West On P

No, not that West. No, not that P.
Martin West has a new book, The Making of the Iliad, in which West uses the letter P to designate the individual who he takes to have been the poet of the Iliad. West draws heavily on his many previous publications. Following a significant number of modern scholars he doesn’t think it was Homer who wrote the Iliad. In fact he doesn’t think there ever was a Homer as he was conceptualized in later antiquity and is still often conceptualized today. He does think that the Iliad is. “almost entirely,” the work of a single poet who drew on traditional material. He also argues that P worked and reworked his material over several decades. But West’s P was not the poet of the Odyssey. He also argues that the Iliad was composed rather close to its terminus anti quem. West, 16-19, places P’s work between 680 and 640 BCE.
I’m not competent to evaluate many of West’s arguments. I was happy to see that West, 85, continues to support the idea that Homeric bird-divination has its origins in the Near East. So do I. Based on some recent feedback, I think my essay on this issue will see the light of day someday within the next half a dozen quarters.
Those who were hoping that this post would be about that other West or that other P should not despair. Students of the Bible would do well to read a range of classicists, Martin West high among them, in order to evaluate their own methodological presuppositions. We ourselves must remember to occasionally ask “the birds of the heavens, they will tell you.” Happy Face

West, Martin L., The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

4 thoughts on “West On P”

  1. The professor I read Homer with, Barry Powell,
    wrote a monograph arguing that Homer invented the alphabet for the purpose of preserving his own work, around 800 BCE.
    The thesis brings tears to my eyes. Conviction, not so much.
    Still, I think an 8th century date for the bard (I don’t know of a good reason to cast doubt on the traditional attribution) and his work is reasonable on its face.
    For a review of Powell’s monograph, go here:

  2. “I’m not competent to evaluate many of West’s arguments.”
    I’m with you. I wonder how much of this wonderful literature was composed during barroom drinking sessions? Single authorship? Multiple authorship? “Malt does more than Milton can (and I’m not even a drinker!) ….” The whole concept of solo-brilliant-prodigy authorship reminds me of Laplace’s daemon of omniscience. Fancy fiction. Lots of fun. Nearly useless otherwise. Because if we could use an iPod to take pictures of this Homeric super-genius etching his geek-Greek characters, so what? – would we really know how many voices from others in the barroom he is invoking and synthesizing inside his own prodigious-head? Reminds me of the book, “Filthy Shakespeare.” Hard to know whether the bard invented or just overheard salacious stuff.
    My guess – single and multiple authorship theories (current blather about DH) will eventually go the way of scientific theories about biological speciation – dozens of theories. Fractured. Fragmented.
    I’m not competent to evaluate it.
    But I am competent to wring Plato’s later-neck for killing divine inspiration in Ion (rhapsode).

  3. John and Jim,
    Thanks for your comments. In my forthcoming paper on Homeric bird-divination, I mention Powell and Kirk and a few others who have opinions on the time or process of authorship of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. I actually avoid the question like the plague and try to show that there were available vectors for the adoption of Mesopotamian bird-divination traditions into the Homeric tradition regardless as to when one dates either work. The peer reviews who recommended the publication of the essay also had several important comments that I’m in the process of addressing.

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