Monday, July 12, 2010

Homeric Papyri and the Homer Multitext

The publication of ancient papyrus texts has always been central to the goals of the Homer Multitext project. The Homeric papyri are, with the exception of some ancient quotations, the oldest surviving witnesses to the text of Homer. The medieval manuscript tradition of Homer begins with the tenth century CE manuscripts of the Iliad known as D (Laurentianus 32.15) and Venetus A (Marcianus Graecus 454). Some papyrus fragments predate the medieval tradition by as many as 1200 years. In a 2001 article [Dué 2001a; on-line version], I argued that the multiformity of the Homeric texts, as evidenced by the earliest quotations of Homer and the Ptolemaic papyri, calls for a new approach to editing the texts of Homer. Building on the work of Gregory Nagy (especially Nagy 1996a), who was himself building on the insights of Parry and Lord into the oral traditional nature of Homeric poetry, I suggested that a web-based, “multitext” edition would be truer to the complexity of the transmission of the Homeric poems, which are oral-derived texts composed in performance. The texts as we now have them are the product of many singers over the course of many generations. What Parry and Lord’s work shows us most essentially is that there is not one original text that we should try to reconstruct. Instead of reconstructing an “original text,” the aim of the Homer Multitext, now at last becoming a reality after a decade of research and planning, is to present a series of complete, historically contextualized texts, together with images, and a variety of tools with which users can compare and analyze these historical documents.

The Homeric papyri are all fragmentary, and range in date from as early as the third century BCE to the seventh century CE. The vast majority of the fragments were discovered in Egypt, and now reside in collections located all over the world. They give us an otherwise irrecoverable picture of the Iliad and Odyssey as they were performed and recorded in ancient times. When taken altogether, Homeric papyri reveal a state of the Homeric texts in antiquity that can be quite surprising. There are numerous verses in the papyri that are seemingly intrusive from the standpoint of the medieval vulgate. These additional verses, the so-called plus verses, are not present in the majority of the medieval manuscripts of the Iliad and Odyssey. Other verses that are canonical in the medieval manuscripts are absent from the papyri—these may be termed minus verses. Also prevalent is variation in the formulaic phrasing within lines. In other words, it seems from this most ancient evidence that the poems were performed and recorded with a considerable amount of fluidity in antiquity. It is not until about 150 BCE that the papyrus texts begin to stabilize and present a relatively more uniform text.

The early Homeric papyri are the vestiges of a once vibrant performance tradition of the Iliad and Odyssey (see especially Nagy 1996a and Dué 2001a). In such a tradition no poem is ever composed, performed, or recorded in exactly the same way twice. In the earliest stages of the Iliad and Odyssey, each performance would have resulted in an entirely new composition. By the time of the first papyrus fragments, the oral composition and performance tradition of Homeric epic poetry had died out. But variation in the ancient textual tradition, the reflexes of this once oral and performative tradition, persisted for several more centuries. These variations, preserved for us in the Homeric papyri, are a unique window into the oral tradition that we have lost.

And yet in Homeric textual criticism, the papyri are not always attributed the weight that their antiquity should bestow on them. The variations are dismissed by a variety of strategies, including the often cited assertion that the variations are banal and uninteresting, and the labeling of the Ptolemaic papyri as “wild” or “eccentric” (for counter arguments, see especially Dué 2001a and 2001b and Dué and Ebbott 2009). In several publications I have suggested that the Medieval transmission is given more authority than the papyri precisely because modern editors find the multiformity of the papyri and early quotations disturbing (see especially Due 2006 as well as Dué 2001a and 2001b, Dué and Ebbott 2009). The seeming fluidity of these earliest witnesses conflicts with a basic desire (among Classicists at least) to find a single text and a single author behind our Iliad and Odyssey. The Medieval transmission, while by no means reducible to a single “vulgate” text, is more uniform, and offers the mirage of a reconstructable original that is just beyond the reach of our sources. This mirage has enticed many an editor to attempt to reconstruct what “Homer” actually composed (see especially Dué 2006).

Neither I nor my co- editors of the Homer Multitext are seeking to privilege the papyri in any special way over the Medieval transmission; rather we seek simply to make them available to scholars and anyone interested in the transmission of the Homeric poems over the course of three millennia or more, and to suggest that they have great historical value in the picture they present of the state of the Homeric texts in the earliest state in which we have it. Modern editions of the Iliad and Odyssey report papyrus readings only very selectively. The nature of a critical apparatus, moreover, necessarily obscures the context from which these readings arise. Not only can it be hard to locate the date or geographical origin of a particular papyrus when it is cited (in a highly abbreviated form) in an apparatus, it is also nearly impossible to reconstruct the character of the papyrus text that is being cited as a whole. In other words, is a particular reading one isolated variant, or is the papyrus as a whole quite multiform from the point of view of the Medieval transmission? Is the text preserved on the papyrus short or long? Is what survives a few letters per verse, whole verses, or something in between? Is the papyrus a deluxe edition of the text, a school text, a commentary? These are just a few of the questions that are almost impossible to answer by studying a critical apparatus alone. The limitations of the printed page of course prohibit including such information in a typical printed edition of the text.

But a web-based edition need not be limited in the same way, and can present complete historical documents side by side, as transcribed texts and as images. While the physical experience of touching the paper or parchment may be difficult to convey in digital form, metadata conveying such information can be easily included in the digital image files and precise scholarly descriptions can be linked. The editors of the Homer Multitext plan to do exactly this with the Homeric papyri. It is our goal to build a library of TEI XML-encoded diplomatic editions of the papyri, and to cooperate with scholars, libraries, and collections to put images, descriptions, and metadata for these papyri on-line. An initial set of editions, now available here, has been created by a group of graduate students. These students are now scholars in their right. It is our hope that they and other interested scholars will contribute more such editions as the project develops, and help us to develop the standards for such editions. The initial set referenced here is really, we hope, just the beginning of a collaborative effort that will include contributions from many people.

The idea of publishing the variations present in papyrus texts in digital form long predates the Homer Mutltitext. Homer and the Papyri was a project first created and edited by Professor Dana S. Sutton of the University of California, Irvine, who published it on CD-rom and later on the web. Homer and the Papyri, as it was established by Professor Sutton, was a website consisting of a) lists of published papyri and related items for the Iliad and the Odyssey, and b) a repertoire of the textual variants presented by this body of material, hypertextually linked to the lists of papyri. In 2001 Professor Sutton handed Homer and the Papyri over to the Center for Hellenic Studies, with a view to its continuation and incorporation into the publications of the Center, including a multitext edition of Homer. (Dana Sutton’s introduction to his original web-based edition may be found on the CHS website.) At that time Casey Dué, Mary Ebbott, and Dimitrios Yatromanolakis were appointed as editors, and a team of advisors selected. In 2005 we asked John Lundon to join our team of editors, and Alexander Loney became a contributing editor. Since then, Bart Huelsenbeck has also been a frequent contributor to the project.

When Professor Sutton first handed over Homer and the Papyri to the CHS team, the Homer Multitext project was in its infancy, and many questions immediately presented themselves. How could the data that Sutton had amassed be sustained over the long term? How could this data become interoperable within the architecture of the Homer Multitext? These somewhat technical questions raised more theoretical questions. Homer and the Papyri was an html list of variants, not complete texts of the papyri. How, then, to define a variant? What is the “original” from which the variants deviate? As I have noted, even the term “variant” fundamentally clashes with the findings of Parry and Lord that are the foundation on which the Homer Multitext project has been conceived. Sutton himself used a number of modern printed editions as points of comparison, and acknowledged some of the problems involved in doing so, including a lack of an equivalent for the Odyssey of T. W. Allen’s editio maior of the Iliad (see Sutton’s introduction to Homer and the Papyri).

The new editors quickly realized that a new approach to the project would be necessary, one that required a number of interconnected and labor intensive action items. First, Sutton’s data needed to be converted to TEI-XML, for its long term stability and so that it could be interoperable with other projects. Second, new papyri needed to be incorporated and assigned numbers in a systematic way. Not only are new papyri published every year (with new “variants,” however those are defined), often old papyri are joined, and so no longer require separate numbers. New descriptions must be written for the newly published or joined papyri and a bibliography maintained. Thirdly, we decided that we could expand the project’s utility by incorporating the data into a fully searchable relational database. Such a database was created by Michael Jones, with the cooperation and supervision of the Stoa Consortium, at that time edited by Anne Mahoney and Ross Scaife. This database allows the user to search in one of six fields, such as title (Iliad or Odyssey), book number, and line number. There are also fields for variants, witnesses, and a more general description field, in which the user may search for special features (such as material, location, or editor). The database, however, is flawed, for reasons that I will discuss further below. Our more theoretical concerns, moreover, were not solved.

These first three action items were our initial goal, and occupied several years of work on the project. But by this time, Martin West’s (1998-2000) Teubner edition of the Iliad had appeared. Not only did this edition track more papyrus readings than had been done by previous editors, it included a list of all Iliad papyri (including the papyri Sutton called “witnesses” and “Homerica”), and this list contained nearly 800 additional unpublished papyri in the Bodleian library, thereby doubling the previously known number. (This list was also published as chapter 4 of West’s Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad [West 2001a].) The editors of the new Homer and the Papyri faced a new dilemma. If we continued to assign numbers and  incorporate new papyri as they were published, our list would conflict with West’s. Our initial decision was to track the differences in a “comparatio numerorum” table. We have since had cause to reevaluate this decision, and are still debating the best solution.

But we faced a far greater dilemma in our continuation of the practice of reporting variants. Should the publication of West’s new edition affect what variants we report for the Iliad? Even as most papyrologists were beginning to make use of West’s edition for their own supplements when publishing new fragments, we wrestled with the idea of making it our default, notional text. Might not the Venetus A, the oldest complete text of the Iliad, make a better, more historical point of comparison? Yet the Venetus A is itself in its own way just an arbitrary edition. In fact, any one version of the text, whether historical or constructed in modern times, is simply one version. Providing only the “variants,” in isolation from their context (as Sutton’s method had been), is misleading, because it suggests that there is an historical “original” from which the variants are varying. For the Homeric poems, that’s simply not the case.

