Authors: Homer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Greek poet

c. early eighth century b.c.e.

Possibly Ionia, Asia Minor (now in Turkey)

c. late eighth century b.c.e.

Greece

Biography

To assemble any biography of Homer (HOH-mur) in the contemporary sense of the genre is an impossibility. All that can be done is to theorize tentatively on the basis of conflicting traditions, evidence within his works the Iliad and the Odyssey, and some slight relevant archaeological evidence. The Homeric Question centers on whether one person could have written both the Iliad and the Odyssey and whether Homer wrote the major part of either epic. Some classical scholars have argued for single authorship of the great poems, whereas other scholars have argued for a community of authorship. Some twentieth century scholarship favored the theory of “oral-formulaic composition,” an elaborate process by which traditional poetic phrases such as “swift-footed Achilles” are brought together to compile an epic. This theory holds that the combined efforts of generations of heroic bards created the Iliad and the Odyssey. By the end of the century, however, new evidence emerged that the two epics were the work of one genius.

Homer

(Library of Congress)

The difficulty facing the student of Homer is the fact that the Homeric poems were written long before the time of extant literary records. The poetry of Homer was famous, even revered, as far back as ancient Greece. In classical times, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were recited in public at the Panathenaea in Athens every four years. It would appear that there were attempts to establish a biography as early as the times of Plato and Aristotle.

Eight different “Lives” of Homer from classical times are known, the fullest being credited to Heroditus, in Ionic Greek. Heroditus’s account and those of others seem to be made up of conjecture and tradition, fortified by deductions from passages within the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other poems sometimes attributed to Homer. Most of the early accounts agree that Homer was blind, elderly, and poor, a poet who wandered from city to city in ancient Greece. Although tradition has it that seven cities claimed to be his birthplace, tradition cannot even agree on which seven made the claim. Exactly when the poet flourished is not known. Heroditus believed that Homer lived four hundred years before his own time, which places Homer in the ninth century b.c.e. Aristarchus of Alexandria believed that Homer lived about 140 years after the Trojan War, which places him much earlier, around 1200 b.c.e. Some thought that Homer came from Chios, while others traced his origin to Smyrna.

In many cases, the text of a piece of literature furnishes evidence of the author’s origin and dates, but the Iliad and the Odyssey do not give much help. The language of the two poems is unique, being a combination of Ionic and Attic Greek. The very nature of the epic, as well as some ancient Greek terms, which can be only tentatively defined, puzzled people of classical times as well as later scholars. Epic conventions allow the author to hide behind them and to use stylized language. The texts of the Homeric poems were set some generations after Homer, perhaps as late as the sixth century b.c.e., and are the probable results of a compilation of texts that have long since disappeared.

Almost nothing is known even of Greek political life before the time of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus. The very existence of Troy and the Trojan War was in doubt prior to the archaeological work of Heinrich Schliemann in the nineteenth century, whose discovery of a series of cities on what is believed to have been the site of Troy indicates some historical basis for the events recited in the Homeric poems. Indeed, evidence shows which layer of the ruins may be that of the city about which Homer wrote.

The most logical conjecture is that soon after the end of the Trojan War, which occurred about 1200 b.c.e., stories sung to musical accompaniment sprang up in Greece. These songs became well known and spread widely through Greek culture, and the action and characterization they described became common knowledge. As the centuries passed, these short pieces were probably joined together in many ways. Then, around 750 b.c.e., a poet brought together parts of the traditions and made the artistic creations that resemble the epics now known as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The poet’s sources were many, and the varied sources account for differences in customs, dialect, and action found in the poems. This theory does not detract from the achievement, for the poet who organized these materials into artistic masterpieces gave unity, point, and purpose to the materials. Because the poems were for a time passed on by oral transmission, which allowed for changes and additions affecting some details, the form of the works gradually evolved, though the changes probably affected only minor details rather than the overall unity or tone of the poems.

The importance of the biographical problems presented by Homer should not be overestimated, for the poems as they stand retain the beauty and grace the poet originally gave them. As works of art and as inspiration for later art, they have been through the ages, and continue to be, magnificent.

Author Works Poetry: Iliad, c. 750 B.C.E. (English translation, 1611) Odyssey, c. 725 B.C.E. (English translation, 1614) Bibliography 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. Dalby, Andrew. Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic. Norton, 2006. Dalby speculates that Homer was a woman. Speculation aside, this is an excellent introduction to the history and historicity of the Trojan War and its companion epics. 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.

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