The ancient Greeks’ concept of “the hero” was very different from what we understand by the term today, Gregory Nagy argues—and it is only through analyzing their historical contexts that we can truly understand Achilles, Odysseus, Oedipus, and Herakles.
In Greek tradition, a hero was a human, male or female, of the remote past, who was endowed with superhuman abilities by virtue of being descended from an immortal god. Despite their mortality, heroes, like the gods, were objects of cult worship. Nagy examines this distinctively religious notion of the hero in its many dimensions, in texts spanning the eighth to fourth centuries BCE: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; and dialogues of Plato. All works are presented in English translation, with attention to the subtleties of the original Greek, and are often further illuminated by illustrations taken from Athenian vase paintings.
The fifth-century BCE historian Herodotus said that to read Homer is to be a civilized person. In twenty-four installments, based on the Harvard University course Nagy has taught and refined since the late 1970s, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours offers an exploration of civilization’s roots in the Homeric epics and other Classical literature, a lineage that continues to challenge and inspire us today.
As Homer remains an indispensable figure in the canons of world literature, interpreting the Homeric text is a challenging and high stakes enterprise. There are untold numbers of variations, imitations, alternate translations, and adaptations of the Iliad and Odyssey, making it difficult to establish what, exactly, the epics were. Gregory Nagy's essays have one central aim: to show how the text and language of Homer derive from an oral poetic system.
In Homeric studies, there has been an ongoing debate centering on different ways to establish the text of Homer and the different ways to appreciate the poetry created in the language of Homer. Gregory Nagy, a lifelong Homer scholar, takes a stand in the midst of this debate. He presents an overview of millennia of scholarly engagement with Homer's poetry, shows the different editorial principles that have been applied to the texts, and evaluates their impact.
The festival of the Panathenaia, held in Athens every summer to celebrate the birthday of the city’s goddess, Athena, was the setting for performances of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey by professional reciters or “rhapsodes.” The works of Plato are our main surviving source of information about these performances. Through his references, a crucial phase in the history of the Homeric tradition can be reconstructed. Through Plato’s eyes, the “staging” of Homer in classical Athens can once again become a virtual reality.
This book examines the overall testimony of Plato as an expert about the cultural legacy of these Homeric performances. Plato’s fine ear for language—in this case the technical language of high-class artisans like rhapsodes—picks up on a variety of authentic expressions that echo the talk of rhapsodes as they once practiced their art.
Highlighted among the works of Plato are the Ion, the Timaeus, and the Critias. Some experts who study the Timaeus have suggested that Plato must have intended this masterpiece, described by his characters as a humnos, to be a tribute to Athena. The metaphor of weaving, implicit in humnos and explicit in the peplos or robe that was offered to the goddess at the Panathenaia, applies also to Homeric poetry: it too was pictured as a humnos, destined for eternal re-weaving on the festive occasion of Athena’s eternally self-renewing birthday.
The Homeric Iliad and Odyssey are among the world's foremost epics. Yet, millennia after their composition, basic questions remain about them. Who was Homer—a real or an ideal poet? When were the poems composed—at a single point in time, or over centuries of composition and performance? And how were the poems committed to writing? These uncertainties have been known as The Homeric Question, and many scholars, including Gregory Nagy, have sought to solve it.
In Homeric Responses, Nagy presents a series of essays that further elaborate his theories regarding the oral composition and evolution of the Homeric epics. Building on his previous work in Homeric Questions and Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond and responding to some of his critics, he examines such issues as the importance of performance and the interaction between audience and poet in shaping the poetry; the role of the rhapsode (the performer of the poems) in the composition and transmission of the poetry; the "irreversible mistakes" and cross-references in the Iliad and Odyssey as evidences of artistic creativity; and the Iliadic description of the shield of Achilles as a pointer to the world outside the poem, the polis of the audience.