BORN: c. eighth century BCE
DIED: c. seventh century BCE
The Odyssey The Iliad
Homer. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Homer is generally considered the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two greatest epics of European literature. The poems celebrate the values of ancient Greek civilization, incorporating many ancient myths and folk motifs and examining such themes as heroism, fate, honor, loyalty, and justice. Admired over the centuries for the artistic mastery they demonstrate, the Iliad and the Odyssey have exerted a profound influence on all later Western poetry and have served as the primary models for subsequent epics. Although critics do debate the exact authorship of the two poems, questioning whether Homer was the poems’ originator, their most famous bard, or even just a name representing the tradition of singing the poems themselves, there is little question that these two works have been two of the most influential in Western history, working their way into centuries’ worth of art in all genres.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Uncertain Existence. Almost nothing is known about the life of Homer himself. He was most likely an Ionian Greek, probably from the coast of Asia Minor (in modern-day Turkey) or one of the adjacent islands, who lived in approximately the eighth century BCE. According to legend, he was blind and made a living as an itinerant bard. It has been suggested that his purported blindness may have been used to conceal his illiteracy, or that he may have lost his sight only late in life. Biographies of Homer exist in the form of six early ‘‘lives’’ and various commentaries written by Byzantine scholars, but these are generally considered unreliable. Although the ancient Greeks, from the fourth century BCE or so on, developed a lively tradition of art and scholarship responding to the work of someone they clearly considered to be a historical personage, modern scholarship has raised a number of questions about Homer’s very existence. Some have even suggested that the Odyssey attributed to Homer was actually the work of a young Sicilian woman. Nonetheless, ‘‘the poet Homer’’ remains—as a concept—a convenient way of getting a handle on two of history’s greatest poems, giving us a name to associate with the work.
The Trojan War. The Trojan War figures prominently in both of Homer’s epic poems. According to legend, this was a battle fought between the people of Troy, located on the coast of Asia Minor, and the people of Greece. Although records suggest that the ancient Greeks believed the war to be an actual historical event, very little archeological evidence has been found to confirm this. If the battle did indeed take place in the centuries prior to Homer’s existence, it likely bore little resemblance to the battle depicted in the Iliad and the Odyssey. That said, the poems certainly derive their vigor from a real historical context. Even if the Trojan War itself was not a historical fact, the tensions between the Trojan and Greek cultures were quite real, and the legendary Trojan War serves to explain why the two societies were at odds.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Homer's famous contemporaries include:
Lycurgus (c. 700-c. 630 BCE): Legendary Spartan king who established the militaristic foundations that would build the city-state into one of the greatest of the Greek powers.
Romulus (c. 771-c. 717 BCE): Mythical founder of the city of Rome. After slaying his twin brother Remus, Romulus not only founded the city but began many of its most ancient traditions, such as the senate and the Roman legions. Although he is often regarded as mythological, there remains some debate as to whether Romulus may have been a real, historical figure.
Hesiod (c. eighth century BCE): Generally thought to have lived well after Homer, Hesiod is considered his equal in importance. His poetry spans a wide range, from everyday life to the creation of the universe, and is a vital source of understanding ancient Greek life and beliefs.
Alcmaeon (?-c. 753 BCE): Last hereditary archon (ruler) of Athens. Upon his death in 753, the office of archon became an elected position.
Sennacherib (ruled c. 705-c. 681 BCE): Conqueror of Babylon and invader of Judah; he was famously unable to take Jerusalem, as described in the Bible and his own personal accounts.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The works of Homer participate in a tradition of tales of heroism and tragedy set against a legendary, mythological past, a tradition that may be found in the literatures of many different cultures, even in the present day. Some prominent examples are:
Aeneid (first century BCE), an epic poem by Virgil. This work picks up where Homer's tales leave off, telling the tale of the Trojan Aeneas, his eventual journey to Italy, and his victory over the tribe of the Latins. In writing this poem, Virgil explicitly connected Rome's past to the heroic age of Greece.
Dr. Faustus (first published in 1604), a play by Christopher Marlowe. This masterpiece of Elizabethan playwright Marlowe features two appearances by the spirit of Helen of Troy, summoned by the magician Faust.
Ulysses (1922), a novel by James Joyce. Often considered a foundational text for the literary movement known as modernism, Joyce's masterwork traces a very unheroic Leopold Bloom through the course of an ordinary day— an ordinary day carefully structured along the lines of Ulysses' (Odysseus's) journeys and travails in the Odyssey.
Works in Literary Context
The scarcity of information regarding Homer and his relation to the works attributed to him has prompted much scholarly inquiry, bringing together experts from the fields of archeology, linguistics, art, and comparative literature. Even more, though, scholars and artists in every century since the works’ emergence have responded—in philosophy, poetry, painting, sculpture, novels, and more— to both the content and structure of Homer’s poems, with the result that these works now have tremendous cultural resonance. It is rightly said that echoes of the Iliad and the Odyssey may be found in nearly every work of literature in the Western canon.
Beginning the Textual Tradition. The Odyssey and Iliad, it is generally agreed, evolved from oral folktales about a great war and a great hero. The oral versions of the Odyssey and Iliad were transmitted by local bards from generation to generation and eventually were written down on papyri, most likely after Homer’s death. Once set down in writing, the poems probably became the exclusive property of the Homeridae, or ‘‘sons of Homer,’’ a bardic guild whose members performed and preserved the poems. In the second half of the sixth century BCE, the Athenian dictator Peisistratus established a Commission of Editors to edit the texts of Homer’s poems and remove any errors or digressions accumulated in the process of transmission. The first printed edition of Homer’s works appeared in Europe only in 1488, however, and remained in use until the seventeenth century; since then, there have been numerous other translations, in both prose and verse.
A Contradictory Simplicity. The language of the Iliad and Odyssey represents a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand, in a perfectly plain and direct manner, the narrator carries the action forward, examining the events in great detail and occasionally digressing from the main narrative, but always in such a manner that the course of the tale seems completely natural and inevitable. On the other hand, the epic language of the poems was never used for everyday communication. It is a stylized language made up of formulas, noun and adjective combinations having metrical values that fill certain segments of a dactylic hexametric poetic line. The dactylic hexameter, one long syllable followed by two short syllables (for which another long syllable can be substituted), is possibly an inheritance in Greek from an earlier Indo-European poetic language. In any case, the epic language seems to be based on creative combinations of phrases rather than of individual words. Readers of the Iliad and the Odyssey are likely to remember expressions such as ‘‘the wine-dark sea,’’ ‘‘Menelaus of the loud war cry,’’ or ‘‘swift-footed Achilles.’’
Repetition and Orality. A great part of the narrative of the poems is made up of repeated phrases of a given metrical value. Modern-day readers are sometimes put off by what they consider the heavy, dragging effect of the repeated phraseology, but this reaction simply marks the great difference between literate and oral cultures. What is heard in repetition becomes part of the texture of the continuous utterance and does not have the prominence that the reader assigns to each word as he or she reads it from the printed page—at varying speeds, depending on his or her concentration or reading ability. Oral poetic narrative is in this sense more like late-twentieth-century rap music, the language of which is both repetitive and shaped and delivered by the singer. Unlike the written poem, the speed of delivery is more in the control of the performer than the listener, and it is thus by repetition principally that the singer makes the words accessible to his or her audience.
Bedrock of Western Literary Tradition. It would be almost impossible to overstate the influence that the Iliad and the Odyssey have had on Western culture. Informing works ranging from the ancient Roman Virgil’s Aeneid to the Renaissance Englishman John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Irish modernist James Joyce’s Ulysses, ‘‘Homer’s’’ epic poems form the bedrock of the Western tradition in literature.
