Matija Murko and Homeric Scholarship

Dr. Blaž Zabel

It is less known that M. Murko was not particularly fond of Homer and wary of classical studies. In his memoires, he remembered how disappointed he was when he first read Homer as a high school student (Murko 1951a:29), which perhaps influenced his later conviction that classical philology was unjustifiably valued above other national philologies. As a student at the Vienna University, he insisted that his doctoral exam (rigorosum) in “Germanistik” included Slavic philology instead of then mandatory classical philology, for which he went as far as to change the University rules (Murko 1951a:49).[1] In his later academic career too, he objected to the prevalence of classics in the linguistic departments (see Gantar 2020). At the University of Leipzig, for example, he opposed the suggested appointment of Paul Kretschmer[2] to the chair of comparative philology, which resulted in a long-lasting dispute with the rector of the university, Erich Bethe(Murko 1951a:165–6). All these episodes paint a picture of a man who wholeheartedly cherished Slavic philology and objected to the privileged position of classical studies in academia.

Nevertheless, being averse does not equal being ignorant. M. Murko knew ancient Greek and Latin well, read ancient literature, studied the Iliad and the Odyssey, and, as I show here, was relatively well acquainted with concurrent Homeric scholarship—at least for someone not working in the field. This becomes clear when M. Murko’s personal papers archived in Ljubljana, containing around 30 folios of notes about Homeric epic and Homeric scholarship, are inspected.[1] The notes are hard to read, written in a highly cryptic handwriting, and the collection is clearly fragmentary,[2] but it is clear that they are personal study notes on Homer and Homeric scholarship. Some of the folios also include transcriptions of specific verses from Homer and two folios contain a comparison of the number of verses from the Iliad and the Odyssey with what are presumably (no titles are given) a number of verses from several South Slavic epic poems.[3]

Classicist Milman Parry (1902–1935) revolutionized the theories of Homeric studies.

The existent study notes were taken from several publications on Homer. The most extensive collection (10 folios in Ms 1392, III. 7.) is about Erich Bethe’s Homer, Dichtung und Sage (1929), one of the most influential contributions to the so-called “analysis school” of Homeric scholarship (Tsagalis 2020:130). In Homer, Dichtung und Sage Bethe advanced Gottfried Hermann’s argument that at the kernel of the Iliad lies an original poem about the wrath of Achilles by adding to it the idea that the poem must have been heavily expanded by a sixth century redactor. He also argued that ancient Greek folksongs must have been incorporated into the Iliad in the process. The 10 folios reveal that M. Murko devoted utmost attention to this book, outlining Bethe’s argument page by page.

In another batch of personal notes, probably from an earlier period (Ms 1392, III. 4.), one can find notes on another representative of the analysis school, Georg Finsler, and his book Homer. M. Murko read at least the first part which was subtitled “Der Dichter und Sein Welt” and was published in 1914. In it, Finsler argued that Homer was the author of the Iliad only, and that the poem was later reworked. Another book M. Murko took study notes from was Engelbert Drerup’s Homer (1915), a well-known contribution to the “unitarian school,” in which the author criticized the analytic approach and argued for unity of the two Homeric epics (see West 2011). The two scholars were clearly in academic dialogue, because Drerup considered M. Murko’s phonographic recording[1] of South Slavic epic (see Drerup 1920:265–70; 1921:48–57), and M. Murko occasionally responded to Drerup’s research in his own publications (e.g. Murko 1919:280, 283–4, 292, 296). Finally, M. Murko took notes from Thaddaeus Zielinski’s substantial article “Die Behandlung gleichzeitiger Ereignisse im antiken Epos” (1901), in which the author presented the so-called “Zielinski’s law.” As is well known, the applicability of Zielinski’s law, which “states that Homeric narrative always moves forward and so cannot depict two simultaneous actions,” has been heatedly discussed in oral literature research (Scodel 2008:107; cf. de Jong 2017; Danek 1998).

Albert Lord (1912–1991), a professor of Comparative Literature, conducted extensive fieldwork on oral tradition in the former Yugoslavia.

These study notes were probably taken as part of M. Murko’s preparation for the research of South Slavic oral traditions, where he regularly compared South Slavic epic with Homer and even speculated about the oral social context of Homeric society. Such comparisons featured prominently in “Neues über südslavische Volksepik” (1919), in which he mentioned both Drerup and Bethe, La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle (1929),[1] and Tragom srpsko-hrvatske narodne epike: putovanja u godinama 1930 do 1932 (1951), but appeared also in other publications, such as “Die serbokroatische Volkspoesie in der deutschen Literatur” (1906) or “Kod Meštrovića i njegovih—Ivan Meštrović kao pjevač epskih narodnih pjesama” (1933).

[1] A good half of La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle (1929) is in fact a revised translation of “Neues über südslavische Volksepik” (1919).

[2] M. Murko’s recordings from his early expeditions (1912–1913) were published on Compact Discs. See M. Murko 2017.

[3] Murko, Matija. Personal papers. Ms 1392. National and University Library, Manuscript Collection, Ljubljana, Slovenia. The materials about Homer are located under III. 4., “Concepts and excerpts,” and III. 7., “Materials about Homer.”

[5] Since most of the notes were numbered by M. Murko himself, it can be concluded that only a few folios were preserved.

[6] M. Murko also compared the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey with particular guslar performances in his publications (see Murko 1929a:14–5).

[7] Interestingly, this story closely resembles Friedrich August Wolf’s insistence that he be matriculated as a ‘Student of Philology,’ then an inexistent faculty.

[8] Paul Kretschmer (1866–1956) was at the time widely known for his work on pre-Greek elements in ancient Greek.