Homer (c. 750 BCE) is perhaps the greatest of all epic poets and his legendary status was well established by the time of Classical Athens. He composed (not wrote, since the poems were created and transmitted orally, they were not written down until much later) two major works, the Iliad and the Odyssey; other works were attributed to Homer, but even in antiquity their authorship was disputed. In conjunction with Hesiod, Homer acts as a great pool of information for the Greeks about their gods. Homer is the earliest poet in Western culture whose works have survived intact.
The Iliad is composed of 15,693 hexameters (lines of verse), and is divided into 24 books corresponding to each letter of the Greek alphabet - alpha to omega, a system that was already in place by the time of Herodotus. The Iliad traces the anger of Achilles (“Sing Muse, of the wrath of Achilles” Iliad.1.1) and takes place over 51 days during the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. The poem takes its name from the city of Troy, which is also known as Ilium.
Achilles, respect the gods and have pity on me, remembering your own father.
Priam to Achilles
Highlights include: the lengthy Catalogue of Ships of the Greek invading forces, the death of Patroclus and the description of him being carried away by the twins Hypnos and Thanatos (Sleep and Death), the description of the shield of Achilles, the reconciliation between Achilles and Priam, perhaps one of the most moving scenes in Western literature, and several set-piece battles between pairs of Greek heroes, most famously the fight between Achilles and Hektor. In all of these events the intervention of the Greek gods, especially Athena on the side of the Greeks and Apollo for the Trojans, is instrumental in the outcome of all of the human actions during the war.
The Odyssey is composed of 12,109 hexameters and is also divided into 24 in the same manner as the Iliad. Whereas war and anger were the themes of the Iliad, the Odyssey takes place after the Trojan War has been won by the Achaeans, as the Greeks are referred to by Homer. The Odyssey is concerned with the nostos (journey) of the Greek hero Odysseus (the protagonist after whom the poem is named) and the troubles that he faces on his way home from Troy, foiled on his way by godly interventions, especially those of Poseidon. Highlights include Odysseus’ famous encounters with the Sirens, with the Cyclops Polythemus, and the slaying of his wife Penelope’s suitors upon his return to Ithaca.
We handled our pole with its red-hot point and twisted it in his eye till the blood boiled up round the burning wood.
Odysseus on blinding the Cyclops
Unlike Hesiod, who mentions his family and life within his works, this is not really the case for Homer, and since writing is generally believed to have started around 700 BCE, there is no contemporary source on him either, but there are various later Hellenistic and even Roman descriptions of his life (and also the Contest of Homer and Hesiod). Because the dialect of Homer’s works is composed in an archaic form of Ionian Greek and he displays a familiarity with the geography of Asia Minor in the Iliad, there could be some element of truth to claims that Homer’s birthplace was Symrna, Chios, or Ios.
A Single Homer?
There have always been debates as to the ‘person’ of Homer: many places claim to be his birthplace. It is even debated whether or not the two great works were written by the same person: the ancients called those who thought this the chorizontes; the separatists. Some even doubt if one single person was behind these works, and that leads to ‘the Homeric Question’, the idea that the poems are a compilation of layers rolled into one story, which could explain inconsistencies in the narrative and the formulaic language used. According to this school of thought, the poems would most likely have been sung episodically by rhapsodes. This idea was first argued by F. A. Wolf in his 1795 CE work Prolegomena ad Homerum.
Nevertheless, whether Homer was a ‘she’, a ‘he’, or a ‘they’ does not diminish the greatness of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and this can be seen by the fact that the two poems have come down to us in a continuous tradition. The poems were first compiled, organised, and edited under the Athenian Peisistratus, but the Greek text that we have survives from such Alexandrian scholars as Zenodotus and Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus and their comments on the texts. The first printed editions of Homer were in 1488 CE in Florence by Chalcondyles of Athens. Homer's work was hugely influential on Greek culture, and scenes from his works appeared in Greek sculpture, on Greek pottery, and in Greek tragedy and comedy. He was studied as part of Greek education, and the legends within his work would influence Hellenistic culture, Roman culture, and far beyond, so that Homer’s lasting legacy is that his works are still studied to this day.
For other uses, see Homer (disambiguation).
"Homeric" and "Homerus" redirect here. For other uses, see Homeric (disambiguation) and Homerus (disambiguation).
Homer (Ancient Greek: Ὅμηρος[hómɛːros], Hómēros) is the name ascribed by the ancient Greeks to the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems which are the central works of ancient Greek literature. The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states. It focuses on a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles lasting a few weeks during the last year of the war. The Odyssey focuses on the journey home of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the fall of Troy.
Many accounts of Homer's life circulated in classical antiquity, the most widespread being that he was a blind bard from Ionia, a region of central coastal Anatolia in present-day Turkey. Modern scholars consider them legends.
