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Daily RC Article 182

Unraveling Homeric Mysteries: Orality, Literacy, and Cultural Perspectives


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In the past few decades the scholarly world has newly awakened to the oral character of language and to some of the deeper implications of the contrasts between orality and writing. Anthropologists have gone more directly into the matter of orality… Jack Goody has shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from Levi-Strauss" "savage" mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy. Many of the contrasts often made between "western" and other views seem reducible to contrasts between deeply interiorized literacy and more or less residually oral states of consciousness.

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The new understanding on orality developed over various routes, but it can perhaps best be followed in the history of the ‘Homeric question’. For over two millennia literates have devoted themselves to the study of Homer, with varying mixtures of insight, misinformation and prejudice, conscious and unconscious. Nowhere do the contrasts between orality and literacy or the blind spots of the unreflective chirographic or typographic mind show in a richer context.

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The ‘Homeric question’ as such grew out of the nineteenth century higher criticism of Homer which had matured together to the higher criticism of the Bible, but it had roots reaching back to classical antiquity. Men of letters in western classical antiquity had occasionally shown some awareness that the Iliad and Odyssey differed from other Greek poetry and that their origins were obscure. Cicero suggested that the extant text of the two Homeric poems was a revision by Pisistratus of Homer’s work…

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From the beginning, deep inhibitions have interfered with our seeing the Homeric poems for what they in fact are. The Iliad and the Odyssey have been commonly regarded from antiquity to the present as the most exemplary, the truest and the most inspired secular poems in the western heritage. To account for their received excellence, each age has been inclined to interpret them as doing better what it conceived its poets to be doing or aiming at… More than any earlier scholar, the American classicist Milman Parry succeeded in undercutting this cultural chauvinism so as to get into the ‘primitive’ Homeric poetry on this poetry’s own terms, even when these ran counter to the received view of what poetry and poets ought to be.



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Earlier work had vaguely adumbrated Parry’s in that the general adulation of the Homeric poems had often been accompanied by some uneasiness. Often the poems were felt to be somehow out of line. Francios Hedelin attacked the Illiad and the Odyssey as badly plotted, poor in characterization, and ethically and theologically despicable, going on to argue that there never had been a Homer and that the epics attributed to him were no more than collection of rhapsodies by others. The classical scholar Richard Bently, famous for proving that the so-called Epistles of Phalaris were spurious, thought that there was indeed a man named Homer but that the various songs that he ‘wrote’ were not put together into the epic poems until about 500 years later in the time of Pisistratus. The Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico, believed that there had been no Homer but that the Homeric epics were somehow the creations of a whole people.

This exploration delves into the evolving understanding of orality and its impact on the interpretation of Homeric poetry, challenging long-standing perceptions of the Iliad and Odyssey as exemplary Western secular poems. Scholars like Milman Parry have disrupted cultural chauvinism, examining the primitive nature of Homeric poetry on its own terms. The historical "Homeric question" is dissected, revealing inhibitions that have obscured the true nature of these epic poems throughout the ages.
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