6 June, 2020 • • 0.5ClassicsEssaysVoice

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The Last Words of Milman Parry

Nicolas Liney

Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature

“I see a voice”, says Bottom, peering at the lips of his lover through an imaginary wall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. An absurd statement, but also a reminder of how much voice is tied up with our identity. Bottom sees lips and thinks language, and it is between the two that the voice emerges. For Aristotle, ‘not every sound made by an animal is voice’, but ‘what produces voice must have a soul’. Voice is embalmed in the soul—we speak with the spirit. Nearly everybody can use speech, but it is the how of speech, the way language twists itself around affect and into utterance, that really reveals something about us.  When we talk about ‘making your voice heard’, or ‘losing your voice’, or a voice being ‘silenced’, what’s at stake is something far more crucial to our sense of self and place in the world than the use of words alone. Voice is the patina of language, bearing the traces of our gender and race, of our cultural, political and technological DNA, and leaving our own mark on the future.With the world emerging from a period of silence, and exploding in recent weeks into a symphony of voices anxious to be heard, the Oxonian Review is producing a series of responses on the topic of voice. The aim is to make sense of our sounds, and to sound out our sense. Listen up!


One afternoon in December 1935, Milman Parry, a young classicist and prodigious Homerist, checked into the Palms Hotel in Los Angeles with his wife, Miriam. The hotel was pleasant enough—five dollars a week got you a private bath and a phoneline—and the Californian climate was an agreeable change from the wintry temperatures now settling into New England, where Milman lectured at Harvard. The couple had recently returned from Yugoslavia, and missed the Mediterranean swelter of Dubrovnik, where they had lived for the better part of that year. Milman was in California ostensibly to attend to family business—Marian’s mother was ill—but he was also making the most of reduced teaching responsibilities at Harvard, where he had been reappointed assistant professor of Greek and Latin. The ‘assistant’ part perhaps rankled him: although he had been an instructor at the university since 1929, he had been denied tenure again, despite being eminently eligible. Once they had entered their rooms, Marian moseyed around in the front of the suite whilst Milman went into the bedroom to unpack. Moments later, Miriam heard a muffled gunshot, and ran in to find Milman collapsed and bleeding out on the floor, a pistol lying by the bed. She immediately called an ambulance, but it was too late—he died before help could arrive.

The police examined the hotel room and questioned Miriam. Milman had carried a gun whilst living in Yugoslavia to protect against bandits, a practice which he had apparently continued to observe back home. The pistol, perhaps the same one he had carried in Yugoslavia, must have gone off accidently when Milman opened his suitcase. The coroner’s report confirmed that Milman’s death was caused by “a gunshot wound of the chest” due to an accident. A small funeral service was held, and his body was cremated at the Los Angeles Crematory. He was 34 years old.

A few days later, The Harvard Crimson bore the headline ‘Parry, Greek and Latin professor, killed yesterday’, reporting that Milman’s death had been “the result of an accidental shooting”. Another university paper, the Harvard University Gazette, similarly made a note of Milman’s ‘accidental death’. Then, as is often the case now, such phrasing can double as a diplomatic euphemism, and it wasn’t long before whispers of suicide began to circulate. Both Parry’s life and death had been dramatic, and for imaginative classicists, the untimely death of the dashing young scholar was difficult not to compare with Sophocles’ Ajax, the tragic hero of the Trojan war, who out of anger and despondency had fallen upon his own sword after not being awarded the prize he thought he deserved—in Milman’s case, a permanent appointment at Harvard. These whispers and rumours swept through university campuses, academies and international institutions, eventually finding their way into print. Still today, the Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography qualifies Milman’s ‘sudden death’ as ‘possibly suicide’. Milman’s academic career had pivoted on one central, burning desire to locate the oral traditions of Homer’s epic poems as we have them written down, or to find Homer’s ‘voice’ within the reams of text. Little could Milman have anticipated that his own life and death would become material for another oral tradition, a series of rumours, stories and happenstances that would place him at the centre of his own Parriad. 


