Homer Circa Eighth Century B.C.
Greek poet. See also Iliad Criticism.
Homer's two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have greatly influenced the style and content of Western literature and are considered two of the greatest literary artifacts of Western civilization. Taken together, the Iliad and the Odyssey display comic as well as tragic elements, and cover a broad range of themes that are still relevant today: war, religion, honor, betrayal, vengeance, and humanity's quest for immortality. Over the centuries, the poems have left an indelible imprint on the fields of literature, art, philosophy, and ethics. Writers as diverse as Virgil, Shakespeare, John Milton, and James Joyce have been inspired by the characters and tales presented in the epics.
Almost nothing is known about Homer, but scholars hypothesize that he was an Ionian Greek (probably from the coast of Asia Minor or one of the adjacent islands), that he was born sometime before 700 B.C., and that he lived in approximately the latter half of the eighth century B.C. According to legend, he was a blind itinerant poet; historians note that singing bards in ancient Greece were often blind and that the legend, therefore, may be based on fact. It is also possible that Homer may have lost his sight only late in life or that his purported blindness was meant to mask his illiteracy. Biographies of Homer exist in the form of six early "lives" and assorted commentaries by ancient and Byzantine scholars, but the information they contain is considered unreliable and mostly mythical. Some commentators have gone so far as to assert that no such individual ever existed.
The paucity of information regarding Homer and his relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey has incited much scholarly inquiry and has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archeology, linguistics, art, and comparative literature. As a result of their research, three main theories regarding the composition of the poems have emerged: the analytic, the Unitarian, and the oral folkepic. Until the publication of the Friedrich Adolph Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, the notion that Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey was largely undisputed. However, citing certain inconsistencies and errors in the texts, Wolf asserted that the two works were not the compositions of one poet, but the products of many different authors at work on various traditional poems and stories. Wolf's argument convinced many critics—who were subsequently termed the analysts—but also
inspired the notorious authorship controversy known as the "Homeric question." Although Wolf's view prevailed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was ultimately challenged by an opposing group of critics, the Unitarians, whose primary spokesman was Andrew Lang. The Unitarians insisted that a single individual of genius composed the Homeric epics, and they supported that claim by citing a unified sensibility, original style, and consistent use of themes and imagery in the poems.
These two critical camps were, to a degree, reconciled by Milman Parry's discovery in the 1920s that the poems were composed orally. Parry established that Homeric verse is formulaic by nature, relying on generic epithets (such as "wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn"), repetition of stock lines and half-lines, and scenes and themes typical of traditional folk poetry. Comparing Homer's poetry with ancient oral epics from other cultures, Parry deduced that Homer was most likely a rhapsode, or itinerant professional reciter, who improvised stories to be sung at Greek festivals. As a public performer, Homer probably learned to weave together standard epic story threads and descriptions in order to sustain his narrative, and relied on mnemonic devices and phrases to fill the natural metrical units of poetic lines. Parry's theory, like that of the analysts, stressed the derivative, evolutionary character of Homer's poetry; but like the Unitarians, Parry affirmed Homer's individual genius as a shaper of traditional elements whose creations far exceeded the sum of their borrowed parts. Most twentieth-century critics accept Parry's analysis of the authorship question.
Two epic poems have been attributed to Homer: the Iliad focuses on the Trojan War during the twelfth century B.C., in particular the actions of the Greek or Achaean hero Achilles—a warrior who is both brave and headstrong; the Odyssey is set after the Greek victory in the Trojan War and recounts the adventures and long-delayed homecoming of the clever Greek hero Odysseus. Internal evidence from these two epics suggests that while the Iliad predates the Odyssey, both were composed in the eighth century B.C. in a dialect that was a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic Greek.
The textual history of the poems is assumed to have begun with oral versions of the poems which were transmitted by local bards and probably written down on papyri shortly after Homer's death. Once set down in writing, the poems most likely became the exclusive property of the Homeridae, or sons of Homer, a bardic guild whose members performed and preserved the poems. Scholars believe that in the second half of the sixth century B.C., they established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations that had accumulated in the process of transmission—thereby establishing a Canon of Homer. The first printed edition of Homer's poetry appeared in Europe in 1488 and remained in use until the seventeenth century. Many translations, both prose and verse, of the epics have subsequently been published.
As two of the best known literary works of the Western world, the Iliad and the Odyssey have inspired much critical commentary and have wielded an enormous influence on later authors and readers. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in explicating his rules for dramatic poetry, found in Homer the most exemplary combination of high seriousness, unity of action, dramatic vividness, and authorial reserve. In classical times, Homer's works formed the basis of any educational curriculum and therefore left an indelible imprint on the fields of literature, art, philosophy, and ethics. Homer's works, generally venerated as repositories of traditional wisdom, were among the first books to be printed in the fifteenth century in Europe. The vogue for restraint and correctness that characterized the critical thought of the sixteenth century led many scholars to reject Homer's works in favor of those of Virgil. However, Homer's preeminence as an epic poet was reestablished in the eighteenth century by the translations of Chapman and Pope and the essays in praise of Homer by Joseph Addison.
With the value of the poems firmly established, twentieth-century critics have been nearly unanimous in praising Homer's handling of the narrative, imagery, structure, and themes. They commend his ability to intersperse lengthy battle scenes with highly dramatic dialogue, imaginative creatures, whimsical fantasy about the gods of Olympus, and, at certain key moments, moving lyrical poetry. Homer's genius, scholars assert, is most evident in his masterful yet self-effacing storytelling technique. 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 tales seem completely natural. Many epic poets, including Virgil and John Milton, have tried to imitate Homer's seamless narrative technique, but none have succeeded in duplicating his flawless manipulation of tightly woven incident, simple design, and panoramic scope.
