The Bardic Memory

I would like to conclude my study of Homer with some reflections on one more subject which I find fascinating.  Both the Iliad and the Odyssey were originally oral works, composed completely in Homer’s mind and and transmitted, possibly for generations, without benefit of writing.  Let’s pause for a moment and consider how monumental this accomplishment was.  When we print each poem today it runs to about 500 pages of text.  How many of us could commit something that size to memory?  Yet even hundreds of years after the poems had been written down we read of aristocratic Greek boys memorizing them the full text of one or both poems.  A fully trained bard like Homer might well have known a repertoire of dozens of epics.  During the classical period poets often recited the Iliad and Odyssey, competing to give the most word-perfect rendition.  Gladstone, in Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, points out that this tradition is probably why the versions of Homer that came down to us are so free of variation, since additions and improvisations would have been penalized.  How did all of these people memorize such long poems?

Homer Sings the Odyssey.  Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Homer Sings the Odyssey. Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bards weren’t unique to the Greek dark ages, either.  It seems that the majority of cultures developed a similar role at some point.  Our own Indo-European language group has a diverse tradition of (originally) oral epic poetry including The Bhagavad Gita, the medieval French chansons, the Celtic epics, and the sagas of Scandinavia.  In many cultures the bard is also a priest or shaman.  In ancient Ireland, for example, bards were members of the priesthood who ranked only slightly below druids.  In Homer’s Greece it was considered sacrilegious, or at least very unlucky to kill a bard.  For this reason, the bard is one of the only men whom Odysseus spares when he massacres the suitors.  Perhaps the bard’s incredible memorization abilities were one of the reasons they were considered to be so special.

Writing was known in Homer’s time.  The idea had been imported hundreds of years before from the Phoenicians and/or Egyptians.  But it was thought to be beneath the dignity of warriors and  bards.  As Will Durant says in The Life of Greece,

The Achaeans leave to merchants the and lowly scribes the art of writing, which had presumably been handed down to them from Mycenaean Greece; the prefer blood to ink and flesh to clay.  In all of Homer there is but one reference to writing, and there in a characteristic context; a folded tablet is given to a messenger, directing the recipient to kill the messenger. (p. 52)

Homer had little use for writing, but he admits how hard the task of memory was.   The hardest part of either of his poems to remember and recite would certainly have been the “Catalog of Ships” which takes up the second half of Book II of the Iliad.  This section lists every important person who fought at Troy, where he came from, how many ships he commanded, and, usually, what he was known for and who his parents were.  Getting through this section is such a “mighty labor” that before he begins the bard inserts a special plea for help from the muses,

Say, virgins, seated round the throne divine,
All-knowing goddesses! immortal nine!
Since earth’s wide regions, heaven’s umneasur’d height,
And hell’s abyss, hide nothing from your sight,
(We, wretched mortals! lost in doubts below,
But guess by rumour, and but boast we know,)
O say what heroes, fired by thirst of fame,
Or urged by wrongs, to Troy’s destruction came.
To count them all, demands a thousand tongues,
A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs.
Daughters of Jove, assist! inspired by you
The mighty labour dauntless I pursue;
Or urged by wrongs, to Troy’s destruction came.
To count them all, demands a thousand tongues,
A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs.
Daughters of Jove, assist! inspired by you
The mighty labour dauntless I pursue;
Their names, their numbers, and their chiefs I sing.

Gladstone’s book, from which I borrowed the following maps, explains how Homer organized the information in the catalog to make it possible to memorize it.  Basically, Homer uses a technique similar to a mind palace, an ancient technique in which information is visualized in concrete form inside an imaginary “mansion” or “palace”.  Fans of the television show Sherlock will be familiar with this from the interesting visual sequences showing Sherlock’s thought process.  Homer’s mind palace, however, is the entire Greek world.  He traces a nearly circular arc that encompasses the Greek mainland, Crete, and the islands.  Along each subsection of this arc, he follows a zig-zag path which allows him to mentally recreate a journey through that part of the countryside, visualizing each city and its chieftain.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships.  from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain].  Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships. from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain]. Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships - Greek Mainland.  from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain].  Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships – Greek Mainland. from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain]. Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Homer most likely never saw a map in his life, so he was probably mentally stepping through his own memories from his wanderings, or imagining the oral descriptions of other travelers.  The technique is surprisingly effective–much more so than the alternative.  Have you ever tried to list all the state capitals without looking them up?  I bet you missed one, and couldn’t figure out which it was.  Perhaps next time you should try mentally driving from each capital to the next.  That’s what Homer would have done.

My partner, who was a professional actor and performance artist for many years, gives another perspective on memorization.  She says that she was trained to remember her lines kinaesthetically.  She feels different lines in different parts of her body and uses particular movements to unlock memorized text.  We don’t know how much the Greek bard moved around while they were reciting, but they may well have used some of the same tricks to trigger their memories.  Most likely, they used a combination of several different memory techniques, and learning these techniques was as important a part of their apprenticeship as learning the lines of the poems themselves.

With that, I leave Homer.  I will be back to Greece and her poets before long, but, for now, I have begun reading another body of work which was initially transmitted orally:  The Hebrew Bible.

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