Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sounded Like When Sung in the Original Ancient Greek


Image by via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

It’s been a human­ist tru­ism for some time to say that Shake­speare speaks to every age, tran­scend­ing his time and place through the sheer force of his uni­ver­sal genius. But any hon­est stu­dent first encoun­ter­ing the plays will tell you dif­fer­ent­ly, as will many a sea­soned schol­ar who works hard to place the writer and his work in his­tor­i­cal con­text. Even one­time direc­tor of London’s Nation­al The­atre, Nicholas Hyt­ner, once said, “I’ll admit that I hard­ly ever go to a per­for­mance of one of Shakespeare’s plays with­out expe­ri­enc­ing blind pan­ic dur­ing the first five min­utes. I sit there think­ing… I have no idea what these peo­ple are talk­ing about.”

Of course, none of that means we can’t learn to appre­ci­ate Shake­speare, and we do not need a grad­u­ate-lev­el edu­ca­tion to do so. But much of his archa­ic lan­guage and obscure ref­er­ences will always sound for­eign to mod­ern ears. How much more so, then, the lan­guage of the ancient Greeks, whether in trans­la­tion or no? Although we’ve also been taught to think of the Home­r­ic epics as con­tain­ers of uni­ver­sal truth and beau­ty, the world of Homer was, in many ways, an alien one—and the lit­er­a­ture of ancient Greece was far clos­er to song than even Shakespeare’s musi­cal speech­es.

In fact, “before writ­ing was gen­er­al­ly known among the Greeks,” the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati notes, “poets recit­ed and sang sto­ries for audi­ences at the courts of city lead­ers and at fes­ti­vals. A poet could actu­al­ly impro­vise a tale in the six-beat rhythm of Greek verse if he knew the plot of his sto­ry.” We do not know whether Homer was one enter­pris­ing scribe or “a group of poets whose works on the theme of Troy were col­lect­ed” under one name. But in either case, that poet or poets heard the tales of Hec­tor and Achilles, Odysseus and Pene­lope, and all those med­dling gods sung before they wrote them down. Now, thanks to Georg Danek of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na and Ste­fan Hagel of the Aus­tri­an Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, we have some idea of what those songs may have sound­ed like.

“In the course of the last years,” write Danek and Hagel, “we have devel­oped a tech­nique of singing the Home­r­ic epics, which is appro­pri­ate for the pri­mar­i­ly oral tra­di­tion from which these poems emerge.” The two schol­ars cau­tion that their the­o­ret­i­cal recre­ations are “not to be under­stood as the exact recon­struc­tion of a giv­en melody, but as an approach to the tech­nique the Home­r­ic singers used to accom­mo­date melod­ic prin­ci­ples to the demands of the indi­vid­ual verse.” Accom­pa­nied by a four-stringed lyre-like instru­ment called a phorminx, “the Home­r­ic bard” would impro­vise the “melody at the same time as he impro­vised his text, which was unique in every per­for­mance.” In the audio above, you can hear Danek and Hagel’s melod­ic recre­ation of lines 267–366 of book 8 of the Odyssey, in which Demod­ocus sings about the love of Ares and Aphrodite.

At their site, the two schol­ars present an abstract of their Home­r­ic singing the­o­ry, with musi­co­log­i­cal and lin­guis­tic evi­dence for the recre­ation. Their tech­ni­cal cri­te­ria will con­fuse the non-spe­cial­ist, and none but ancient Greek speak­ers will under­stand the record­ing above. But it brings us a lit­tle clos­er to expe­ri­enc­ing Home­r’s epic poet­ry, “the foun­da­tion stones of Euro­pean Lit­er­a­ture,” as the ancient Greeks might have expe­ri­enced it.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Learn Ancient Greek in 64 Free Lessons: A Free Course from Bran­deis & Har­vard

Hear What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like in the Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (17)
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  • Lee Martin says:

    I’m sur­prised there’s no men­tion of Albert B. Lord’s work The Singer of Tales. I read that book many years ago and goes into depth with oral trans­mis­sion of oral poet­ry.

  • alex says:

    very novice accent and music

  • R says:

    do it bet­ter, then.

  • Cass Phoenix says:

    These ancient sagas were indeed per­formed accom­pa­nied by the lyre — from which we get the term ‘lyric’. Bob Dylan’s lyrics have influ­enced gen­er­a­tions — poet­ry of our times and most wor­thy recip­i­ent of the Nobel prize for Lit­er­a­ture.

  • Jeff Wright says:

    Wow. What a treat, espe­cial­ly the bit where Hep­haes­tus catch­es the illic­it cou­ple in the act! (I’m fak­ing it here: haven’t a clue what the bard is singing, but do know my Homer!). For those of you who don’t speak Home­r­ic Greek, you might enjoy Tro­jan War: The Pod­cast: a full telling of the entire Tro­jan War Epic (includ­ing The Ili­ad) told by a con­tem­po­rary bard, in 21st C con­ver­sa­tion­al Eng­lish. Or you can hire me to come tell you the sto­ry live. Details and pod­cast links: jeffwrightstoryteller.com

  • Georgios says:

    Real­ly now?
    At least use a Greek who can pro­nounce the let­ters cor­rect­ly !!
    I am Greek and we Greek can read Homer from the prototype(from the ancient text) .
    We know that some let­ters have some dif­fer­ence in pro­nun­ci­a­tion from all these cen­turies passed but i cant under­stand a sin­gle word that guy is say­ing!

    Bad very bad accent Not wor­thy of Greek lan­guage!

    Please use people(GREEKS) who can speak mod­ern and ancient greek lan­guage well so that your attempt has a mean­ing!

    this is fail­ure

  • erick says:

    Cool but it is not at all Home­r’s por­trait !
    this one is a copy of the sup­posed orig­i­nal por­trait https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c6/Homeros_MFA_Munich_272.jpg/220px-Homeros_MFA_Munich_272.jpg

  • Elizabeth says:

    I agree with you. No prosody, and besides, giv­en that we don’t have the music, we don’t get to hear how it was sung. This is a bad αποκύημα φαντασίας of those who mur­der Homer in this record­ing.

  • Gene Engene says:

    Among the many prob­lems already men­tioned — the lyre is too loud­ly played, or record­ed, obscur­ing much of what the ‘singer’ is say­ing. As well, there is no sense of the speak­er’s emo­tion­al involve­ment with any part of the sto­ry. It sounds no more than recit­ed, with­out the ener­gy and dynam­ics that such as Homer him­self, and per­haps Thes­pis would have brought to it. Where’s Aesky­los when you need him? It may well have been done with too much rev­er­ence for the mate­r­i­al, and not enough of a sense of the sheer ener­gy of the ancient Greek peo­ple. Yes — its ‘per­for­mance’ then, might well have been part of a sacred rit­u­al, but that meant some­thing far dif­fer­ent to the Athen­ian Greeks, than it came to in the lat­er, monothe­is­tic church­es.

  • Lil Mac Sauce says:

    Yo lemme sam­ple this on my next track for my upcom­ing stu­dio album “Wrapped God”. The song is called “Dad­dy Get Da Booty”

  • Giorgos says:

    You real­ly think ancient Greeks spoke like that and still cre­at­ed one of the most influ­en­tial civilisations,to mod­ern society,of all time.?
    I am Greek and I can’t under­stand a sin­gle word.

  • barpse says:

    It’s ancient Greek, not mod­ern, you bel­lend. Yes, it was pro­nounced dif­fer­ent­ly, no mat­ter what your crack­pot the­o­ry says.

  • barpse says:

    Okay “Eliz­a­beth”. I’m sure you’re not just some mod­ern Greek dude with an agen­da to push.

  • Tosca Zraikat says:

    Nice to hear this, and I do appre­ci­ate the work that must have gone into it.
    I won­der though whether Homer or any oth­er oral poet would have sung his poems to the same repeat­ed phras­es of music, which would, it seems to me, lull lis­ten­ers to sleep. Even with a sim­ple string instru­ment, vari­a­tion is pos­si­ble and I think more prob­a­ble. It would also have the ben­e­fit of aid­ing the poet­’s mem­o­ri­sa­tion and recall, and per­haps add to the dra­ma of cer­tain scenes and moments. Maybe the schol­ars could call in some musi­cians skilled at play­ing sim­ple string or ancient instru­ments and see what vari­a­tions they might come up with that would com­ple­ment the rhythm of Home­r’s epics. Great work, but more to be done, I think, to give us a real idea of how Homer might have sung his tales.

  • Christopher Lamb says:

    Much appre­ci­at­ed. Far from qual­i­fied to say, or even guess, whether Homer (or Demodokos) would give his impri­matur, I can say it’s fun to read along with Loeb in hand. Thank you!

  • Mustafa says:

    He speaks per­fect Greek

  • Atreu says:

    Noone knows what ancient greek and par­tic­u­lar­ly home­r’s greek sound­ed like. These are all inter­pre­ta­tions. Not with­out cause. It is only nat­ur­al if a word is spelled “Κοινή” to be pro­nounceδ “Kο-ϊ-νή”. If it was to be pro­nounced as in mod­ern greek there would be no spelling.

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