Among scholars of ancient epic, Milman Parry is most famous for his contribution to the Homeric Question, which is perhaps more precisely a cluster of questions about the identity of Homer, and the composition of The Iliad and the Odyssey: Who was Homer? When exactly did the poems get written down, and how? Was there an oral tradition that had preceded his written epics? For the ancients, ‘sublime Homer’ was an incontrovertible fact, the archetypal epic poet, truest expression of divine inspiration. Ancient ‘biographers’ of Homer give us a blind poet from either Chios or Smyrna (modern Izmir). Plato called him ‘the best and most divine of poets’, and one of the first sentences children learned to copy in the Hellenistic period read ‘Homer was not a man, but a god’.

But after that, there was very little to agree on, particularly as to how Homer’s poems had come into being. According to some, a certain ‘Homer’ had left it to others to make a unified whole out of his own scattered poems. Cicero claimed that it was not until the middle of the sixth century, when Pisistratus, a tyrant of Athens, “arranged in their present order the books of Homer, previously confused”—what is referred to now as the ‘Pisistratean recension’. An ancient scholar’s note in the Art of Grammar by Dionysius Thrax says that Homer’s poems were in fact already forgotten by this point, and it was only Pisistratus’ offer of a handsome reward—paid by the line—that jogged people’s memories, and created a swathe of forgeries and spurious verses as a result. Alexandrian scholars of Homer, like Zenodotus of Ephesus and Aristophanes of Byzantium, saw their primary task as rescuing Homer’s original and authentic poems from the accretion which had grown around them. Others, like the Jewish historian Josephus, went further, and claimed that Homer could not even write.

Josephus was not just being antagonistic (although, of course, he was being antagonistic). In fact, Homer’s written epics did seem to emerge from a long oral tradition rather than a writerly mode, the vestiges of which linger on in the poems.  Any reader of the Odyssey or the Iliad notices Homer’s propensity for repetition, stock phrases and epithets: the dawn is always ‘rosy-fingered’, the sea is always ‘wine-dark’, Achilles is always ‘swift-footed’. Certain scenes tend to follow predictable patterns (how many baths does Odysseus need?). A strong oral culture pervades the Homeric world itself: in the Odyssey, professional bards—aoidoi—such as Phemius and Demodocus give performances of traditional tales at banquets, improvising from a poetic arsenal of formulae, themes and tales. Later, in the fifth and fourth centuries, the Homeric epics themselves became material for oral recitation by professional rhapsodes—‘song-stitchers’—such as Plato’s Ion, who earned their living travelling around Greece, reciting Homeric poetry at public festivals and games. There was even, Pindar tells us, a guild of rhapsodes on the island of Chios called the Homeridai (‘children of Homer’), singularly devoted to memorising and reciting Homer’s poetry by heart. Already for the ancients, Homer seemed to be of a different order altogether, not simply because he was the ‘oldest’, but because his poetry appeared to occupy an oral rather than literary world, something modernity has struggled to comprehend: was Homer more voice or text?

The Homeric Question emerged on the modern stage with particular vigour in the seventeenth century, instigated by the vain and irascible Abbe d’Aubignac, a major player in the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes.  Following a barrage of attacks on Homer’s value, he went on to claim that in fact no single man named Homer had ever existed, and that the Iliad and Odyssey were no more than a collection of earlier rhapsodies by a rag-tag group of poets. Not just a serial polemicist, d’Aubignac also drew on his experience as a courtier at Versailles to formulate an often overlooked, but crucial, sociological observation on the transmission of oral songs:  just as “the strains of our royal ballets go secretly in the mouths of the valets and gatekeepers, and fall into the hands of beggars”, so in Homer’s time did songs ‘fall from the court into the crossroads” and became the property of wandering poets whom later writers had called Homer. Or to put it another way, oral epic was contagious, and could spread from mouth to mouth easily, becoming the property of a broad public audience.

