The Iliad and the telling of tales

Following on from my post about medieval and e-book publication and how medieval books really were compilations or syntheses of stories, we can probably say the same about the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Bronze age Greece was a literate society in that the palace accountants wrote down their accounts and recorded land holdings, using a script known as Linear B. People undoubtedly told tales and stories, but if they were written down, they have not yet been found due to the paucity of the sources and the difficulty of translation.

Then along came the Bronze Age collapse when iron using barbarians came down from the north and put a stop to the Mycenaean efflorescence. (This is where we get centaurs from – these barbarians rode horses and made iron weapons. Centaurs were ironsmiths and half men half horse – go figure).

After the collapse, the Greeks became illiterate – the vast palaces became memories and the country fragmented into a set of little villages and towns with a wooden fence round them- a peasant society had no need of accountants, and as they were the only people who could write, literacy went.

When it reappeared it in the sixth or seventh century BC, Greek was written using letters derived from the Phonecian alphabet, and apart from a few extra letters looked a lot like modern Greek.

So, even if the Iliad started life as a Mycenaean story, we know it must have gone through a period of oral transmission. passages such as the catalogue of ships and the place names suggest that it might have a an origin in Mycenaean times, although some of the embellishments and narrative might have come from its time as an orally transmitted story.

It also, because people’s memories are imperfect, suggests that there must have been variants, and perhaps other similar tales, as is the case with the various medieval and middle eastern tales centred around Alexander the Great. However, as far as tales about the Trojan war went, it was the Iliad that exercised a hold on people’s imagination, and was cleaned up and copied and recopied.

However, not many versions have come down to us – the earliest complete text we have is a Byzantine tenth century text, although we have earlier Roman period fragments from Egypt. However we do have a lot of later manuscripts, and the text is reasonably consistent, suggesting that there was one standard version in classical times – the version people learned in school and learned passages from in rhetoric class.

This tells us that the GrecoRoman book copying trade was based around standard versions rather than versions that were compiled on demand. At a guess the version we have is the Athens version – there might have been a different version elsewhere, but due to the Roman cultural cringe to all things Athenian they have not survived, or it might simply be that the Byzantine copyists preferred the version everyone knew and ignored other locally popular versions …

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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