Homer Can’t Live By Naveh and Powell Alone

This afternoon I read Sven-Tage Teodorsson’s paper, “Eastern Literacy, Greek Alphabet, and Homer, Mnemosyne, 59:2, 2006, 61-187.
Teodorsson’s paper deals with the question of when and under what circumstances the Homeric epics were committed to writing. In the course of this discussion, he takes up when and how the Greeks adopted the West Semitic alphabet. And he manages to do it without a single mention of Benjamin Sass’ discussion of the topic. One might not agree with Sass, but can one really ignore him? Now I might forgive Teodorsson if Sass’ most recent complete statement was his 2005 book, The Alphabet at the Turn of the Millennium: the West Semitic alphabet ca. 1150-850 BCE: the antiquity of the Arabian, Greek and Phrygian alphabets (Tel-Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology, 2005), was his only statement on the topic. Likely, it had not as yet appeared when Teodorsson put his paper to bed. While Sass advances his thought with this book, he wrote a 1991 book that also specifically addressed the question of the Greek alphabet in its title (Studia alphabetica. On the origin and early history of the Northwest Semitic, South Arabic and Greek alphabets [Orbis biblicus et orientalis, 102; Frieburg, Schweiz: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991]). For mostly unrelated reasons, this morning I visited two libraries that WorldCat says house this earlier book. So I don’t think we can let Teodorsson off the hook all that easily. Teodorsson does cite three works by Joseph Naveh from the years 1973, 1992 and 1996.
But that isn’t what really got me. Teodorsson discusses this whole topic without a single mention of Gregory Nagy. Nagy is certainly the major advocate of the evolutionary school of epic development. Teodorsson does give a lot of attention to Berry Powell on the topic. If one were to boil the recent English language scholarly question of the origin of the Homeric epics down to two names, one would certainly be Berry Powell but the other would be Gregory Nagy. Amazing!

8 thoughts on “Homer Can’t Live By Naveh and Powell Alone”

  1. I don’t get it. When I read an article or book, I read it for its content, not reference section. Bibliographies haven’t been of much relevance to me ever since search engines were invented. With Google, I can create my own bibliography list to pursue.
    I don’t know Teodorsson’s work offhand but is there something about his claims here that you identify as at odds with your understanding or are you just miffed that certain academic elites weren’t patted on the back with a mention?

  2. Glen,
    I too read books and papers for their content. But if a scholarly book or paper fails to interact with the important elements in the scholarly conversation, it raises questions in my mind about the value to the content. Even “contra” notes at least signal that you know the material and are part of the discussion. If that means I am “just miffed that certain academic elites weren’t patted on the back with a mention” so be it. But one way to tell a dilettante from a scholar is the extent that they engage the ongoing discussion. I’m not claiming the Teodorsson is a dilettante. He isn’t. But, by its omissions, for me this work raised as many questions about the trustworthiness of its content as it answered.

  3. “Even “contra” notes at least signal that you know the material and are part of the discussion.”
    Eek! Where do I begin? What shows that an author knows the material is simply the internal logic of his/her own statements, not by how well the author conforms to the external political choices of what constitutes a proper “discussion” or by what magical name he drops. Egad, man!
    By continuing to avoid direct reference to Teodorsson’s own words, it makes your critique meaningless to others from a purely rationalist point of view. If anything signals anything, your avoidance of direct critique may be a sign of not having read the article at all! ;o)
    Sorry if I seem cheeky but whenever somebody avoids direct appeal to the material while nonetheless being critical of it, a little piece of Athena comes out in me, armour and all.
    “But, by its omissions, for me this work raised as many questions about the trustworthiness of its content as it answered.”
    Ah perhaps this is how we’re different. You still have faith in select people and institutions while I find no one and nothing trustworthy but Logic itself.

  4. Glen,
    I am motivated to post different things for different reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. In this case, I was responding to my own astonishment at what Teodorsson didn’t mention rather than what he did. Over the last few weeks, I have read something of the order of twenty papers and two books on the origin of the Homeric epics. Except for a couple of papers that had interesting ideas in areas where I was reasonably knowledgeable I didn’t post on any these papers or books. Starting a post with “I’m too stupid to properly evaluate this paper” somehow goes against my grain! The vast majority of these works, if not all of them, mentioned both the work of Powell and that of Nagy. It was in the context of this reading that I reacted to Teodorsson. I am in that woeful early stage of learning the evidence and the literature about a new subject. As such, I need logical clues to help me decide whom I should listen to seriously and whom I should more or less ignore (for now). An author interacting with scholars I know to be well informed, if not always correct, is one of those logical tools I use in that evaluation. Not critically dealing with the evidence is another of those logical clues. But when I am still not completely sure what might even count as evidence for the origins of the epics or how to weight it, I am not in a very good place to evaluate an author on the evidence and therefore on his or here logical synthesis of that evidence. For example, is the evidence for a Peisistratean recension of Homer important? Is Teodorsson correct in rejecting it? I’m not sure and am too stupid to have an opinion just yet. The issue of what counts as evidence and how to weight it is even more problematic in a case such as this where everyone thinks the evidence, whatever it may be, significantly underdetermines any potential synthesis no matter how logical. Teodorsson’s proper use of words like “probably” indicates that he too sees the issue as underdetermined.
    You are most wrong in your surmise that I didn’t read the paper. What is true is that I read it with less and less interest the more I realized that it didn’t interact completely with the whole of its intellectual context. When I know more, I may go back and read it again. But there are hundreds if not thousands, of papers on this general subject, all publish in the last two decades and I just don’t have the will to read them all, much less read them all with equal enthusiasm.
    You are correct that I haven’t commented on what Teodorsson said. I don’t comment here on the content of 5% of what I read. Most of it isn’t abnormally interesting. I found what Teodorsson didn’t say more interesting than what he did. But I do find it somewhat weird to be faulted for what I didn’t said, when what I was complaining about was what someone else didn’t say.
    The icons of scholarship may be wrong. In fact they often are. For example, I think Anson Rainey was wrong in saying that the Israelites as a group came from the Syrian plains. But he was wrong in extremely informative ways.

  5. Alright, look at one of your statements: “Now I might forgive Teodorsson if […]”. One needn’t “forgive” a person unless a “sin” were committed. But what “sin” is relevant in scholarly discussion other than the sin against rationality? There’s something self-indulgent and irresponsible in “I am motivated to post different things for different reasons and sometimes for no reason at all.”
    So while casually describing Teodorsson as “unforgivable”, you nevertheless avoid clearly explaining to the reader where Teodorsson committed an “unforgivable” logical error. You replace the expected logical critique with purely sentimental rhetoric involving “trust”, writing style, choice of bibliography, subjective evaluations of who are “icons” in the field, etc.
    I’m just saying that this isn’t fair critique. So if we are going to label someone’s work as deficient, we owe readers a thorough, reasoned explanation. Failing that, one is not adding to debate; one is adding to ill-will. For what little I know of Teodorsson’s work, there may yet be reasonable critique but this critique must be done with proper methodology in mind, not “for no reason at all”, to quote your own words.

  6. I have carefully checked the charter for this blog and nowhere does it say that I need to be fair.
    I will ask that you reread the second sentence of my 3/11 8:37 AM comment. There I provide my motivation for the post. It may not be a good motivation but it does not fall into the my category of “no reason at all.”

  7. Glen,
    In a fit of deleting spam comments (15 of them) I apparently also deleted your last comment on this post. That was an error and I apologize. I saw that I had checked it just as I hit the delete key. If you remember what you said, please resubmit it.

  8. “I have carefully checked the charter for this blog and nowhere does it say that I need to be fair.”
    A greater moral charter beyond mere free speech is that of respect for others and Reason. Free speech in itself is such a lonely bubble of selfishness. It isn’t noble to label a fellow writer as “unforgivable” and “untrustworthy” without any sense of personal obligation to providing coherent justification for the charges. This is out of respect to readers as well as yourself. And lest such labeling be done to you some day with equal glibness.
    So we get it: You dislike this author for reasons that shall remain mysterious, unfair, disordered and unfounded. Good for you, I suppose, although… too abnormal… even for Abnormal Interests. ;o)

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