Homeric question

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In classical philology in the narrower sense, the question of whether the Iliad and the Odyssey are the work of a single poet or of several poets is called the Homeric question (another spelling: Homeric question ) . In a broader sense, it is about the question of the origin of these two epics and thus, more precisely, about several questions: Was Homera historical or a fictitious person? Are the epics from a single author or from different ones? Have the works been devised by the author, or do they go back to oral tradition and were later written down? Were the written works created “from one piece”, or did they gradually take on their final form?

Current state of research

The answer to the Homeric question accepted today can be summarized as follows:

  • The tradition of verbally improvising poetry in the fixed form of hexameters (see Milman Parry ) originated around 1550 BC. Chr.
  • The popular myth of the Troy story existed as early as 700 BC. Chr.
  • Homer, a talented loner, uses the font (which has existed since around 800 BC) to structure the material and thus creates one (or two if an author identity is assumed) individually shaped design (s) of excerpts from the existing legend material:

Both epics would thus be products of the transition period between orality and writing. Both works were conceived and recorded using the script , but continued orally through rhapsodes until the Greek tradition was written down . However, these hypotheses are not fully supported.

Oral poetry is dated to 1550 BC. BC is based on the unsecured theory of an Indo-European epic tradition (naturally there are no records from this period). Certain vocabulary, expressions and metrical peculiarities of the text indicate a much older language stage, this can be explained by the assumption of an Indo-European poetic tradition. This is why Homer is very important in Indo-European linguistics .

The Homeric question in ancient philology

The Homer philology of antiquity reached in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC Their heyday. The Alexandria Library was the focus of early debates. The Homer-explainer Zenodotos of Ephesus , who had divided the epics into 24 books, his pupil Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace led philological discussions about the authenticity of individual verses and verses, which led to the deletion of some parts of the text; however, neither of them doubted that both epics were written by one author.

The authorship of an author was first established in the 2nd century BC. Rejected by the radical school of the horizon (the "dividing"), to which the grammarians Xenon and Hellanikos of Alexandria belonged, and discussed in part polemically with Aristarchus, who held the opposite opinion. Later there was a critical examination of the originality of the structure of the two epics; one theory suggested that the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos had arranged the books of Homer at his own discretion.

In the 1st century AD, the Homeric question served the Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus as an argumentative weapon: In his work On the Originality of Judaism to the Alexandrian grammarian and Homer expert Apion , he formulated that the Greeks read much later than the Jews and learned to write, because Homer did not even “leave his poetry, it is said, in writing, but rather reproduced it from memory, and that is why it contains so many inconsistencies”.

After that, Homer philology was idle until it was taken up around the middle of the 14th century by Francesco Petrarca , who made Homer known to the West .

The treatment of problems in modern times is characterized by a stronger historical sense for Homer's poetry. It raised the question of the exact timing of Homer and the conditions to which his poetry was subject. With this in mind, the discussions of antiquity were taken up again in 1685 by the Dutch historian Johannes Perizonius . His theory was that Homer had orally composed individual songs that were later written down and put together in Athens at the instigation of Peisistratos to form the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The theories of François Hédelin , published in 1715 , who denied the existence of a person Homero and described the epics as thrown together fragments of “tragedies and colorful street songs by beggars and jugglers” are viewed as less serious .

Research since Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824)

These amateurish statements almost dissuaded the Halle professor Friedrich August Wolf from further developing his similar theory, which he based, among other things, on Josephus' remark that Homer had left nothing in writing. Encouraged by other renowned critics, he nevertheless published his Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795 , which initiated modern Homer research.


Friedrich August Wolf published the first volume of a complete edition of Homer's epics in 1795. In the Latin preface he tried to trace the tradition of the epic texts. To this end, Wolf analyzed all ancient and contemporary Homer debates, systematized them and formed a building of hypotheses from already known individual parts of the theories of origin, which was methodical and so novel that his Prolegomena are regarded as the foundation of philology as a science.

