What Is Known About Homer?

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Most historians agree that Homer was a poet who lived before 700 B.C.in the area of Asia Minor (the western tip of Asia), most likely in Ios, Greece. He is considered to be the first true European poet and the author of the epic (long narrative) poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which are considered literary masterpieces. They are the culmination of a long tradition of oral poetry that may date back as far as the thirteenth century B.C. There has been much debate and mystery surrounding Homer and his works. Some scholars claim he was blind and therefore a purely oral poet who told his epics to a scribe (copier of manuscripts) later in life. Others believe he is a mythological character and that the Iliad and the Odyssey are compilations of hundreds of years of oral tradition passed down through generations.

Questions surrounding the works of Homer have resulted in a formal, ongoing debate known as "the Homeric question," which gained momentum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The dispute involves, on one side, scholars who believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by the same person. On the other side are scholars who question whether Homer actually wrote these poems. Both works are nearly the same length—twenty-four books each—and written in almost identical styles, but it appears that the Iliad was written much earlier than the Odyssey. The poems also consist of "formulaic" writing (following distinctive patterns that almost anyone could use), which suggests that they are ancient stories told by many different oral poets.

Further Information: Beye, C. R. The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Epic Tradition. New York: Gordian Press, 1976; The Homeric Problem. [Online] Available http://members.aol.com/ikoulchine/homer/homer.html, October 23, 2000; Parry, A. The Making of Homeric Verse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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