ElAnt v1n3 - OBLOQUY - Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi? A Reply to J.R. Lenz

Volume 1, Number 3
August 1993


Barry B. Powell,
Department of Classics,
University of Wisconsin,
WI 53706, 
e-mail: powell@macc.wisc.edu

I'm not sure why John Lenz (hereafter L.) should decry the inadequacies of electronic publishing when he has himself set an example of its value. I enjoyed reading his reply to my article 'Did Homer Sing at Lefkandi?', EA Volume 1 Issue 2 (July 1993) , which I viewed more as a fat balloon floating somewhere up there waiting for sport than a virtual revelation. L. has given us this sport and I was glad to see that, while he didn't find my arguments strong, he agreed that I might be right.

First let me apologise for appearing to lift several sentences from my book Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge, 1991) without acknowledgment. I have this monstrous electronic notebook with stuff from all over the place from which I assembled the article for EA . These sentences did not come from the book but from the notebook, so I guess there's a lesson in Quellenforschung here, or (with L.) even a caveat about the dangers of electronic media.

Excuse me !

When reconstructing a period so remote as the 8th century BC in Greece, our general method must be to construct a model that will account coherently for the extremely meager evidence. It is a kind of archaeology, if you want, in that we try to imagine what the building looked like when all we have are three or four foundation stones. We cannot say that our broken stones can be arranged any way when a particular arrangement confirms a coherent pattern. We make the most sense of the obscure data if we agree that Homer spent some of his career on the island of Euboea and that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down there.

Now to get picky!

Why does Lenz call his reply 'Was Homer Euboian'? I never say that he was Euboean. Nothing is known about Homer's birth, training, or livelihood. Maybe Homer did come from Ionia, from Chios or Smyrna: Greece is a small world and the Euboeans were, of course, Ionians. But surely we must reevaluate common presumptions about an 'Ionian epic tradition' distinguished from another on the mainland; if Homer's floruit belongs on Euboea, this distinction loses its force, regardless of where Homer was born, grew up, and learned his craft.

As for the bit on Herodotus: L. complains that I misrepresent the evidence, even calling it a slip, because I point to Herodotus' remarks about the confused traditions bearing on the ancestry of the Gephyraean clan, the ancestors of the slayers of Hipparchus. They say that they came from Eretria, but Herodotus says that they were Phoenicians who came with Cadmus, who first brought letters to Greece. There are two traditions: ( 1 ) the ancestors came from Eretria; ( 2 ) the ancestors were associated with the earliest possessors of ta Phoinikeia , the alphabet, and had lived in Tanagra. It's not that the confusion suggests that the alphabet's origins belong in Boeotia, as L. takes it (everybody knew that Thebes' founder Kadmos had brought letters from Phoenicia), but that early alphabetic possessors and early inhabitants of Eretria could be the same people. I don't think the point is worth much, but Herodotus is giving us Eretria and early alphabetic possessors in the same breath and where evidence is so slight this is worth remarking upon.

L. is right that I should have taken three seconds to refute the ancient biographical traditions, which have no historical value.( 1 ) But isn't there a consensus about this? All these 'biographical' traditions are made-up stuff: Homer was a direct descendant of Apollo through Orpheus ( Cert. 4); Penelope was his beloved (Hermesianax fr. 7.29-30 Powell); Phemius was his teacher ( Fgrhist 70FI); his mother Critheis, who came from Ios, was made pregnant by a god before being kidnapped to Smyrna (Ar. fr. 76 Rose). Such reports are interesting, but there can be no real historical information about Homer, any more than about Lefkandi, because Homer lived when alphabetic literacy, used in its early days only to record poetic utterance, first came to Greece.

L. zeroes in on the five Ionian reference-points in similes in the Iliad as evidence for the poet's background and audience, but what about Nausicaa who in Od. 6.102-104 is likened to

Artemis, who showers arrows, running down high-towering Taygetos or Erymanthos, delighting in boars and deer as they run . . .

Does then Homer belong in the Peloponnese? The Iliad is set in Asia Minor, and Homer has information about the life and geography there, as no doubt did the great travelers of his day (his Euboean audience, in my view). Homer also seems to know a lot about Ithaca ( 2 ) - no doubt because his father was Telemachus ( Cert . 3)! Or because Euboean travelers, who stopped on Ithaca while traveling to Italy, told him about it. I am surprised by the great weight traditionally placed upon the five Ionian reference- points in Homeric similes, which can bear no weighty conclusion.

I know that Wade-Gery, searching for a suitable festival where Homer's poems could have been performed, wanted the Helice of Il. 20.404 to refer to the Panionion at Mykale. It's a good idea (as so many, including his notion that the alphabet was invented to record verse), but Homer's Helice is usually taken to be the Helice on the coast of Achaea, where there was a temple of Poseidon (cf. Il. 8.203).( 3 ) As for Delos, sure it is an Ionian festival-site, but as L. himself remarks (note 7) the Euboeans ruled the Cyclades north of Delos and were, of course, Ionians.

