CHS-1991/3/23 Andrew Ford

Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies

Andrew Ford - March 23rd, 1991


 Poetry and Immortality in Homer

Imperishable glory (kleos aphtheton) is the hero’s goal and the poet’s topic. What must poetry be to make the claim of immortalizing its subject? If I am immortalized in a poem, in what form will I be immortalized and how does this change in the movement from oral poetry (or the lips men) to the written poem?


The most familiar case of the promise of immortality is seen in Shakespeare’s sonnets – so long as this poem lasts (and eyes can see you (the subject of the poem) will live – a promise made more possible by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. But as the subject appears in a printed poem, the poem also becomes a tomb and the printed page becomes inadequate to catch the living being (the (Ozymandias” syndrome)


In the Iliad, the Achaean wall symbolizes the oral poet confronting the question: how will immortality be preserved. Homer was the last great master of form in the oral tradition, probably written down soon after, though the only allusion in Homer to writing is in the semata of the Bellerophon episode, when a set of signs is sent along with Bellerophon in order to let the reader of the message know what is to be done to the hero. There are , however other semata in the poem, showing fame embodied in a physical form.


The simple fact of writing is not a neutral technology but changes the dynamics between speaker and audience. The difference between song and stylus is that writing makes a possession of what had been a performance . the finished text is thus fixes rather than fluid.


Would the earliest poets have adopted writing as soon as it was available? Might they have seen it as a treat? When that moment came, was the oral poet merely committing the story to writing, or was that act shaping the form?


In the drawing of lots by the Ahcaeans to determine who would fight Hector we see a very primitive form of writing – recognizable only to the one who had inscribed it and had to vocalize it to others.


Some of the signs visible in the 8th century were stangely shaped stones – Mycenean burial sites – which often became sacred shrines. Homer’s heroes are individually cremated before burial but Homer’s contemporaries were finding Mycenean burials as collective inhumations. How can the latter be individualized?


Homer makes use of various signs (semata), man-made symbols with a signifying function. For example, the tomb of Ilis (a tumulus with a stele bearing the deceased’s name) is pointed out by Hector to Achilles at the end of the Iliad – “there is a sema, to be seem by sailors, who will say…” – as something which will provoke an oral response.


Humanly wrought artifacts do not always survive or stay in the same places: Nestor advises his son in the chariot race to look out for the tree with the two white stones, an old sign, almost lost by erosion, but referring to whom Nestor does not know. If libations are to reach the deceased, the stone must not be removed. When Athena picks up and hurls a boundary stone, the stone loses its significance. So we know that our reading of the past may be disturbed by semata having been moved. Heroes in their tumuli may thus often have lost their tombstones. Homes shows that no sema can be counted on to retain its significance forever. Epic poetry turns not to the ground for knowledge of the sign’s past but to the Olympian; they know.


In Iliad 6, the Greeks build a wall which will be destroyed after they leave (as foretold in 12). This wall is also a tomb and – like the poem – a huge construct,  intended to last forever. But the wall will be destroyed. Nestorproposed building a tomb (a mega ergon) for all the Greeks who had fallen and then using it as part of the defensive wall. Poseidon was concerned that the kleos of the wall would make people forget the one he had made, but Zeus assured him that it would not last and, unusually, narrated the events of its fall. Homer at this point shifts outside the narrative and refers to to hemitheoi (as Hesiod calls the age just before his own iron age) – not his normal way to refer to heroes. The implication is that Homer is looking back from hiw own time (800-700 BC) to 1200, the time of his narration.


This wall destruction story delay’s Homer’s plot. Some argue that Homer tells it so that visitors in his own day who see no wall at Troy will know why. The wall episode is like the monumental construction of the Iliad itself, with the wall-story at the mid-point (bk 12). This wall is built for defense but also for kleos – and will soon be gone. Homer (12.12-15) shows that as long as Hector is alive and Achilles is wrathful (the ending and beginning points of the Iliad the wall will be fixed firmly in the ground. In other words, the wall will last (only) as long as the Iliad’s narrative (that other monument). The wall is called “unbreakable” , a term applied normally only to divinely-made constructions, but the gods will destroy it and a flood will wash it away, a kind of anti-funeral, since water is the main enemy of tombs.


When Achilles is battling the river Scamander, he fears death by water, in which the body is lost, no longer finable by his comrades. No human sema can be made, just mud and disintegration, like the wall, covered over with sand.


The Achaean wall is the greatest of the Iliad’s failed monuments. Homer’s razing of that wall shows that the past in not only past but is gone forever without a trace. The Iliad shows the futility of writing any history or fixing any song in physical form. The destruction of the wall is symbolic of the inability of any epic to survive (as originally conceived) as a written work. Homer would not have agreed with Horace (exegi monumentum) that he had built a monument more lasting that bronze that nothing, even the passage of time, could destroy. Thus, writing in Homer’s day, could not have immediately usurped the old place of the spoken word. Homer would have disagreed with Shakespeare about the writer’s ultimate ability to immortalize his subject on the lips of men.