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Idealized portrayal of Homer dating to the Hellenistic period. British Museum.
|Born||ca. 8th century BC|
In the Western classical tradition, Homer (pron.: / /; Greek: Ὅμηρος [hómɛːros], Hómēros) is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest of ancient Greek epic poets. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.
When he lived is unknown. Herodotus estimates that Homer lived 400 years before his own time, which would place him at around 850 BC, while other ancient sources claim that he lived much nearer to the supposed time of the Trojan War, in the early 12th century BC. Modern researchers appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.
The formative influence played by the Homeric epics in shaping Greek culture was widely recognized, and Homer was described as the teacher of Greece. Homer's works, which are about fifty percent speeches, provided models in persuasive speaking and writing that were emulated throughout the ancient and medieval Greek worlds. Fragments of Homer account for nearly half of all identifiable Greek literary papyrus finds.
For modern scholars "the date of Homer" refers not to an individual, but to the period when the epics were created. The consensus is that "the Iliad and the Odyssey date from around the 8th century BC, the Iliad being composed before the Odyssey, perhaps by some decades," i.e. earlier than Hesiod, the Iliad being the oldest work of Western literature. Over the past few decades, some scholars have argued for a 7th century BC date. Oliver Taplin believes that the conclusion of modern researchers is that Homer dates to between 750 to 650 BC. Some of those who argue that the Homeric poems developed gradually over a long period of time give an even later date for the composition of the poems; according to Gregory Nagy for example, they only became fixed texts in the 6th century BC. The question of the historicity of Homer the individual is known as the " Homeric question"; there is no reliable biographical information handed down from classical antiquity. The poems are generally seen as the culmination of many generations of oral story-telling, in a tradition with a well-developed formulaic system of poetic composition. Some scholars, such as Martin West, claim that "Homer" is "not the name of a historical poet, but a fictitious or constructed name."
Life and legends
"Homer" is a Greek name, attested in Aeolic-speaking areas, and although nothing definite is known about him, traditions arose purporting to give details of his birthplace and background. The satirist Lucian, in his True History, describes him as a Babylonian called Tigranes, who assumed the name Homer when taken "hostage" (homeros) by the Greeks. When the Emperor Hadrian asked the Oracle at Delphi about Homer, the Pythia proclaimed that he was Ithacan, the son of Epikaste and Telemachus, from the Odyssey. These stories were incorporated into the various Lives of Homer compiled from the Alexandrian period onwards. Homer is most frequently said to be born in the Ionian region of Asia Minor, at Smyrna, or on the island of Chios, dying on the Cycladic island of Ios. A connection with Smyrna seems to be alluded to in a legend that his original name was Melesigenes ("born of Meles", a river which flowed by that city), with his mother the nymph Kretheis. Internal evidence from the poems gives evidence of familiarity with the topography and place-names of this area of Asia Minor; for example, Homer refers to meadow birds at the mouth of the Caystros, a storm in the Icarian sea, and mentions that women in Maeonia and Caria stain ivory with scarlet.
The association with Chios dates back to at least Semonides of Amorgos, who cited a famous line in the Iliad (6.146) as by "the man of Chios". An eponymous bardic guild, known as the Homeridae (sons of Homer), or Homeristae ('Homerizers') appears to have existed there, tracing descent from an ancestor of that name, or upholding their function as rhapsodes or "lay-stitchers" specialising in the recitation of Homeric poetry. Wilhelm Dörpfeld suggests that Homer had visited many of the places and regions which he describes in his epics, such as Mycenae, Troy, the palace of Odysseus at Ithaca and more. According to Diodorus Siculus, Homer had even visited Egypt.
The poet's name is homophonous with ὅμηρος (hómēros), "hostage" (or "surety"), which is interpreted as meaning "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow", or, in some dialects, "blind". This led to many tales that he was a hostage or a blind man. Traditions which assert that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word in both Ionic, where the verbal form ὁμηρεύω (homēreúō) has the specialized meaning of "guide the blind", and the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where ὅμηρος (hómēros) is synonymous with the standard Greek τυφλός (tuphlós), meaning 'blind'. The characterization of Homer as a blind bard goes back to some verses in the Delian Hymn to Apollo, the third of the Homeric Hymns, verses later cited to support this notion by Thucydides. The Cymean historian Ephorus held the same view, and the idea gained support in antiquity on the strength of a false etymology which derived his name from ho mḕ horṓn (ὁ μὴ ὁρῶν: "he who does not see"). Critics have long taken as self-referential a passage in the Odyssey describing a blind bard, Demodocus, in the court of the Phaeacian king, who recounts stories of Troy to the shipwrecked Odysseus.
