18. Bronze Age Greek Poets Used a Few Stock Phrases to String Together Poems That Were Thousands of Verses Long
The Iliad and Odyssey were first composed during a centuries-long period of societal and cultural collapse, known as the “Greek Dark Ages”. Literacy vanished from the Greek world during that bleak period, so poems were transmitted orally for generations, until writing was rediscovered. They were composed to be memorized and sung, and used a formulaic style and structure that relied on stock phrases and repeated verses that lend themselves to memorization. Memorization was further helped by reliance on a number of fixed phrases to express ideas in similar parts of verse.
For example, Odysseus would be referred to with the single word “divine”, the two-worded “many counseled”, or three-worded “much-enduring divine”. The choice depended on where “Odysseus” was inserted in a verse, and how much space was left in that verse to fill for it to come out in the desired hexameter. That trick meant that bards did not have to memorize long poems such as the 16,000-verse Iliad. If they knew the stock phrases and key words, they could just plug them in instead, which made it easier to recite poems thousands of verses long.