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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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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