Many scholars take the name of the poet to be indicative of a generic function. Gregory Nagy takes it to mean "he who fits (the Song) together". ὁμηρέω (homēréō), another related verb, besides signifying "meet", can mean "(sing) in accord/tune". Some argue that "Homer" may have meant "he who puts the voice in tune" with dancing. Marcello Durante links "Homeros" to an epithet of Zeus as "god of the assemblies" and argues that behind the name lies the echo of an archaic word for "reunion", similar to the later Panegyris, denoting a formal assembly of competing minstrels.
Some Ancient Lives depict Homer as a wandering minstrel, like Thamyris or Hesiod, who walked as far as Chalkis to sing at the funeral games of Amphidamas. We are given the image of a "blind, begging singer who hangs around with little people: shoemakers, fisherman, potters, sailors, elderly men in the gathering places of harbour towns". The poems, on the other hand, give us evidence of singers at the courts of the nobility. Some believe that a strong aristocratic bias in the poems is demonstrated by the lack of any major protagonists of non-aristocratic stock, and by episodes such as the beating down of the commoner Thersites by the king Odysseus for daring to criticize his superiors; but Odysseus is described as beating Thersites, not with any object of his own, but rather with Agamemnon's sceptre, which could be seen as leaving the implications of the event open to the listener's imagination or point of view: Robert Graves interprets Thersites as representing Homer's viewpoint. In any event, scholars are divided as to which category, if any, the court singer or the wandering minstrel, the historic "Homer" belonged.
Works attributed to Homer
The Greeks of the sixth and early fifth centuries BC understood by "Homer", generally, "the whole body of heroic tradition as embodied in hexameter verse". Thus, in addition to the Iliad and the Odyssey, there are "exceptional" epics which organize their respective themes on a "massive scale". Many other works were credited to Homer in antiquity, including the entire Epic Cycle. The genre included further poems on the Trojan War, such as the Little Iliad, the Nostoi, the Cypria, and the Epigoni, as well as the Theban poems about Oedipus and his sons. Other works, such as the corpus of Homeric Hymns, the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia ("The Frog-Mouse War"), and the Margites were also attributed to him, but this is now believed to be unlikely. Two other poems, the Capture of Oechalia and the Phocais were also assigned Homeric authorship, but the question of the identities of the authors of these various texts is even more problematic than that of the authorship of the two major epics.
The idea that Homer was responsible for just the two outstanding epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, did not win consensus until 350 BC. While many find it unlikely that both epics were composed by the same person, others argue that the stylistic similarities are too consistent to support the theory of multiple authorship. One view which attempts to bridge the differences holds that the Iliad was composed by "Homer" in his maturity, while the Odyssey was a work of his old age. The Batrachomyomachia, Homeric Hymns and cyclic epics are generally agreed to be later than the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Most scholars agree that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardisation and refinement out of older material beginning in the 8th century BC. An important role in this standardisation appears to have been played by the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival. Many classicists hold that this reform must have involved the production of a canonical written text.
Other scholars still support the idea that Homer was a real person. Since nothing is known about the life of this Homer, the common joke—also recycled with regard to Shakespeare—has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name." Samuel Butler argues, based on literary observations, that a young Sicilian woman wrote the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further pursued by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter and Andrew Dalby in Rediscovering Homer.
Independent of the question of single authorship is the near-universal agreement, after the work of Milman Parry, that the Homeric poems are dependent on an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets ( aoidoi). An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems contain many formulaic phrases typical of extempore epic traditions; even entire verses are at times repeated. Parry and his student Albert Lord pointed out that such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in a predominantly oral cultural milieu, the key words being "oral" and "traditional". Parry started with "traditional": the repetitive chunks of language, he said, were inherited by the singer-poet from his predecessors, and were useful to him in composition. Parry called these repetitive chunks "formulas".
