Homer (Greek Όμηρος, Homeros) was a legendary early Greek poet traditionally credited with the composition of the epic poems the Iliad (Ἰλιάς) and the Odyssey (Ὀδύσσεια). Throughout antiquity and subsequent history, Homer's influence on literature has been unequalled, and the Homeric epics are among the oldest surviving writings in any language.
Scholars debate whether the epics are works of a single author or multiple authors, and the dating of both the compositions and the events they describe remain in doubt. Homer is tentatively located in the Greek archaic period, c. 750 B.C.E. The poems portray events surrounding the shadowy Trojan War, likely a fusion of various military exploits by Mycenaean Greeks of the Bronze Age, predating Homer by some four centuries.
The Greeks believed that Homer was a blind rhapsode, or professional singer, and the poems were passed on for decades by oral tradition before being committed to writing. From the first recorded appearance of the Iliad and the Odyssey, they assume a status apart from other literature, classics upon which Greeks developed their canon of literary texts, values, and exceptionalism. All epic poetry in Western literature ultimately derives from Homer.
Homer's great poems remained foundational works of art, not religious scripture, for later classical Greeks. Virtue and honor are central preoccupations of the epics. Honor is "perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in Ancient Greece," says classical scholar Richard Hooker, and means "achieving, morally and otherwise, your greatest potential as a human being." The Greek turn toward drama, science, architecture, and humanistic philosophy rather than religious speculations may be traceable to Homer's emphasis on human values, as well as his unflattering portrayal of the gods, buffeted by all-too-human weaknesses.
We know almost nothing of Homer's life; and, surprisingly, the writers of antiquity knew little more. No record of Homer's life, real or pretended, ever existed. Herodotus (2.53) maintains that Hesiod and Homer lived not more than 400 years before his own time, consequently not much before 850 B.C.E. From the controversial tone in which he expresses himself it is evident that others had made Homer more ancient; and accordingly the dates given by later authorities, though widely varied, generally fall within the tenth and eleventh centuries B.C.E., but none of these claims is grounded in historical fact. Other than a putative date of birth, the only thing that authors of antiquity agree upon is that Homer was blind, and that he probably lived in the Greek isles of the Mediterranean. Beyond this, nothing of Homer's life is known or even hinted at in his own writings.
Due to this dearth of information, for nearly a hundred years scholars have begun to question whether Homer ever really existed. Through textual research it has become clear that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardization and refinement from older material beginning in the eighth century B.C.E. An important role in this standardization appears to have been played by the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival. Many classicists hold that this reform must have involved the production of a canonical written text, and that the name "Homer" was later somehow attached to this amalgamation.
Other scholars, however, maintain their belief in the reality of an actual Homer. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that a common joke has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name." The classical scholar Richmond Lattimore, author of well regarded poetic translations to English of both epics, once wrote a paper entitled "Homer: Who Was She?" Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was more specific, theorizing a young Sicilian woman as author of the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further speculated on by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter.
In Greek his name is Homēros, which is Greek for "hostage." This has led to the development of a theory that his name was extracted from the name of a society of poets called the Homeridae, which literally means "sons of hostages," as in descendants of prisoners of war. As these men were not sent to war because their loyalty on the battlefield was suspect, they were entrusted with remembering Greece's stock of epic poetry in the times before literacy came to the ancient world.
Most Classicists would agree that, whether there was ever such a composer as "Homer" or not, the Homeric poems are the product of an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets (aoidoi). An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems consist of regular, repeating phrases; even entire verses repeat. It has hence been speculated that the Iliad and Odyssey could have been oral-formulaic poems, composed on the spot by the poet using a collection of memorized traditional verses and phases. Milman Parry and Albert Lord pointed out that an oral tradition to compose a poem of the length and complexity of the Iliad is not as far-fetched as it might seem; in a paper on the subject, Parry and Lord make reference to the recent discovery of an oral culture living in remote parts of contemporary Yugoslavia, where poet-rhapsodes compose on-the-spot epics using formulas remarkably similar to those found in Homer.
Many poems that were ascribed to Homer in antiquity are now known to be spurious. Other poems of Homer, which probably once existed, have been lost. Of what survives, only the epic Iliad and Odyssey are considered to be authoritatively Homeric works. The two poems are closely related in style and language as well as content. Both poems are concerned with the Trojan War and its aftermath, and both involve the actions of epic heroes, such as Achilles and Odysseus, who are more like the gods of mythological stories than the three-dimensional characters of contemporary fiction.
The most prominent characteristics of Homer's poetic style were probably best captured by the nineteenth century poet Matthew Arnold. "The translator of Homer," he writes, "should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author: that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble." (On translating Homer, 9).
In contrast to the other canonical epic poets Virgil, Dante, and Milton, Homer's poetry is characterized by plainspoken language and straightforward, rapidly moving narrative. The rapidity of Homer is probably a result of his use of dactylic hexameter, a meter which tends to sound hurried to most listeners (it has often been called the "hoofbeat" meter, in contrast to the iamb's "heartbeat.") Homer's plainness is probably an attribute of his time; as an oral poet, Homer could not afford to confuse himself or his audience with convoluted metaphors and digressions. As a result his epics sound much like the work of a master story-teller. Homer's "nobility,” as Arnold calls it, is probably the most difficult aspect of his poetry for contemporary readers to digest. Simply put, there are no moral dilemmas in Homer. The heroes of the epics often do things that today we would find horrifying; but there is never any doubt in their minds (or, for all we can discern, the author's mind) that what they are doing is eminently right.