A century later, Robert Wood, the British diplomat, traveller and archaeologist, didn’t go so far as to deny the reality of a single Homer, but he did argue for Homer as an oral poet, fantasising about the stupendous mental faculties the poet must have had, in an age unencumbered by technological props. Just as we can’t imagine a world without iPhones, Wood stressed a need to think past ‘this age of Dictionaries’ to a time in which memory was ‘loaded with nothing that is either useless or unintelligible’, in order to truly understand Homer’s genius. There was a technology to oral epic, or rather, the presence and absence of technologies had a direct impact on the nature and quality of epic. And, like d’Aubignac, Wood believed that a comparative approach might shed light on the problem, drawing upon his observations of Bedouin oral traditions in Palmyra.

The nineteenth century fine-tuned its approach to the Homeric Question. The formidable German scholar Friedrich August Wolf published his Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, which made explicit the views that had been percolating in the previous century. Homer’s epics are full of contradictions, irregularities, and any straightforward narrative unity—evidence, for Wolf, that “Homer’s poems had inevitably undergone a long period of change and adaptation, through multiple oral performances and multiple reformations by literate editors”. Whilst Wolf believed in the oral foundations of Homeric epic, it was ultimately buried beneath a farrago of interventions—oral, literary, and editorial—which had to be confronted. For Wolf and his acolytes—dubbed the Analysts—the game was then to peel away the layers, and detect by thorough philological analysis which bits of the Iliad and the Odyssey mightderive from the original Homer, and which bits from later bards and editors. Arrayed against the Analysts were the Unitarians, who argued that the Homeric poems were works of art that were simply too great, too perfect, and too unified to have been a hodge-podge conglomeration of various poets and editors, and decried the business of layer-hunting. While there may be an oral tradition that lay behind the epics, it was undoubtedly the single of act of a literate poet that gave birth to the poems we have now.

By the 1920s, when a young Milman Parry was completing his bachelor and masters at Berkeley, something of a tired impasse had been reached, with both sides festering away in a war of attrition. As E.R. Dodds put it in a mildly withering review of Homeric scholarship in 1953, “it is now more than thirty years since the old logical game of discovering inconsistencies in Homer was replaced in public esteem by the new and equally enjoyable aesthetic game of explaining them away”. Nonetheless, if there was such a thing as a Homeric voice, it still needed clarification, for whilst there was certainly a received idea of an oral culture in the study of Homeric epic, it was by no means clear what this actually meant. It was obvious that performance, speech and voice were central to the historic reconstruction of Homer’s epics and their transmission, but nobody had seemed to consider what this fact had meant for the style of the epics themselves, with all their persistent repetitions, epithets and formulae. For Milman, however, who went on to complete his doctorateat the Sorbonne on ‘traditional epithets in Homer’, such minutiae were the most fundamental elements of Homeric epic, and, what was more, they could be best explained through the logic of improvisation, as readymade mnemonic tools that helped an epic singer in his extemporaneous composition. Bards could learn from each other, picking up different tricks along the way and tweaking them to fit their circumstances. This pushed the idea of the epic bard centre-stage, rather than the poet, editor or compiler: as Milman’s protegee, Albert Lord, later wrote, “an oral poem is not composed for but in performance. Rhapsodes were not vessels, but creative inputs”, the main wheel in the machinery of epic. What this also meant was that the Homeric poems had been, until their eventual codification, in a perpetual state of flux and renewal. Two scholars produced what eventually became known as the Parry-Lord Theory, which has remained incredibly relevant ever since, despite a rallying cry from scholars identifying as neoanalysists, although the two approaches are by no means inimical. Ultimately, Homer’s voice had been found.