Exactly when these poems would have taken on a fixed written form is subject to debate. The traditional solution is the "transcription hypothesis", wherein a non-literate "Homer" dictates his poem to a literate scribe between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. The Greek alphabet was introduced in the early 8th century BC, so it is possible that Homer himself was of the first generation of authors who were also literate. The classicist Barry B. Powell suggests that the Greek alphabet was invented ca. 800 BC by one man, whom he calls the "adapter," in order to write down oral epic poetry. More radical Homerists like Gregory Nagy contend that a canonical text of the Homeric poems as "scripture" did not exist until the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st century BC).
New methods try also to elucidate the question. Combining information technologies and statistics stylometry analyzes various linguistic units: words, parts of speech, and sounds. Based on the frequencies of Greek letters, a first study of Dietmar Najock particularly shows the internal cohesion of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Taking into account the repartition of the letters, a recent study of Stephan Vonfelt highlights the unity of the works of Homer compared to Hesiod. The thesis of modern analysts being questioned, the debate remains open.
The study of Homer is one of the oldest topics in scholarship, dating back to antiquity. The aims and achievements of Homeric studies have changed over the course of the millennia. In the last few centuries, they have revolved around the process by which the Homeric poems came into existence and were transmitted over time to us, first orally and later in writing.
Some of the main trends in modern Homeric scholarship have been, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Analysis and Unitarianism (see Homeric Question), schools of thought which emphasized on the one hand the inconsistencies in, and on the other the artistic unity of, Homer; and in the 20th century and later Oral Theory, the study of the mechanisms and effects of oral transmission, and Neoanalysis, the study of the relationship between Homer and other early epic material.
The language used by Homer is an archaic version of Ionic Greek, with admixtures from certain other dialects, such as Aeolic Greek. It later served as the basis of Epic Greek, the language of epic poetry, typically in dactylic hexameter.
Aristotle remarks in his Poetics that Homer was unique among the poets of his time, focusing on a single unified theme or action in the epic cycle.
The cardinal qualities of the style of Homer are well articulated by Matthew Arnold:
[T]he translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author:—that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and finally, that he is eminently noble.
The peculiar rapidity of Homer is due in great measure to his use of hexameter verse. It is characteristic of early literature that the evolution of the thought, or the grammatical form of the sentence, is guided by the structure of the verse; and the correspondence which consequently obtains between the rhythm and the syntax—the thought being given out in lengths, as it were, and these again divided by tolerably uniform pauses—produces a swift flowing movement such as is rarely found when periods are constructed without direct reference to the metre. That Homer possesses this rapidity without falling into the corresponding faults, that is, without becoming either fluctuant or monotonous, is perhaps the best proof of his unequalled poetic skill. The plainness and directness of both thought and expression which characterise him were doubtless qualities of his age, but the author of the Iliad (similar to Voltaire, to whom Arnold happily compares him) must have possessed this gift in a surpassing degree. The Odyssey is in this respect perceptibly below the level of the Iliad.
Rapidity or ease of movement, plainness of expression, and plainness of thought are not distinguishing qualities of the great epic poets Virgil, Dante, and Milton. On the contrary, they belong rather to the humbler epico-lyrical school for which Homer has been so often claimed. The proof that Homer does not belong to that school—and that his poetry is not in any true sense ballad poetry—is furnished by the higher artistic structure of his poems and, as regards style, by the fourth of the qualities distinguished by Arnold: the quality of nobleness. It is his noble and powerful style, sustained through every change of idea and subject, that finally separates Homer from all forms of ballad poetry and popular epic.
Like the French epics, such as the Chanson de Roland, Homeric poetry is indigenous and, by the ease of movement and its resultant simplicity, distinguishable from the works of Dante, Milton and Virgil. It is also distinguished from the works of these artists by the comparative absence of underlying motives or sentiment. In Virgil's poetry, a sense of the greatness of Rome and Italy is the leading motive of a passionate rhetoric, partly veiled by the considered delicacy of his language. Dante and Milton are still more faithful exponents of the religion and politics of their time. Even the French epics display sentiments of fear and hatred of the Saracens; but, in Homer's works, the interest is purely dramatic. There is no strong antipathy of race or religion; the war turns on no political events; the capture of Troy lies outside the range of the Iliad; and even the protagonists are not comparable to the chief national heroes of Greece. So far as can be seen, the chief interest in Homer's works is that of human feeling and emotion, and of drama; indeed, his works are often referred to as "dramas".