The Iliad narrates several weeks of action during the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, concentrating on the wrath of Achilles. It begins with the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ends with the funeral rites of Hector. Neither the background and early years of the war (Paris' abduction of Helen from King Menelaus), nor its end (the death of Achilles), are directly narrated in the Iliad. The Iliad and the Odyssey are part of a larger cycle of epic poems of varying lengths and authors; only fragments survive of the other poems, however.
Of the many themes in the Iliad, perhaps the most important is the idea of what constitutes the hero in ancient Greek culture. Achilles is forced to make a choice between living a long life or dying young on the battlefield. In his culture, the latter would have been a better choice because death in battle leads to honor and glory, the most important values of the day—even more important than right and wrong. Part of what makes the Iliad interesting as a literary work is the way that Achilles, especially in Book 9, both embraces concepts of honor and glory and also simultaneously rejects them.
In the midst of the war, Apollo sends a plague against the Greeks, who had captured the daughter of the priest, Chryses, and given her as a prize to Agamemnon. He is compelled to restore her to her father. To assuage his pride, Agamemnon takes Briseis, whom the Athenians had given to Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, as a reward for his efforts. Following the advice of his mother, Thetis, Achilles withdraws from battle in revenge. As a result the allied Achaean (Greek) armies nearly lose the war.
In counterpoint to Achilles' pride and arrogance stands the Trojan prince, Hector, son of King Priam. As a husband and father, Hector fights to defend his city and his family. When Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles' dearest friend (and possibly his lover), Achilles rejoins the fight to seek revenge, slaying Hector. Later, King Priam comes to Achilles disguised as a beggar to ransom back his son's body. Priam's love for his son moves Achilles to pity. The poem concludes with Hector's funeral.
The poem is a poignant depiction of the tragedy and agony of family and friendship destroyed by battle. The first word of the Greek poem is "Μηνιν" ("mēnin," meaning "wrath"); the main subject of the poem is the wrath of Achilles; the second word is "aeide," meaning "sing"; ancient Greek poetry is sung; the third word is "thea," meaning "goddess"; the goddess here being the "Mousa" or "muse"; a literal translation of the first line would read "Wrath, sing goddess, of Peleus' son Achilles" or more intelligibly "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles."
The Odyssey (Greek: Οδύσσεια, Odússeia) is the second of the two great epic poems ascribed to Homer. The 11,300 line poem follows Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his voyage home after a heroic turn in the Trojan War. It also tells the story of Odysseus' wife, Penelope, who struggles to remain faithful, and his son Telemachus, who sets out to find his father. In contrast to the Iliad, with its extended sequences of battle and violence, all three are ultimately successful by means of their cleverness, and the support of the goddess, Athena. This cleverness is most often manifested by Odysseus' use of disguise and, later, recognition. His disguises take forms both physical alteration and verbal deception.
The Odyssey consists of 24 books, beginning, as do many ancient epics, in medias res, or in the middle of the action, with prior events described through flashbacks or storytelling. The first four books, known as the Telemachiad, trace Telemachus' efforts to maintain control of the palace in the face of suitors to his mother's hand in marriage. Failing that, Athena encourages him to find his father. In book 5, Odysseus nears the end of his journey, a not entirely unwilling captive of the beautiful nymph, Calypso, with whom he's spent seven of his ten lost years. Released from her wiles by the intercession of his patroness, Athena, and her father Zeus, he departs. His raft is destroyed by his nemesis, Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus blinded his son, the Cyclops, Polyphemus. When Odysseus washes up on Scheria, home to the Phaeacians, the naked stranger is treated with traditional Greek hospitality even before he reveals his name. Odysseus satisfies the Phaeacians' curiosity, recounting for them—and for us—all his adventures on his trip home since from Troy. This renowned, extended "flashback" leads him back to where he stands, his tale told. The shipbuilding Phaeacians finally loan him a ship to return to Ithaca, where, home at last, he regains his throne, reunites with his son, metes out justice to the suitors, and reunites with his faithful wife, Penelope.
Another significant question regards the possible historical basis of the events that take place in Homer's poems. The commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written in the Hellenistic period began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems. Modern classicists have continued the tradition.
The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the late nineteenth century began to convince scholars that there was a historical basis for the Trojan War. Research (pioneered by the aforementioned Parry and Lord) into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages began to convince scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until someone bothered to write them down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and others, convinced scholars of a linguistic continuity between thirteenth century B.C.E. Mycenaean writings and the poems attributed to Homer.
It is probable, therefore, that the story of the Trojan War as reflected in the Homeric poems derives from a tradition of epic poetry founded on a war that actually took place. However, it is important not to underestimate the creative and transforming power of demands of poetry and the subsequent tradition: for instance, Achilles, the most important character of the Iliad, is associated with Thessaly. He has likely a poetic invention, added to a story in which the attackers of Troy were from the Peloponnese.
(texts in Homeric Greek)
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