Milman completed his doctorate in France at the Sorbonne, under the rather eclectic supervision of Aimé Puech, a critic of early Greek Christian texts, and the Croiset brothers Alfred and Maurice, authors of the monumental Histoire de la littérature grecque. But it was the famous linguist and student of Saussure, Antoine Meillet, who had the most profound impact on Milman. The year before Milman reached Paris, Meillet had published an article claiming that “Homeric epic is entirely composed of formulae handed down from poet to poet”, a view to which Milman had already subscribed in his dissertation.More importantly, however, Meillet introduced Milman to a scholar named Matija Murko, an expert in Slavic philology and collector of Yugoslavian epic poetry, who was at that time studying the local oral traditions of bards—the guslari—in Yugoslavia. He was excited by Milman’s ideas on ancient epic, and suggested that Milman might find a living analogue in the poetic communities of the Slavs. Like Homer’s epics, the pre-literate Balkan singers of heroic songs similarly used a poetic repertoire of formulae and words, shuffling them around from memory to compose their largely improvised songs. For Milman, these travelling bards were a living laboratory, a means of moving beyond the text-bound Homeric poems by immersing himself in a real oral epic tradition.  As Milman wrote several years later, “it was the writings of Professor Murko more than those of any other which in the following years led me to the study of oral poetry in itself and to the heroic poems of the South Slavs”. Milman rushed to Yugoslavia to hear the living Homer.

Encouraged by Meillet and Murko, Millman spent the summer of 1933, and then a further fifteen months from 1934 to 1935, in Yugoslavia with Miriam and his young children, as well as his assistant Albert Lord, a promising undergraduate in classics at Harvard. The country was wild, by American standards, which both alarmed and elated the children in equal measure. Goat’s milk had to be boiled to safety first, and Milman brought fifteen chickens and roosters for eggs and poultry. The family rented a villa on a hill in Dubrovnik overlooking the Adriatic Sea, from which Parry and Lord would embark each day in Milman’s Ford V-8 which he had shipped over from the States, travelling into the more remote regions of the country where epic singing still flourished. The plan was to electronically record as much of the region’s oral tradition as they could for later cross-reference with the Homeric texts, to see how the epithets and formulae and set-scenes might compare. 

There were no rules to Milman’s project. It was not a manuscript hunt, as classicists were traditionally more disposed towards; they were after performances, not texts. Milman had to learn the language, which meant being comfortable with a great deal of dialect, and also familiarise himself with a complex set of behavioural codes, as well as the often-precipitous routes and haunts of the largely itinerant singers. Aside from Albert Lord, Milman was also assisted by the dashing and intelligent Nikola Vujnović, a poet who, being literate, disqualified himself from presenting his own songs for Milman’s recordings. Nikola instead helped connect Milman with the poets of various areas, and to tackle the more complex communications. And importantly, they were also armed with recording equipment—a rather comical phonograph and huge aluminium discs, custom-built for the expedition, which Milman powered on the battery of his trusty Ford.

The results are quietly staggering: 700,000 lines of Slavic song, recorded and stored on over three thousand discs, in what is now the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at the Widener Library at Harvard: epics, ballads, as well as reams of conversations with the epic singers—what Parry referred to as their pričanja, or ‘talkings’, which provide a crucial insight on the process of the bards. Excitingly for Milman, the junačke pjesme (‘heroic songs’) seemed to follow his prescribed pattern of rule-governed variation—they were neither the product of complete memorisation or complete reinvention, but followed similar patterns and structures, which the bards fitted to meet their needs. Milman even developed a test, nicknamed the ‘proba’ by Nikola: they would announce to the guslar, perhaps seventy lines or so in, that there had been a mistake with the recording, and they would have to start over. Exasperated, the guslar would begin again, and invariably alter his version.

The jewel of Milman’s collection was The Wedding Song of Smailagić Meho,by a young Muslim poet named Avdo Mededović, by far the most skilful and versatile performer whom Milman encountered. As well as its sophisticated quality, what was special about The Wedding Song was that, at over 12,000 lines, it seemed to offer Milman the most striking comparison for Homeric epic, not only in its similar application of formulae, but also, more importantly, in scale. Length had been something that had persistently confounded Milman—none of the Slavic poems seemed to match the monumental size of the Homeric epics. Now there seemed to be a clear analogue. As he wrote breathlessly later, recalling Avdo’s performance, one “has the overwhelming sense that, in some way, he is hearing Homer”. The recording took twelve hours, with copious coffee breaks for Avdo—and, consequentially, copious bathroom breaks, perhaps a pointer towards the mysteriously irregular chapter lengths of Homer’s epics. What was more, as Avdo boasted privately to Nikota, this wasn’t even the longest song the bard knew—but then again, such a poetic tour de force was financially worth it for Avdo, because Milman, like a modern day Pisistratus, had not been exactly shy in his specific and well-paid requests for the longest possible songs.

