Homer Circa Eighth Century B.C.
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
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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 poem began. The historical element in the Iliad is thus but slight, even if it does concern an actual war.
The speeches of the quarrel scene and of the embassy, the pleadings of Thetis with Zeus, the parting of Hector from Andromache, the making of the shield, the games, the father begging for the delivery of the corpse of his son are all poetic creations, unhampered by time or place.
Recent excavations made at Troy and geographical surveys in the Troad are of great value and prove that the poet chose a real city and an actual landscape for his setting, also that he was describing a civilization that had once existed, but, even granting all this, Homer has none the less given to "airy nothing a...
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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 encyclopedic Tesoro of Dante's master Brunetto Latini and the comprehensiveness of the Divina Commedia itself.
The code that is to press the mortality of the hero, the verse style that is to sound the depths of his objectified feeling, though they must derive from tradition, cannot simply be received from it, even if the tradition be that of the man's earlier work.
An epic poem must find its embodiment in a wholly adequate fable. The test of adequacy is not to be found in some generality such as War, the subject of many long poems, or Wandering, the subject of many others. An epic adequacy, moreover, cannot be said to be guaranteed by the resonance of an archetypal plot. Poems with stories, short...
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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 paralleled in ancient poems like Gilgamesh and in modern ones like the Kirghiz Manas. In such poems the thrill of action comes first but is attended by much else, notably by a concern for what human beings do and suffer and the many ways in which they face their challenges. In heroic poetry this is all important because without it the mere account of violent behaviour would pall even for the most assiduous addict and lose much of its significance by its neglect of human feelings and considerations. In the Homeric poems the action is wonderfully varied, and though we know in general what is going to come next, we seldom know exactly how it will come. Surprise is never lacking and sharpens an endless range of effects....
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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 wearied by the seemingly endless succession of virtually identical incidents and to experience the 'formulaic style' at its stereotyped worst. For this reason there is some virtue in sorting out the frequency of typical incidents and in establishing the degree of variation between closely related phenomena. As it turns out, the impression of endless repetition rests on a fairly small base, and many details of battle owe their 'typically Homeric' status not to repetition but to vividness of language, like the 'Homeric' laughter of the gods that arises only once in the Iliad (1.599).
There is no doubt that battle scenes, which amount to 5,500 lines or a good third of the Iliad, enjoy considerable autonomy in the...
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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 impressive by virtue of their own strength.
How to explain the spell they cast upon a child's mind? How to explain it quite apart from any preliminary learning? One reason for it is precisely that no preliminary learning is required. For these scenes are self-contained and self-explanatory. What they present comes to life through a power of its own. It is indeed the suddenness of realization which makes them so forcible.
Take the wrath of Achilles, the first thing mentioned in the Iliad. No need for any narrative detail. His wrath is immediately singled out because it is momentous, explosive by its very nature. Is it simply an overwhelming human emotion or, rather, a divine power? No matter. So bold...
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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 exchange. Thus "economic organization is homosexual," and "woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself."
The first part of Irigaray's thesis, that the appropriation of women is "tantamount to theft and rape," rips no interpretive veils from the Iliad, a narrative that unembarrassedly represents theft and rape as the modalities of appropriation. As concerns the commodification of women, too, what could be more brutally explicit than the scene in Book 23 in which a woman designated as worth four oxen is offered as second prize in a wrestling contest, the winner of which is to receive a tripod? Strictly...
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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 women, including queens and goddesses, are either specifically described or said to be involved in the spinning of wool or the creation of cloth on their looms. Their work symbolizes the normal order of life, in which women take care of their households while men defend the city.
Although modern scholarship has appropriately recognized the symbolic or metaphorical function of weaving in literature and in the Homeric poems in particular, no distinction has yet been made between weaving and spinning. Traditionally, spinning has been viewed either as another occupation of women or simply as part of the process of weaving. Despite their obvious connection—both spinning and weaving were performed by women and in a sequence,...
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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.
Examines the influence of the gods and of fate over the actions of the characters in Homer's epics.
Adorno, T. W. "Odysseus, or Mythos and Enlightenment." In Homer: The "Odyssey" translated and edited by Albert Cook, pp. 428-36. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1974.
Views the Odyssey as a struggle between fact and fantasy with the clever hero, Odysseus, striving for knowledge.
Allen, Thomas W. Homer: The Origins and the Transmission. London: Oxford University Press, 1924, 357 p.
Overview of the origins, evolution, and transmission of Homeric poetry.
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