Very little is known about the author of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) and the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616). The ancient Greeks attributed both to Homer, a bard who probably lived late in the ninth century b.c.e. Both long-standing tradition and linguistic analysis of the two epics indicate that their author was a native of Ionia in western Asia Minor. A number of cities claimed to be Homer’s birthplace, but he was probably a native either of the coastal city Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey, or of nearby Chios, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea. Homer was said to be blind, like the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey, and to have earned a meager living by performing at one court after another. Supposedly he died and was buried on the Aegean island Ios.
Those scholars who believe that Homer was responsible for shaping the two great epics admit that he must have begun either with incomplete narratives that had been handed down in the oral tradition or with a number of songs, some of which could have dated back almost as far as the central historical event in both poems, the fall of Troy in 1250 b.c.e. However, Homer was no mere editor; he provided the unifying vision that is essential to the creation of great art. Moreover, even though excerpts from the epics were recited long after his time, the fact that the text changed very little indicates that Homer had his poems preserved in written form, perhaps by dictating them to a scribe.
Various theories have been advanced to explain the fact that the two works are very dissimilar in tone and outlook. One was that the Iliad was written in Homer’s youth and the Odyssey, in his later years; another, that the two poems had two different authors. Nineteenth century scholars debating the “Homeric question” concluded that each epic was produced by a group of writers. At the end of the twentieth century, that idea still had many adherents, but there was new evidence that the two epics were the work of one genius, thus demonstrating once again that tradition is often quite reliable.
Homer established the epic as a genre in Western literature and set the standards by which later works would be judged. Moreover, the values reflected in the Iliad and the Odyssey not only shaped Greek culture but also persisted into the Roman era and influenced the Renaissance. Allusions to Homer so permeate Western literature and his ideas are so basic to Western thought that his epics are ranked as two of the most important poems ever written, as well as two of the finest.
Alden, Maureen J. Homer Beside Himself: Para-Narratives in the “Iliad.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Advises students and others new to the Iliad on how to read, understand, and absorb the poetry, and then offers an analysis.
Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.”. Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. A close and witty exploration of the experience of reading Homer.
Carlisle, Miriam, and Olga Levaniouk, eds....
(The entire section is 1330 words.)