Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer
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Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218

The context in which the Homeric poems were created is clouded by the fact that their creation is a process that spans several centuries. In a very real sense, the poems' historical and cultural background is rather like one of the archaeological sites from which we gather our information about the period, it is deep, it has many levels or layers, and over time things can get pushed up or down from their proper context. Consider, for example, that the cremation burial of Elpenor described in XII.11-15 would have been common practice in Homer's day, but extremely rare in the Bronze Age when the events he describes would have taken place.

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The Bronze Age

The Trojan War and its aftermath took place in the late Bronze Age, which began around 1550 BC, the date of the very wealthy burials found by Heinrich Schliemann in Grave Circle A at Mycenae in 1873. For this reason, the period is sometimes also called the Mycenaean era. This was a time of relative stability though not, of course, without its conflicts, wars, and raids. The dominant powers in the eastern Mediterranean were the Hittites in the central part of what is now Turkey, the Egyptians in what we now call the Middle East and, apparently, the Mycenaean kings in Greece and the surrounding islands.

These three "great kings" all ruled over literate (at least to the extent of being able to keep records and official documents, even if they left us no "literature" to speak of), apparently complex, societies (complete with bureaucrats, if the Linear B tablets found at Pylos and elsewhere are any indication). They engaged in diplomacy with each other and with numerous smaller kingdoms on the edges of their territory that served as buffer zones between them and could be compelled to provide both military and economic support under the terms of the treaties that bound them to the particular kingdom with which they were allied. These secondary kingdoms were also prime targets for raids by other "great kings" and foreign invaders, especially those that were relatively distant from their protectors' centers of authority and military strong points.

Trade was flourishing, and, given the uncertainties of shipping and other means of transportation, together with a relatively low level of technological advancement (at least when considered by modern standards), quite surprisingly so. Distinctive Mycenaean pottery, whether as art pieces intended for display and ceremonial use, or purely for transporting trade goods like oil, grain, or perfume, is found all over the Mediterranean basin in staggering quantities throughout this period.

The Trojan War, if it took place at all, came very near the end of this flourishing civilization. The Greeks, using generational calculations, set the date of the war at around 1184 BC; modern scholarship, based on archaeological evidence at Troy and other sites, puts it some 75 years earlier, around 1250 BC. But the traditional victors at Troy did not have very long to enjoy their victory.

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The Dark Age

For reasons we do not really yet understand, this civilization begins to die out around 1220 BC with the mysterious destruction and subsequent abandonment of Pylos. That event ushers in a period of decline that lasts until roughly 1050 BC, when the Mycenaean civilization literally fades away into nothingness. Some echoes of this troubled period seem to be preserved in the Odyssey where, for example, the first question asked of a stranger is almost always along the lines of "Are you a pirate?" The social unrest, migrations of peoples, and foreign invasions that seem to have characterized the end of the Mycenaean civilization may also have served as a model for the troubled homecomings of some of the Homeric heroes that are recounted in the poem.

Whatever its causes, the disappearance of the Mycenaean civilization marked the start of about 250 years of very difficult times in Greece: aptly referred to as the Dark Age. This period has its end with the traditional date of the first Olympiad in 776 BC, very close to the time when we think Homer lived. Of this Dark Age we know almost nothing except what we can deduce from the period immediately following and the scanty evidence in the archaeological record.

Writing was lost, and with it, most trade seems to have disappeared except on a purely local or regional basis at best. Archaeologists working in this period report finding very little in the way of "luxury'' goods like fancy pottery—when they can find anything at all. Biers (1980) suggests that there may have been as much as a 75% decrease in population from Bronze Age levels.

The Iron Age

Beginning around the 11th century BC, the Greeks began to use iron in place of bronze, to cremate their dead as opposed to burying them intact, and to establish colonies along the west coast of what is now Turkey. By Homer's day, roughly the middle of the eighth century BC, these trends were well-established and things were beginning to look up again.

Writing was just beginning to be rediscovered using a new alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians, and foreign trade was improving, helped in no small part by the colonies along the Ionian coast which, while typically independent of their mother cities, nevertheless tended to remain on friendly terms with them. The population was again on the rise, which spurred another wave of colonization, this time chiefly toward the west (Sicily, parts of Italy, and the south of France).

At least on the Greek mainland, the era of kings was rapidly drawing to a close. By the beginning of the eighth century, the nobles had taken the reins of power from the kings almost everywhere and were ruling over family groups or tribes in what would come to be called the polis, or city-state.

Largely because of the decorations found on pottery from the period, this era has come to be known as the Geometric period, but increasing regularity was a feature of more than just the decorative arts. It was in this period that the beginnings of a Greek national identity come to the fore (prompting and/or prompted by the founding of the Olympic games and the dissemination of Homer's works, among other things). There is also evidence that more coordinated military tactics were beginning to be used.

