HOMER (eighth century bce), according to unanimous ancient Greek tradition, was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. His authorship of other epic poems and of long hexametrical hymns was already disputed in antiquity. Tradition assigns to him several dates, all earlier than the foundation of the Olympic Games in 776 bce. All ancient information, however, is much later than any of these dates and has rightly been seen as unhistorical in modern scholarship. The Iliad and Odyssey are now seen as the result and culmination of a long tradition of oral poetry; in their substance, they were composed between the late eighth century bce and the early seventh century bce, with a growing consensus for a later rather than an earlier date. As part of a tradition reaching back to the Late Bronze Age, the poems are an important source of information on early Greek religion and cult practice. Because throughout most of later Greek culture the poems had become normative, they in turn shaped the Greek way of perceiving polytheism.
Religion in Homer
Homer's gods are fully anthropomorphic, with the exception of river gods, whose descriptions oscillate between anthropomorphism and their element. Anthropomorphism regards not only the gods' appearance but also their way of thinking and feeling. The major gods live together as a loose family that comprises Zeus, patriarch and king; his siblings Poseidon and Hera (who is also his wife); and his children from several women—Apollo and Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, and Athena. Only Demeter and Dionysos are curiously nonexistent. They live in a palatial setting on Olympus, a mythical place that in Homer has already transcended its starting point in geographical reality, Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Their common meals are usually the occasion for extensive and often heated policy debates that precede the decisions of Zeus. Although the other gods have some independence of action, Zeus's will runs the world. The Iliad and Odyssey differ somewhat in their views of how human life relates to the divine world. The Iliad tends to see humans helplessly exposed to divine caprice, even though Zeus's decisions are just and well balanced, whereas the Odyssey explicitly rejects divine causation of bad moral decisions by humans. The overall impression is that the gods of the Odyssey are more willing to warn and sometimes even guide humans, but in the end to let them take their decisions alone. This reflects different concerns with theodicy in the Iliad and Odyssey. Whereas the Iliad juxtaposes Zeus and Fate without ever clarifying their mutual relationship or exploring the origins of bad things, the Odyssey makes it clear at its very beginning that Zeus is not responsible for evil but that humans (such as Aegisthus) often act foolishly and against the will and warning of Zeus and thus cause their own downfall.
Divine mythology in Homer is independent from specific local and cultic traditions. The local connections of some gods are acknowledged, such as Hera's with Argos, Apollo's with Delphi and Delos, or Aphrodite's with Cyprus, but the myths are not the local cult stories of Argos, Delphi, or Delos. To some extent this is even true for the four long and early Homeric Hymns. Only the "Hymn to Demeter" narrates a cult myth, the foundational story of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the "Hymn to Apollo" combines the Delian birth story with the foundation myth of the Delphian oracle. This independence from local traditions made Homeric mythology extremely well suited to give a translocal, Panhellenic appearance to the Greek gods.
The world of ritual practice that the Iliad and Odyssey depict must to some degree reflect the contemporary religion. Cities possess temples of their important gods (Athena or Apollo in Troy, Apollo in Chryse, Poseidon at the Phaeacian harbor, Apollo in a grove near Ithaca's town). Athena's Trojan temple contains a sitting image of the goddess. The major Panhellenic sanctuaries—Delphi, Delos, Dodona—are known; Delphi has a stone temple, Delos a famous altar. Humans perform festivals (for example, the festival for Apollo on Ithaca) and sacrifices, either as a group or individually. Twice Homer describes these sacrifices in loving detail, and once he describes an oath sacrifice. Homeric sacrifice is similar to later sacrificial practice with one exception. Whereas later a seer inspected the killed animal to determine whether it was welcome to the gods or not, this custom is absent in the Homeric poems. It is somewhat unclear whether this is a conscious stylization or an indication of contemporary usage. Divination as such is known to Homer, and seers appear in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. But their art seems to concentrate on observing omens, especially from the flight of birds. Extispicy, especially the art of consulting the liver of a sacrificial animal, is widespread in the ancient Near East and in Iron Age Etruria, where it must have arrived from the Orient. It is conceivable, although somewhat surprising, that the transfer of extispicy to the Greek world resulted from cultural contacts in the Early Iron Age at about the epoch of Homer.
It is still debated how much the Homeric poems owe to ancient Near Eastern culture, mythology, and literature. Given that both Bronze Age and Geometric Greece were part of a much wider Near Eastern common culture, the influence should not be underrated. On a general level are the common and widespread mythological patterns, such as the succession myth Homer (as well as Hesiod) shares with Near Eastern mythologies. On a second, more specific level are direct influences in mythological motives, such as the (rather isolated) mention of Okeanos and Tethys as "ancestors of the gods" (Iliad 14.201). This reflects the Akkadian Apsu and Tiamat as ancestors of the gods as narrated, for example, in the Enuma elish. On a third level are highly specific narrative motives shared between literary works, such as the apparition of Patroclus's shadow to Achilles in a dream (Iliad 23.65–107), which recalls the apparition of the dead Enkidu to Gilgamesh and points to a close connection between two narrative traditions.
