In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pre-Hellenistic Greek Poetry in its Social Contexts

  • Introduction
  • The Oral Traditional Background of Ancient Greek Poetry
  • Epic and Other Genres
  • Homer and Hesiod
  • The Homeric Question or Questions

Classics Pre-Hellenistic Greek Poetry in its Social Contexts
Gregory Nagy, Leonard Muellner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0187


This bibliographical essay is divided into six parts, which supersede an older set of six essays that had once served as introductions to a collection of writings on ancient Greek literature: the first six of nine volumes in G. Nagy, ed. 2001. Greek Literature (New York: Routledge). For an updating of those earlier essays, see Nagy 2001 (cited under Oral Traditional Background of Ancient Greek Poetry). This essay concentrates on books and articles that primarily evaluate and interpret the original texts of Greek poetry before the Hellenistic period, not on published commentaries, however valuable they may be, that accompany editions of these original texts. We make four exceptions, however, by listing Barrett’s Euripides: Hippolytus (Barrett 1964, cited under Drama of Euripides), Seaford’s Euripides: Cyclops (Seaford 1984, cited under Relationship of Ritual and Myth in Drama), Asheri and colleagues’ Commentary on Herodotus Books I–IV (Asheri, et al. 2007, cited under Debates about Classical Greek Poetry as It Relates to Classical Greek Prose), and Bollack’s Empédocle (Bollack 1965–1969, cited under Greek Poetry and Philosophy in the Pre-Socratic Era): we highlight these four publications as masterpieces of interpretation, regardless of category.

The Oral Traditional Background of Ancient Greek Poetry

The focal point here is Homer, a prehistoric figure conventionally viewed by classical civilization as a prototypical poet of the Greeks. Some may even assume that research on Greek oral traditions should apply to no one but Homer. And yet, the entire prehistory of early Greek literature is based on oral traditions. Nor does it apply only to epic, which seems, at first, the prototypical poetic genre in the history of Greek literature. The cumulative finding of ongoing comparative anthropological research is that oral poetry and prose span a wide range of genres in large-scale as well as small-scale societies throughout the world and that epic is not a universal type of poetry, let alone a privileged prototype (Nagy 1990, cited under Homer and Hesiod as Foundational Models for Greek Poetry, pp. 17–51). There is no justification for assuming that epic poetry was the first genre in the prehistory of Greek poetry. The evidence for the oral traditional basis of ancient Greek literature is both internal and comparative. The decisive impetus for the relevant research has been the comparative evidence of living oral traditions. The two most prominent names in the history of this research are Milman Parry and Albert Lord. Parry (Parry 1928a and Parry 1928b) had started by studying systematically the internal evidence of Homeric poetry, as reflected in the texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey, even before he set out to observe living oral poetic traditions in the former Yugoslavia (first in the summer of 1933, and then from June 1934 to September 1935). For more on the methods used by Parry, see Lord 1948; also Lamberterie 1997. Parry’s violent death at the age of thirty-three, in 1935, left his young student Lord with the enormous task of undertaking the systematic comparisons that Parry had only begun. These comparisons culminated in what remains the most definitive book on the subject of oral poetry, Lord, et al. 2000 (first published in 1960).

  • Lamberterie, C. de. 1997. Milman Parry et Antoine Meillet. In Le style formulaire de l’épopée et la théorie de l’oralité poétique: Hommage à Milman Parry. Edited by F. Létoublon, 9–22. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben.

    Translated 2001 by A. Goldhammer in Antiquities: Postwar French Thought III (N. Loraux, G. Nagy, and L. Slatkin, eds.), pp. 409–421 (New York: New Press). Documents the intellectual influence of Meillet on Parry, whose approach to analyzing the diction of Homeric poetry draws on the methodology of comparative linguistics.

  • Lord, A. B. 1948. Homer, Parry, and Huso. American Journal of Archaeology 52:34–44.

    DOI: 10.2307/500550

    Reprinted in Parry 1971, pp. 465–478. Provides a vivid account of Parry’s discovery procedures and shows how Lord’s work extends from Parry’s unfinished work.

  • Lord, A. B., S. Mitchell, and G. Nagy. 2000. The singer of tales. 2d ed. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    First published in 1960, this second edition has a new introduction by Mitchell and Nagy, pp. vii–xxix. This book remains the most definitive introduction to the pioneering research of Parry and Lord. The first part of the book documents their findings in the course of their ethnographic research on the living oral traditions that they recorded in the former Yugoslavia; the second part applies these findings as points of comparison with the textual evidence of ancient Greek and medieval European epic, among other traditions. Online edition available.

  • Nagy, G. 2001. Greek literature: Introductions and suggested bibliographies. New York: Routledge.

    In this collection of articles and essays, there is an introduction written for each major period. Online edition available.

  • Parry, M. 1928a. L’épithète traditionnelle dans Homère: Essay sur un problème de style homérique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    Translated into English in Parry 1971, pp. 1–190. This seminal work analyzes the concept of the poetic formula on the basis of Homeric diction, which Parry showed was a system that remains embedded in the Homeric textual tradition. Online edition available.

  • Parry, M. 1928b. Les formules et la métrique d’Homère. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    Translated into English in Parry 1971, pp. 191–234. Shows that the interaction of formula and meter is systemic in Homeric diction, and that formulaic regularity trumps metrical regularity. Online edition available.

  • Parry, M. 1932. Studies in the epic technique of oral verse-making II: The Homeric language as the language of an oral poetry. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 43:1–50.

    DOI: 10.2307/310666

    Reprinted in Parry 1971, pp. 325–364. Elaborates on his concept of the “formula” in terms of oral poetics (p. 6). We see here an example of Parry’s systematic approach to analyzing patterns of regularity in Homeric form and content—at a time when he had not yet observed comparable patterns in living oral poetic traditions.

  • Parry, A., ed. 1971. The making of Homeric verse: The collected papers of Milman Parry. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book containing Milman Parry’s collected papers was published posthumously by his son Adam Parry, who starts the project with a fifty-three page introduction to his father’s research (pp. ix–lxii).

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