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.