Homer's Influence on Greek Religion
In the course of the Archaic epoch, the poems of Homer became normative for Greek culture. The poems' descriptions of the gods decisively shaped a Panhellenic mythology and iconography. But the anthropomorphism of the Homeric gods that made them act and react like humans provoked the criticism of religious thinkers who were devising a theology in which the gods were viewed as ideal moral beings and who were transcending anthropomorphism for the sake of theology. Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570–c. 480 bce) rejected anthropomorphism as a human projection onto the divine, and he heavily criticized Homer and Hesiod for their representations of immoral gods who "steal and lie and commit adultery." Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 bce) went even further. In the Republic he proposed that the ideal state would censure poetry and prohibit immoral representations of the gods.
As a way of dealing with these criticisms, rhapsodes and later Stoic philosophers developed the allegorical explanation of such Homeric scenes. The assumption was that the poet was hiding physical or ethical statements behind a misleading narrative surface; allegorization would reconstruct these original intentions of Homer. Originally developed by the rhapsodic interpreters of Homer, such as Stesimbrotos of Thasos (fifth century bce), allegorical interpretation turned into a major tool for adapting the understanding of canonical texts to a given society without changing their textual forms.
Broccia, Giuseppe. La questione Omerica. Florence, 1979.
Buffière, Félix. Les mythes d'Homère et la pensée grecque. Paris, 1956.
Burkert, Walter. "Homer's Anthropomorphism: Narrative and Ritual." In New Perspectives in Early Greek Art, edited by Diana Buitron-Oliver, pp. 81–91. Washington, D.C., 1991.
Graf, Fritz. "Religion und Mythologie im Zusammenhang mit Homer: Forschung und Ausblick." In Zweihundert Jahre Homer-Forschung Rückblick und Ausblick, edited by Joachim Latacz, pp. 331–362. Colloquiun Rauricum, 2. Stuttgart, 1991.
Heubeck, Alfred, Stephanie West, J. B. Hainsworth, A. Hoekstra, and Joseph Russo, eds. A Commentary on Homer's "Odyssey." 3 vols. Oxford, 1988–1992.
Kirk, G. A., ed. The "Iliad": A Commentary. 6 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1985–1993.
Kullman, Wolfgang. "Gods and Men in the Iliad and the Odyssey." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 89 (1985): 1–28.
Kullman, Wolfgang. "Zum Begriff der 'Homerischen Religion.'" In Religio Graeco-Romana: Festschrift für Walter Pötscher, edited by Joachim Dalfen, Gerhard Petersmann, and Franz Ferdinand Schwarz, pp. 43–50. Grazer Beiträge, Supplementband 5. Graz, Austria, 1993.
Lamberton, Robert. Homer the Theologian. Berkeley, Calif., 1986.
Morris, Ian, and Barry Powell, eds. A New Companion to Homer. Leiden, 1997. On the history of modern Homeric scholarship, see esp. chaps. 5–7, pp. 123–188.
Morris, Sarah. "Homer and the Near East." In A New Companion to Homer, edited by Ian Morris and Barry Powell, pp. 599–623. Leiden, 1997.
Privitera, G. Aurelio. Dioniso in Omero e nella poesia greca arcaica. Rome, 1970.
Vermeule, Emily Townsend. Götterkult. Archaeologia Homerica 3, fasc. V. Göttingen, Germany, 1974.
Fritz Graf (2005)
BORN: c. eighth century bce
DIED: c. seventh century bce
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.
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, how-ever, and remained in use until the seventeenth century; since then, there have been numerous other translations, in both prose and verse.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
The Homeric poems Iliad and Odyssey (probably eighth century BCE) are of interest to the historian of philosophy because they provide the background, in language and to some extent in thought, from which Greek philosophy emerged. The hexameters of Parmenides and Empedocles follow the Homeric pattern closely, and they both use Homeric words and coin words for themselves after the Homeric model. They also sometimes use the same thought forms. For instance, a comparison may be drawn between Parmenides' journey (see Fr. 1) and Odysseus's journey to the underworld (Odyssey, Book 11). The Homeric simile is the forerunner of the natural philosopher's "working model," by which an unfamiliar process is explained by comparison with a more familiar one. For example, to illuminate his description of an evenly poised battle Homer introduced a "careful working woman" weighing wool in her scales; Empedocles compared the breathing process in animals with operations performed with a household instrument, the clepsydra.
Apart from these questions of language and style, the Iliad and the Odyssey influenced the content of later philosophical thought in various ways.
