Homer, the name traditionally assigned to the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two major epics that have survived from Greek antiquity. Nothing is known of Homer as an individual, and in fact it is a matter of controversy whether a single person can be said to have created both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Linguistic and historical evidence, however, suggests that the poems were composed in the Greek settlements on the west coast of Asia Minor sometime in the 8th century bc.
Both of the epics attributed to Homer deal with legendary events that were believed to have occurred four centuries before their composition. The Iliad is set in the final year of the Trojan War, fought between the Greeks and the inhabitants of the city of Troy. The legendary conflict forms the background for the central plot of the story: the wrath of the Greek hero Achilles. Insulted by his commander in chief, Agamemnon, the young warrior Achilles withdraws from the war, leaving his fellow Greeks to suffer terrible defeats at the hands of the Trojans. These losses force Agamemnon to negotiate with Achilles, but Achilles refuses, claiming that his mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, has told him he has a choice: either a short life with great glory if he fights at Troy, or a long life in obscurity if he returns home. But after the greatest Trojan warrior, Hector, kills Achilles’ close friend Patroclus, Achilles, filled with fury, turns his wrath against the Trojans and kills Hector. The poem closes as Achilles surrenders the corpse of Hector to Priam, Hector’s father and the Trojan king, for burial. Achilles recognizes a certain kinship with Priam as they both face mortality and utter bereavement.
The Odyssey narrates the return of the Greek hero Odysseus from the Trojan War. The opening scenes depict the disorder that has arisen in Odysseus’s household during his long absence: A band of suitors is living off of his wealth as they woo his wife, Penelope. The epic then tells of Odysseus’s ten years of traveling, during which he has to face such dangers as a giant, man-eating Cyclops (Polyphemus) and such subtler threats as the goddess Calypso, who offers Odysseus the choice of immortality if he will abandon his quest for home and become her husband. The second half of the poem begins with Odysseus’s arrival at his home island of Ithaca (see Itháki). Here, exercising infinite patience and self-control, Odysseus tests the loyalty of his servants, plots and carries out a bloody revenge on Penelope’s suitors, and is reunited with his son, his wife, and his aged father.
|IV||OTHER WORKS ATTRIBUTED TO HOMER|
Besides the Iliad and the Odyssey, the so-called Homeric Hymns, a series of relatively short poems celebrating the various gods, have also been attributed traditionally to Homer because their style resembles that of the epics.
|V||HOMER’S EPIC STYLE|
Scholars generally agree that Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were composed by oral methods rather than by means of writing. An essential feature of oral composition, especially of lengthy epics, is that the verses are constructed largely from ready-made verbal formulas that allow the poet time to improvise parts of his narration to suit the needs of the audience.
These traditional formulas—groups of two or more poetic words—are used either by the poet or by predecessors to fit various metrical positions in the line and to describe recurrent situations in the narrative. Thus a formula like “Him then in answer addressed the godlike, patient Odysseus” can be used whenever the poet wants to introduce a reply by Odysseus. The poet can cleverly vary the formulas to suit the poem’s needs. Sometimes the formulaic passages extend over several lines, as when Homer describes the launching of a ship or the preparation of a meal.
In other words, the oral poet uses far more prefabricated material in building his poem than the pen-and-paper poet. The fact that the poet is composing for listeners and not for readers lessens the risk that the repetitions may become monotonous. As in listening to music, the audience at a fast-moving recital of poetry welcomes recurrent themes and motifs, provided that the general pattern and movement hold the audience’s attention.
Both Homeric epics are written in an elaborate style, using language that is artificial and full of conventions (familiar literary devices). The language of the epics incorporates dialects from a broad geographical and chronological range. Nobody ever spoke Homeric Greek. Within the range of dialects in the Iliad, scholars have identified some aspects that are of a later age than others, thus suggesting that they are the creation of the final composer of the Iliad. The similes (figures of speech that draw comparisons), for example, fall into this category.
The metrical form of the Homeric epics is dactylic hexameter—that is, lines of six feet, each foot consisting of three syllables, one long syllable followed by two short syllables. The rhythm of dum-diddy is an example of a dactyl—a long syllable and two short syllables. In some feet, a spondee (two long syllables) is substituted for a dactyl, creating the rhythm dum-dum instead of dum-diddy. Unfortunately, the stresses in the English language make the meter difficult to duplicate satisfactorily.
In addition to the stresses that made possible the rhythms of dactylic hexameter, ancient Greek had other qualities that contributed greatly to the pleasing sounds of Homer’s poetry: a finely graded range of vowels and consonants, and accents that represented different pitches. Homer greatly exploited both qualities in his verses. Sometimes, too, he achieves remarkable onomatopoeic effects, in which words imitate the sounds of objects or events they are describing. Other noteworthy features of Homer’s style in both poems are his extended similes (such as the comparison of the Achaeans to bees in the Iliad), striking metaphors (such as the “lily voices” of cicadas), and archaisms (expressions and techniques from earlier periods). He employs his combined resources of sound, imagery, and sense to support his narrative and enrich his characterization in the Iliad and the Odyssey alike.
