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The Iliad’s Oral Tradition

There are several suggestions that perhaps Homer’s The Iliad is the product of a much longer oral tradition that Homer wrote down and passed along as an artist. An oral tradition can be generally thought of as a story that is passed down from one generation to another through oral, or storytelling, means in a pre-literate society. One of the most famous English examples of this is in the story of Beowulf, in which numerous means of remembering the story are employed, such as rhyming lines and a certain meter. These elements are not as evident in Homer’s story, particularly when it is translated for English readers; however, there are still several hints that the poem was written as a result of a longer oral history. These hints include a repetition of formulaic passages, lengthy identifiers, and the introduction of a certain level of inconsistency in the story.

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There are several examples of repeated passages throughout the story, which reduced the amount of original material the author had to compose. One example of this can be found in the nearly identical repetition of the sacrifice and meal found in books one and two. These passages are specifically found in book one, lines 458-469, and in book two, lines 421-432. Although the similarities in these lines may be because the ritual of sacrifice and feasting celebration typically was conducted in a similar format across all cultures of the ancient Grecian world, this is more probably the result of an oral tradition relying on commonly known and held beliefs to fill in the space of an epic poem with details that would be relatively simple to remember.

Lengthy identifiers were also used to lengthen the lines and the story while making the process of composition much easier to accomplish. There are plenty of examples of these sorts of identifiers in which the heroes are described as the “swift-footed Achilles” and the “fair-cheeked Briseis”. These types of identifiers can be used over and over again as a means of finishing off a line forcing the author to compose only the first half of the line and keeping everything together in proper meter and rhyme scheme. An example of how these identifiers were used to significantly lengthen the work can be found within the first book as Chryses prays to Apollo, whom he addresses as “O god of the silver bow, that protectest Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Smithe.”

Finally, there are a number of inconsistencies found throughout the story as heroes and other characters suddenly shift personalities or act in a strange manner. One common example of this is the behavior of Aphrodite in book five. Although she is obviously in pain from the wound she’s received by Diomedes, she is still described as the “laughter-loving” Aphrodite. There is also some inconsistency in the way in which the gods themselves are depicted, reflecting the ideas of the older society rather than the newer culture of the Greeks. This is seen in the way that the Greeks are repeatedly referred to as ‘Achaeans’, the name by which they were known only in the Mycenaean period, and Agamemnon refers often to his home which is actually called Mycenae. The gods are given the Greek names that are associated with the various skills and personalities involved, but the tools they use are all of the bronze material, reflecting the older age.

While some elements of the original text may be beyond the English-only speaking reader, there remain sufficient hints of oral tradition within the translated text to suggest a long history of the story than what is known. Through repetition, formulaic phrases, and certain inconsistencies, even the non-Greek-speaking reader can discern the oral past within the epic poem. Homer was a brilliant author in bringing together the pieces of the story in an entertaining and informative way, yet he was also brilliant in utilizing the tools of the oral storyteller’s art to make this epic easier to write and recite for generations to come.

Works Cited

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'The Iliad’s Oral Tradition'. 7 November.

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