Early Greek Poetry
The earliest Greek poetry was unlettered, oral, and traditional. For centuries before the appearance of the alphabet in the eighth century b.c.e., Greek poets were creating songs, probably in dactylic hexameter, for entertainment, ritual, and religious purposes. Some of these poems were probably short lyrics and others were longer tales about their heroes and gods. Most, if not all, were probably intended for public performance by individuals or by choruses. Especially in longer, narrative poetry, fixed phrases such as epithets and formulas were used as mnemonic devices and compositional tools to tell and retell tales through generations.
While the texts of the earliest surviving Greek poetry, the Homeric epics Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), were probably not written down in definitive form until the eighth century b.c.e., the tales on which they are based may have existed in oral form at least by the late second millennium b.c.e. Although the very existence of their author is clouded in controversy, few challenge their author’s debt to a long chain of earlier poets who helped establish tales about a ten-year-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans and the troublesome homecomings of the...
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