Stylistically no significant distinction can be made between the two Homeric epics, although some modern scholars have believed that they were composed by different people. The Iliad deals with passions, with insoluble dilemmas. It has no real villains; Achilles, Agamemnon, Priam, and the rest are caught up, as actors and victims, in a cruel and ultimately tragic universe. Homer makes his audience feel tremendous sympathy for the fall of the enemy of the epic’s hero. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, the wicked are destroyed, right prevails, and the family is reunited. The gods themselves care about justice. Here rational intellect—that of Odysseus in particular—acts as the guiding force throughout the story.
|VI||THE “HOMERIC QUESTION”|
The modern text of the Homeric poems was transmitted through medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, themselves copies of now-lost ancient manuscripts of the epics. From classical antiquity until recently, Homer’s readers may have distrusted the tales describing him as a blind beggar bard of Chios (in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo), and some have argued that portions of the texts, such as the concluding scenes of the Odyssey, were added by another hand. However, they generally believed that Homer was a poet (or at most, a pair of poets) much like the poets they knew from their own experience. They believed that the Iliad and the Odyssey, although based on traditional materials, were independent, original, and largely fictional.
In the last 200 years, however, this view has changed radically, following the emergence and continuing discussion of the “Homeric question”—namely, by whom, how, and when were the Iliad and Odyssey composed? A universally accepted answer has yet to be found. In the 19th and 20th centuries the so-called analysts argued that inconsistencies in the works proved that the poems were collections, or accumulations, of short, independently composed lays, simple narrative poems. The unitarians, on the other hand, argued that these inconsistencies were insignificant or imaginary, and that the overall unity of the epics proved that each was the product of a single monumental composer who gave final form to the traditional epics.
More recently, scholarly discussion of the Homeric question has centered on the theory of oral-formulaic composition. According to this theory, the elaborate system of poetic diction found in the Homeric epics was developed over many generations by bards who performed the poems for aristocratic patrons. Since writing was not yet common and since the oral epics developed before the advent of writing, these bards had to perform without the aid of a written text. However, instead of composing and memorizing fixed works, they built up over time a vast stock of verbal formulas that enabled them to improvise long poems on heroic topics more or less spontaneously. These formulas extended from short phrases in the Homeric epics, such as “swift-footed Achilles,” to long scenes that depict repeated or stereotypical actions, such as the arming of a warrior, a duel, or the eating of a meal. The poet was free to alter or recombine elements of the longer formulas to suit the context.
No one view on the Homeric question has prevailed, but it is fair to say that practically all commentators would agree that tradition had a great deal to do with the poems’ composition and that each epic bears evidence that suggests a single final creator. Meanwhile, archaeological discoveries of the last 125 years, especially those of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, have shown that some aspects of the civilization Homer described were not entirely fictional. Homer preserves isolated elements of the society of Troy at the time of the Trojan War, but for the most part the Homeric epics preserve an idealized view of the aristocratic society of the 8th century bc. The epics, therefore, can be considered historical documents to a certain extent, and discussion of this facet of them has constantly been intertwined with the debate on the question of their creation.
In a direct way Homer was the parent of all succeeding Greek literature. Drama, historiography, and even philosophy all show the mark of the issues, comic and tragic, raised in the epics and of the techniques Homer used to approach them. For the later epic poets of Western literature, Homer was the greatest influence (even when, as in the case of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the poets did not know the works of Homer directly). But for his most successful followers, curiously enough, his work was as much a critical and comic target as a model. The Aeneid of Roman poet Virgil, for instance, is a refutation of the individualistic value system of the Homeric epic; and the most Homeric scenes in Paradise Lost, by English poet John Milton—those stanzas describing the battle in heaven—are essentially comic. As for novels, such as Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615), by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, or Ulysses (1922), by Irish writer James Joyce, the more Homeric they are, the more they lean toward parody and mock epic.
Among English translations of Homer, the versions of George Chapman (1616) and Alexander Pope (Iliad, 1715-1720; Odyssey, 1725-1726) stand out as permanent classics. In contemporary English verse, the reader can choose among several versions, including the highly literal renditions (1951, 1967) of American poet Richmond Lattimore and the versions (1961, 1974) of Robert Fitzgerald, another American poet, which tend to be freer and are often considered more readable. The Iliad (1990) and The Odyssey (1996) of American poet and translator Robert Fagles find a middle ground between Lattimore and Fitzgerald. More recently, Stanley Lombardo, professor of classics at the University of Kansas, has produced translations of the Iliad (1997) and Odyssey (2000) in a fast-paced, modern idiom based on his own performances of the epics.