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The Homer Multitext project, the first of its kind in Homeric studies, seeks to present the textual transmission of the Iliad and Odyssey in a historical framework. Such a framework is needed to account for the full reality of a complex medium of oral performance that underwent many changes over a long period of time. These changes, as reflected in the many texts of Homer, need to be understood in their many different historical contexts. The Homer Multitext provides ways to view these contexts both synchronically and diachronically. Using technology that takes advantage of the best available practices and open source standards that have been developed for digital publications in a variety of fields, the Homer Multitext offers free access to a library of texts and images, a machine-interface to that library and its indices, and tools to allow readers to discover and engage with the Homeric tradition.
Here is a brief summary of the research that has led to the Multitext project. The poetry that we know as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey results from a lengthy evolution of oral poetry that was composed in performance. The comparative work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, as synthesized in Lord’s book The Singer of Tales (first published in 1960), shows that oral poetry was composed in performance. Such a mode of composition depends on a system that can best be understood as a specialized language that has its own specialized grammar and vocabulary. The oral poet does not memorize a static, precomposed poem for performance but learns a special language of composition-in-performance. Thus each time the song is sung, each time the poem is composed-in-performance, it is composed anew.

The system of oral poetry allows for rapid composition-in-performance because the poetry is composed through formulaic language, as most visible in the half-lines of name-epithet combinations familiar to readers of Homer. Because such formulas are suited to the meter, they are also flexible and can be interchanged with one another. Although the mentality of the poets within the system is that they sing the song the same way every time (that is, they sing it the right way), the vantage point of an outsider is different. As Parry and Lord noticed in their field work on living oral traditions, the system of oral poetry allows for variation in how the story is told: details may be changed and episodes may be expanded or compressed. So the narrative can evolve over time.

During the time when Homeric poetry was transmitted orally and not yet through writing, it followed the grammar, as it were, of a coherent system. During such a time, what we might think of as the “text” was not at all fixed. Instead, we can expect a great deal of the variation that the system of oral poetry allows and even demands.
Although most experts in Homeric studies recognize that an oral tradition shaped the Iliad and Odyssey , it is not known how these epics came to be written texts. Other things about them, however, are well known. Even after alphabetic writing was introduced and oral poetry was written down, the language of this poetry persisted. We know that these epics continued to be performed and to be experienced as a performance for centuries.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Online humanities scholarship: the shape of things to come. OpenStax CNX. May 08, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11199/1.1
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