Milman collected his poets’ songs by a variety of means, including old-fashioned dictation, and the famous Bela Bartok later played a crucial role in transcribing the instrumentation of the guslari. But far more important are the reams of recordings made on his phonographic equipment. Much of the extraordinary value of Milman’s collection lies, quite simply, in the pioneering use of developments in portable audio recording. As Milman conceded later on, “it is likely that someone else would have done this before had it not been for the lack of mechanical means. It has only been in the last few years that the science of electrical sound recording has given us an apparatus of such a sort that it can record songs of any length and in the large numbers needed”. Technology had provided the means of discovering and preserving Homer’s voice. But, ironically, Milman’s recordings were also an unwitting testament to the erosion of the epic voice: just as papyrus inscribed with Greek letters had signalled a seismic shift in the development of Homeric epic from voice to text, so too were Milman’s whirring aluminium discs a gentle but insistent reminder of the past quickly materialising into the future. Milman’s recording showed just how to make a text out of oral poetry: the singer sings, and the scribe records, whether by parchment and pen, or by aluminium disc and phonograph, calcifying the fluid poetic instant in a moment of time.

In Ismail Kadare’s novel The File on H, a characteristically droll fictionalisation of Parry and Lord’s Balkan adventures, two Irish classicists shack up in an inn frequented by travelling bards in remote 1930s Albania, recording the songs of the guslari that pass by. Rumbling away in the corner of the tavern, the scholars’ recording equipment maintains a slightly unsettling presence throughout the novel, threatening to puncture the mysterious and arcane world that Kadare portrays. At one point, the machine malfunctions, producing a warbling and distorted counterfeit of one bard’s song, which incites some guests to anger: “so our bards’ voices are being put through that torture? Those aren’t human voices now, they’re the voices of demons!”. Others feel horrified, upon hearing the recordings, about the “removal of a man from the attributes which give him distinct and independent existence”.If oral epic was fundamentally a state of Protean flux, then Milman’s recordings were, in ways, a Proteus chained. On the other hand, technology is an essential part of the development of the epic voice, whether it is the accompaniment of the musical instrument, its preservation on ink or paper, or the possibility or an oral tradition living on long after its eventual decline. As technologies grow and evolve, so too does the nature of the epic voice, and its relationship to the present.

Standing on the precipice of World War Two and the end of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Milman’s archive is also extremely valuable because it represents a plaintive elegy to a moment in time. The fragile Socialist Republic that emerged was already splintering by the 80s, and the bloody wars of the nineties, and the mass migration that followed, hollowed out the communities in which the guslari had been so central. By the new millennium, the old world of oral epic that Milman had known had changed, irreversibly. But the tradition of oral epic in the Balkans has lived on in mysterious ways. This is particularly true of Serbia, where epic poetry has been the lifeblood of a nationalist consciousness, a strain of nostalgia valorised against Ottoman rule at least since the Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century. In the early 19th century, anticipating the work of Milman Parry, the Serbian linguist Vuk Karadžić published a monumental collection of transcriptions of these oral poems, which were eventually circulated in national song books. Interestingly, despite their codification, the tradition did not stop there: Milman himself unearthed new songs, and from his day right through to the 1990s, the epic voice has continued to thrive, expanding to encompass topics from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the NATO bombings.

Convicted war criminals could double as modern epic heroes, or as epic poets themselves—not least the ruffian Radovan Karadžić, the ‘butcher of Bosnia’, now serving a life sentence for war crimes, including genocide, against the Bosniaks and Croats during the Bosnian War. In Pawel Pawlikowski’s 1992 documentary ‘Serbian Epics’, an anonymous bard, singing for a group of Serbian soldiers, proclaims Radovan, departing for peace-talks in Switzerland, as the ‘man of steel’, ‘defending our faith on the shores of Geneva’. Radovan, something of a poet himself, is shown in the documentary playing the gusle and performing an epic– a song which he claims has been passed down orally in his family from generation to generation, including the linguist Vuk Karadžić himself—to whom he was never related, and who, ironically, was the scholar responsible for the transmission of oral epic to literature. Like Milman’s collection and Kadare’s novel, Pawlikowski’s documentary is also a confluence of the epic voice, the technology that both ensures its survival and threatens its essence, and the politics that circumscribe its meaning and power.

