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date: 25 September 2018

Homer

Source:
Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History
Author(s):
Lincoln P. PaineLincoln P. PAINE

Homer (ninth?–eighth? century bce) 

Homer is the Greek poet credited with the composition of the epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. There is little evidence for a historical figure called Homer. The earliest written mentions of him date from the seventh century bce, but these are not in agreement. A number of Greek cities claim Homer for their own, most of them in Ionia in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Textual and linguistic analysis suggests that Homer was from Euboea, a large island that hugs the east flank of mainland Greece opposite Ionia, and that he lived around 800 to 750 bce.

Although the background for both epics is the Trojan War (c. thirteenth century bce), which was fought at Ilium (Troy) in modern Turkey, the Iliad and Odyssey deal with distinct themes. The Iliad relates the rage of the hero Achilles who, insulted by the Greek leader Agamemnon, refuses to fight and urges his mother, Thetis, to have the gods turn the tide of battle in the Trojans’ favor. His anger changes to grief when Hector kills his friend Patroclus, who is wearing Achilles’s armor. Achilles returns to battle and kills Hector, threatening to defile his corpse until Hector’s father, Priam, asks him to surrender the body for a proper funeral, which he does. The action of the book takes place over a few days in the last year of the war, but Homer also recounts the origins of the conflict and much of the story of the previous nine years.

The Odyssey relates the return home of the Greek hero Odysseus after the war. Although it is regarded as more of a folktale in which the hero makes excursions to fantastic lands and the underworld, the geography of the Odyssey is apparently modeled on the experience of eighth-century Greece, which was then beginning its westward expansion. His homecoming takes ten years because of the obstacles put in his way by Poseidon, god of the sea. In addition to telling of Odysseus’s wanderings and tribulations, the Odyssey also tells of the efforts of his son, Telemachus, to rid his house of the many suitors who have descended in hopes of marrying his mother, Penelope. In the end, father and son are reunited, they kill the suitors, and Odysseus resumes his place as lord of Ithaca.

Thanks to their exploration of human (and divine) motive, their narrative force, and the sheer beauty of the language, the Iliad and Odyssey have been regarded as cornerstones of the Western literary tradition since antiquity. More recent evaluations of Homer have established an important historical place for him. At the end of the nineteenth century, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the site of ancient Troy, which is believed to have burned in about 1250 bce. This discovery suggested that the story of the Iliad had a factual basis. If the stories originated in the thirteenth century bce, they underwent a contextual metamorphosis so that by the time they were written down, apart from a few intentional archaisms, many of the poem’s details reflect the reality of eighth-century Greece, then emerging from a centuries-long dark age, not that of the more prosperous Mycenaean age.

HomerClick to view larger

“Homer delights foreign sailors during his captivity.”

From Illustrierte Weltgeschichte für das Volk, Otto von Corrin, editor. Leipzig: O. Spamer, 1880–1883.

The Homeric poems are also among the oldest—if not the oldest—works of written Greek and their transcription marks a crucial transition in the development of writing. The West Semitic alphabet upon which Greek is based has only consonants. Greek, on the other hand, contains both consonants and vowels, which are essential for rendering the metrical rhythm of Greek poetry, and one theory holds that the scribe who first set down the Homeric epics was bilingual and forced to introduce vowels to accommodate the Greek. Homer’s use of dactylic hexameter was widely imitated in antiquity, most notably in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic of the founding of Rome by the Trojan refugee Aeneas. The first half of the Aeneid recounts Aeneas’s voyage to Italy, on the model of the Odyssey, while the second half has the more martial spirit of the Iliad.

As important as the epics are as a foundation of the “Western” literary tradition, many of the plots and themes derive from older Near Eastern antecedents, the best known of which is the Epic of Gilgamesh. As well as being a standard reading in survey courses of Western literature, Homer’s legacy is seen in the design of James Joyce’s mock-heroic epic novel Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus), which Joyce divided into the Telemachiad, the Wanderings of Ulysses, and the Nostos (homecoming).

Lincoln P. PAINE

Independent scholar, Portland, Maine

See also Greece, Ancient

Further Reading

Clarke, H. W. (1981). Homer’s readers: A historical introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Newark: University of Delaware Press.Find this resource:

Homer. (1990). The Iliad. (R. Fagles, Trans.). New York: Penguin.Find this resource:

Homer. (1996). The Odyssey. (R. Fagles, Trans.). New York: Penguin.Find this resource:

Parry, M. (1980). The making of Homeric verse. (A. Parry, Ed.). New York: Arno.Find this resource:

Powell, B. B. (2004). Homer. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource: