Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century, containing fragments of Plato’s Republic.

Many accounts of Homer’s life circulated in classical antiquity, the most prevalent being that he was a blind bard from Ionia, in present-day Turkey. His biography, written by Pseudo-Herodotus is now considered legend, the story of a blind man trapped in eternal darkness, being led to a gathering of people to recite his epics.[1] Perhaps it was a wedding reception or the funeral of a beloved citizen. Homer’s words were present to soothe the pain or to mark the triumph of a collective experience. The same story is told every night but in its oral and changeable form, the crowd is held captive at the edge of their seats for surprises and twists as they are taken to an adventure that is keyed to their desires. The crowd delights to hear stories of prowess, cunning and wit. For the audience who were likely participants in the epic chanting, there was no past or recollection of historical events but only a moment which is still happening or can happen anytime in the imagination of Homer, and the Greek mind.[2] 

The blind man feeling his way through the cave might also be a typology of human existence during that time which Havelock described as the “Homeric state of mind”; a way of primary orality in a culture “uncontaminated by literacy”[3] which will over the course of three centuries transition to a ‘Platonic state of mind’[4];  fully literate and free from the restrictions of an orally governed society.

The etymology of Homer’s name in Greek[5] meant to hostage and it speaks aptly not so much to the way Homer himself looked like a hostage as he navigated his way into the crowd but how the crowd might feel hostage to his words. Another etymology of the name, from Phoenician, might illuminate us further: “he who fits (the song) together.”[6] For the people to memorize the Illiad and the Oddysey over countless iterations might have meant to Homerize or to take hostage the words and along with it the customs and beliefs of civilizations past. Homer was singing the songs of his people, putting their lives into order, giving them a sense of what society meant, what justice meant, not only about what the past is telling the people but also what the future holds.[7]

There is prophesy in the song, might have been his slogan. When he stands before a mourning crowd–a war is always happening somewhere–Homer would turn everyone’s attention to something that would distract if not comfort them by alluding to stories of Greek gods and heroes. “To prophesy in the song” in Greek simply means to sing divinely[8] or speak divinely[9] and is thus similar to enthusiasm.[10]  It refers to the oral practice of the one “afflicted by the Gods”, the enthusiastic and inspired singer, whose faithful voice[11] “is subordinated to a harsh regime of mnemonic efficiency”, in which the metric form is the whip that drives the voice to be rhythmically sublimated to the passages of the epic being performed.[12]

In the Platonic state of mind, alphabetic writing replaced Homer, or more precisely, the epoch of orality which he embodied.  Havelock established the alphabet’s superiority to other scripts or sign systems, showing how with only the alphabet, a fully literate and democratized society could emerge in which the majority of citizens could read and write.[13]  In the second part of Preface to Plato, we encounter the dawn of this same argument, that alphabetic writing gave birth to logical thinking because citizens could now not only read and write but ‘think’ logically, that is, in a manner that is reflective or self-referential and is divorced from lived experience.

This alphabetic achievement has a complex history whose percipience, in Havelock’s estimation, could not be equalled by any other writing system. The Greek alphabet achieved what no sign system was able to do and that was to analyze human sounds into their theoretical components, not only symbolizing vocalization but also isolating the non-sound (non-syllable) and giving it conceptual identity as a consonant.

Coming to terms with the necessity of inventing Greek alphabetic writing to preserve the Iliad and Odyssey, I try to find other epics that similarly became the impetus for the invention of a new writing script or essentially, any technology that can preserve it for a culture under transition. I didn’t need to look far. Most of my prima facie understanding of Havelock’s Preface to Plato has been informed by my earlier study of the Philippine epic, specifically of the Hinilawod, a 29,000-verse epic that takes about three days to chant in its original form, making it one of the longest epics known, alongside that of Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar. In comparison, the Iliad has about 15,700 verses.

There is no mystery why the Philippine epic has more verses. The civilization it preserved was not more complex than that of ancient Greece but since it was recorded relatively recently, the technological intervention allowed for a more comprehensive transcription. Even if alphabetic writing covered all of Homer’s verses they still had to be written on tablets or parchment or perishable scrolls of paper. The achievement of technology, ironically, in the Platonic shift from orality had wiped-out the lineage of epic Greek chanters.

Similar to Iliad and Odyssey in the epoch of orality, the Hinilawod is passed from one generation to the next, changed and morphed by the chanter to one degree or another as she told it to her audience (most epic chanters are women). Another parallel is the didactic nature of the Homeric epics and the Hinilawod.[14] Both were tales subservient to the educational task. In Homer’s work, as in Hesiod’s, we find the nomoi (custom-laws) and ethea (folk-ways) of Greek society. Encapsulated in the verse are lessons, on how a king, prince, or general should behave; on how to address a priest or any man of importance; the acceptable roles of men and women; table manners; the hard facts of power.[15] Concerns on “what is fitting to Zeus” are frequently used to introduce something that ought to be done. Plato describes Homer’s instruction as dioikesis, or the guidance or management of personal and social life. [16]He even includes technical instructions on subjects like seamanship; in the first book of the Iliad, Homer teaches the techniques of loading, embarking, disembarking, and unloading. This is why Plato states that by popular estimate the poets “possessed the know-how of all techniques.”[17]

In the same manner, the Hinilawod is not just a literary piece but also a source of information about the culture, religion and rituals of the ancient people of “Sulod”[18]. It instructs us about that ancient concept of the sacred and the importance of family honor, personal courage, and dignity. Elements of the Greek paedia existed in the Hinilawod.

The Hinilawod was first discovered in 1955, when Filipino anthropologist F. Landa Jocano spent time in the boondocks of his hometown in Panay island, in the Philippines to collect folk songs, stories, and riddles along with two colleagues. It was during one of those trips to the upland barrios that his attention was called to the long and popular tale called Hinilawod. Portions of the story were sung to him and his colleagues by a community elder, Ulang Udig. Returning the following year with a radio technician from a local university run by American missionaries, he recorded a portion of the story on tape in 1956. During this time, the most advanced technology used to record sound was a reel-to-reel audio tape which required the handling of an unwieldy device that held the reels on two spindles. It also required at least two men to carry. If used in the hinterlands without electricity, it would necessitate several car batteries or a small generator to operate. The quality of the recording was also an issue. Even though a recording on tape may have been made at studio quality, tape speed was the limiting factor, much like bit rate is today. Decreasing the speed of analog audio tape causes a uniform decrease in the linearity of the frequency response, increased background noise (hiss), more noticeable dropouts where there are flaws in the magnetic tape, and shifting of the (gaussian) background noise spectrum toward lower frequencies (grainy) regardless of the audio content.

The logistics alone took a full year of preparation, but when Professor Jocano returned in 1957 to make a recording of the complete story, Ulang Udig could only recount the Epic of Labaw Donggon; he could no longer recount the much larger Epic of Humadapnon. Weeks later, Ulang Udig introduced Jocano to his aunt, an old babaylan[19] named Udungan. However, the old babaylan could only chant little portions of the Humadapnon. Jocano was then introduced to Udungan’s niece, a mountain singer named Hugan-an, who, after much cajoling, allowed herself to be taped recounting both her story and the Hinilawod. It took three weeks to complete the recording of the 30-hour epic poem.[20]

Poetry in Greek society as in the boondocks of Panay island, was always oral rather than written. The audience was one of listeners, not readers. In the 1950s, Sulod society, like the Greek society of Plato’s time was still a primarily oral culture. As earlier stated, poetry for the Greeks and for the Sulod is a memorized tradition that depends on constant and reiterated recitation. In order to learn something, it must be repeated again and again until it is memorized. Through this process there is a total participation and an emotional identification with what is being learned. While memorizing the speeches of Achilles (through rhythmic memorized experience), one must throw oneself into the part and identify with Achilles’ anger. “Such enormous powers of poetic memorization could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity.” This kind of reliving experience becomes for Plato the enemy. And the main target for Plato is Homer. For through him more than anyone else, tradition was maintained, and paideia was transmitted. Professor Jocano was doing the task of both Plato and Havelock, albeit with the scientific approach of an anthropologist. Jocano took pains to ensure that his study did not violate the community norms of the Sulod. Herein lies an important difference between Jocano and Plato: Jocano was not an insider to Greek culture as Plato must have been. In fact, Sulod is not an actual name for the society but what locals called the interior of their community. In a sense, Jocano with his tape recorder was more similar to Homer who was also an outsider to Greek society but served as the repository of everything that was Greek.

The Greece of Homer of course, was not a static civilization, but one that actively traced its roots to earlier civilizations. Plato believed these civilizations met their demise because of the inability to conquer the plague of orality. Havelock wrote that the interval between the fall of the Mycenean civilization and the rise of Greek society was a Dark Age. This Dark Age covers the period of Homer and Hesiod’s actual existence but terminated with the appearance of four documents we know as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, and the Works and Days. Regardless of the date of their original composition-which in Homer’s case at least was oral-they were the first compositions to achieve alphabetization, an event or process which can be placed approximately between 700 and 650 B.C. This appears to have ensured their canonization, and certainly “has given them an effective monopoly as representing the preliterate condition.” Havelock notes that Homer himself was probably literate but it was a scribe that was a master of the newly-minted Greek alphabet that took down the “text which assumed fixity” and which we now study in the academy.

The pre-Homeric epoch, the Dark Age (about 1175 BC or later), relied for its preservation upon oral tradition alone. This oral tradition developed in this period essentially as the encyclopedic store of knowledge and the main form of moral instruction of ancient Greece. Its purpose was pan-Hellenic and its content served as the tribal knowledge bank for all the Hellenes.[21]

I earlier disagreed with Havelock on his comments about the Mycenean writing script, thinking that it would have been sufficient to record the Iliad, but upon reading the systematic inquiry of Barry Powell’s Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet,[22] I am even more convinced that earlier writing scripts did not have the capacity to perfectly record the more complex structure and content of the Iliad and Odyssey. Powell concludes that “The Greek alphabet seems to have originated in a single place at a single time, invented by a single man.” And he restates, but we know that earlier on from Havelock, that it was invented to preserve Iliad and Odyssey, in a sense to Homerize it for an emergent writing culture.

The Hinilawod, even in the 1950s, would’ve been impossible to record in both the ancient Baybayin (syllabary) and Latinized (alphabetic) writing scripts of the Tagalog language. Until now, the transcriptions are inadequate and would most likely be rejected by chanters of the Sulod society who still consider the oral version as the only true form of the Hinilawod. The Hinilawod was recorded for the purpose of nation-building. Its codification as literary heritage made sense, given the nation’s relatively recent emergence from a long period of colonization. If the tape recorder had not been invented at the time of Hinilawod’s discovery by Professor Jocano, it would necessitate the invention of one. In the same manner, the Iliad and the Odyssey necessitated the invention of the Greek alphabetic writing.[23]

Havelock was right all along, except that he could have constructed a stronger case if he looked into the origins of Greek alphabetic writing in addition to Mycenean writing scripts.[24] He rightfully points out that the near eastern scripts of all shapes and sizes shared two common limitations: 1) they employed a large number of signs and 2) these signs were often highly ambiguous in interpretation. These two factors combined to make them elaborate but also very clumsy weapons of communication. Havelock ignores the fact that these limitations exists even in the most sophisticated forms of writing scripts. In short, however advanced, they were no match to Professor Jocano’s primitive tape recorder.

The Iliad and Odyssey and the Hinilawod are just some examples of great cultural achievements made possible by the intervention of men of genius who were able either break away from sacred tradition or to transfer into practical form something on which others could only speculate. Unfortunately, we do not know any of the geniuses who were responsible for the most important reforms in the history of writing. That person who invented the Greek alphabet is the true unsung hero of the Iliad and Odyssey.

The character of the earlier writing scripts gives us a glimpse of what Havelock called the Dark Ages in and around 800 BC. While the parallels are apparent, I cannot say the same thing about the ancient Philippine writing script, which remained for scholars and 19th century revolutionaries, a flickering light that has been summarily put out by colonial subjugation and the imposition of a foreign alphabetic writing script.

In the case of Greek society it was precisely the artificiality and measure of the voice that created a systematic elemental distinction of its sound. The epic and the Homeric state of mind, was just a prelude to the understanding of vowels and consonants and the formation of an alphabet.

It was through orality that it became possible for the first time to preserve the outstanding beauty of the Homeric epic. Orality also made a complete vocal system urgently necessary. Through the Hinilawod, I know that this is true in the isles of Greece as it is in the Philippines. When babaylans chant the epic of the Hinilawod, I think of how the people perceive this as prophesy or speaking divinely. In the quantifiable truth, it was probably the rhythm of the hexameter.

Since the rhythm of the hexameter,  made the flow of sound reproducible in an unconscious, quasi-mechanical way, as the muse must have handed it. It is easier to understand how that kind of psychology induced by the metering not just of words but of thought might have fulfilled the prophesy for itself.

Neither phonetically encoded logography nor any syllabary would ever have been able to capture the almost unpredictable sound combinations demanded by Homer and his improvisations to fit syllable sequences into the verse; starting with extended vocal clusters on mixed dialect variants, to archaic or even artificial word forms, to encode so that the articulated sequence of sounds could have been restored without loss of the “divinely-speaking” prophetic voice. The enabling of the alphabet is intrinsic to the preservation of the epic in writing.

The phonetic compression used in all pre-alphabetically scripted languages, including Greek and Tagalog was more or less efficiently applied by relying on traditional language knowledge. Alphabetic writing allows free phonetic combination of an artificial language; this in turn had to be compensated by a phonetic total analysis, followed by a quasi-mechanical resynthesis by almost all native language skills. But this was all foreseen because such native language skills developed by Homerizing or taking hostage the voice of the reader in the etymological sense of the word.

Homer lives on in the Boondocks of more civilizations and it won’t be long before technology catches up with them. The unfolding of news without time for reflection may resemble the conditions of the Homeric state of mind. If compiled, the fragments might be an epic unfolding for a Homer to sing in a not-so distant future. We do not know yet what this epic is all about but the Homer of our times, of that time, will probably be a highly sophisticated search engine or our social media pages which will pass on to a legacy account, when we die or float forever in the world wide web, holding hostage forever an imprint if not a data program that can resurrect our semblances, personalities, and our way of life. Might this Homer have the capability of singing our epic of triumphs and failures in the era of late capitalism? That I’m not sure, but it will definitely take a new kind of Plato to resist and dismantle this state of existence and a new kind of Havelock who will explain for a new kind of human being, unshackled by hyper-reality, what life meant in our present state of mind.

[1] Nagy, Gregory. 2008. Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies Series 36. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

[2] p. 134 Havelock discusses the Homeric State of mind as the poetisation of the whole memory of the people, and an excercise of control over the ways in which they expressed themselves in casual speech and the way it restricts their way of thinking. “They reach into the problem of the character of the Greek consciousness itself, in a given historical period, the kind of thoughts a Greek could think, and the kind he would not think. The Homeric state of mind was, it will appear, something like a total state of mind.” A paradigm which I find in the two non-literate cultures that I discuss here is the the task of education could be described as putting the whole community into a formulaic state of mind.

[3] p.122 “On the contrary, the confusion between past and present time guarantees that the past is slowly but continuously contaminated with the present as folkways slowly change.”

[4] The second part of Havelock from chapters 11-14 deals with the Platonic State of mind which he will further explore in his book “Origins of Western Knowledge”.

[5] ὅμηρος

[6] Nagy, Gregory. 2008. Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies Series 36. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

[7] Ibid.

[8] θεσπιῳδέω

[9] θεσπίζω

[10] ἔνθεος

[11] φωνҘ ὁμηρεҴσαι

[12] ὁμηρεύω

[13] p. 94 [Homer’s] art, therefore was central and functional as never since. It enjoyed a command over education and government, which was lost as soon as alphabetic literacy was placed at the disposal of political power.

[14] p.43

[15] p.69

[16] p. 80 “This overall ‘management’ of life, social and personal, proceeding outwards from the family into the sphere of political and religious obligations”

[17] p. 84

[18] Sulod means interior or land between mountains and also the name of the language of the people. Jocano, F. Landa. 1968. See Sulod Society: a Study in the Kinship System and Social Organization of a Mountain People of Central Panay. University of the Philippines Press.

[19] A priestess in ancient Philippine religion who functioned also functioned as a medium, oracle, healer, other significant cultural and ceremonial functions.

[20] A concise version of the story of Hinilawod can be found in the book Philippine Mythology authored by F. Landa Jocano. Jocano, F. Landa (1969). Outline of Philippine Mythology. Quezon City: Punlad Research House, Inc.

[21] p. 115

[22] Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet, Cambridge University Press, 1991

[23] p. 115 True, the Mycenaeans had a script which they employed for recording catalogues of men, material, and the like, and perhaps could have used for more elaborate types of communication but it served a particular civilization, a civilization that had already fallen three hundred years before Homer was born.

[24] p. 117 Havelock describes the Mycenean writing script as “conditioned to those literate habits with which alphabetization has made us familiar.”

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