The Evolution of Homer

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 12, 2009 1:51 pm

Every now and then The Intersection likes to pay tribute to the family that has been kicking it in Springfield for the last 20 years. Today we present EvolutionSimpsons style:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Evolution
MORE ABOUT: Evolution, The Simpsons

Comments (4)

  1. Erasmussimo

    And here I thought this would be an analysis by which oral histories of conflicts at the end of the Greek Bronze Age were formalized into tales skeletally memorized by traveling bards making use of stock phrases to extemporize…

  2. Well you bring up a favorite topic and good question…

    Was there really a single blind bard who composed my favorite epics? For even if Homer existed, surely The Iliad and The Odyssey evolved tremendously over time. In fact, they still are as evidenced by the travesty that was the 2004 movie ‘Troy’. (Brad Pitt or not, you can’t just go killing off the character Menelaus when he has to go on to appear in The Odyssey 10 years later.)

  3. Erasmussimo

    Well then, you might want to read The Singer of Tales, by Albert B. Lord, which is about Homer, although the author relies heavily on data gathered from traveling bards in Yugoslavia in the 1930s. From the Forward:

    “This book is about Homer. He is our Singer of Tales. Yet in a larger sense he represents all singers of tales… our book is about these other singers as well. Each of them… is as much a part of the tradition of oral epic singing as is Homer, its most talented representative.”

    The basic point he makes is that such bards memorize only the skeletons of the tales, and then put together each performance on the fly, relying on a large set of standard phrases that fit the metrical requirements of the moment. This is why we see so many repetitions of “wine-dark sea”, “owl-eyed Athena”, and — what *was* that phrase for wily Odysseus? As a result, the tales grew and merged with older tales. The evolution of the Arthurian legends is understood in much greater detail, and we can apply its lessons to Homer. For example, the original hero of the Arthurian legends was probably Kay (Caius), who was replaced by Arthur, who was in the process of being replaced by Lancelot when printing froze the legends in place.

    Anyway, it’s really neat stuff. And don’t be too harsh on “Troy”. The great thing about these huge cycles is that they are so plastic, they can be used to address any artistic theme. The Arthurian legends were originally about the hopes of cultural resurrection for the Breton Celts, and were then hijacked to become models of chivalric courtesy for French audiences, and in modern times were grabbed for social satire (Mark Twain), cartoon fun (Disney), Broadway romantic musical (Camelot), feminism (Mists of Avalon) and dark cinema (Excalibur). I can’t wait for Odysseus traveling around the Mediterranean on a raft accompanied by an runaway slave. Or how about Iraq as Troy and Obama as Odysseus who comes up with a Trojan Horse that works in the OTHER direction? đŸ˜‰

  4. OneHandClapping HUGE internet crush now – Simpsophilia was the tipping point.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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