The Odyssey

By Homer

Style and Oral Poetry

The most noticeable feature of Homer's style is that he makes considerable use of formulae throughout the poem. Most of these are not of great interest in themselves, as they tend to be stock epithets, such as "resourceful Odysseus" or "thoughtful Telemachus". The analysts point to the oral tradition and apparent inconsistencies in uses of these epithets to posit multiple authorship. Some do not always seem entirely accurate; for example, at XXIV.57 the Achaeans are described as "great-hearted", which is their usual epithet, in the Iliad at least. However, on this occasion, they are being anything but great-hearted - surely a case of irony rather than incompetent over-reliance on the traditional techniques of oral poetry. In fact, Homer uses some of his formulae in a manner which could be taken to imply deliberate parody of the Iliad. Sarpedon is likened to a lion attacking a guarded sheep- pen (Iliad XII.299-301) as he attacks the Achaean wall. Odysseus (VI.130- 134) is given a similar simile, even though he is approaching a group of young girls with nothing but a leafy branch to maintain his dignity. Of course, the great majority of the epithets and stock formulae Homer gives to his characters and situations are little more than convenient ways to fill up a line with a suitable metrical unit, but there are enough unusual, humorous and ironic examples for the careful reader never to take them for granted. [Bibliomania's study guide on the Iliad has several useful points on oral poetry itself].