The basis of Wolf's theory was the lack of writing in the early centuries: Since Homer lived in a time when there was no text fixation by writing, but only oral reproduction, he could only have thought up the basic line (or certain main supporting parts) of the plot . Rhapsods would have passed on this existing basic structure orally and the work, which also changed in wording, constantly changed in the sense of the basic plan until Peisistratos wrote it in the 6th century BC. Chr. In Athens by writing down and had a whole made (the so-called Peisistratidic editing of the epics). Wolf therefore assumed that the Iliad and the Odyssey were the common creations of many poets, and set the starting point for the development of the Homeric question in the narrower sense. Johann Wolfgang Goethe describes the effect of this hypothesis at that time in the diaries and annual journals of 1821 as follows: “The educated human race was deeply excited, and if it was not able to invalidate the reasons of the most important opponent, it could old sense and urge to think of only one source here, from where so many delicious things originate, not completely extinguish themselves. ”This shows Goethe's skepticism, while in a letter to Wolf (December 26, 1796) he had agreed to his theses. Goethe encounters a satirical statement in the Xenion Der Wolfsche Homer : “Seven cities quarreled over having given birth to him; / Now that the wolf tore it up, each take its piece. "

Wolf's theories, which have since been refuted (the writing of the early Greeks was proven in 1871 by the discovery of the Dipylon jug from around 740 BC), gave the impetus for the analytical Homer philology that followed, the original epics, i.e. the original passages to filter out the texts that have come down to us through linguistic- stylistic and structurally based analysis. The philologist Karl Lachmann divided the Iliad into 10-14 individual songs; the analyst Adolf Kirchhoff believed that he recognized two originally independent poems in the Odyssey that were “poorly composed” by an editor.

The analysis, which at that time was already in constant dispute with the view of a uniform text, reached its climax in 1916 with Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff . Wilamowitz 'main concern was to reconstruct the layered addition of text parts to the original core (he speaks of four editors) and thus to extract the “Ur-Iliad” from the epic at hand. In Homer he saw a poet from the Iliad who lived around 750 BC. He had compiled several already existing individual poems from the material circle of the Troy saga under the overarching thought of the wrath of Achilles . This Homeric “Ur-Iliad” was later changed in four processing phases by various poets. Wilamowitz thus places the poetic unity of the epics in the middle, after it had earlier been placed at the end of the development of the text, as in Lachmann or, as in Wolf, at the beginning. The poet's name "Homer" was later transferred to the Odyssey, which consists of several original versions and extensions. This thesis is difficult to prove in this concrete form, but based on linguistic, stylistic and cultural considerations it can be said that the Odyssey must have been written about a generation or even two generations later than the Iliad: its language shows younger Forms, easier flow, in it the use of parables is severely restricted compared to the Iliad (in an approximate ratio of 3.2: 1); Also, the style is no longer set in powerful heroic spheres , as in the Iliad , but lowered into the sphere of a more everyday life.

The analysis was continued from 1947 by Willy Theiler and in 1952 by Peter Von der Mühll , who started with two authors of the Iliad of different ages, of whom the older (Von der Mühll calls Homer) wrote the original version, but the younger one in the 6th Century BC I revised and expanded what was already there.

For further information on the effect of the approach, see Lönnrot's view of the Finnish Kalevala .


Unitarianism was and is in the minority in Homer research; Even in modern times, the opinion dominates that the Iliad was authored by Homer, but that the Odyssey was written by another, possibly younger poet. Felix Jacoby countered this in 1933 by referring to common compositional elements in both poems. In 1938 the Unitarian approach of Wolfgang Schadewaldt , who started from a basic author for the epics, was continued in his Iliad studies. Schadewaldt argued primarily with observations of a stylistic nature such as the same use of means of epic storytelling (which are artifacts such as retardation, which are equally used in both epics, i.e. the slowing down of the course of the action, the technique of enhancement, the striving for bracketing, recourse and anticipation just some of his arguments) and referred to scene equivalents in the two epics.

Although Schadewaldt assumes an author of both works at the beginning, he does not take the view that only Homer was involved in the theory of genesis of the epics; In this regard, his theory largely coincides with Von der Mühll's, and he too is based on two different ancient poets. Schadewaldt stands in the middle between unitarianism and neoanalysis.

Neoanalysis and Oral Poetry Research

The term neoanalysis denotes a research direction in Homer philology which, like analysis, does not exclude that pre-Homer poetry had an influence on Homer in terms of motivations, courses of action and links between events, but does not assume that Homer had pieces from older poems adopted unchanged in his works. Where the analysts saw a bumbling sequence of prehomeric epics, neoanalysis saw the hand of a poet who adapted traditional mythology , folklore and epics for his own aesthetic demands. Dietrich Mülder can be regarded as the founder of neoanalysis and an important successor to Ioannis Kakridis with his Homeric investigations .

The so-called oral poetry research is diverse and concentrates on the investigation of the linguistic aspects of Homer research. Its development began as early as the 19th century , parallel to (and disregarded by) the analyst-Unitarian debate with the Leipzig professor Gottfried Hermann , who in 1840 was the first to deduce the orality of the ependiction from its text structure (which Wolf had only done theoretically, for what he was often criticized), recognized the filling function of the epitheta ornantia ("decorative epithets ") and described the improvisation technique of the Aoidoí with the resulting linguistic form (such as the formulas).

