Classics Majors Embark on Groundbreaking Scholarly Research in Homeric Poetry

December 8th, 2006 by 

Four Holy Cross classics majors are tackling a project of epic proportions.

William Dolan ’10, Michael Kinney ’10, Katherine Schmieg ’09, and Patrick Walsh ’09 have been selected to serve a crucial role in the pioneering preservation of the world’s most important works of literature. They are working during the 2006-07 academic year with their professors on the Homer Multitext Project, a long-term analysis and electronic presentation of all the many variations of Homer’s epic poetry. As the newest Homer Multitext Fellows, their contributions will join those of classical scholars at the Center for Hellenic Studies, Furman University, the University of Houston, and several other colleges and universities.

The project is unusual in several respects, not the least of which is its electronic component. The epic poetry of Homer was originally passed on orally, taking on a slightly different form every time it was told. The work of these scholars involves examining all references and sources in all Homeric variations. When complete, every element connected to the original Homeric poetry will be available in a digital format so scholars and general readers alike will be able to experience much more than reading the plain text on a page.

“We’re putting all the components of Homeric epic as it survives today — in medieval manuscripts, shredded scrolls from the sands of Egypt, the remnants of ancient scholarship on Homer, even vase paintings from Athens — into a single framework, to let them ‘talk’ to each other directly,” explains Jack Mitchell, assistant professor of classics at Holy Cross and one of the editors of the Multitext Project. “This is why it’s called a ‘multitext’— we want as much variety as possible.”

The Holy Cross Fellows have a specific assignment involving the Iliad, working with assistant professor Mary Ebbott and associate professor D. Neel Smith. “What we are doing is using the apparati critici of the text — that is, the very small, dense and exhaustive system of abbreviated footnotes on the sources and variants of different words and phrases that appear in the different papyri and codices,” explains William Dolan. “We’ll use this information to reconstruct the four oldest codices and their texts of the Iliad.”

The Homer Multitext Fellows from Holy Cross have taken on this task, consisting of a minimum of five hours each week, in addition to a full course load. Also, because the fellows have each been assigned a partner, with whom they must work, they need to find overlapping time in their schedules in which to work.

This process will provide students with a unique experience, one that many graduate students in the classics may never encounter.

“We are finding out first-hand the results of oral transmission and the problems it poses for those of us further down the line,” says Patrick Walsh, explaining that as the epics were passed down orally, there were substantial changes depending on the opinions and attitudes of those who told the stories, as well as those who heard them. The work of these scholars will be to help others to understand these variations, as well as to create a source from which one may come to understand the original intentions of Homer in his epics and see how over the decades, others have interpreted and varied the epics.

Professor Ebbott has been involved with the Multitext Project from the very beginning; forming crucial relationships with classics departments at other universities.  Professor Smith’s contributions to the project include digitizing the work being done by the fellows and for the project in general. “He is an extraordinary polymath, at home with Homer and with the Internet,” said Professor Mitchell.

Holy Cross fellows will have completed their portion of the project concerning the Iliad by the end of the 2006-2007 academic year, according to Professor Mitchell. However, the project in its entirety will be in progress for the duration of the decade, expanding to include more Homeric epic material and information to illuminate the work.

By Jen Robert ’07

Related information:

# Center for Hellenic Studies – The Homer Multitext Project
# Classics Department

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