Monday, 20 November 2017

West's Odyssey

This post doesn’t stick to the usual subject-matter for this blog. An important new critical edition of a very important book has come out recently, and it’s a book that is very dear to me: one of the two great Homeric epic poems, the Odyssey. So, with apologies for doing stuff that is going to be uninteresting for general readers, I give here a few notes about this new edition by the late lamented Martin L. West (Homerus. Odyssea, Bibliotheca Teubneriana, De Gruyter, 2017).

There’s no doubt this Odyssey is a major achievement, just as West’s Iliad was. For the mass of papyrological material alone, it is an essential edition for any serious student of Homeric epic. But West’s practices do sometimes ring alarm-bells, for those who don’t quite know what he’s doing -- sometimes even for people who do understand what’s going on.

A few days ago there was a minor twitterstorm when this tweet appeared from the Twitter account of the blog sententiae antiquae, surprised that even the first lines of the poem looked weird. A couple of days later they summed up the subsequent discussion on Storify.

In the context of that conversation I started doing a reasonably systematic investigation of the text. (I’ll admit in advance that I didn’t have access to West’s previous book The making of the Odyssey over the weekend; so I’ve been trying to avoid being judgemental.) Some of the fruits of that investigation I posted on Twitter; I’m using this post to give further details.

I started drawing up a detailed list of textual divergences between West and earlier editions, but it quickly became obvious that while West does often choose his manuscript readings idiosyncratically, he does not make changes that spring solely from assumptions about poetics. To put it more bluntly: he selects, but he does not make stuff up. In that respect he is rigourous. And he does not make mistakes easily: I have yet to find anything that I am sure is an error in this text (though there are some points that puzzle me mightily). West has very, very many textual divergences from the manuscript tradition, but nearly all of them are caused by linguistic considerations, all of which come from his ideas about (a) Greek dialects; (b) textual transmission in the 7th-5th centuries BCE; and (c) the circumstances in which the text was written down. So I will not give a catalogue of the divergences: neither the major ones, nor the orthographic quirks.

(Briefly: West’s edition is for people who believe that the Odyssey was written down by the author himself, in the 7th century, in an Ionian context. It is not an edition for people who give time to the metagrammatism theory, which involves oral transmission (possibly verbatim) and transcription in a 6th century Athenian context. And it is certainly not an edition for oralists! The folks at Harvard are working on a ‘multitext’ edition of the Iliad for oralists; I wonder if anyone will ever write an edition of Homer for metagrammatists?)

However, West also deletes and brackets many lines -- 76 deletions, 101 bracketings -- and, broadly speaking, these decisions are not driven by the same considerations. These may be considered independently of his linguistic policies about readings and orthography.

Below I give a catalogue of West’s deletions and bracketings, as an aid for anyone investigating his text. I assume that his decisions are driven by (a) papyrological evidence, and (b) ideas about the poetics of the Odyssey.

Decisions in the first category make perfect sense. Where a line is missing from ancient copies of the text, that can be compelling evidence that it is a mediaeval intrusion: oralists need fear no evildoing there. Absence in available ancient copies accounts for 50 of West’s deletions and 19 of his bracketings. There is still room for doubt -- in places we have multiple ancient copies that disagree with one another -- but as a policy it makes sense. (To take the most egregious case, Od. 21.276 does not exist in any manuscript of the Odyssey and was only introduced in the 1488 Florence edition: a line like that has no business existing in any modern copy of the Odyssey, of any ideological strain.)

But the second category: there I am much more suspicious. In particular, West deletes or brackets some lines even when they are unanimously supported by both ancient and mediaeval evidence: these account for 5 deleted lines, and 10 bracketed lines. Another 48 lines are bracketed because of modern editorial choices -- without direct support from ancient evidence, but also without any discrepancies in the mediaeval tradition. I suggest that any reader of the Odyssey in Greek would do well to pay very close attention to lines in these categories.

Lines deleted in West’s Odyssey

Missing in multiple papyri: 2.407, 2.429, 3.78, 3.493, 4.783, 9.489, 9.547, 10.265, 15.113-119, 17.547, 18.131, 22.43, 23.48, 23.127-128, 24.143. Total: 22.

Missing in one papyrus (including some where mediaeval support is dodgy): 4.57-58, 4.303, 5.91, 5.479, 8.27, 8.58, 10.253, 10.368-372, 10.504, 11.60, 11.92, 11.343, 14.369-370, 14.515-517, 17.565, 18.393, 18.413, 21.109, 21.276, 24.121. Total: 28.

Mediaeval evidence only: 3.19, 4.432, 5.157, 8.303, 9.30, 10.430, 10.456, 10.470, 10.482, 10.569, 11.407, 12.140-141, 12.147, 15.63, 15.139. Total: 16.

Doubtful or contradictory ancient evidence (again, including some where mediaeval support is dodgy): 2.191, 11.604, 13.347-348, 22.191. Total: 5.

Deleted in spite of substantive ancient evidence supporting the lines: 6.313-315, 15.295, 17.49. Total: 5.

Grand total: 76.

Of these, 64 lines are also bracketed by von der Mühll. Von der Mühll keeps the other 12 without brackets: 4.303, 4.432, 5.479, 10.569, 15.113-119, and 17.547.

Van Thiel has 20 brackets in common with West’s deletions: 2.191, 3.78, 5.91, 10.253, 10.265, 10.368-372, 10.430, 10.456, 11.92, 13.347-348, 15.63, 15.295, 21.276, and 23.127-128. Note that all of these are bracketed by both von der Mühll and van Thiel, and deleted by West.

Lines bracketed in West’s Odyssey

(Note: asterisks indicate lines bracketed by both West and von der Mühll.)

Missing in one papyrus: 2.393, *4.399, 9.55, 9.90, 10.101, 10.497-499, 17.62, 21.65-66, *21.219-220, 21.308. Total: 14.

Ancient but missing/athetised in some ancient copies/critics: *1.148, 1.171-173, 4.276, *4.553, *5.84, 8.141, *9.483, *10.189, *10.315, *11.428, *11.525, 11.590, 12.441, 13.289, 14.159, *15.74, 17.181, 18.330-332. Total: 22.

Disagreement among mediaeval manuscripts: 12.6, *15.345, *17.402, *19.153, 19.291-292, 19.466. Total: 7.

Modern editorial opinion: 1.140, 1.238, 2.251, *3.131, 3.214-215, 4.246b-249a, 4.514-516, 4.519-520, 5.39-40, 7.255, 10.148, 13.192, 14.242, 14.258, 15.191-192, 16.286-294, 16.326, 17.399, 18.109, 18.254-256, 20.175, 20.256, 21.133, 22.442, 23.100-102, 23.157-158, 24.158. Total: 48.

Modern editorial opinion in spite of ancient evidence supporting the lines: 12.332, 15.31-32, 15.298, 18.148, 19.236, 19.602, 22.274-276. Total: 10.

Grand total: 101.

15 lines are bracketed by both von der Mühll and West. Of the 48 lines bracketed because of editorial judgement, without manuscript problems, only one judgement is shared by von der Mühll (3.131).

Of the above list, only 1.148 is also bracketed by van Thiel. It is bracketed by all three editors.

Particularly heavily hit in West’s edition are books 4 (5 deletions, 11 bracketings), 10 (13 deletions, 7 bracketings), and 15 (10 deletions, 7 bracketings).

There is no overlap between West’s deletions/bracketings and places where analysts have levelled stylistic charges at the ‘Epilogue’ (23.297-24.548).


  1. A closer look at the lines "deleted in spite of significant ancient evidence":

    ζ 313-5: present in two papyri (111, 381), one manuscript (M) and the margins of another (H) after 311. He's though this is interpolated for a long time ("The Gardens of Alcinous," Acta Antiqua Hungaria 40, 2000 [=Hellenica 1.21], n. 34) on the basis of omission from the majority of MSS. Beyond that, the papyrus evidence is a bit weak: 111 has a variant reading at ζ 256 and another insertion after ζ 320; presumably it's a rhapode's copy, or else derived from one. It's harder to assess 381, since this is the only reading ascribed to it. At any rate, its presence in a rhapsodic text and sporadic attestation elsewhere seems like pretty good basis (in the West's approach) for deletion.

    ο 295: The presence of this line in the text at all is due to a quote by Strabo; it's missing from the entire paradosis (though no papyri for this section, it seems). In Making of the Odyssey (243, n. 163) he explains this away as a rhapsodic variant known to Strabo but not elsewhere, which seems the best explanation. There certainly seems to be contamination from the Hymn to Apollo in this section (cf. 297-8 and MO loc. cit.). Again, this seems consistent with his philosophy.

    ρ 49: the papyrus evidence is late (123, 6th-7th century) and agrees pretty consistently with the paradosis (though he takes it as good enough evidence to bracket ρ 62). Two elements speak in favour of deletion, however: firstly, the text flows much more comfortably without it; keeping it introduces an awkward asyndeton with ρ 50. Secondly, a corresponding line is missing from the (almost) verbatim report of Penelope's actions following Telemachus' speech (ρ 58-60). That a rhapsode (or scribe) introduced it by analogy with δ 751-2 and it entered a stream of the paradosis seems like a fairly cogent explanation, even (perhaps) for those less generally sympathetic to West's views.

    Whether anyone will be convinced, I don't know, but they're all at consistent with his views, and the third especially feels necessary.

    1. For reference I'm not planning on debating the merits of any individual case here - not yet, anyway: just totting up numbers for now. My use of the phrase "substantive evidence" may have been poorly chosen: I didn't intend it to mean "I think he's wrong", necessarily, just that the evidence exists.

    2. Fair enough - this was just a more exciting exercise than any of the things I actually should have been doing (and turned out to be quite enjoyable).

  2. Speaking of the Odyssey, have you heard anything through the grapevine on how Peter Green's upcoming translation is gonna be?

    1. No, nothing, sorry. I presume it'll be along similar lines to his Iliad, but you already know that.