L.'s point about the Euboean's low profile in the poems is well taken, but we need to ask whether we can fairly expect such references. His material, after all, is traditional and reaches back to the Bronze Age. The Athenians strike an even lower profile, and yet the Iliad and the Odyssey embellished the Panathenaic festival, which glorified Athens. Such specific references would violate the poet's desire to establish 'poetic distance', the fiction that the world he describes lies beyond the ordinary. Should we place Homer on Ithaca because of this island's prominence in the Odyssey ? Exotic Ithaca's geographical distance makes it a suitable location for heroic song, as does the Trojan's War's distance in time. Homer's poetic genre opposes explicit references to his immediate audience, contemporary Euboeans. As W. F. Wyatt, Jr., put it: 'Homeric epic was not a poem of local derring-do or local political concern. It was a poem which celebrated Hellenic heroism against the Asiatic foe, and which recalled mighty deeds of mighty warriors united in a Greek overseas expeditions'.( 4 )

M. L. West does, of course, argue in the JHS article of 1988 (Lenz, note 8) that Homer's language is West or Central Ionic rather than East (p. 160). After working hard to place the epic tradition on Euboea, West does his best then to drag it out of Euboea to Lesbos, then back to Euboea, then back again to Asia Minor where Homer finds it. But West readily explains aeolisms in the Homeric text by positing a stage of development in Thessaly and Boeotia ( 5 ), and not one of his linguistic examples for a specifically Lesbian phase is, by West's own tentative description, binding. Ockham's razor will cut away the Lesbian phase altogether and leave the tradition and its greatest exemplars in Euboea. When West admits that 'The Odyssey might well be a Euboean poem', ( 6 ) though 'the poet of the Iliad , to all appearance, lived in Asia Minor', he is driven onto the shoals of the dual-author theory of Homeric composition (though it is not clear that he notices this). Here is no place to go over all this again, but only special pleading will assign the Iliad and the Odyssey to separate composers (did Shakespeare write both Titus Andronicus and The Tempest ?). West will live a lot better with his own argument if he allows the epic tradition of the eighth century BC, including the Iliad , to remain where he places its definitive development, on Euboea.

As for the so-called Heroon of Lefkandi, I have no quarrel with those who believe it was a private house; ( 7 ) the point is that the structure contained a heroic burial in some way reminiscent of those described in Homer and testifies to the exceptional wealth and martial prowess of the Lefkandiots during the tenth century BC, for which no parallel exists elsewhere in Greece at this time. L. himself points out how this extraordinary apsidal building may have formed a hall suitable for the feasting and singing of song that we expect as a background for the performance of epic, in good agreement with the position that the epic tradition found its center in Euboea after migrating from the Peloponnese through Aetolia, Thessaly, and Boeotia after the Mycenaean collapse. There it took on the distinctive linguistic characteristics that we find in Homer and Hesiod, from nearby Boeotia. While other places in the Greek world after 750 BC may have offered a suitable setting for Homeric poetry, I have elsewhere argued in detail ( 8 ) that Homer belongs earlier, at 800-750 BC. Can we believe that epic poetry was not performed at Lefkandi during the Dark Ages?

As for the Lelantine War, we have no good information for its date, and the wealth of the Lelantine Plain and the proximity of the settlements on it make a tradition of recurrent warfare probable. L. has slipped on his dates for Pithekoussai ('settlement . . . between 750 and 700') which by 750 BC 'had attained its largest size', according to D. Ridgway ( 9 ). In reconstructing the politics of eighth-century Euboea, we cannot take at face value the Augustan Strabo's report (3.1) that the island was colonised jointly by Chalcis and Eretria, for, as Ridgway notes, 'we do still do not know which Eretria he had in mind. By his time, it is possible that 'Chalcidians and Eretrians' could be no more than a literary synonym for Euboeans from anywhere - including those from a site long since deserted, and hence nameless' ( 10 ) - i.e., Lefkandi, whose abandonment comes close in time to the foundation of Pithekoussai so that Ridgway wonders if Pithekoussai were not in fact a colony of Lefkandi and whether the decline of Lefkandi should not be tied to its foundation.

L. gets in deep water with his note 15, which imparts respectability to the notion that there may have been a period of oral transmission of Homer's text before it was finally written down. Adam Parry blasted this fancy to bits in 1966 and as far as I know only G. S. Kirk perversely clings to it today.( 11 ) I'm afraid that Nagy's efforts to have it both ways - arguing that the text was orally composed but not written down and then somehow 'crystalised' through 'panhellenic oral transmission' and finally written down around 550 BC - is little improvement over Kirk's; I can't understand why Greg hangs onto it. Albert Lord's theory of the dictated text remains the best explanation of how the poems were written down. Why fight it?

