In the summer of 1933, and then for a fifteen month period in 1934-1935, Milman Parry went to the southern part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Born in 1902 in California, Parry was an associate professor at Harvard University, with a recent PhD in Classics from the Sorbonne. He went to Yugoslavia to record Serbian singers, men who specialized in telling long heroic stories of resistance by Serbs and Croatians against the Ottoman Turks. He recorded these singer of tales not only by making written transcriptions of the songs, but also by the use of the latest audio recording technology: a microphone, two turntables, and over 3500 78 rpm aluminum discs. Why was he there? While other classicists were preoccupied with textual analysis, Parry had the insight that if the Homeric epics were in origin sung in performance, then one needed to study contemporary oral traditions of singing or making poetry. In Yugoslavia the singers were illiterate, yet reportedly could faithfully reproduce long epic songs from memory. This was exactly what many Homer scholars had suggested was the origin of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but Parry was the first to test the idea against an actual oral practice.
Scholars of the two Homeric epics had noticed a number of things. First, there are descriptions in The Odyssey of a poet Demodocus who sings two stories. The first song is about the destruction on Troy by the subterfuge of a wooden horse.This is not the narrative of The Iliad – that story is about the anger of Achilles and takes place some time before the fall of Troy, although it knows about the eventual destruction of the city. The second song is a ribald story about Aphrodite and Ares being caught in flagrante delicto and literally manacled to the bed by Hephaestus, the jealous husband of the love goddess; he then invites all the the other gods to show up to make fun of them. Importantly, the poet is blind, just like Homer was supposed to be, and is clearly not reading from a text. Also, he sings the two stories while accompanying himself on the lyre.
The second thing that any reader will notice is that throughout the epics are certain adjectives and phrases that are repeated over and over again. For example, the sea is “wine-dark”, Telemachus in The Odyssey is always “thoughtful”, and Penelope is always “prudent”. While it makes it easy for young students translating the text, it raises the question as to why the author(s) are so repetitive. Could they not think of some other way to describe things? Or was there a reason as to why the poet(s) returned again and again to these formulas?
Parry realized that the south Yugoslav singers also used formulas. The reason was that they were basically re-creating the epic songs as they sang them – creation-in-performance. The formulas were the means of ensuring that the right number of stresses and syllables showed up in a line. If you knew that you would be referring to “thoughtful Telemachus” then that dealt with five syllables and two stresses and you didn’t have to think about it too much, because you already knew how it would fit. Ancient Greek allowed for a fair amount of word-order flexibility, and so the story would flow along according to what the singer remembered, using certain standard ways of describing scenes and these formulas.
Parry died suddenly in 1935 in Los Angeles, and never published his research, but his student Albert Lord carried on where he left off. Lord returned to the Balkans both before and after the Second World War and continued to make recordings and transcriptions. His PhD thesis in 1949 argued that the two epics were originally these compositions in performance, and after further work this was published in 1960 as The Singer of Tales. This does not answer the question of whether there ever was someone named Homer, but it firmly established how the two long poems were created. It does not explain the process by which the ancient Greeks wrote it down, but it does explain why there are variations and why there are formulas. It also explains the unusual structures of The Iliad and The Odyssey, in that scenes and episodes could have been dropped in and expanded very easily into the structures of an earlier, shorter version of the poem.
Lord and Parry were influenced by the study of folklore and comparative literature at Harvard, and their efforts created the genre of the study of oral traditions in Asia and Africa, to supplement what they learned in Yugoslavia. No serious classical scholar contests the origins of the epics in oral recitation as described by Lord and Parry. While the details are still argued about, the reality is that after 2500 years of reading and study there are still new things to be learned from these old epics.