It is unknown, of course, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, since in general no reliable contemporary description of how the two epics came into being is to be found. Such sources as there are – first and foremost the two poems themselves – must be interpreted in a comparative framework built on experience from societies in the modern world that are in some respects similar to archaic Greece, in order to reach a coherent picture of the process.
The oral-formulaic theory formed by Milman Parry (1902-35) and Albert B. Lord (1912-91) not only revolutionised Homeric studies but also had an impact on anthropology and folklore. It led to increased interest in oral epic traditions, and fieldworkers changed their methods towards a focus on composition in performance. The individual singer and his handling of the tradition gained importance. When possible, more than one performance of the “same” song was recorded, by the same singer on different occasions or by different singers, and interaction with the audience was documented. By now, a wealth of editions and studies of oral epics from various parts of the world is accessible and is used in the present study as an inspiration for achieving a deeper understanding of the methods at work in oral epic, for building a likely social context of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and especially for speculating on the circumstances of the writing of the two great poems. Long oral narratives are flexible, and accordingly, the dictation to scribes that must be at the origin of the texts which have been preserved in writing to this day, was a process of the utmost importance as the composition in performance of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The study is directed at classical scholars but will hopefully be of interest to a much broader readership: folklorists, anthropologists, and whoever enjoys reading Homer, in Greek as well as in translation.
Minna Skafte Jensen has a lifetime’s experience of teaching Homer to students of Greek or of classics in translation at the Universities of Copenhagen and Southern Denmark, and she has written extensively on the subject. Her two most important contributions are The Homeric Question and the Oral-Formulaic Theory (Copenhagen 1980) and Homer og hans tilhørere (Copenhagen 1992).