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Homer World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Accepting an eighth century dating for composition of the Iliad and Odyssey, as most modern scholars do, logically raises questions regarding the appropriateness of the Homeric poems as historical testimony. Such questions do not grow substantially fewer by moving Homer’s century back to the ninth. Archaeological methods developed since Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at the site of Troy in the 1870’s have set the dates for the historical Trojan War between 1194 and 1184 b.c.e. That would mean that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey describe a historical period four or three hundred years anterior to his own. Since the Greek world was still at its preliterate stage (the ability to write existed, but the written language was not used for literary purposes), Homer had no written records upon which to rely. Even so, memory remains strong in preliterate societies. Mythic storytelling becomes a privileged art, one that does not tolerate deviation from elements considered essential. Descriptions of personalities, places, events, and outcomes must remain consistent. Numbers involved and chronological frames for these events assume considerably less importance. Given that classical Greek identifies all numbers above ten thousand as myría (myriad), no ancient reader would have expected a precise inventory of numbers in the “Catalogue of Ships and Heroes” that fills Iliad 2. In fact, Greek notions of history before Thucydides differed as much as their understanding of biography before Plutarch (c. 46 c.e.-after 120 c.e.).

Nevertheless, archaeology supports much of what Homer provides regarding the Trojan War. Read emblematically, the Iliad implies a major clash of Greek and non-Greek cultures. Even ancient historical sources document the friction between the Peloponnesic Greeks and the inhabitants of Ionia, Caria, and Anatolia, and it is likely that the theft of Helen (whose value is material, not human, by Mycenaean standards) represents the mercantile friction that existed between the Peloponnesus and Asia Minor.

Moreover, the internal consistency of the Homeric poems constitutes a strong argument in favor of their reliability. Both Iliad and Odyssey rely extensively on verbatim repeated passages, epithets regularly assigned to people, places, and things, and massive lists known as epic catalogs. Formulaic endings often fill out the hexameter verse, implicitly supporting the authenticity of the line in question. All these techniques effectively become mnemonic devices that facilitated oral transmission of the poems by rhapsodes, who originally circulated the Homeric poems throughout the Greek world. It is clear that the Iliad and Odyssey had assumed privileged status at a period that approximates their composition. With this understood, it is unlikely that the rhapsodes would have altered the essentials of the poems in any substantive way. Late second century b.c.e. codification by Aristarchus and Xenodotus appears limited to division into books and a choice of likely readings between or among variant readings not significantly affecting the poems themselves. Obviously, stability of text cannot guarantee reliability of content, but, given the pre-Thucydidean conception of history, it is clear that the Homeric epics can provide valuable insights into the Mycenaean world.

Of course, Homer was not Mycenaean. Archaeological evidence shows that pre-Greek culture died following, and perhaps partly in consequence of, the power vacuum created by the absence of traditional power structures on the Peloponnesus during the years of preparation and fighting at Troy. It is another question whether the Mycenaean kingdoms fell by a Dorian invasion or simply by neglect. Still, the Odyssey would support the latter contention, one sustained as well by modern archaeology. The instability of Odysseus’s Ithaca is clear, and the poem clearly contrasts the Mycenaean outlook of Odysseus, Nestor, and Eumaeus with that which the suitors of Penelope have imposed. Likewise, it is easy...

(The entire section is 4,943 words.)