Homer: Who is he? To this day, there is continuing debate over whether or not the ancient poet actually existed. And if he did, there are serious doubts about his authorship. Some contend that there is artistic unity within each of his epic poems, yet others believe the works to be the effort of multiple contributors. The style of the poetry has its roots in oral tradition, and some liken Homer’s writings to the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, a poetic work that was edited, expanded, and rewritten by many hands over its lengthy history. Although these issues of authorship can never be resolved conclusively, the man known as Homer—whether fiction, legend, or flesh-and-blood poet—is still revered for his epic and highly influential works, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Facts and Trivia
- Although there are multiple accounts of Homer’s origins and life, scholars have been unable to validate the historical accuracy of any of them.
- Most sources suggest that Homer was part of a tradition of blind epic poets.
- Homer’s reputation in the classical period reached its apex when a religious following of the poet emerged. These followers believed Homer to have been divinely inspired in his writing.
- For many centuries, Homer’s work remained somewhat obscure. It was only during the neoclassical movement of the Renaissance that his writing regained prominence.
- The Trojan War, which provides the basis for the Iliad, may not have happened. While it is probably based on an actual war, many believe Homer’s account of it to be a fictionalization.
- The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in 1930s America.
Very little is known about the author of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) and the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616). The ancient Greeks attributed both to Homer, a bard who probably lived late in the ninth century b.c.e. Both long-standing tradition and linguistic analysis of the two epics indicate that their author was a native of Ionia in western Asia Minor. A number of cities claimed to be Homer’s birthplace, but he was probably a native either of the coastal city Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey, or of nearby Chios, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea. Homer was said to be blind, like the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey, and to have earned a meager living by performing at one court after another. Supposedly he died and was buried on the Aegean island Ios.
Those scholars who believe that Homer was responsible for shaping the two great epics admit that he must have begun either with incomplete narratives that had been handed down in the oral tradition or with a number of songs, some of which could have dated back almost as far as the central historical event in both poems, the fall of Troy in 1250 b.c.e. However, Homer was no mere editor; he provided the unifying vision that is essential to the creation of great art. Moreover, even though excerpts from the epics were recited long after his time, the fact that the text changed very little indicates that Homer had his poems preserved in written form, perhaps by dictating them to a scribe.
Various theories have been advanced to explain the fact that the two works are very dissimilar in tone and outlook. One was that the Iliad was written in Homer’s youth and the Odyssey, in his later years; another, that the two poems had two different authors. Nineteenth century scholars debating the “Homeric question” concluded that each epic was produced by a group of writers. At the end of the twentieth century, that idea still had many adherents, but there was new evidence that the two epics were the work of one genius, thus demonstrating once again that tradition is often quite reliable.
Homer established the epic as a genre in Western literature and set the standards by which later works would be judged. Moreover, the values reflected in the Iliad and the Odyssey not only shaped Greek culture but also persisted into the Roman era and influenced the Renaissance. Allusions to Homer so permeate Western literature and his ideas are so basic to Western thought that his epics are ranked as two of the most important poems ever written, as well as two of the finest.
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.
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 when we put aside our culturally constructed, unexamined notions of “signs” and “reading” can we grasp the richness of Homer’s poems, which effectively lie between performance and text.
Ford, Andrew Laughlin. Homer: The Poetry of the Past. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Focuses on the moment in Western literature when the Greek oral tradition began to be preserved in writing. An inquiry into the function of ancient poetics without exhaustive scholarship making it accessible to the informed general reader.
Friis Johansen, K. The “Iliad” in Early Greek Art. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1967. While discussing and detailing a complete representation of epic themes in archaic art (before 475 b.c.e.), Friis Johansen provides a comprehensive catalog (pp. 244-280) of all that pertains to the Iliad, in a work unmatched for comparable materials in English.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Pengiun, 2003. Fagles’s verse translation is accompanied by a long and detailed introduction by Bernard Knox. Includes glossary and textual notes.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Poetic translation includes introduction by D. S. Carne-Ross and bibliographical references.
Kim, Jinyo. The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the “Iliad.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. An argument for the unity of the Iliad that surveys recent scholarship. Bibliography.
Kirk, G. S. The Songs of Homer. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. The standard introduction to the Homeric poems, focusing on their language and composition. Illustrated.
Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. This edition offers a new introduction and a CD-ROM containing audiovisual material from research in the Balkans by Milman Parry, who recorded and studied a live tradition of oral narrative poetry in order to find how Homer had composed his two monumental epic poems. Lord’s book, based on Parry’s research, intends to demonstrate the process by which oral poets compose.
Nagy, Gregory. The Best of the Achaeans. Rev. ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Sophisticated and stimulating analysis of the hero in Greek civilization and how the language of Greek epic defines his role.
Powell, Barry B. Homer. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. A concise introduction by a professor of classics writing with students in mind. Considers the Homeric question by reference to recent scholarship. Good bibliography.
Richardson, Scott. “Truth in the Tales of the Odyssey.” Mnemosyne 49 (September, 1996): 393- 402. Discusses the difficulties involved in determining the truth value of long narratives told by characters in the Odyssey; a number of tales told by characters cannot be authenticated because the main narrator does not include these episodes in his own narrative; explains how the idea of an “ideal narrative audience,” one that believes all the incidents related as factual, can be helpful in dealing with falsehoods in the Odyssey.
Schein, Seth. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s “Iliad.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. An introduction to a literary interpretation of the Iliad. Explores questions of mortality, the gods, and heroism in detail. Excellent references.
Snodgrass, Anthony. Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Economic and social history of the age in which the epics were composed, based on the archaeological evidence. Well illustrated.
Scodel, Ruth. “Bardic Performance and Oral Tradition in Homer.” American Journal of Philology 119 (Summer, 1998): 171-194. Claims that the care with which Homer presents bardic performance as uncontaminated and free, even while he reveals the forces that would realistically limit its freedom.
Wace, Alan J. B., and Frank H. Stubbings, eds. A Companion to Homer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962. Essays on language, transmission of the text, and especially the archaeological evidence pertaining to the Homeric poems, by authorities in each field. Slightly dated but still authoritative. Illustrated, with many references.