The voice of epic continues to echo. Shortly before his arrest in 2008, Radovan was performing epics on the gusle at the Mad House in Belgrade, a bar decorated with photos of himself and fellow war criminal Ratko Mladic. And last year, the weapons of the Christchurch mosque shooter, Brenton Tarrant, were inscribed with verses and names of heroes from Serbian epic. Photos and live video footage of the horrific shooting were circulated online, showing the gunman driving and playing a song honouring Radovan, favoured by white supremacists (‘Karadžić, lead your Serbs’): a tragic and chilling multimedia iteration of the politics and technology of the epic voice.


Milman’s adventures in Yugoslavia seemed to take on an epic quality in their own right. He loved dramatizing what he was doing: there are photographs of him in the traditional dress of the guslari he worked with, which his son Adam Parry later wrote revealed “a romantic and even histrionic side of himself which reminds one of T. E. Lawrence”. At night, just like the poets he listened to during the day, Milman would improvise stories for his children at bedtime. This in turn fed back into his own observations on the mechanics of oral poetry, which at times seemed not dissimilar from the fantastical ramblings of a tired parent, revolving around set-pieces, formulae and stock characters: “I know from my experience in telling the stories from various poems for my children that terms of this sort are the very easiest to repeat and the very easiest to remember”.

Life and art blurred in further, interesting ways. As a means of testing the versatility of his poets, Milman asked a young poet in Nevesinje, Milovan Vojičić, whether he might be able to compose a song about him. The result was a remarkable poem that combines incredibly detailed observations of hotels, towns and names with the conventional elevated epithets and formulaic phrases we might expect from the oral epic tradition: Milman is “professor Milman Parry the glorious”, who flies in a “grey falcon” with “heroic wings” (the plane that brought him from America):

In one thousand, nine hundred
And thirty-three,
A grey falcon flew
From the beautiful land of America,
He flew over the lands and cities
Until he came to the shore of the sea.
There a steel ship awaited him,
And the falcon flew onto the ship,
And rested his heroic wings.

Milman Parry thus became the subject of his own Parriad, and the scholar’s life was woven into the tradition to which he had dedicated himself, an honour that seems to have elicited an admixture of begrudging respect and envy among certain classicists: the Princeton professor Barbara Graziosi claims that “Parry’s greatest achievement is that he himself became the subject of epic poetry”—a grandiose dismissal of Milman’s own laborious scholarship. Albert Lord was more demure on the matter, writing simply that “songs made up about collectors are not very good because collectors and collecting are not inspiring nor proper subjects for epic”.

Milman’s eventual death in a Californian hotel room in 1935 also assumed a mythical, even heroic, character. Details and circumstances mutated and arose, manipulating inherited details in order to fit them better to new narratives, just like the epic voices Milman had collected. Obituaries came thick and fast, and were glowing, raising the scholar to the level of legend. He would join the ranks of a romantic group of classicists who had died young, including Alfred Zuricher (another victim of an ‘accidental gun wound’), Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, and, sadly, his own son Adam who died in a car crash. Milman was compared to Lawrence of Arabia, both romantic adventures who had met untimely and tragic deaths, only a few months apart in that same year. For some, Milman was the ‘Darwin of Homeric studies’; for others, he was the Alexander the Great of classical studies, having uncovered new boundaries in the territory of epic. He was Stravinsky, or Gauguin, misunderstood and ahead of his time. He was even compared to Don Quixote. Milman had entered a pantheon of epic cultural heroes.