Works in Critical Context
A breakthrough in Homeric studies came in the 1920s, when Milman Parry argued that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed orally. Parry proved that the poems were formulaic in nature, relying on generic epithets (such as ‘‘wine-dark sea’’ and ‘‘rosy-fingered dawn’’), repetition of stock lines, and descriptions and themes typical of oral folk poetry. Suggesting that Homer was most likely a rhapsode—an itinerant professional reciter—who improvised pieces to be sung at Greek festivals, Parry deduced that Homer probably learned to weave together threads of standard epic plot in order to sustain his narrative, relying on mnemonic devices and phrases to fill the poetic lines. Still largely accepted today, Parry’s theory stresses the derivative and evolutionary character of Homer’s poetry, but also affirms Homer’s individual genius as a shaper of traditional poetic elements into works that far exceed the sum of their borrowed parts.
Disputed Authorship. In the Classical period it was commonly assumed that Homer was the sole author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, became embroiled in a lengthy debate—referred to as ‘‘the Homeric question’’— about whether both poems were written by the same author. Though each epic contains a number of inconsistencies and factual lapses, each also exhibits a remarkable degree of structural, stylistic, and thematic unity. Critics are not surprised to encounter inconsistencies in the poems, given their oral beginnings and spontaneous transmission through recitation; however, that line of argument has not disproved Homer’s authorship of the two poems. The dispute continues, however, and today’s scholars believe, on the basis of internal evidence, that the Iliad was probably written much earlier than the Odyssey, though there is not quite enough evidence to prove that Homer did not write both poems. Several other poems, including the Margites and the Batrachomyomachia, have also been attributed to Homer, but they were most likely written by his successors and popularizers.
The Iliad and the Odyssey in Contemporary Perspective Modern Homeric studies focus—as past ages have done—on purely textual exegesis, on parsing the fine meanings of words and the most accurate translations, but they also look at the sociocultural and political messages in the work. For instance, Dean C. Hammer argues, ‘‘The Iliad is not simply a reflection of, but a reflection on, the nature of political authority. The nature of this reflection suggests a fundamental shift in the type of political questions asked, from the ‘power of authority’ to carry out decisions suggestive of Dark Age politics to the legitimacy of authority in making these decisions, a question critical to the formation of an increasingly interdependent polis form of political organization.’’ Other scholars focus on how best to teach Homer’s text, focusing, for instance, on the Perseus Digital Library, which, writes Professor Anne Mahoney, ‘‘is useful here, because it allows students who do not know Greek to work intelligently with the Greek text.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Odysseus forms a common thread through both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Compare and contrast how he is portrayed in both works. Does he change over time? How do his actions and personality differ between the two stories?
2. Virgil’s Aeneid takes a minor character from the Iliad and creates a ‘‘sequel’’ describing his fate after the Trojan War. Choose another minor character and do the same thing—create a story describing the character’s life and adventures after the fall of Troy. Research the world of ancient Greece and use that knowledge in the story.
3. Homer’s view of the gods and humanity’s role in the cosmos is fundamentally a bleak one: humans are essentially pawns in the wars and rivalries of the gods. Why do you think the ancient Greeks imagined their gods as behaving like humans, subject to the same emotions? What limits do the gods have to their powers? Is there something appealing about this view of the cosmos?
4. What can you infer about Greek cultural customs from Homer’s works? How did the Greeks treat strangers and guests? What did they value most?
Austin, Norman. Archery at the Dark of the Moon: Poetic Problems in Homer’s ‘‘Odyssey’’. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Homer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol.176: Ancient Greek Authors. Edited by Ward W. Briggs. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1997.
Griffin, Jasper. Homer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
‘‘Homer.’’ In Myths and Legends of the World. Edited by John M. Wickersham. New York: Macmillan, 2000.
‘‘Iliad.’’ In Literary Themes for Students: War and Peace.
Edited by Anne Marie Hacht. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Rubino, Carl A., and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, eds. Approaches to Homer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.
Steiner, George, and Robert Fagles, eds. Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Wace, Alan J. B., and Frank H. Stubbings, eds. A Companion to Homer. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
The Perseus Digital Library. Retrieved July 26, 2008, from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu. Last updated on July 26, 2008.