Homer and Greek Epic

This previous fall (2013) I took a seminar in Homer’s Odyssey. While they are still fresh in my mind, I’ll review some resources here for studying Homeric Greek.

Homer first?

First there is the question, for those beginning ancient Greek, whether or not to start with Homer. My answer is, if Homer is what you are most passionately eager to read, then by all means start with Homer. If you intend to read classical or biblical texts as well, and with equal zeal, then I would stick with the more conventional approach of learning Classical (Attic) Greek first.

In learning a language I am a firm believer in reading “standard” prose before poetry. I would definitely read Xenophon before Plato (“standard” prose before artful prose) and before Euripides (prose before poetry). Of course, if you are yourself a poet or translator of poetry, that’s probably a different story. In any case, if we had prose authors writing in the same dialect and era as Homer, my advice would be to get comfortable with those authors first. But of course we don’t.

For purposes of this post, I am regarding the Iliad and the Odyssey as unitary works written in that order by a single author, “Homer.” From the perspective of contemporary scholarship, none of this — unitary, written, single author — is necessarily true. That is the famous “Homeric Question.”

Secondly, while the conventional approach uses Attic Greek as a foundation for branching out to other dialects, I find in practice almost every Greek author and literary genre to be a linguistic specialization. I find none to be a more natural foundation than another. In this regard, going from Homer to Sappho to Herodotus to Pindar to Attic Drama to Demosthenes to Callimachus to the New Testament is a vastly more challenging linguistic journey than going from Ennius to Plautus to Cicero to Vergil to Tacitus to Augustine. (You can sample the Greek spectrum for yourself with Stephen Colvin’s A Historical Greek Reader: Mycenaean to the Koiné.)

So I think to answer the question “Homer first?”, you should consult your particular passions rather than a linguistic argument or pedagogical theory.

Homeric Greek, in any case, is not a single dialect from among the historical dialects we know of. It is a mixture of primarily Ionic but also Aeolic and other elements. Since the end of the nineteenth-century it has been regarded by Homeric scholars as a Kunstsprache, more an evolved mixture of historical, dialectic, and purely poetic forms convenient for oral composition and epic meter than an artifact of an actual spoken language.

Essential Resources: Pharr and Cunliffe

If you choose Homer as your first read in ancient Greek, you will want to begin with Clyde Pharr’s Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners. I at least am not aware of anything else that has taken its place. The original 1920 edition is free from Google Books. I am not familiar with them, but you can find updated editions of Pharr on Amazon from the University of Oklahoma Press.

Pharr is an introduction to ancient Greek, but by way of Homer. The first fifty-five chapters are organized as a traditional combination of grammar, vocabulary, and Greek-to-English and English-to-Greek translation exercises (the exercise sentences are virtually paraphrases of the Iliad). An appendix contains all the inflection paradigms. In addition, each chapter beginning with the fourteenth presents an excerpt from the first book of the Iliad with helpful commentary. A second and final set of chapters present no new grammar but more Iliadic vocabulary and the remainder of the Iliad’s first book. In other words, if you go through all of Pharr, you will have read the entire first (immortal) book of the Iliad – not bad!

I had read the Iliad (in Greek, that is) in college, but that was an ancient memory, so I used Pharr to brush up on my Homeric Greek in preparation for my Odyssey seminar. Pharr serves this purpose, though the introductions to some of the student editions of Homer, along with diving straight into the text, are also sufficient (see below).

After Pharr or the equivalent, ideally you’ll carve out the time (months) to read a significant portion of the Iliad and/or the Odyssey: Homeric diction is quite finite and repetitive. It’s possible to basically speed read Homer after, say, five or six chapters.

And for vocabulary Richard John Cunliffe’s A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect is deservedly renowned and pretty much essential. For each word all forms found in Homer are given, and most instances of the word are cited. The lexicon is generous with separate lemmas for forms whose headword is not obvious (to take a random example, a lemma for εἴσατο refers you to, in this case, two headwords, εἴδω and ἵημι). I am not familiar with it, but there is also a beginner’s Homeric dictionary by Georg Autenrieth. My Odyssey professor said Cunliffe is “distinctly better than Autenrieth,” and that is good enough for me.

Miscellaneous Resources

As you start reading Homer, you’ll certainly want student-oriented as well as learned commentary. A generally good mix are the Bristol Classical Press publications of the latest versions of the “red Macmillan” series (older versions in this series can be found on Google Books). The Iliad is in two volumes (Books I – XII and XIII – XXIV), originally published in 1978 and 1984, with commentary by M.M. Willcock; the Odyssey similarly in two volumes, originally published in 1947 and 1948, with commentary by W.B. Stanford. If you are familiar with Classical Greek but new to Homer, the Grammatical Introduction in each of the two Odyssey volumes (absent for some reason in the Iliad volumes) has a sufficiently comprehensive review of Homer-specific forms and syntax.