Religious practices, if not beliefs, also seem to have begun a process of standardization at this juncture. While the Homeric heroes sometimes go to specific places for religious observances (e.g., the "shady groves" sacred to Apollo mentioned in Book 20), the majority seem to be family- or group-centered rituals that take place wherever the family or group may happen to be at the moment of the ritual, and archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age tends to confirm this view. Formal altars, like the one at the fountain described in Book 17, are known from the Bronze Age, but temples, buildings specifically set aside for formal public worship, have not been identified in the archaeological record much before the ninth century BC, and become much more frequent thereafter.

After Homer's day, while the population, wealth, commerce, and industry of Greece were generally on the rise, the political pendulum swung back and forth from more aristocratic and democratic models to varying forms of one-man rule until just before the dawn of the Golden Age in the fifth century BC.

The Trojan War

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

No student of Homer’s poetry can ignore the central event of both the Iliad and the Odyssey: namely, the Trojan War. Odysseus’ journeys take place after his participation in the Greek campaign at Troy. The household troubles which he faces on his return result from his long absence during both the war and the wanderings which follow it. The enormous body of literature devoted to this singular event is a testament to the significance it held in the eyes of both Homer’s contemporaries and the generations that followed.

In his poetry Homer depicts an era which is professedly not of his own time, but of a heroic age long past. The archaeological discovery of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann during the nineteenth century A.D. has shed considerable light on this event. Schliemann found nine city layers on a site that closely matched Homer’s description of the plains of Ilium. The seventh layer, a city which was burnt to the ground, flourished in the twelfth century B.C., a good four hundred years before Homer’s day. It is this city that modern scholars deem to be the Troy of Homer’s poems.

According to the Iliad, the Trojan War lasted a full ten years before culminating in the destruction of Troy. While it is unlikely that such a siege could have lasted so long (some scholars have suggested that the war lasted a mere ten days!), the event remained an important one to future generations. Some critics have suggested that the depiction of a unified Greece gave the poems a universal appeal. Note that for most of the history of ancient and classical Greece, the city-state or polis was the unit of government, not the nation as a whole. Thus, cities such as Sparta, Athens, and Thebes were ruled by isolated systems of government, although the many city-states shared in trade and culture. Wars between city-states were common, as was a tendency toward isolationism when the Greek peninsula was attacked by an outside foe.

What is remarkable about Homer’s poems is not only that they depict a combined effort on the part of the Greek cities, but also do not favor one city exclusively over the others. Some scholars suggest that this is because Homer lived across the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor, and was therefore free to write without favoring his local community in the poem.

Homer’s geographic separation from the Greek world would also explain why the Trojans, who would have been his neighbors in Asia Minor, were not depicted as ignorant barbarians but as figures equally as noble as their Greek enemies. Indeed, many modern readers find themselves admiring Hector, prince of Troy, far more than they do the often selfish and conceited Achilles.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

  • Late Bronze Age (the time of the Odyssey): Government consists of a few "great kings" (those of Egypt the Hittite empire, and, the kings of Mycenae, among others) who control very large areas of territory, either directly or by alliance in loose confederations, at least some of which were explicitly spelled out in treaties. Raids and looting are fairly common, especially at the edges of these kingdoms, far away from the central authority.

    Iron Age: Monarchy is still practiced in places, but it has been widely replaced by aristocratic or oligarchic societies based on family or clan groupings. The development of what would eventually be called the polis, or city-state, is well under way. Inter-"national" cooperation is beginning to be re-established after the isolation of the Dark Age.

    Late twentieth century: Many different types of government are practiced, though various kinds of democracy are more common than monarchy these days. There are still, however, a relatively small number of "superpower" or highly influential nations. Cooperation is practiced to a very high degree (e.g., the United Nations), although with some occasional hitches.

  • Late Bronze Age: Writing is known, although mainly in cumbersome, syllabic forms such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Mycenaean Linear A and B scripts, or the Hittite/Akkadian cuneiform. Literacy is probably restricted to the highest levels of the aristocracy and a professional class of scribes, bureaucrats, diplomats, etc.

    Iron Age: Literacy, at least in the Greek-speaking world, is only beginning to be rediscovered, using a different alphabet, where each letter represents a particular sound and not an entire syllable. Literacy is still most likely restricted to the upper classes and some professionals, like rhapsodes and some artists.

    Late twentieth century: The vast majority of people are at least able to read and write well enough to conduct their own business affairs.

  • Late Bronze Age: Religious observances take place mainly in family or group gatherings. There may be a place set aside for a cultic figure or idol, but sites specifically set aside for formal, public worship are rare and difficult to identify, if they existed at all.

    Iron Age: Family observances are still practiced, especially with regard to reverencing the graves of one's ancestors, but formal cultic centers are beginning to be established and playing a more important role as religious practices crystallize.

    Late twentieth century: Religious practices vary from country to country and from one religion to another, though most of the major world religions do have certain specific places set aside for formal public worship which are identified as such and not used for other purposes. Many believers may also have at least some objects of religious devotion or practice in their homes.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading