Was The Iliad written by a woman?

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 12 2006 12:18 PM

Trojan Woman

Was Troy real—and was the author of The Iliad a woman?

(Continued from Page 1)

The poems include many different periods of history, because they were based on an oral tradition that stretched back hundreds of years. Legend describes Homer as a blind singer from the island of Chios. Oral composition explains many features of the Homeric poems, such as the standard epithets ("Hector, tamer of horses"). Around the seventh century B.C., the Homeric poems were written down in more or less their final form.

One of the most vexed questions in Homeric scholarship is how, exactly, the written texts we have emerged from the songs of illiterate bards. It is easy to imagine a series of singers wandering through the towns of archaic Greece, telling and retelling the story of Troy. But how could a poem as long as The Iliad or TheOdyssey—each of which would have taken at least three days to perform—have been composed without the use of writing? In the early 20th century, Milman Parry and Alfred Lord showed (by interviewing contemporary oral poets in the former Yugoslavia) that it was impossible for a purely oral poet to repeat even a much shorter poem precisely word for word. Retellings are always re-creations, until a written text is present to correct and check human memory. Lord solved this "Homeric Problem" by suggesting that, at some point late in the tradition, a particularly talented singer collaborated with a scribe to create The Iliad and TheOdyssey. This remains the most plausible general hypothesis for how the poems we have came into being. It is also possible that an oral poet, at some late point in the tradition, learned to write.

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Andrew Dalby challenges the theory of Lord, claiming that "Homer was a famous singer who worked long before the use of writing. We are therefore reading not his work but that of a later singer in the same tradition, the one who composed The Iliad and TheOdyssey and saw them written down." This is depressingly reminiscent of the old joke: "The Iliad was not written by Homer, but by somebody else of the same name."Muddle-headedness of this kind mars what is otherwise a useful introductory book.

The book's most headline-grabbing claim is about authorship. Dalby argues that the composer of The Iliad and TheOdyssey was a woman. Initially, this idea seems pretty silly, and not even original. Samuel Butler (author of Erewhon) argued in the 19th century that TheOdyssey is by a woman, on the grounds that the poem is set in a nonmilitary world, and shows deep sympathy with female characters. The argument is a weak one: The whole point of imaginative literature, some would say, is that it allows poets, writers, and audience to participate in alien forms of experience.

But Dalby deploys a much stronger set of arguments for female authorship, based on comparative anthropological analysis of how women preserve songs, stories, and folk tales. Women are often the ones who retain linguistic and literary traditions for the longest time. Certainly, there is no evidence whatsoever of female epic poets in archaic Greece. When poets are described or alluded to in the Homeric poems themselves, they are always men. This fact alone makes Dalby's hypothesis implausible. On the other hand, there certainly were female lyric poetsSappho, for example. We cannot know for sure how distinct the genres of lyric and heroic poetry would have been.Dalby acknowledges that there is no way to prove his hypothesis. It is only a theory, and I don't really buy it, though I'd like to. But the notion is not necessarily a silly one, if it can act as a reminder of how little we really know about the person or people who made these poems.

Emily Wilson teaches classical literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of a book about tragedy (Mocked With Death) and, most recently, The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint.

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