By Homer’s own testimony (see, for example, the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey), epic poetry was sung. In my opinion, we are very fortunate to have the entire Iliad and the entire Odyssey read by Stephen G. Daitz “in the restored historical pronunciation of Ancient Greek.” These are published on CD by Bolchazy-Carducci: See Bolchazy’s web page and follow the links for recordings. I know some people quibble with one or another aspect of the pronunciation, are disconcerted by the tonal accent, or find Daitz’s style too affected. By and large I find such criticism highly ungenerous. Of course you can’t force someone to like or dislike a performance, but anyway, I highly recommend giving these recordings a try. (The new elliptical machines at my gym are equipped with a monitor that provides internet access as well as television. I am experimenting with listening to Daitz while following the Greek text on the Chicago Homer [see below] on the internet, all while hopefully pushing back death by a few years!)

Thanks to Bedwere and Markos on textkit.com for calling attention to a prose paraphrase of the Iliad, in Attic Greek, by the fifteenth-century Greek humanist Theodorus Gaza. The book is arranged as parallel text, with Homer’s original verse on the left and Gaza’s paraphrase on the right. It is available from Google Books (here is a link to the first of four volumes), but Bedwere has created an 8 1/2 x 11 print version on lulu.com that is much easier on the eyes. Markos is an eloquent advocate of using Greek to learn Greek, relying as little as possible on English-language resources as early on in your learning process as feasible. If Homer is your first ancient Greek, an Attic paraphrase won’t help. But if you know a reasonable amount of Attic Greek, the Homeric text and Gaza’s paraphrase can be mutually reinforcing.

The Coolest Resource: The Chicago Homer

By far the coolest resource I learned of during my seminar was the Chicago Homer. The Browse tab of this web application displays whatever Greek epic text you select (see below on Greek epic besides Homer). You can toggle on and off the display of corresponding English and German interlinear translations. Each word in the displayed text is a link to a Grammar & Frequency table. If, for example, in the fourth line of Book 1 of the Iliad you click on ἑλώρια, the application displays a table that tells you that ἑλώρια is the accusative plural of the neuter noun ἕλωρ (there is a link in turn to the LSJ lemma for this headword in Perseus) and that this noun occurs 6 times in the Iliad, 4 times in the Odyssey. Clicking on ἕλωρ in this table switches you to a display in the Search tab of all ten lines containing one or another form of ἕλωρ (with translations, if you have opted for that). Clicking on any of those lines will take you to a display of its surrounding lines, so you I can better study the context of each occurrence. If in the table I had clicked on ἑλώρια rather than ἕλωρ, I would have been switched to a display of only those lines containing this particular inflection.

When you read Homer, even in translation, you can’t help but notice the use of repetitive epithets and phrases. In fact arguably the greatest contribution to Homeric scholarship in the twentieth century was the pioneering work of Milman Parry and his student Albert B. Lord on Homeric formulae and the theory of oral composition. When you look at the displayed text on the Chicago Homer, you will see unobtrusive numbers above the text indicating any sequence of two or more words that occurs elsewhere in the Greek epic. For example, in lines 1 -7 of Book 1 of the Iliad, containing the poem’s introduction, line 7 concludes Ἀτρείδης δὲ ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεῦς (Lattimore’s translation, which is that used by the Chicago Homer: Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus). I am curious about the epithet for Achilleus, which Lattimore translates as brilliant. Does not the Greek word also suggest godlike? What is implied? I notice the display marks δῖος Ἀχιλλεῦς as a formula. If I click on the marker, I find this phrase occurs 57 times in the Iliad (and only in the Iliad). If I click on the single word Ἀχιλλεῦς, I find it occurs 367 times in the Iliad (16 times in the Odyssey), and I quickly discover some other epithets for Achilleus, such as swift-footed. If I click on the single word δῖος, I find it occurs 434 times in Greek epic, 222 in the Iliad, and is used as an epithet of other heroes besides Achilleus (for example, Odysseus). So I can see that δῖος is an especially frequent but not exclusive epithet of Achilleus and also not restricted to Achilleus.

By way of another example, I am also intrigued by the phrase at the end of line 5 Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή (and the will of Zeus was accomplished). I see this phrase is marked as a formula. Clicking on it, I discover the phrase is also used in Odyssey 11.297, and when I click on this line to get its context, I see it occurs as part of a story Odysseus relates when he sees Nestor’s mother Chloris in the underworld (Book 11 of the Odyssey is The Book of the Dead – where I will be going when my elliptical at the gym no longer avails me). The story is a bit complicated, and I won’t go into it here, but I see that this indeed is a Homeric formula not used exclusively in the context of Achilleus’ wrath.