The Homeric world picture was of a flat, disk-shaped earth, with the sky set over the top like an inverted metal bowl and Hades underneath the earth in a more or less symmetrical relation to the sky. The sun, moon, and stars were taken to move across the fixed heaven from east to west, but the manner of their return journey was not clear. The space between the earth and the sky contained aer (mist), and above that was aether (the bright air of the upper heavens). The earth was completely surrounded by the river of Ocean, personified and deified as Okeanos. In one exceptional passage (Iliad, Book 14, 200–248) Okeanos is called "the begetter of gods" and "the begetter of all things." Aristotle (Metaphysics A 3, 982b27) half seriously suggested that Homer's Okeanos was the forerunner of Thales' cosmogonical water. Plato, even less seriously, suggested (Theaetetus 152e) that Okeanos provided the origin of Heraclitus's flux theory. These are far-fetched ideas; the cosmology of Homer, such as it was, can hardly be seen as anything but a contrast with Ionian theories (see G. S. Kirk in The Presocratic Philosophers, Ch 1). But connections can be traced between some details of Homer's descriptions of the natural world and the speculations of later Greek philosophers of nature (see Charles Mugler, Les origines de la science grecque chez Homère ).
The historian Herodotus observed that Homer and Hesiod together had determined for all the Greeks what their gods were like, and this is probably the greatest significance of the Homeric poems for the history of philosophy (History II, 53). There is one general feature about the Homeric gods that is of much importance: They were not dark gods, accessible only to mystics and appeasable by magic, but on the whole very human and rational. They had powers over the world of human experience, and their powers were defined and hierarchical; in this we can see a hint of the orderly cosmos of later theory.
Some philosophers objected to the Homeric gods. Xenophanes launched the first attack: The gods behaved immorally; moreover, the conception of them was relative to the believer (see Fr. 16: "Ethiopians imagine their gods as black and snub-nosed"). Heraclitus's objections were not explicitly against gods but against Homer as the educator of Greece; the Olympian gods were, however, near the center of his target. Plato's onslaught in the Republic (376eff.) is well known; he wished to censor everything in the Homeric poems that was discreditable to the gods before the poems could be used in the education of the "Guardians" (it was general practice in Greece both before and after Plato's time to use Homer as the basis for moral and religious education).
The Homeric view of man shows interesting differences from later theories. There was no unified soul, contrasted with body, as in the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition; instead, the psychic functions were distributed without much consistency over a number of entities. The psyche, which held the position of greatest importance from the time of Pythagoras, was merely a life-soul in Homer; it played no part in the thoughts, emotions, and actions of the living man. The psyche survived after death; it did not, however, retain the complete moral personality, as in the Platonic eschatology, but was a bloodless, helpless shadow. The thoughts and feelings of the living man were attributed to the phrenes (roughly speaking, the organs of the chest, although in later Greek the word means "diaphragm"), the heart, and the thymos (a mysterious entity probably connected, like psyche, with breath). Nous (mind), which became the most important part of the psyche in the psychology of Plato and Aristotle, was generally restricted in Homer to the intuitive understanding of a situation (like the English "to see" in its metaphorical sense); consequently, it was often connected with sense perception, not contrasted with it as in Plato. Unlike phrenes, nous was not a physical thing for Homer but a function.
The actions of the human characters in the Iliad and Odyssey are represented as being influenced or manipulated more or less constantly by the gods. Actions that might be otherwise difficult to explain, such as a sudden access of superhuman courage, are especially attributed to the intervention of a god. But it is not only the inexplicable or the uncharacteristic that is described thus; a successful shot with the spear or an unsuccessful one, a plan adopted, a fit of anger, a bad bargain, an untimely sleep—these and many other unremarkable events are described as caused by a god. The gods handle the heroes as arbitrarily as a mortal king might treat his subjects, although not, as a rule, with savagery.
The fact that so much of human action is attributed to the gods has led modern interpreters to say that Homeric man is "an open field," that Homer denies free will, and that he has no concept of the human personality. This is true in a sense, but it is misleading. Homer was not a philosopher who had confronted the free-will problem and decided upon determinism; apart from an occasional exception he offered no theories about motivation and responsibility. From the point of view of the responsibility of human characters, there is no opposition between "caused by a god" and "due to a human agent"; for example, one and the same attack by Sarpedon is described as due to Zeus and a few lines later as due to Sarpedon's thymos (Iliad, Book 11, 292 and 307). The moral relations between human beings are on the whole, although not entirely, unaffected by the interventions of the gods; a god may stir a man to excessive anger, but it is still felt appropriate to blame the man for his anger. The individual characters of the heroes remain fairly stable; the activity of the gods is not such as to make human beings unpredictable. But the Homeric poems generally show a limited sense of moral responsibility. They were composed at a time when shame still predominated over guilt as a motivating force, and the intention of the agent and his knowledge of the circumstances of his act (the two factors that of course played the chief part in later legal and philosophical theories of responsibility) receive little attention.