The Iliads of Homer (translated by George Chapman) 1611
The Odyssey (translated by George Chapman) 1615
The Iliad of Homer (translated by Alexander Pope) 1715-20
The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Alexander Pope) 1726
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (translated by William Cowper) 1791
The Iliad of Homer (translated by William Cullen Bryant) 1870
The Odyssey of Homer (translated by William Cullen Bryant) 1871
The Iliad of Homer (translated by Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers) 1893
The Anger of Achilles (translated by Robert Graves) 1959
The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Richard Lattimore) 1967
The Odyssey (translated by Albert Cook) 1974
The Iliad (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) 1992
The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) 1992
SOURCE: "The Iliad" in Homer and His Influence, Cooper Square Publishers, 1963, pp. 41-53.
[In the following essay, Scott describes the Iliad as a poem about wrath and warfare and focuses on quotations from the poem that display Homer's skill at evoking emotions and profound ideas.]
The first word of the Iliad is "Wrath" which reveals at once the kernel of the poem, since the Iliad does not depend on the fate of Achilles, but solely on his wrath. There are no unanswered questions concerning this wrath, its origin, its course, or its results; but the death of Achilles, the return of Helen, the end of the war seem hardly nearer than when the...
(The entire section is 2329 words.)
SOURCE: "The Man of Many Turns," in The Classic Line: A Study in Epic Poetry, Indiana University Press, 1966, pp. 120-37.
[In the following essay, Cook assesses the themes, settings, and tone of the Odyssey, maintaining that the poem is lighter in tone but equally as profound as the Iliad]
The epic poem is all-embracing; it is comprehensive, rather than encyclopedic, in character. It is their focus, more even than their lack of verse form, which deprives Finnegans Wake or La Comédie Humaine of an epic aura, and which almost gives one to War and Peace. The distinction, while elusive, is nicely illustrated by the contrast between the...
(The entire section is 5795 words.)
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Action," in Homer, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 141-64.
[In the following essay, Bowra explores the dramatic quality of the Homeric epics, maintaining that although it "arises from action, it often goes beyond it and touches on the character of the actors, their thoughts and their feelings as their words reveal them. "]
The Iliad and the Odyssey are preeminently poems of action. Their first purpose is to engage the hearers in what happens, to involve them imaginatively in it. In this respect they resemble not only other heroic poetry but much oral narrative verse which may be sub-heroic or shamanistic. Their main objective can be...
(The entire section is 9134 words.)
SOURCE: "Fighting in the Iliad" in The Iliad, George Allen & Unwin, 1984, pp. 77-107.
[In the following excerpt, Mueller discusses ways in which individual warriors are represented fighting, dying or exulting over the bodies of their enemies in the Iliad.]
[My purpose in this essay] is to survey the representation of battle in the Iliad, moving from the components that make up the individual encounter to the devices by which larger narrative units are created from such encounters."… Here my chief aim is to classify phenomena and to convey a sense of their relative frequency. It is in the battle scenes that the modern reader is most likely to be...
(The entire section is 8208 words.)
SOURCE: "Homer and the Reader," in Homer, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, Vivante offers a stylistic analysis of Homer's epic verse, in particular, his use of recurrent images, analogies, and epithets.]
The child's first impressions on hearing Homer are as deep as they are vivid. The wrath of Achilles conjured up all at once; Achilles and Agamemnon standing out in strife against each other; Chryses suddenly appearing before the Achaeans to ransom his daughter; Chryses rebuffed and walking in angry prayer along the shore; Apollo listening and descending from Olympus—such scenes, enacted as they are moment after moment, are naturally...
(The entire section is 4741 words.)
SOURCE: "The Circulation of Bodies in the Iliad," in New Literary History, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 339-61.
[In the following essay, Staten examines the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad and explores the socioeconomic importance of war booty, vengeance, and mourning in the poem.]
"Appropriations tantamount to theft and rape": that is how Luce Irigaray characterizes the economy of capitalism [in This Sex Which is Not One, 1985], and especially its sexual economy, whose hidden essence is the essence of the whole. Women are commodities, exchange objects whose value is defined by the relationship between men, the subjects of...
(The entire section is 8890 words.)
SOURCE: "Spinning and Weaving: Ideas of Domestic Order in Homer," in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 114, No. 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 493-501.
[In the following essay, Pantelia determines the function of spinning and weaving for different female characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey.]
Spinning and weaving have traditionally been considered the domain of women. All evidence suggests that in antiquity the working of wool and the production of garments were primary occupations of women, who, regardless of their social status—be they slaves or queens—contributed through their handiwork to the self-sufficiency of their own households. In the Homeric poems all...
(The entire section is 2848 words.)
Combellack, F. M. "Contemporary Homeric Scholarship: Sound or Fury?" The Classical Weekly 49, Nos. 2, 3, and 4 (October 24; November 14; November 28, 1955): 17-26, 29-44, 45-55.
Surveys Homeric scholarship up to 1955, examining the state of studies on such topics as orality, archeology, literary merit, sources transmission, and editions of the poems.
Adkins, Arthur W. H. "Homer: Free Will and Compulsion." In Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values, pp. 10-29. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.
(The entire section is 1178 words.)