History and the Iliad
The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik in the late 19th century provided initial evidence to scholars that there was an historical basis for the Trojan War. Research into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages, pioneered by the aforementioned Parry and Lord, began convincing scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until they are written down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris (and others) convinced many of a linguistic continuity between 13th century BC Mycenaean writings and the poems attributed to Homer.
It is probable, therefore, that the story of the Trojan War as reflected in the Homeric poems derives from a tradition of epic poetry founded on a war which actually took place. It is crucial, however, not to underestimate the creative and transforming power of subsequent tradition: for instance, Achilles, the most important character of the Iliad, is strongly associated with southern Thessaly, but his legendary figure is interwoven into a tale of war whose kings were from the Peloponnese. Tribal wanderings were frequent, and far-flung, ranging over much of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The epic weaves brilliantly the disiecta membra (scattered remains) of these distinct tribal narratives, exchanged among clan bards, into a monumental tale in which Greeks join collectively to do battle on the distant plains of Troy.
In the Hellenistic period, Homer was the subject of a hero cult in several cities. A shrine, the Homereion, was devoted to him in Alexandria by Ptolemy IV Philopator in the late 3rd century BC. This shrine is described in Aelian's 3rd century AD work Varia Historia. He tells how Ptolemy "placed in a circle around the statue [of Homer] all the cities who laid claim to Homer" and mentions a painting of the poet by the artist Galaton, which apparently depicted Homer in the aspect of Oceanus as the source of all poetry.
A marble relief, found in Italy but thought to have been sculpted in Egypt, depicts the apotheosis of Homer. It shows Ptolemy and his wife or sister Arsinoe III standing beside a seated poet, flanked by figures from the Odyssey and Iliad, with the nine Muses standing above them and a procession of worshippers approaching an altar, believed to represent the Alexandrine Homereion. Apollo, the god of music and poetry, also appears, along with a female figure tentatively identified as Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses. Zeus, the king of the gods, presides over the proceedings. The relief demonstrates vividly that the Greeks considered Homer not merely a great poet but the divinely inspired reservoir of all literature.
Homereia also stood at Chios, Ephesus, and Smyrna, which were among the city-states that claimed to be his birthplace. Strabo (14.1.37) records an Homeric temple in Smyrna with an ancient xoanon or cult statue of the poet. He also mentions sacrifices carried out to Homer by the inhabitants of Argos, presumably at another Homereion.
Transmission and publication
Though evincing many features characteristic of oral poetry, the Iliad and Odyssey were at some point committed to writing. The Greek script, adapted from a Phoenician syllabary around 800 BC, made possible the notation of the complex rhythms and vowel clusters that make up hexameter verse. Homer's poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the alphabet's invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BC, appears to refer to a text of the Iliad; likewise, illustrations seemingly inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey are found on Samos, Mykonos and in Italy, dating from the first quarter of the seventh century BC. We have little information about the early condition of the Homeric poems, but in the second century BC, Alexandrian editors stabilized this text from which all modern texts descend.
In late antiquity, knowledge of Greek declined in Latin-speaking western Europe and, along with it, knowledge of Homer's poems. It was not until the fifteenth century AD that Homer's work began to be read once more in Italy. By contrast it was continually read and taught in the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire where the majority of the classics also survived. The first printed edition appeared in 1488 (edited by Demetrios Chalkokondyles and published by Bernardus Nerlius, Nerius Nerlius, and Demetrius Damilas in Florence, Italy).
One often finds books of the Iliad and Odyssey cited by the corresponding letter of the Greek alphabet, with upper-case letters referring to a book number of the Iliad and lower-case letters referring to the Odyssey. Thus Ξ 200 would be shorthand for Iliad book 14, line 200, while ξ 200 would be Odyssey 14.200. The following table presents this system of numeration: