A Window into the Music of the Homeric Epics

Hello everyone! My name is Thyra Altunin. I am a senior majoring in Music (Music History and Culture track) and Classics (ancient Greek track) with a minor in Latin and a certificate in Western European studies with a related concentration in European Studies. This semester I am continuing to work on my project that I have been focusing on since my freshman year under the mentorship of Dr. Jacques Bromberg in the Classics department. In this project, I am partly reconstructing the performance traditions of the ancient Homeric epics, the Iliadand the Odyssey, particularly of the last 675 lines of the Iliad

Over the past century, scholars have focused on the social context, meter and composition, and dissemination of the Homeric epics, yet the soundof Homeric song remains shrouded in mystery. What little we know has come largely from the study of the songs depicted in the poems themselves, from the descriptions of Homeric performance in other ancient authors, and through comparison with living traditions of oral composition. Another rare and underappreciated source of information, however, is the surviving, material texts of the Homeric poems themselves. An example of this sort of text, one that may contain clues to the history of Homeric epic performance, is the “Bankes Homer” papyrus. This papyrus, dating from the 2nd century CE, is one of the best-preserved and longest Homeric papyri that has been discovered, preserving approximately 677 verses from Book 24 of the Iliad(lines 127-804). One of its unique features, besides its length, is the markings that are present above nearly every line of text. These appear to be diacritical markings, metrical markings, punctuation, and various scholia, which indicate a sort of organization of the text. Scholars have hypothesized that these markings are more than just reading or pronunciation guides, but in fact, they are also performance markings but no scholar to date has made an extensive study of this text, and the only critical edition is nearly two centuries old. For this reason, my project is focused on a detailed study of the Bankes Homer, including producing an updated diplomatic transcription of the papyrus, and on using the markings in the Bankes Homer to make conclusions about the “musical” aspects of Homeric performance. 

In the work that I did on this two years ago I described a possible process of reconstruction based on the hypotheses of several prominent scholars. First, I began from an analysis of the original pitch accent in the papyrus, then continued to restore the melodic pattern, based on the hypothesis that the pitch accent represents the melodic pattern of the ancient Greek language. Then from the accents, I can recover a “relative” melody, based on the hypothesis that Greek music shows a general correspondence with words accents. Finally, I hope to be able to show that by choosing a “tonic note” it is possible to reconstruct the melodic lines.  

Last year, I did extensive work on the first step and this semester I have two main goals for my project. The first is to be able to finish and publish my transcription of the entire papyrus. The second is to start working on the musical reconstruction of the markings in the papyrus and answer the questions: what patterns can we observe in the accentuation of the Bankes Homer and what can these patterns tell us about how the song of the Homeric epics? To answer these question, I plan to look more into the relationship between accent marks and the sound of the language as well as look more into the social context of the verses. Book 24 of the Iliad contains many laments and I plan to look more into the function and structure of laments in ancient Greek society and through this lens begin to mix in a more musicological approach to the question of the sound of the songs. As such my next step will be to work on analyzing and understanding how ancient Greek music worked in the 2nd century CE through the works of music theorists from this time.

I am so excited for this opportunity and am looking forward to seeing what the semester brings!

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