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(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Iliad Homer

Circa eighth century b.c. Greek poem.

The following entry contains criticism on Homer's Iliad from 1983 to 2000. See also Homer Poetry Criticism.

A seminal epic widely accepted as one of the greatest literary artifacts of Western civilization, the Iliad has been admired for centuries for its artistry as well as for the profound influence it has exerted on European literature. Within its epic scope, set in the tenth year of a legendary war between Greeks and Trojans at Ilios (Troy), the Iliad depicts the heroic ethos of a mythic era personified in the figure of Achilles, a Greek hero of unrivaled martial excellence, who chooses undying fame won on the battlefield over the prospect of a long life. The epic's proper subject is the wrath of Achilles and its tragic consequences, but it also explores such themes as the workings of fate, honor, and the human urge toward immortality. Likewise, the Iliad delineates the heroic code—the thematic basis of all subsequent epic poetry. While theories regarding its author, the near-mythic Homer, continue to spur scholarly debate, the poem itself is renowned for its compelling narrative, vivid imagery, poetic technique, psychological scope, and stylistic clarity.

Biographical Information

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 (the Greek word homēros means blind man); historians note that singing bards in ancient Greece were often blind and that the legend, therefore, may be based on fact, but that 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. Internal evidence from the two major works attributed to Homer suggests that the Iliad preceded the Odyssey and that both were composed in the eighth century b.c. in a dialect that was a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic Greek.

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 even gone so far as to assert that no such individual as Homer ever lived. Due to the paucity of information regarding Homer, the manner of the composition of the Iliad has been one of determined critical speculation that has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archaeology, linguistics, and comparative literature. In the 1920s the critic Milman Parry proposed that both the Iliad and the Odyssey 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...

(The entire section is 168,092 words.)