Homer provided the material for much of later Greek literature, which examined the relation of Homeric gods and men in a new way. The problem of individual human responsibility for actions in which gods were said to be involved, though hardly seen by Homer, was much discussed by the fifth-century tragedians and Sophists (see, for example, Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1497ff.; Euripides, Troades 914ff.; Gorgias, Helen ).
See also Aristotle; Empedocles; Heraclitus of Ephesus; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Parmenides of Elea; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Pre-Socratic Philosophy; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Sophists; Xenophanes of Colophon.
The best text of the Iliad is edited by Martin L. West (Munich and Leipzig: Saur, 1998–2000); for the Odyssey see the text edited by Peter von der Muehll (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1962). Translations include The Iliad, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), and The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Doubleday, 1961). For commentaries see Geoffrey S. Kirk, ed., The Iliad: A Commentary (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985–1993) and Alfred Heubeck, Stephanie West et al., A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988–1992). Relevant texts with translation and commentary are included in Geoffrey S. Kirk, John E. Raven, and Malcolm Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983), Ch. 1, sections 1 and 2.
Secondary sources include E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951); Francis M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy (London, 1912); R. B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1951); Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, translated by Thomas G. Rosenmeyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), Chs. 1 and 2; Félix Buffière, Les mythes d'Homère (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1956); Charles Mugler, Les origines de la science grecque chez Homère (Paris: C. Klincksieck, 1963); Hermann Fränkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, translated by Moses Hadas and J. Willis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), Ch. 1; Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), Chs. 5 and 6; Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2nd ed., 1983), Chs. 1 and 2; Naoko Yamagata, Homeric Morality (Leiden: Brill, 1994).
David J. Furley (1967)
Bibliography updated by Richard Janko (2005)
Homer, the major figure in ancient Greek literature, has been universally acclaimed as the greatest poet of classical antiquity. The Iliad and the Odyssey, two long epic poems surviving in a surprisingly large number of manuscripts, are ascribed to him.
It is not possible to supply for Homer a biography in the accepted sense of a life history, since there is no authentic record of who he was, when and where he was born, how long he lived, or even if one and the same oral poet was responsible for the two long epic poems universally associated with his name. To be sure, a number of "lives" of Homer are extant from Greek times, but their authority is subject to such grave suspicion that they have been rejected as unfounded fabrications. In both the Iliad and Odyssey the personality of the poet remains wholly concealed, since he does not speak in the first person or otherwise refer to himself as the plot develops or the narrative proceeds.
Portrait of Homer
It is arguable that in one incident of the Odyssey the poet may be giving a glimpse of himself in the guise of a bard whom he calls Demodokos and whom he introduces to the court of the Phaeacian king, where the shipwrecked Odysseus is being generously entertained. This Demodokos (whose name may be rendered "favored of the people") is described as a "divine singer to whom the god gave delight of singing whatever his soul prompted him." He is introduced by a herald to the gathering of young and old and is called an "honored minstrel whom the Muse befriends— yet she gave him both good and bad, in that she conferred on him sweet song but deprived him of his eyesight." (In antiquity there was a persistent belief that Homer was blind.) Then the herald "placed for him a silver-studded chair in the midst of the feasters, propping it against a tall column. And from a hook above his head he hung the cleartoned lyre [phorminx] that he might reach it with his hand; and beside him he set a fair table and a basket of food and a cup of wine, that he might drink withal." And after the company had "partaken of food and put aside their desire of meat and drink, " then "the Muse stirred the bard to sing of the deeds of men, whose fame has reached wide heaven, to wit, the quarrel between Odysseus and Pelead Achilles, how they wrangled with violent words at a sacred banquet." When Demodokos finishes his heroic tale, Odysseus is made to remark how singers such as he "are held in honor and respect by all mankind; for the Muse herself has taught them." And again, addressing Demodokos, he says, "I praise thee beyond all mortals: either the Muse, God's daughter, has taught thee, or Apollo; for thou singest most fitly and aright the destiny of the Greeks, the deeds that they wrought and suffered, and the hardships they endured. Either thou thyself must have been present or heard it all from another."
This is the nearest and clearest approach to a picture of Homer in the act of reciting his poetry of heroic happenings. This passage from the Odyssey seems to have been responsible for the widespread modern idea that in the Homeric Age there were bards attached to the courts of local kings, who declaimed to the accompaniment of the lyre in great baronial halls—a complete misestimate of the poverty-stricken social conditions of the period.
Evidence from the Epics
This lack of any contemporary historical record of Homer's life leaves only what can be deduced from the poems themselves. On this task much ingenuity has been expended by modern scholars, often without acceptable result.
