency (500 x to 5 x or less....).

Edgar Johnson Goodspeed and William Bishop Owen: Homeric vocabularies; Greek and English word-lists for the study of Homer, Chicago :l909, many inexpensive reprints. You will find this available as of 8/99 on AMAZON or Univ of Oklahoma Press (oupress@ou.edu), at $12.95, along with Clyde Pharr's "Homeric Greek" for $21.95.

Homer does have many words of single occurrence (hapax legomena as called in Greek), which you will anchor to a given line and not try to memorize. But I found years ago that these lists have a special use which I recommend to you as follows:

We have now so many kind of computer-aided language learning programs, that we can easily forget how useful a simple tape recording can be. I made a tape recording of the words comprising the more commonly met portion of Homer's vocabulary, carefully pronouncing the Greek word (with longs - shorts and with the pitches as I mentioned above), after which I counted out three full seconds for a period of recognition. Then I gave the English translation, but speaking quickly and with a lower amplitude (softer), so as to leave the mental accent on the Greek word. I still find this system useful, partly because it is so simple, and partly because it is entirely acoustic with no screen display of the words in written form. If we want to general an acoustic sense of Homer's words, we must do it from an entirely acoustic medium.

I found that students who regularly spent twenty minutes a day on this tape for a few weeks, picked up enough of the vocabulary of the Iliad to soon begin some trials of reading at sight. Of course this first reading was hesitant, sometimes only a line at a time at the start. But by the end of a month or two, several of my students were reading a book of the Iliad in two weeks. Not that they weren't making mistakes in the grammar recognition, but that is something we all do reading in our native language, correcting ourselves over a period of time until it all comes out right. The human brain has excellent storage capacity and the ability to compare versions collated at different times, this is essential to language learning.

If you get a copy of this book on Homeric Vocabulary, you can devote a few hours at the rate of a dozen words recorded in one minute, and have your own copy of the words Homer uses. If time permits. My tapes wre scrapped when the library updated and removed old stuff, butI am working with some people who may be able to record the Homeric words , with correct durations and pitches. (If this matures a ntoe will be placed here.)This recording would have the advantage of using the authentic pronunciation which I have been speaking about above.

4) It was back in the l9th c. that the German scholar Autenreith composed his Homeric Dictionary, which was early translated into English and republished several times over the years. It is small and convenient, if you find a used copy but it as a handy tool.(This is available from AMAZON in paperback at $29.95.) You can also go to the smaller Liddell (Alice in Wonderland's father!)-and-Scott Greek dictionary on the Perseus Greek site, but I suspect that again a used copy of the smaller student edition of the Liddell and Scott may be more useful right at your elbow. If you want to get a fix on a specific word which interests you, take a look at the large and reliable Liddell-Scott-Jones from Oxford Press which is available but expensive and more than you need at a learning level. But it has full chronicle of the usage of each word through the range of Hellenic and Hellenistic times, and is invaluable for a sense of Greek words throughout the earlier Greek literary time-frame. But this for the scholarly eye, not for a reading knowledge enthusiast!




Clyde Pharr: Homeric Greek; a book for beginners. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press [c1959]

Edgar Johnson Goodspeed and William Bishop Owen: Homeric vocabularies; Greek and English word-lists for the study of Homer.: Norman, University of Oklahoma Press [1969] Univ. of Chicago l909,reprinted several times in paperback. New ed., rearr. and enl., and with a foreword, by Clyde Pharr, Univ. of Oklahoma l960 (This new edition avoids the inconvenience of English and Greek in separate sections of the book, plus a few corrections)

Thomas D. Seymour: Introduction to the language and verse of Homer. Boston, Ginn, 1895.




For general background take a look at these works:

Albert Bates Lord: The singer of tales, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1960.
     Albert Lord was the Harvard professor who inherited the Milman Parry recordings of Serbian guslars or folk-poets in the 1930's, and developed the striking argument for a parallel between the post l600 Serbian oral poets and the poets of the Homeric Epic cycles. This book is first step into oral poetry, the leader in a developing field.

Albert Bates Lord: The singer resumes the tale, edited by Mary Louise Lord. Cornell University Press, 1995. Further work by the late Albert Lord.

Gregory Nagy. Homeric questions, Austin : University of Texas Press, 1996. 1st ed.

Gregory Nagy: The best of the Achaeans : concepts of the hero in Archaic Greek poetry, Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c1999.
    Gregory Nagy at Harvard followed the work of Lord, some of which he incorporated into his work on Homer. I suggest reading some of Nagy's fine work on Homer as a view into the modern world of Homeric Scholarship and the modern appreciate of Homer's art.

Gregory Nagy: Homer and beyond. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1996.
     Recent full work by Nagy on Homer, perhaps this is the best book for an introduction to Nagy on Homer. Here should be full enough bibliography at the end to furnish further leads for reading.

Viktor Poeschl : Die Dichtkunst Virgils; Bild und Symbol in der Aeneis. Rohrer 1950 (also English trans.)
     This remarkable study explores the essential differences which lie between Homeric "explicitness" and Vergil's innerness, implicitness of thought and expression. John Finley remarked years ago that parts of the Odyssey seem like scenes viewed through a telescope backwards, zoomed down small but very clear and crisp. The Iliad is zoomed large, but the same exactness of word and deed are always there. Vergil on the other hand is always dealing with layers on layers of subtle interwoven words and thoughts, his art may seem imitatative of Homer initially, but it is intentionally a world away. As Vergil himself remarked, stealing a line from Homer is like stealing his club from Heracles, and the self-centering Vergil had little interest in artistic piracy.




If you have decided to take up the challenge of learning how to read Homer in Greek with authentic verse sense and a growing ability to read the Epic language with some sense of flow and facility, I can only offer my encouragement and congratulations. The rest it really up to you, you have to do the work and you get the profits and rewards. I can imagine some of your frustrations, having been in the same place myself many times. But it is the degrees of success which I am especially interested in hearing about when you feel you are getting the hang of learning by yourself for your own rewards.

Remember that as of September 2002, an online HOMER PROJECT is being planned, and you are invited to join the group as an aid to your personal Homer reading. As soon as this is prepared to come online, a note will appear with a link at the top of this page, so come back and check there at the top for further information.

Best of luck, courage and xaipe....

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris