Homer nods: was: Re: Filk

Bodil Gram listedwj at bglist.cutisan.dk
Tue Sep 11 08:59:05 EDT 2001

Oh heck, since I am on a roll: here are some other topics I have wanted to
contribute to as well.

Sallyo wrote
>On another topic - who has heard the saying "Even Homer nods"? I thought it
>was commonly known, but a few people I've tried it on looked blank.

and Georgia answered:
>gives its source as "Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus."
>Horace: Ars Poetica (359).

Horace wrote extensively on grammar, metrics and the correct way of writing
poetry. As you can see in Georgia's quote, the original Latin wording was
"at times good [old] Homer slept", so the English "nods" means "is nodding
off, falling asleep" (and thus making mistakes).

The saying is used in two ways, either to reassure the anxious writer: even
the great Homer made the occasional mistake, or to undermine Homer's
position in antiquity as the semi-divine writer of the most perfect poems

The expression may be dying out now because so few of us learn Latin and
Greek. There is not much fun in it, if you do not even know who Homer was
(or was supposed to have been), and how his work was once seen as the very
apogee of literature. But if you go, oh, just 50-100 years back in time,
everybody with an education had been brainwashed with homerian greatness,
at least in translation.

Two millenia ago, every Roman schoolboy must have loved to hear Horace
admit that the fault might just lie with Homer, not with their own tired
brains, if they felt he had written jibberish here and there. Remember:
Roman teachers beat their students mercilessly at the smallest provocation,
and all teaching was boring rote learning.

There actually are some very weird words and sentences in the Illiad and
the Odyssey. In some cases they are only weird when compared to "classical"
Greek, i.e. the language spoken in Athens 4-500 years BC.  Homer (if he
even existed) lived a couple of centuries earlier and in another part of
the Greek area: many weird bits are dialect and older grammar.

The remaining weird bits derive from the way the homeric poems were
transmitted: copied by hand, often by careless professionals or clumsy
amateurs, again and again for centuries. Some famous librarians in
Alexandria collected all the (very!) different versions of Homer extant in
the last couple of centuries BC and made a definitive edition. They
compared all the different phrasings and spellings, chose what they
believed to be the original version, and gave us what we think of as

However, we got their definitive version through a new series of
handwritten copies that gradually accumulated flaws too. But in our case we
are better off than the librarians of Alexandria: they set a new standard
for textual critisism (or rather the FIRST standard in our part of the
world) and the Byzantines elaborated their craft, so we have received some
textual variants with far fewer corruptions than the Alexandrians had to
struggle with.

Friendly greetings,

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