I don't see why L. is so puzzled by my theory of the spread of the Greek alphabet through the transmission of written poetic texts. The Iliad and the Odyssey were the first of these, but there were many others soon after which, on the evidence of Greek vase paintings, were far more popular, because, I think, they were shorter and easier to present and cheaper to acquire than the Iliad and the Odyssey . I am working on this problem now, and my own idea is that the Iliad and the Odyssey kept rather in the background until given a proper forum through rhapsodic delivery after about 530 BC at the Athenian Panathenaea. The Iliad and the Odyssey were simply too long and too unmanageable for convenient rhapsodic performance, except for such excerpts as the Cave of Polyphemus, which inspired vase painters as early as 670 BC and repeatedly thereafter.

L.'s remarks do not give proper weight to the idiosyncratic nature of Greek alphabetic writing. The Greek alphabet was a strange form of writing whose obsession with phonetic representation we have ourselves long ago abandoned, returning to writing's proper function as a system for thought parallel to but independent of natural language. The notion that poetic texts, e.g. Iliad and Odyssey , were copied, and with the copies went instruction for their decipherment - how to read the texts - accounts very well for the epigraphic evidence. The epichoric varieties of the alphabet arose through misunderstanding and mistakes and occasional slight innovation made at a time when few understood this writing, in the absence of the self-correction provided by widespread use of a writing system.

L. complains about 'archaeological' means for dating the Iliad and the Odyssey , citing Homer's reference to temples and, on one occasion, to a lamp. I go over all this in Homer and the Origin , but accepting his own statement that 'temples only began to flourish c. 750 BC' surely we can push back their origin a generation or so without much trouble, unless L. believes we have found the very earliest temple ever built or that humble antecedents did not precede those clear in the archaeological record. Could the 'heroon' of Lefkandi have been a 'temple'? L. does not mention W. Burkert and others who would place Homer in the seventh century on the basis of the Odyssey's fascination with things Egyptian, ( 12 ) but these scholars have not taken account of finds of oriental artifacts from Assyria, Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Egypt from the tenth century on down which prove that Euboea, alone of Greek communities, did not lose touch with the Near East during the Dark Age.( 13 )

About the priority of Homer or Hesiod, my personal conviction is that the poets were roughly contemporary and that the adapter, the inventor of the Greek alphabet, may himself have taken down Hesiod's poems by dictation some time after took down Homer's poems. We can never prove such things, but Hesiod has intimate connections with Euboea where alphabetic writing is first found, and there is of course the old tradition of the poets' rivalry. And where are all the other poets contemporary with Hesiod and Homer, who surely existed but were not written down? Was the adapter's 'life work' to take down by dictation these two alone, whose skill and fame had inspired the revolutionary technology of the Greek alphabet, which first is found on Euboea?

L. refuses to take into account the overwhelming evidence that the Greek alphabet was invented c. 800 by a single man in order to record metrical verse. From this certainty we must ask: Where did this invention take place? What metrical verse was first recorded in the new technology? Euboea, answers the first question; Homer and Hesiod, answers the second.

Let me conclude by thanking J. Lenz for his swift and well- informed criticisms of my article. He has sharpened my own thinking about this problem at time when I'm still thinking about it and have not drifted off to something else, so proving the value of this extraordinary inexpensive and universal form of publication, for which we owe Peter Toohey of U.N.E.-Armidale and Ian Worthington of the University of Tasmania a debt of gratitude.


1. For the biographical tradition see, in general, M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore, 1981), pp. 12-24.

2. Cf. for example J. V. Luce in W. B. Stanford and J. V. Luce, The Quest for Ulysses (New York, 1974), pp. 85-103.

3. Cf. M. Edwards, The Iliad: A Commentary , Volume V, ad loc.

4. 'Homer's Linguistic Forebears', JHS 112 (1992), p. 173.

5. But the theory of an Aeolic phase is persistently challenged. Cf. Wyatt, above note 4.

6. Cf. Lenz, note 8.

7. Though L. speaks too quickly in agreeing with J. Whitley that no one except the excavators call it a 'heroon': M. L. West, in the 1988 JHS article (p. 160) calls it a 'hero-shrine', and J. M Hurwit refers to it as a heroon in The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. (Ithaca, 1985), p. 42, to cite only two examples.

8. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge 1991), pp. 187-220.

9. The First Western Greeks (Cambridge, 1992), p. 15.

10. First Western Greeks , p. 16. There is archaeological evidence for the foundation of Pithekoussai from Lefkandi: loc. cit.

11. See A. Parry, 'Have we Homer's Iliad?', YCS 20 (1966), pp. 172-216, reprinted several times elsewhere.

12. Wstnf 10 (1976), pp. 5 ff., endorsed by S. West in A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey , Vol. I (Oxford, 1988), pp. 33-34.

13. Though Homer lacked direct knowledge of Egypt and placed the island of Pharos, less than a mile off shore, a full day's sail into the Mediterranean ( Od. 4.354-359).

Barry B. Powell
e-mail: powell@macc.wisc.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 3 - August 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606