The theory of orality established by Hermann continued in the studies of the American Milman Parry , who coined the term oral poetry . Parry explored in his 1928 thesis written in French L'Epithète traditional dans Homère he anknüpfte in at previous formula researchers that caused by the phenomenon Verszwang explicitly epithets ornantia . He assumed that Homeric diction obviously had to follow different laws than later poetry, and then, like Hermann, established that poetry was formulaic. From an exact statistic of the epithet- noun combinations and their mutual relationship in verse, he established his law of epic economy :

“For one and the same person or thing, several metrically and semantically different epithet-noun combinations are used in this diction , but (obviously to relieve memory) only so many that only one is available for a certain verse (although any number metrically equivalent, but semantically different ones could be formed). "

Parry went on to argue that such a technique and such a rich repertoire of formulas would take generations to develop; therefore it is clear that this epic diction is subject to an existing tradition. From the thus derived traditionality he concluded the underlying pressure oral improvisation forced a lecturer before the expectant crowd and pulled as additional confirmation even under the Guslaren living Serbo-Croatian Volksepik zoom patriarchal societies in Montenegro.

In visual terms, one could say that, in contrast to the writer who writes down, the singer has no time during the lecture to think about the next word, make changes or read over what is already there. The formulas that would easily fall into place in a verse are hard to invent. Since the singing arises spontaneously, the singer cannot critically review all the phrases one after the other. To tell the story, he chooses existing expressions from a collection of word groups (epic diction) that he has heard from other singers, for example, and memorized. Each of these ready-made phrases expresses a particular thought in words that are designed to fit the given length of the verse.

Parry states that if an analysis of the narrative structure reveals contradictions and something illogical, this is not due to the errors of a single author, but to the inconsistencies in the incomplete combination of extracts from several sources, i.e. to a plurality of authors. At the same time, the work could also (and here the neo-analytical idea can be recognized) be a composition by an author who made use of the traditional system.

Parry's theories were carried on by his student Albert B. Lord . After the Second World War, Milman Parry was followed by a period of reception and development of his theories. In the 1980s, the first real advances beyond Parry's theories began. Among other things, linguistic research has shown that the traditionality of epic language goes back much further than Parry had suspected, namely into the 16th century BC. In 1987, Edzard Visser succeeded in releasing Parry's theories from their restriction to the epithets and in understanding the entire process of generating verses during improvisation in the hexameter: the singer does not form the hexameter, as Parry assumed, by merging text modules, but in a new setting of determinants (determining elements) in each verse with a respective optional addition by a variable (exchangeable element) and fills the remaining spaces of the verse with free additions. He can use formula modules, but can also generate completely new records without them.


Important essays contained in:


  • Adam Parry (Ed.) The Making of Homeric Verse. The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1971, ISBN 0-19-814181-5 .
  • Alfred Heubeck : The Homeric question. A report on the research of the last decades (= income from research. Vol. 27). Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1974, ISBN 3-534-03864-9 .
  • Joachim Latacz: Formula and orality. In: Joachim Latacz (Ed.): Homer's Iliad. Overall comment. Based on the edition by Ameis-Hentze-Cauer (1868–1913). Prolegomena. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 2000, ISBN 3-598-74300-9 , pp. 39-59.

On the history of the Homeric question:

  • Friedrich August Wolf : Prolegomena zu Homer (= Universal Library . 4984/86). With a foreword on the Homeric question and the scientific results of the excavations in Troy and Leukas-Ithaca. Translated into German by Hermann Muchau. Reclam, Leipzig 1908.
  • Friedrich August Wolf: Prolegomena to Homer. 1795. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1988, ISBN 0-691-10247-3 .

Individual evidence

  1. See for example Ivo Hajnal : The epic hexameter in the context of the Homer-Troy debate. In: Christoph Ulf (ed.): The new dispute over Troy. A balance sheet. Beck, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-406-50998-3 , pp. 217-231.
  2. cf. Martin L. West : The rise of the Greek epic. In: The Journal of Hellenic Studies . Vol. 108, 1988, pp. 151-172, doi : 10.2307 / 632637 .
  3. Flavius ​​Josephus: Contra Apionem I, 12
  4. ^ Friedrich August Wolf: Prolegomena zu Homer. 1908, chap. 26, note 84
  5. ^ Friedrich August Wolf: Prolegomena zu Homer. 1908, chap. 26: "From this it seems necessary to follow that the form of such large and continuously ongoing works could not be designed in the mind by any poet and then worked out without an artistic aid for memory."