Pretty neat so far? But that’s only the half of it. The text database is also searchable. I can make complex searches for words or phrases conditioned by, for example, frequency, word type (verb, noun, etc.), inflectional categories (e.g., imperfect subjunctive middle 2nd person singular), and location (e.g., within lines 1 through 611 of the Iliad, that is, within Book 1 of the Iliad). I can also restrict the search by occurrences only in speeches or only in narrative (by default, either), within speeches by mortal vs. immortal, or male vs. female vs. neither, or by specific speaker(s).

You can imagine the possibilities. I have used the search function so far mostly to construct vocabulary frequency lists, copying the search results into spreadsheets. For example, all verbs (nouns, adjectives, etc.) that occur 25 times or more, in descending order of frequency. Subsequently, I add occasional notes when I encounter something of interest in Cunliffe or elsewhere. Or all the ἅπαξ λεγόμενα (words that only occur once in Epic) in a given Homeric Book I’m about to read, so as to see at a glance words that I shouldn’t freak out about over not recognizing (e.g., there are 13 in Book 1 of the Odyssey, when I exclude proper names from my search).

Returning to the Browse function, I also use its displays to create worksheets for specialized vocabulary. I copy and then notate the text of relevant passages into dedicated worksheets for specific activities and type-scenes, for example, spinning & weaving; arming; dressing; sacrificing; ship-building, unmooring, sailing, and docking. (To identify the relevant passages I use pointers from the commentaries as well as from scholarship on Homeric “type-scenes,” an advanced topic I won’t get into here.)

Greek Epic Besides Homer

The Chicago Homer contains the text and translations not just for the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also for the works of Hesiod (the Theogony, Works and Days, and the Shield of Heracles) and the Homeric Hymns. Its Browse and Search functions are equally valuable when studying these works, for example, in determining vocabulary that is only in Hesiod or the Hymns but not in Homer.

There are some excellent editions of these works:

  • If you’re making a scholarly study of Hesiod, in Greek, you must consult the editions of the Theogony and the Works and Days from Martin L. West. Hopefully, though, you have access to a college library, because for purchase these are only available used and for prohibitive prices. For the combination of a good English translation and useful commentary (and a poorly written Introduction, but that doesn’t matter), I recommend Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, second ed. (The John Hopkins University Press) by Apostolos N. Athanassakis.
  • There are thirty-three “Homeric” Hymns in total, ranging in length from just 3 lines to 500+.  Hymns 2 – 5, to Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite, respectively, are the most substantial and considered by some scholars to be earlier than the others (reflecting this view, the Chicago Homer’s frequency tables distinguish between “Four Hymns” and “Later Hymns.”) There are excellent editions of those four hymns, Nicholas Richardson’s Three Homeric Hymns: To Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite (from the Cambridge “green and yellow” series), Andrew Faulkner’s The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (an Oxford Classical Monograph), and N.J. Richardson’s The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford University Press). I have not seen it, but Apostolos N. Athanassakis (see above) and Erwin Cook also have a translation and commentary on the Hymns.

Finally, if you wish to explore Greek epic beyond Homer, as I have been doing, you’ll want to become familiar with what is known as the Epic Cycle. I have linked you to the Wikipedia article. The standard work on the subject will undoubtedly be Martin L. West’s The Epic Cycle: A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics, published in 2013, Oxford University Press.

Western literature – it all started with Homer, and very little (if any) has topped it. Have a great time with it, and come home with your shield or on it!


Published by Randy Gibbons

I am retired. I have several strong interests, in particular classical studies (Greek and Latin); a lifelong passion for music, especially jazz; and more recently, dabbling in philosophy. For more information about me, click on About Me.

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  1. I found your post from a Classics tweet this morning. I just wanted to say thank you for this article, I found it both useful and absorbing. I've just begun Greek with the Open University and while I'm finding it difficult, after all 68 is a bit late to start a new language, I am also finding it tremendously exhilerating. Thanks again.


  2. Hi Randy,Sorry to pester you but I tried to arrange to get a copy of the Athenaze teacher's manual and CD and was turned away. I mentioned your blog to OUP and even cut out the section where you reference that their policy, &c. Their response was: \”Thank you for your email. As stated below we do not \”sell\” the teachers materials for this title. They are available for instructors' only. I am not sure where this person \”bought\” these from as there is no price associated with these materials. We cannot provide these to you. You may want to check around in your area for classes that are using this material. \”Would you mind sharing the contact that you were able to work through to obtain the CD and book? Please send me an email at jdesousa[at]parker{dot}com if you are able. I sincerely appreciate your help either way!!Thanks,Jon


  3. Hello, thank you for this. I am re-starting my study of Epic Greek (with plans to read widely in Greek literature from ancient to present day eventually) and this is a very welcome post. I especially like the section on the Chicago Homer. Thanks.


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