We realized that we wanted to undertake something quite different than what the founding editor, Dana Sutton, had originally envisioned when the internet was still quite new and few standards existed. Moreover, as we continued to test the new database, its problems became increasingly glaring. As is inevitable with a large amount of data entered manually in an unstructured way (I mean by using HTML, which is a descriptive mark up system, rather than XML, which is far more structured), we found numerous errors and contradictions in the data. These errors and a general lack of uniformity, despite the XML structure we attempted to impose on it, to this day prevent the database from working properly. Though it does have some functionality, few users have been able to use it regularly and successfully.

It soon became clear that in order for Homer and the Papyri to become current, useful, and fully integrated within the Multitext, we needed to conceive of the material in a new way. Therefore, just as we had begun to do for the Medieval manuscripts and their scholia, we began to commission new TEI-XML encoded diplomatic editions of the Homeric papyri. These papyri will be published as part of the Homer Multitext by means of the same services and tools that have been developed in conjunction with the manuscripts.

The editors of the Homer Multitext feel that this new vision is true to Dana Sutton’s project, whose aim was to make accessible to interested people and scholars the multiform texts that survive on papyrus. Not only will users be able to access these papyri as complete, diplomatic texts, they will also be able to view them side by side with other historical documents, including other papyri and Medieval manuscripts.

Accomplishing what we envision - a complete library of TEI-XML encoded diplomatic editions of all published Homeric papyri - will require a great deal of work. We very much welcome contributions from other editors, and such contributions will be properly attributed and given recognition. (All contributions must be openly licensed under a Creative Commons license.) We also very much hope to include images from collections who will allow publication under a Creative Commons License, and plan to link to those existing images on-line that have stable URLs. If you are interested in contributing diplomatic editions and/or images to the Homer Multitext please contact Casey Dué (casey at and Mary Ebbott (ebbott at

Works Cited and Further Reading

[Allen 1924] Allen, T. W. Homer: The Origins and Transmission. Oxford, 1924.
[Allen 1931] Homeri Ilias. Oxford, 1931.
[Dué 2001a] Dué, C. “Achilles’ Golden Amphora in Aeschines’ Against Timarchus and the Afterlife of Oral Tradition.” Classical Philology 96 (2001): 33-47.
[Dué 2001b] “Sunt Aliquid Manes: Homer, Plato, and Alexandrian Allusion in Propertius 4.7.” Classical Journal 96 (2001): 401-413.
[Dué 2002] Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2002.
[Dué 2006] “The Invention of Ossian.” Classics@ 3 (2006).
[Dué and Ebbott 2009] Dué, C., and M. Ebbott. “Digital Criticism: Editorial Standards for the Homer Multitext.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.1 (2009).
[Haslam 1997] Haslam, Michael. "Homeric Papyri and Transmission of the Text." in I. Morris and B. Powell, eds., A New Companion to Homer. Leiden, 1997.
[Lord 1960] Lord, A. B. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass., 1960. 2nd rev. edition, 2000.
[Lord 1991] Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.
[Lord 1995] The Singer Resumes the Tale. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.
[Nagy 1996a] Nagy, G.  Poetry as Performance. Cambridge, 1996.
[Nagy 1996b] Nagy, G. Homeric Questions. Austin, TX, 1996.
[Nagy 2000] Nagy, G. Review of Martin L. West (ed.) Homeri Ilias. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.09.12.
[Nagy 2002] Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
[Nagy 2004] Homer’s Text and Language. Champaign, IL, 2004.
[M. West 1998–2000] West, M., ed. Homeri Ilias. Recensuit / testimonia congessit. Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1998–2000.
[M. West 2001a] Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad. Munich, 2001.
[M. West 2001b] “West on Nagy and Nardelli on West.” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.06.
[M. West 2004] “West on Rengakos (BMCR 2002.11.15) and Nagy (Gnomon 75, 2003, 481–501) on West: Response to 2002.11.15.” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.04.17.
[S. West 1967] West, Stephanie. The Ptolemaic Papyri of Homer. Köln, 1967.

* Papyrus image courtesy of

1 comment:

  1. One can now add to this today's discovery (July 11, 2018) of 13 stanzas from the 14th rhapsody. To quote Reuters:

    Archaeologists in Greece have discovered what they believe to be the oldest known extract of Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey”. It holds 13 verses from the Odyssey’s 14th Rhapsody, where its hero, Odysseus, addresses his lifelong friend Eumaeus. Preliminary estimates date the finding to the Roman era, probably before the 3rd century AD.
    This is later than the papyri as dated by the Multi-text project however.
    The date still needed to be confirmed, but the plaque was still “a great archaeological, epigraphic, literary and historical exhibit,” as quoted from the Ministry of Culture.