The setting of the Iliad is the plain of Troy and its immediate environment. Topographic details are set forth with such precision that it is not feasible to suppose that their reciter created them out of his imagination without personal acquaintance with the locality. To be sure, there is the apparent objection that not all the action of the poem can be made to fit the present-day terrain. This difficulty arises, however, only when it is assumed that the prehistorical fortified citadel which Heinrich Schliemann uncovered at a site known today as Hissarlik was the city of Priam described by the Iliad. But during the intervening centuries between the abandonment of Mycenaean Troy and its resettlement by Greeks of the classical period there could have been nothing to suggest to a visitor such as Homer that the meager traces of buried walls still visible to him could have marked the proud and great city about which local legend still recounted a protracted siege and sack. The plausible suggestion has been made that the ruins projecting at Hissarlik were locally identified as described in the Iliad as "the high tumbled wall of Herakles, that the Trojans under Pallas Athena built for him that he might escape the sea monster when it pursued him landward from the beaches." If this suggestion is accepted and the site of the storied city is moved farther inland, the congruence of local detail of gushing springs and running rivers will do much to convince the skeptic that the poet of the Iliad must have visited the Trojan plain and learned its topography from personal inspection.
Much the same conclusion results from a passage in the thirteenth chapter (or "book") of the Iliad, in which it is recounted how the sea-god Poseidon seated himself on the highest peak of the island of Samothrace "whence all Ida was visible and the city of Priam and the ships of the Achaeans." A map of the Aegean Sea will show that the direct line of sight between Samothrace and the Troad is blocked by the intervening island of Imbros, but the modern visitor to Troy discovers that the sharp 5, 000-foot peak of Samothrace is visible over a notched shoulder of Imbros. Therefore when Homer put Poseidon "on the topmost peak of wooded Samos, " he must have known that the god could have seen Troy because he himself had seen and remembered that from Troy one could see the peak of Samothrace.
In the Odyssey the situation is in many respects quite different. Although the poet demonstrably knew the western Greek island of Ithaca (where the second half of the epic is staged) as intimately as the poet of the Iliad knew the plain of Troy, the Odyssey elsewhere extends over many strange distant lands as Odysseus's homeward voyage from Troy to his native Ithaca is transformed into a weird sea-wandering from adventure to dreadful adventure—first to the land of the indolent Lotus-eaters, thence to the cave of the giant one-eyed Cyclops, thereafter to the island of Aiolos, king of the winds, and the harbor of the savage Laistrygones, and Circe's bewitched isle, to be followed by a visit to the underworld of dead souls, and finally past the fateful singing Sirens and between the sea beast Scylla and the vast whirlpool of Charybdis to the uttermost western land where the sun-god pastures his cattle.
Perhaps misled by the minute accuracy with which the Trojan plain is described in the Iliad and the island of Ithaca is pictured in the Odyssey, various modern commentators have attempted to impose the same topographic realism on Odysseus's astonishing voyage, selecting actual sites in the western Mediterranean for his adventures. But the true situation must be that the Homer of the Odyssey had never visited that part of the ancient world but had listened to the yarns of returning Ionian sailors such as explored the western seas during the 7th century B.C. and had fused these with ancient folktales that were the inheritance of all the Indo-European races.
Theory of Two Authors
That the author of the Iliad was not the same as the compiler of these fantastic tales in the Odyssey is arguable on several scores. The two epics belong to different literary types; the Iliad is essentially dramatic in its confrontation of opposing warriors who converse like the actors in Attic tragedy, while the Odyssey is cast as a novel narrated in more everyday human speech. In their physical structure, also, the two epics display an equally pronounced difference. The Odyssey is composed in six distinct cantos of four chapters ("books") each, whereas the Iliad moves unbrokenly forward with only one irrelevant episode in its tightly woven plot. Readers who examine psychological nuances see in the two works some distinctly different human responses and behavioral attitudes. For example, the Iliad voices admiration for the beauty and speed of horses, while the Odyssey shows no interest in these animals. The Iliad dismisses dogs as mere scavengers, while the poet of the Odyssey reveals a modern sentimental sympathy for Odysseus's faithful old hound, Argos.
But the most cogent argument for separating the two poems by assigning them to different authors is the archeological criterion of implied chronology. In the Iliad the Phoenicians are praised as skilled craftsmen working in metal and weavers of elaborate, much-prized garments. The shield which the metalworking god Hephaistos forges for Achilles in the Iliad seems inspired by the metal bowls with inlaid figures in action made by the Phoenicians and introduced by them into Greek and Etruscan commerce in the 8th century B.C. In contrast, in the Odyssey Greek sentiment toward the Phoenicians has undergone a drastic change. Although they are still regarded as clever craftsmen, in place of the Iliad's laudatory polydaidaloi ("of manifold skills") the epithet is parodied into polypaipaloi ("of manifold scurvy tricksters"), reflecting the competitive penetration into Greek commerce by traders from Phoenician Carthage in the 7th century B.C. Other internal evidence indicates that the Odyssey was composed later than the Iliad.
One thing, however, is certain: both epics were created without recourse to writing. Between the decline of Mycenaean and the emergence of classical Greek civilization—which is to say, from the late 12th to the mid-8th century B.C.—the inhabitants of the Greek lands had lost all knowledge of the syllabic script of their Mycenaean fore-bears and had not yet acquired from the easternmost shore of the Mediterranean that familiarity with Phoenician alphabetic writing from which classical Greek literacy (and in turn, Etruscan, Roman, and modern European literacy) derived. The same conclusion of illiterate composition may be reached from a critical inspection of the poems themselves. Among many races and in many different periods there has existed (and still exists sporadically) a form of purely oral and unwritten poetic speech, distinguishable from normal and printed literature by special traits that are readily recognizable and specifically distinctive. To this class the Homeric epics conform. Hence it would seem an inevitable inference that they must have been created either before the end of the 8th century B.C. or so shortly after that date that the use of alphabetic writing had not yet been developed sufficiently to record lengthy compositions. It is this illiterate environment that explains the absence of all contemporary historical record of the authors of the two great epics.
It is probable that Homer's name was applied to two distinct individuals differing in temperament and artistic accomplishment, born perhaps as much as a century apart, but practicing the same traditional craft of oral composition and recitation. Although each became known as "Homer, " it may be (as one ancient source asserts) that homros was a dialectical lonic word for a blind man and so came to be used generically of the old and often sightless wandering reciters of heroic legends in the traditional meter of unrhymed dactylic hexameters. Thus there could have been many Homers. The two epics ascribed to Homer, however, have been as highly prized in modern as in ancient times for their marvelous vividness of expression, their keenness of personal characterization, their unflagging interest, whether in narration of action or in animated dramatic dialogue.
Later Greek times credited Homer with the composition of a group of comparatively short "hymns" addressed to various gods, of which 23 have survived. On internal evidence, however, only one or two of these at most can be the work of the poet of the two great epics. The burlesque epic The Battle of the Frogs and Mice has been preserved but adds nothing to Homer's reputation. Several other epic poems of considerable length—the Cypria, the Little Iliad, the Phocais, the Thebais, the Capture of Oichalia—were widely ascribed to Homer in classical times. None of these has survived except in stray quoted verses. But even if they were preserved in full, it is highly doubtful whether modern scholarship would accept them as all by the same author. The simple truth seems to be that the name Homer was not so much that of a single individual as a personification for an entire school of poets flourishing on the west coast of Asia Minor during the period before the art of writing had been sufficiently developed by the Greeks to permit historical records to be compiled or literary compositions to be written down.
Excellent translations of Homer are Richmond Latimore's Iliad (1962) and Odyssey (1967) and Robert Fitzgerald's Odyssey (1961). The literature on Homer and his age is vast. A useful guide is John L. Myres, Homer and His Critics, edited by Dorothea Gray (1958). Since little is definitely known about the authorship of the Homeric poems, all studies on their origin are subject to controversy. Representing the view that, because of similarities, the Iliad and Odyssey were written by one man are the studies of Adam Scott, The Unity of Homer (1921) and Homer and His Influence (1930), which surveys what is known about Homer. Working from archeological evidence, Hilda Lockhart Lorimer, Homer and the Monuments (1950), concludes that the two poems were written by different men. Examining the poems in the tradition of oral literature, Rhys Carpenter, Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics (1946), suggests that the poems began as oral literature; while Albert Bates Lord, The Singer of Tales (1960), contends that Homer was not an original writer but a singer of folktales. Homer's work is viewed as an aspect of the Greek genius in Gilbert Murray's classic study The Rise of the Greek Epic (1907).
Other useful studies include M. P. Nilsson, Homer and Mycenae (1933), a reconstruction of the historical background of the poems; S. E. Bassett, The Poetry of Homer (1938); Henry T. Wade-Gery, The Poet of the Iliad (1952); Cedric H. Whitman, Homer and the Homeric Tradition (1958); and Denys L. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad (1959), a detailed survey of the research on the Iliad. Cecil Maurice Bowra, The Greek Experience (1957), is recommended for background. □
Born: Ninth century b.c.e.
Died: Ninth century b.c.e.
H omer, the major figure in ancient Greek literature, has been considered the greatest poet of classical antiquity (ancient times). He wrote both the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems (long narrative poems) surviving in a surprisingly large number of manuscripts.
Portrait of Homer
It is not possible to supply a biography for Homer in the accepted sense of a life history. Since he lived before cultures began recording history, there is no authentic record of who he was, when and where he was born, how long he lived, or even if he was actually responsible for the two epic poems for which he is known.
It is arguable that in one incident of the Odyssey the poet may be giving a glimpse of himself in the disguise of a bard (singing poet), whom he calls Demodokos and whom he introduces to the court of the Phaeacian king, where the shipwrecked Odysseus is generously entertained. This Demodokos is described as a "divine singer to whom the god gave delight of singing whatever his soul prompted him." He is also described as being blind, which also supports the argument that Homer was portraying himself, because there was a belief that Homer was blind.
Evidence from the epics
This lack of any historical record of Homer's life leaves only what can be taken from the poems themselves. On this task many scholars have attempted to draw conclusions about Homer, often without acceptable results.
The setting of the Iliad is the plain of Troy (an ancient Greek city) and its immediate surroundings. Details of the land are so precise that it is not feasible to suppose that their author created them out of his imagination. To be sure, there is the objection that not all of the poem's action can be made to fit the present-day lands.
In the Odyssey the situation is in many respects quite different. The poet demonstrates that he knew the western Greek island of Ithaca (where the second half of the epic takes place) as well as the poet of the Iliad knew the plain of Troy. The Odyssey, however, also extends over many strange, distant lands, as Odysseus's homeward voyage from Troy to his native Ithaca is transformed into a bizarre sea-wandering adventure.
Perhaps misled by the accuracy with which the Trojan plain is described in the Iliad and the island of Ithaca is pictured in the Odyssey, various modern commentators have tried to impose the same realism on Odysseus's astonishing voyage, selecting actual sites in the western Mediterranean Sea for his adventures. The true situation must be that the Homer of the Odyssey had never visited that part of the ancient world, but he had instead listened to the stories of returning Ionian sailors who explored the western seas during the seventh century b.c.e.
Theory of two authors
That the author of the Iliad was not the same as the author of these fantastic tales in the Odyssey is arguable on several levels. The two epics belong to different literary types: the Iliad is essentially dramatic in its confrontation of opposing warriors who converse like the actors in a tragedy (a play with struggle and disappointment), while the Odyssey is cast as a novel narrated in more everyday human speech. In their physical structure, also, the two epics display an equally obvious difference: the Odyssey is composed in six distinct parts of four chapters ("books") each, whereas the Iliad moves unbrokenly forward in its tightly woven plot.
Readers who examine psychological qualities see in the two works some distinctly different human responses and behavioral attitudes. For example, the Iliad voices admiration for the beauty and speed of horses, while the Odyssey shows no interest in these animals. The Iliad dismisses dogs as mere scavengers, while the poet of the Odyssey reveals a modern sympathy for Odysseus's faithful old hound, Argos.
The strongest argument for separating the two poems is the chronology, or dating, of some of the facts in the pieces. In the Iliad the Phoenicians are praised as skilled craftsmen working in metal, and as weavers of elaborate, much-prized garments. In contrast, Greek feelings toward the Phoenicians have undergone a drastic change in the Odyssey. Although they are still regarded as clever craftsmen, the Phoenicians are also described as "tricksters," reflecting the invasion of Phoenecian commerce into Greek markets in the seventh century b.c.e.
One thing, however, is certain: both epics were created without writing sources. Between the decline of Mycenaean and the emergence of classical Greek civilizations—which is to say, from the late twelfth to the mid-eighth century b.c.e.—the inhabitants of the Greek lands had not yet acquired from the easternmost shore of the Mediterranean the familiarity with Phoenician alphabetic writing that would lead to classical Greek literacy (and in turn, Etruscan, Roman, and modern European literacy). Therefore it could be concluded that the epics must have been created either before the end of the eighth century b.c.e. or so shortly afterwards that the use of alphabetic writing had not yet been developed sufficiently to record long pieces of writing. It is this illiterate (unable to read or write) environment that explains the absence of all historical record of the author's two great epics.
It is probable that Homer's name was applied to two individuals differing in style and artistic accomplishment, born perhaps as much as a century apart, but practicing the same traditional craft of oral composition and recitation (to read out loud). Although each became known as "Homer," it may be (as one ancient source says) that "homros" was a word for a blind man and so came to be used generically to refer to the old and often sightless wandering reciters of heroic legends. Thus there could have been many Homers.
The two epics Homer is generally regarded as writing, however, have been as highly prized in modern as in ancient times for their vividness of expression, their keenness of personal characterization, and their lasting interest, whether in narration of action or in animated dramatic dialogue.
Later Greek times credited Homer with the composition of a group of comparatively short "hymns" (songs of praise) addressed to various gods, of which twenty-three have survived. With a closer look, however, only one or two of these, at most, can be the work of the poet of the two great epics. The epic "The Battle of the Frogs and Mice" has been preserved but adds nothing to Homer's reputation. Several other epic poems of considerable length—The Cypria, The Little Iliad, The Phocais, The Thebais, and The Capture of Oichalia —were also credited to Homer in classical times.
The simple truth seems to be that the name Homer was not so much that of a single individual but an entire school of poets flourishing on the west coast of Asia Minor (today, the area of Turkey). Unfortunately, we will probably never know for sure, since during this period the art of writing had not been sufficiently developed by the Greeks to permit historical records to be compiled or literary compositions to be written down.
For More Information
Colum, Padraic. The Children's Homer. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Reprint, New York: Collier Books, 1982.
