The stories that are retold

Fragments of the Odyssey, XII, ll. 250–304
Second century CE

In eminence and antiquity, Homer stands at the head of the European narrative tradition. Regardless of whether he existed as a historical individual, or whether as some believe the two poems which bear his name were the result of a slow accretion of oral tradition eventually given written form, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the earliest Western epic poems to have survived, and have formed the basis of innumerable succeeding works of literature, as well as of music and visual art. These papyrus fragments of lines from the twelfth book of the Odyssey, telling of Scylla and Charybdis and the arrival of Odysseus and his men on the island of Helios, are believed to date from around the second century CE, perhaps a thousand years after the composition of the poem. They may have survived on account of the papyrus having been reused for cartonnage, the casing of a mummy fitted around an embalmed body.

MS Add. 4074

In 1898 W. L. Nash, Secretary of the Society of Biblical Archaeology (SBA), acquired from a native Egyptian dealer in Egypt the papyrus fragments of the Hebrew Bible now known as the Nash Papyrus (L. Stone, The Story of the Bible: the fascinating history of its writing, translation and effect on civilization, Thomas Nelson, 2010, pp. 26–7). From that same dealer at the same time he also acquired eleven papyrus fragments bearing Greek text that he sent ‘for description’ to Francis Crawford Burkitt (who in 1905 was to become Norris Professor of Divinity in the University, a position he held until shortly before his death in 1935).

Burkitt actually did much more than merely ‘describe’ his findings, in the Proceedings of the SBA for November 12, 1902, and again at the third Lent Term meeting of the Cambridge Philological Society, held on Thursday, 5 March 1903, in the Clare College rooms of the Society’s Treasurer, J. R. Wardale.

He noted that the fragments formed part of two rolls, one unidentified, one containing part of Homer’s Odyssey. The writing was in columns of thirty-one lines each, each column occupying a space of about 6.5 inches square; the hand was ‘a beautiful early Greek uncial’, a practised bookhand, to be dated no later than the 2nd century of our era. The rolls, he suggested, might have been used for cartonnage or mummy-packing, a common procedure during the Ptolemaic (ca 300–30 BCE) and Roman imperial periods.

Whatever the text’s precise date of production or subsequent use in antiquity, it is fortuitous that it preserves a particularly interesting passage at roughly the midpoint of the Odyssey. The eponymous hero has washed up, or rather been washed up, on the fabulous never-never island of Scherie, the kingdom of King Alcinous and Queen Arete, at whose court he is recounting in an enormous flashback a sumptuous version of the travails of himself and his compatriots from Ithaca (now all lost) during their mightily prolonged return from the siege, capture and sack of Troy. He has reached the point where despite their king’s terrible warnings – vouchsafed to him by oracles – his men are about to eat sacrilegiously and fatally the cattle and sheep of the dread sun-god Helios who ‘sees all things and hears all things’ (line 323).

The Odyssey, like the Iliad, had its origins in oral, formulaic poetry that was recited publicly over many generations between perhaps 1200 and 700 BCE, and was of its nature handed down in more or less seriously variant versions depending on the bard doing the composing-reciting, and on the particular performance context. ‘Homer’ may or may not have been the name of the monumental composer or composers, that is the poet or poets who gave to a mass or even mess of oral poems a single unifying thread or theme – respectively the anger of Achilles, and the return of Odysseus from Troy to recover at last both his kingdom and his longsuffering wife Penelope.

Original versions of the two monumental epics were perhaps first composed and/or written down around 700–650 BCE, but local variations continued to develop inevitably in the process of papyrus manuscript transmission, despite the best standardising efforts of editors and scholars, above all those of the Royal Library established at Alexandria in Egypt in the third century BCE. Papyri of Homer recovered from the dry sands of Egypt far outweigh those of any other ancient author, but few are so handsomely penned as our fragments here.

Professor Paul Cartledge

Extended captions