Winged Word, The

A Study in the Technique of Ancient Greek Oral Composition as Seen Principally through Hesiod's Work and Days

By Berkeley Peabody

Hardcover : 9780873950596, 562 pages, June 1975


The Winged Word examines one of the most elaborate of oral compositional techniques and styles: that of the ancient Greek epos. It explains how singers like Homer and Hesiod could compose complicated verses at the speed of speech and how a singer's words could grow into compositions of massive complexity without dependence on memorization or written texts. This study shows why a singer can be more surprised than his listeners at things that take place in his own song; it explains the nature of traditional inspiration and wisdom.

The Winged Word explores not only the surface, the actual texts we still possess, it sounds the depths of the tradition that lies behind them. Much of the detail in this study presents the significant results of one of the most extensive and rigorously thorough analytic examinations ever made of a single piece of connected discourse: the 828 verses of Hesiod's Works and Days; but the detailed features of the epos are not merely described, their form, use, and function are accounted for by traditional behavioral patterns. A valuable and important contribution of this book is the light that comparative work done with ancient Persian and Indic materials throws on the dynamics and interactions of traditional ways, which range in kind from incantation to heroic narrative epic, and whose practice stretched thousands of years behind Homer into the past and still continues in the backlands of Eastern Europe and in Asia to the present day.

The Winged Word is a comparative study that combines the diachronic penetration of nineteenth-century comparative techniques, the descriptive power of twentieth-century analytic techniques, and an expert knowledge of the general process of actual oral traditional composition. It is not only an exhaustive and masterly description of oral traditional verse compositional technique for ancient Greece, it also lays to rest or gives controlling insight into many problems of general literary concern such as inspiration, idea, verse, theme, genre, rhetorical flowers, plot, imitation, and the like. Albert B. Lord of the Center for the Study of Oral Literature at Harvard University and Honorary Curator of the Parry Collection, whose role is to preserve and disseminate the oral literatures of the world, calls this book "a landmark not only in Hesiod scholarship, but also in Homeric research and in the study of oral traditional literature in general. "

Berkley Peabody received his doctorate from Harvard University where he worked with Albert B. Lord, and he is now Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Albany.