Lorimer, Hilda Lockhart. Homer and the Monuments. London: Macmillan, 1950.
Myres, John L. Homer and His Critics. Edited by Dorothea Gray. London: Routledge & Paul, 1958.
Scott, John Adams. The Unity of Homer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1921.
c. 8th century b.c.e.–c. early 7th century b.c.e.
Iliad and Odyssey.
The long epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey stand at the beginning of Greek literature, and the Greeks generally attributed them to a poet named Homer. Nothing can be said for certain about his identity. The years of his life are much disputed; guesses range from the time of the Trojan War, which was generally placed around 1200 b.c.e., up to 500 years after the Trojan War or about 700 b.c.e., which is a date most modern scholars can accept as the approximate period when he lived. It is generally agreed that he lived near the end of a bardic tradition, when oral poets who were generally illiterate performed at festivals or banquets. Yet at some point, the Iliad and the Odyssey took their present form and were written down, and it is at least possible that Homer was the poet responsible for producing the written text.
Development of Religion.
Whoever Homer was, his importance to the development of Greek religion was enormous. The Iliad and Odyssey defined the gods and goddesses and gave them their attributes. The Iliad placed them on Mt. Olympus; the Odyssey was a little more vague about the exact location of their dwelling, but in both epics, the gods and goddesses lived high above the earth and looked down on mortals with detached interest. They represented no ethical ideal, but they were powerful and easily offended.
Performance of Epics.
The text of Homer was preserved by a company of bards called the Homeridai or "Sons of Homer," which did not necessarily imply that they were Homer's descendants, but rather professionals who continued to work in the Homeric tradition. Their responsibility was to recite the portions of the Iliad and Odyssey at festivals or public gatherings, accompanied by the lyre. Sometimes, before starting his performance, the bard would recite a prelude of his own composition, and some of these have survived as the so-called Homeric Hymns. These hymns are literary creations and not to be confused with the hymns that might be sung to a god as part of the sacrificial ritual, which invoked the god under his various names, recited his deeds, and ended with a prayer. The headquarters of the Homeridai was on the island of Chios, off the west coast of Asia Minor, and the author of one Homeric Hymn refers to himself as a blind poet from Chios. It was probably this little autobiographical detail that gave rise to the tradition that Homer himself was a blind poet from Chios.
Homer as Educator.
The Greeks recognized Homer as the educator of all Greece. His poems were accepted everywhere as classics, and the education of a young Greek would include the memorization of long sections of the epics. We hear of Greeks who could recite all the Iliad and Odyssey by heart, for they had committed them to memory at school and could still recall them when they became adults. The Olympian gods as Homer represented them became accepted all over Greece, and gave Greek religion whatever unity it had. Moreover, Homer gave Greece a heroic ideal. The Achilles of Homer's Iliad became the splendid model of the heroic warrior who chose honor and valor over a long but uneventful life. If Homer provided the Greeks with an ethical paradigm, it was not the gods but the brave Achilles who died young but left behind him renown and glory.
C. M. Bowra, Homer (London, England: Duckworth; New York: Scribner, 1972).
Jenny Strauss Clay, The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the "Odyssey" (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983).
Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1980).
G. S. Kirk, Homer and the Oral Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Two of the greatest works of ancient literature—the Iliad and the Odyssey —are credited to a Greek poet named Homer. However, Homer is a shadowy figure, and some scholars doubt that he ever existed. They suggest that the two epics, which tell of the Trojan Warf and the events surrounding it, were woven together by generations of storytellers. Others, however, believe that one poet—perhaps Homer—could have gathered traditional legends and stories told for centuries and created the two great works of literature.
In any case, the ancient Greeks named Homer as the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey Stories about the poet suggest that he lived in Ionia, a region on the west coast of Anatolia (present-day Turkey). The dates of his life are uncertain, possibly in the 800s or 700s b.c.
According to tradition, Homer was a blind poet who wandered from place to place telling tales of legendary heroes, gods, and goddesses. It was customary in that period for performers to sing or chant such tales while playing a lyre or other musical instrument. If Homer was, indeed, a wandering performer, he would have relied on voluntary contributions of food, money, and other goods for his support.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
lyre stringed instrument similar to a small harp
Whether or not Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two works had a profound influence on Western culture and education. To the ancient Greeks, they were a source of moral lessons as well as a symbol of Greek unity and achievement. The philosopher Aristotle, author of the Poetics, praised Homer highly. A number of later writers, such as the Roman poet Virgil*, modeled their own works on the style and patterns of Homer's epics.
See also Greek Mythology; Iliad, the; Odyssey, the.
Homer sometimes nods even the greatest expert may make a mistake (nods here means ‘becomes drowsy’, implying a momentary lack of attention). The saying is recorded in English from the late 14th century, but derives ultimately from the Roman poet Horace commenting on the Greek epic poet Homer, ‘I'm aggrieved when sometimes even excellent Homer nods.’