The Homeric Question—concerning by whom, when, where and under what circumstances the Iliad and Odyssey were composed—continues to be debated. Broadly speaking, modern scholarly opinion falls into two groups. One holds that most of the Iliad and (according to some) the Odyssey are the works of a single poet of genius. The other considers the Homeric poems to be the result of a process of working and re-working by many contributors, and that "Homer" is best seen as a label for an entire tradition.
It is generally accepted that the poems were composed at some point around the late 8th or early 7th century BC. The poems are in Homeric Greek, also known as Epic Greek, a literary language which shows a mixture of features of the Ionic and Aeolic dialects from different centuries; the predominant influence is Eastern Ionic. Most researchers believe that the poems were originally transmitted orally.
From antiquity until the present day, the influence of the Homeric epics on Western civilization has been great, inspiring many of its most famous works of literature, music, art and film. The Homeric epics were the greatest influence on ancient Greek culture and education; to Plato, Homer was simply the one who "has taught Greece" – ten Hellada pepaideuken.
Works attributed to Homer
Today only the Iliad and Odyssey are associated with the name 'Homer'. In antiquity, a very large number of other works were sometimes attributed to him, including the Homeric Hymns, the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, the Little Iliad, the Nostoi, the Thebaid, the Cypria, the Epigoni, the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia ("The Frog-Mouse War"), the Margites, the Capture of Oechalia, and the Phocais. These claims are not considered authentic today and were by no means universally accepted in the ancient world. As with the multitude of legends surrounding Homer's life, they indicate little more than the centrality of Homer to ancient Greek culture.
Ancient biographies of Homer
Further information: Ancient accounts of Homer
Many traditions circulated in the ancient world concerning Homer, most of which are lost. Modern scholarly consensus is that they have no value as history. Some claims were established early and repeated often - that Homer was blind (taking as self-referential a passage describing the blind bard Demodocus), that he was born in Chios, that he was the son of the river Meles and a nymph, that he was a wandering bard, that he composed a varying list of other works (the Homerica), that he died either in Ios or after failing to solve a riddle set by fishermen, and various explanations for the name 'Homer'. The two best known ancient biographies of Homer are the Life of Homer by the Pseudo-Herodotus and the Contest of Homer and Hesiod.
Homeric studies and the Homeric question
Further information: Homeric scholarship and Homeric Question
The study of Homer is one of the oldest topics in scholarship, dating back to antiquity. The aims of Homeric studies have changed over the course of the millennia. Ancient Greek scholars first sought to establish a canonical text of the poems and to explicate points that were difficult (whether linguistically or culturally).
The Byzantine scholars such as Eustathius of Thessalonica and John Tzetzes produced commentaries, extensions and scholia to Homer, especially in the 12th century.Virgil was more widely read during the Renaissance and Homer was often seen through a Virgilian lens.
Friedrich August Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum launched modern Homeric scholarship, arguing that the poems were assembled at a late date by literate authors from a large group of much shorter poems that were originally transmitted orally. Wolf and the 'Analyst' school, which led the field in the 19th century, sought to recover the original, authentic poems which were thought to be concealed by later excresences. In contrast the 'Unitarians' saw the later additions as superior, the work of a single inspired poet.
In the 20th century, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, after their studies of folk bards in the Balkans, developed the 'Oral-Formulaic theory' that the Homeric poems were originally improvised. This theory found very wide scholarly acceptance. The 'Neoanalysts' sought to bridge the gap between the 'Analysts' and 'Unitarians'.
Today Homeric scholarship continues to develop. Most scholars, although disagreeing on other questions about the genesis of the poems, agree that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not produced by the same author, based on "the many differences of narrative manner, theology, ethics, vocabulary, and geographical perspective, and by the apparently imitative character of certain passages of the Odyssey in relation to the Iliad."
Some ancient scholars believed Homer to have been an eyewitness to the Trojan War; others thought he had lived up to 500 years afterwards. Contemporary scholars continue to debate the date of the poems; at one extreme Richard Janko has taken an 8th-century BC date, at the other scholars such as Gregory Nagy see 'Homer' as a continually evolving tradition which only ceased when the poems were written down in the 6th century BC.Martin West has argued that the Iliad echoes the poetry of Hesiod, and that it must have been composed around 660-650 BC at the earliest, with the Odyssey up to a generation later. A long history of oral transmission lies behind the composition of the poems, complicating the search for a precise date.
'Homer' is a name of unknown etymological origin, around which many theories were erected in antiquity; one such linkage was to the Greek ὅμηρος (hómēros), "hostage" (or "surety"). The explanations suggested by modern scholars tend to mirror their position on the overall Homeric question. Nagy interprets it as "he who fits (the song) together". West has advanced both possible Greek and Phoenecian etymologies.
Historicity of the Homeric epics and Homeric society
Main article: Historicity of Homer
Scholars continue to debate questions such as whether the Trojan War actually took place - and if so when and where - and to what extent the society depicted by Homer is based on his own or one which was, even at the time of the poems’ composition, known only as legend. The Homeric epics are largely set in the east and center of the Mediterranean, with some scattered references to Egypt, Ethiopia and other distant lands, in a warlike society that resembles that of the Greek world slightly before the hypothesized date of the poems' composition.
In ancient Greek chronology, the sack of Troy was dated to 1184 BC. By the nineteenth century there was widespread scholarly skepticism that Troy or the Trojan War had ever existed, but in 1873 Heinrich Schliemann announced to the world that he had discovered the ruins of Homer’s Troy at Hissarlik in modern Turkey. Some contemporary scholars think the destruction of Troy VIIa circa 1220 BC was the origin of the myth of the Trojan War, others that the poem was inspired by multiple similar sieges that took place over the centuries.
However, Homer depicts customs that are not characteristic of any one historical period. For instance, his heroes use bronze weapons, characteristic of the Bronze Age rather than the later Iron Age during which the poems were composed; yet they are cremated (an Iron Age practice) rather than buried (as they were in the Bronze Age).
In the Iliad 10.260-265, Odysseus is described as wearing a helmet made of boar's tusks. Such helmets were not worn in Homer's time, but were commonly worn by aristocratic warriors between 1600 and 1150 BC. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and continued archaeological investigation has increased modern scholars' understanding of Aegean civilisation, which in many ways resembles the ancient Near East more than the society described by Homer.
Main article: Homeric Greek
The Homeric epics are written in an artificial literary language or 'Kunstsprache' only used in epic hexameteric poetry. Homeric Greek shows features of multiple regional Greek dialects and periods, but is fundamentally based on Ionic Greek, in keeping with the tradition that Homer was from Ionia. Linguistic analysis suggests that the Iliad was composed slightly before the Odyssey, and that Homeric formulae preserve older features than other parts of the poems.
The Homeric poems were composed in unrhymed dactylic hexameter; ancient Greek metre was quantity rather than stress based. Homer frequently uses set phrases such as epithets ('crafty Odysseus', 'rosy-fingered Dawn', 'owl-eyed Athena', etc.), Homeric formulae ('and then answered [him/her], Agamemnon, king of men', 'when the early-born rose-fingered Dawn came to light', 'thus he/she spoke'), simile, type scenes, ring composition and repetition. These habits aid the extemporizing bard, and are characteristic of oral poetry. For instance, the main words of a Homeric sentence are generally placed towards the beginning, whereas literate poets like Virgil or Milton use longer and more complicated syntactical structures. Homer then expands on these ideas in subsequent clauses; this technique is called parataxis.
The so-called 'type scenes' (typischen Scenen), were named by Walter Arend in 1933. He noted that Homer often, when describing frequently recurring activities such as eating, praying, fighting and dressing, used blocks of set phrases in sequence that were then elaborated by the poet. The 'Analyst' school had considered these repetitions as un-Homeric, whereas Arend interpreted them philosophically. Parry and Lord noted that these conventions are found in many other cultures.
'Ring composition' or chiastic structure (when a phrase or idea is repeated at both the beginning and end of a story, or a series of such ideas first appears in the order A, B, C... before being reversed as ...C, B, A) has been observed in the Homeric epics. Opinion differs as to whether these occurrences are a conscious artistic device, a mnemonic aid or a spontaneous feature of human storytelling.
Both of the Homeric poems begin with an invocation to the Muse. In the Iliad, the poet invokes her to sing of "the anger of Achilles", and, in the Odyssey, he asks her to sing of "the man of many ways". A similar opening was later employed by Virgil in his Aeneid.
The orally transmitted Homeric poems were put into written form at some point between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. Some scholars believe that they were dictated by the poet; Albert Lord noted that, in the process of dictating, the Balkan bards he recorded revised and extended their lays. Some scholars hypothesize that a similar process occurred when the Homeric poems were first written.
Other scholars such as Gregory Nagy hold that, after the poems were formed in the 8th century, they were orally transmitted with little deviation until they were written down in the 6th century. After textualisation, the poems were each divided into 24 rhapsodes, today referred to as books, and labelled by the letters of the Greek alphabet. These divisions probably date from before 200 BC, and may have been made by Homer.
In antiquity it was widely held that the Homeric poems were collected and organised in Athens by the tyrant Pesistratos (died 528/7 BC), in the famed 'Pesistratean recension'. From around 150 BC the text seems to have become relatively established. After the establishment of the Library of Alexandria, Homeric scholars such as Zenodotus of Ephesus, Aristophanes of Byzantium and in particular Aristarchus of Samothrace helped establish a canonical text.
The first printed edition of Homer was produced in 1488 in Milan. Today scholars use medieval manuscripts, papyri and other sources; some argue for a 'multi-text' view, rather than seeking a single definitive text. The 19th century edition of Arthur Ludwich mainly follows Aristarchus's work, whereas van Thiel's (1991,1996) follows the medieval vulgate. Others, such as Martin West (1998-2000) or T.W. Allen fall somewhere between these two extremes.
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