Greece Literature (About 800-500 BC) Part II

Even the Greeks themselves had an obscure awareness that properly epic poetry, of great extension and made for pure recitation, had been preceded by simpler forms of poetry accompanied by song and music, therefore conventionally called lyric: religious hymns, chants, oracles, etc.; whose production they attributed to more or less legendary figures of prophets, such as Orpheus, Museum, Eumolpo, Tamiri, Lino, etc. In essence, modern criticism does not disagree with ancient, although it follows a very different path and draws its conclusions above all from the analysis of Homer’s poems themselves. These contain information about short epic-lyric poems of various kinds; and especially they remember certain songs (οἴμη), in which the very ancient aedi, such as Phemius and Demodocus, contemporaries of Agamemnon, Ulysses, etc., at the court of the princes they sang, accompanying themselves to the lyre, “the deeds of the gods and heroes”. Moreover, they themselves, the poems of Homer, in their technical structure, in the composition of the parts, in the nature of the language and of the meter, betray the traces of the previous phases. As for the composition of the parts (without at all compromising the unity of the two poems, considered, as they are in the current state, whole and inseparable works of art), it is evident that the materials of isolated songs have converged in such vast organisms, restricted to some character, some myth, some particular fact. The language, which does not correspond to any dialect actually spoken, but learned, artificial, is the result of a centuries-old poetic exercise; it has the formulas, the tools, the phrasebook of tradition and models; in the midst of the generally Ionic color it contains conspicuous elements of another dialect, the Aeolian, which according to all probability derive from an earlier phase of poetry. The long epic line, the hexameter – called ἔπος, that is “word” – seems to be the development of a shorter line (perhaps only three feet long, without caesura),  more suitable for musical accompaniment. It is also necessary, in general, to establish a link of dependence, so that poetry, which tends to be autonomous, to be a simple word, i.e. speech, i.e. epos, is brought back to the art that generated it: the most ancient and the most elementary of the arts, music.

Therefore, for many reasons – and also by analogy with the events of heroic poetry among other peoples, Romanesque, Germanic, Slavic, etc. – it is assumed that at first they almost had a life of “songs of deeds”, sung and set to music. These songs were probably the work of the Aeolians, who, coming from Thessaly and other regions of the Hellenic continent, were the first to settle on the north-western coasts of Asia Minor, in the Troad and adjacent islands. In fact in the epic, especially in the Iliad, the Aeolians left not only the aforementioned linguistic traces, but the most relevant and revealing impression of their deeds, of their noble traditions: their hero was Achilles, a native of Thessaly; the dynasty of Agamemnon had perhaps led the Aeolian emigration to Asia; of Thessalian origin, that is Aeolian, she was, according to a transparent legend, the mother of Homer himself.

But the passage from the songs of deeds to the epic, from the musical form of the aedi to the recited one of the rhapsodes, was then made by the Ionians, inserted in the middle of the aeolian colonies, between the north and south of the coasts of Asia Minor. They, endowed with broader intellectual qualities, were destined for dominance. The lineage of the Aeolians, and in general the whole Doric-Aeolian group, will retain its peculiar and restricted attitude even in historical times, its predilection for lyric-musical forms (although generally of a narrative topic, of course); while the lineage of the Ionians – from which the Attics also derive – with the curiosity and mobility of its intellect will increasingly tend towards the pragmatic, discursive, logical, rational, etc. increase to the drama, to the novel,

Aeolian songs flourished around 1000 BC. C. and in the following century: that is, immediately after the end of the Mycenaean civilization, after emigration to the East, after the struggles for the conquest of Asia, of which an important episode had been fixed in memory and glory, the Trojan war waged by a league of Hellenes headed by a dynast of Mycenae, Agamemnon, and starring (at least in the ambition of the Aeolians) the Thessalian hero, Achilles. The Ionian epic, which succeeded the Aeolian songs, thus came to affirm itself around the century. IX and VIII a. C., just in the period in which the alphabet was introduced (and Greek perfected). Since then, it has been expressed for a couple of centuries and more, in a long series of literary works, now fixed in writing. Among these, Iliad and the Odyssey.

Greece Literature (About 800-500 BC) 2

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