Suicide was an obviously tempting explanation for Milman’s death, given the suspicious circumstances: alone in his hotel room in downtown Los Angeles, he had evidently shot himself with his own pistol. An accident was too trivial, and there was a desire to find tragic fatalism in the meaninglessness of chance. This is a version that has persisted ever since his death, as Jonathan Gottschall, in his 2008 book The Rape of Troy, observes: “classicists have argued, often bitterly, about whether it may have been a suicide linked to depression over possible denial of tenure at Harvard”. Some saw it as evidence of Harvard’s anti-Semitism—despite the fact that Milman was about as Jewish as a ham sandwich—or of the deep-seated class prejudice of a privileged elite, painting Milman as the product of blue-collar Californian family, squashed by east-coast, Ivy League snobbery.

With the advent of the internet in the 90s, the Parriad migrated online to chat groups and listservs, like the University of Kentucky’s Classical Greek and Latin Discussion Group, where the rumours continued sixty years after they had started. The scholar Stephen Reece has meticulously collated then in a recent article: one user writes, conspiratorially, that “I heard that Milman Parry died in Los Angeles after being denied tenure at Harvard”, which is echoed by another, saying “it always takes me aback, but Parry had just been denied tenure at Harvard”—and, so on and so on, ‘denied tenure’ becoming a stock phrase as much as ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. The eminent classicist Barry Powell even chimes in at one point as the sober voice of authority: “There is a lot of folklore about the death of the Parrys, but the story I heard is that Milman often carried a loaded pistol with him (a carry-over from days in Yugoslavia, where there were bandits on the roads)”. Inherited traditions collided and conflated, and Milman’s death slowly acquired the status of ‘folklore’, as Powell put it. Reece observes that “digital media such as this electronic discussion group are modern analogues of ancient oral traditions”, a point that is gaining currency, which the last project of the most innovative scholar in Homeric oral tradition, the late John Miles Foley, explores at length. Published posthumously in 2012, Oral traditions and the internet: pathways of the Mind ambitiously argues that both the oral tradition and the internet “are radically alike in depending not on static products but rather on continuous processes”. Our digital stories thrive on open access and fluidity, the necessity of pathways and network, and limitless updating; the internet is an ongoing oral epic.

Although it stands as a monument to a frenetic moment in time in 1933, Milman’s archive has also evolved and grown as technologies have advanced. The archive itself has become a massive simulacrum, a series of copies and transfers to new technologies—from aluminium disc, to reel-to-reel tape, CD, and in the last decade, to digitalisation. Each technological shift marks a new voice, staking out the boundaries of what is utterable, and how it might be uttered within a certain cultural moment, a notion that rubs shoulders with Foucault’s idea of the archive in the Archaeology of Knowledge. The importance of Milman’s archive has also evolved in unexpected ways, as the regions and communities that Milman investigated have diverged, changed and rearranged over time, their populations dispersed around the globe. If Milman’s collection of epic songs was of a particularly precise group of peoples and ethnicities, then whose voice does it now represent, and where is its audience to be found? Balkan communities have grown increasingly international, especially following the wars and diaspora in the nineties, and Milman’s collection has allowed the voices of the guslari to reverberate in unexpected ways. Peter McMurray, a former curator of the Milman Parry Collection, evocatively recalls a moment in August 2011, when a certain Enver Spahalić, the great-great-grandson of Mujo Kukuruzović, one of the bards that Milman had recorded, contacted the Parry Collection—he was hoping to find some archival material that was not yet available online. Enver lived in America, but would soon be visiting his family in Gubavica, Croatia, where his great-uncle, Halil—the son of the bard—lived. Peter complied, and Enver went to Croatia with the precious recordings.

A few months later, Enver sent Peter a smartphone video: in the clip, a laptop lies open on a coffee table, playing back the sounds of Mujo performing an epic, the Alija Alagić in Captivity, while Halil and his wife Djulsa, sit on the couch, listening intently. After the recording, Halil addresses the camera: “my good friends! Thank you all for providing this material about my father to my nephew. About him, where he spent his time, and what he was doing. It means a lot to us. Thank you very much!” Enver wrote, later, “it is amazing that something that was made 76 years ago can be heard today, no one could believe that anything was saved for all this time and that it and be converted to something that can be played today”. The Parriad continues.


Nicolas Liney is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Christ Church College, and is a former editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.