Other Literary Forms

Homer is noted as the author of two magnificent works: the Iliad and the Odyssey.


Homer’s position at the headwaters of Western literature has assured him an unparalleled influence. Writers from antiquity through the twentieth century are in his debt, and, as the principal repository of Greek legend, his work is an important source of knowledge about the classical world. Homeric epic in particular presents a complete world of remote time and space, offering the full range of human experiences, integrated into one complex social and ideological nexus.

While modern readers have nothing at stake in this remote past in and of itself, those who became the “things of song” as well as those who were “the singers of tales” are their ancestors, culturally if not biologically. One of the functions of Homeric epic was to set in motion “for the future” the singing itself. The dimensions of the Iliad and the Odyssey are respectively 15,693 and 12,110 metrical lines; Greek text consists of 115,477 and 87,765 words. It was the genius of Homer to create such an ancestral literary heritage.

Discussion Topics

What are the advantages of a storyteller, such as Homer, beginning in medias res? Are there any disadvantages to such a beginning?

Is the Iliad a glorification of war?

Does the emphasis on moira corroborate common human presuppositions today as well as in Homer’s time?

Might the state of Ithaca when Odysseus returns reflect an awareness of the decline of the former Mycenaean world?

To what extent does Odysseus succumb to the many temptations in his path?

In their concentration on young Telemachus, do the first four books of the Odyssey amount to the first bildungsroman in Western literature?

In what respect is Penelope a fitting wife for Odysseus?


Further Reading:

Alden, Maureen J. Homer Beside Himself: Para-Narratives in the “Iliad.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Advises students and others new to the Iliad on how to read, understand, and absorb the poetry, and then offers an analysis.

Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.”. Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. A close and witty exploration of the experience of reading Homer.

Carlisle, Miriam, and Olga Levaniouk, eds. Nine Essays on Homer. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. This collection of essays offers insight into Homer’s themes and style.

Clarke, Howard. The Art of the “Odyssey.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. General introduction to the Odyssey, with a chapter comparing the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Dalby, Andrew. “The Iliad, the Odyssey, and Their Audiences.” The Classical Quarterly, n.s. 45, no. 2 (1995): 269-279. Contends the society that appears in Homer’s epics is built on the perceptions of the poorest and least powerful Greeks of that time. The power, actions, and possessions of the heroes are enlarged because this is the most satisfactory means by which to depict the life of the rich in a literature that is in essence a popular discourse.

Dalby, Andrew. Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic. Norton, 2006. Dalby speculates that Homer was a woman. Speculation aside, this is an excellent introduction to the history and historicity of the Trojan War and its companion epics.

De Jong, Irene J. F., ed. Homer: Critical Assessments. New York: Routledge, 1999. Thoughtful critical interpretations of Homer’s works.

Foley, John Miles. “Signs, Texts, and Oral Tradition.” Journal of Folklore Research 33 (January-April, 1996): 21-29. Discusses an episode in the Odyssey as a species of oral traditional communication; argues that only...

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