Homer (700-800 BC), commonly credited as the Greek poet and author of Western Literature's first and most influential works Iliad (c. 750-725 BC) and its sequel Odyssey (c. 743-713 BC). For hundreds of years these two works of Homer, written in ancient formal Ionic Greek diction mixed with dialect, have been the subject of numerous translations and interpretations. As to the very question of Homer's existence itself, so too do the English translations pose questions as to their authenticity, veracity, and authority. They include those by English poets George Chapman (c. 1559-1634) and John Dryden (1631-1700), the Odyssey "Translated into English Blank Verse" version by William Cowper (1731-1800), and Scottish author and poet Andrew Lang's (1844-1912). Unless you are a student of ancient Greek or a Homeric Scholar, we rely on others. There is a wide variety of translations; for example, the translation of Iliad by Erewhon author Samuel Butler (1835–1902) begins;
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.--Book I
while the version by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) English poet best known for his satirical verse and translation of Homer begins;
Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Iliad, (Song of Ilion; Song of Ilium) the epic Homeric poem tells the story of the Trojan War and the battle of Troy (Ilium), one of the most important and well-known events in Greek mythology. In a time when the gods still visited mortals, it tells of Achilles, leader of the Achaeans and his great wrath towards King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks. Narrated by one informed by the Muses, it includes other such important Achaean and Trojan figures as Zeus, Patroclus, Diomed, Ajax, Menelaus, Hector, Hecuba, Helen, Paris, and Aeneas. Iliad is a glorification of war and the bravery of Achilles, demi-god and great military warrior.
Partly a sequel to Iliad, Odyssey is the epic mythological journey of Odysseus (his Roman name is Ulysses). "Odysseus the Cunning" is the son of Laertes and Anticlea. After sacking the city of Troy by masterfully gaining entrance to the city with a wooden Trojan Horse, his journey to return home to Ithaca after the battle of Troy takes ten years. Among his many trials during this quest, Odysseus must first escape imprisonment by Calypso on the island of Ogygia, endure a battle with the Cyclops, survive a descent to Hades, and suffer the god Neptune's bitter wrath at sea. He goes through many trials, all the while Penelope his wife faithfully waiting for him but not knowing if he is still alive. With the help of Hermes and Zeus, and his son Telemachus, Odysseus is finally home, in his rightful place at the palace, "Hero of Ithaca". Unlike Iliad, Odyssey is written in more of a conversational story-telling style. It is a tale of exile, longing, temptation, patience, and cunning. It is also a timeless tale of everyman's journey to 'home', be it a spiritual goal or a given place. Odyssey has directly influenced other such classic works of literature including Dante Alighieri's 14th century Inferno, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605), Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum, "Sinbad the Sailor" from Arabian Nights, Ezra Pound's The Cantos (1922), and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).
These two epic poems, consisting of over 30,000 lines, are based on traditional poetic stories that were told orally, often accompanied by lyre music. They were passed down from many generations, years before they were written. As for authorship, these stories were probably dictated to scribes by many different story-tellers. While not historically accurate, linguistics experts say they reflect certain aspects of the Late Bronze and Dark Ages (1200-900 BC).
The Homeric style, devised when writing was a new convention, consists of often repeated formulaic metered lines of six metrical units known as "dactylic hexameter" or "heroic hexameter". Virgil also used this style in his Aeneid (c. 19 BC) which was inspired by Homer's works and tells of Aeneas' journey to Rome after the Trojan War. The development of this poetic formula provided ease in composing poetry to fit the needs of the orator or singer; it gave them the flexibility to change words or phrases, yet adapt their work to their audience. They might be retelling a well-known poem and while the basic meaning stayed the same, in changing the arrangement of the words, it was fresh and new.
Another characteristic of Homer's style is the use of epithets, a mnemonic aid, that helps the author and the audience remember certain events or human attributes. For example god-like men, fair-haired women. Other examples are: Aeneas, "counselor of the Trojans"; Agamemnon, "shepherd of the people"; Apollo, "son of Zeus" and "rouser of armies"; Achilles, "son of Peleus" and often referred to as "swift-footed"; and Odysseus, "mastermind of war", "sacker of cities" and "man of action".
The Homeric Hymns, composed with the same dialect and "dactylic hexameter" as in Iliad and Odyssey have also been attributed to Homer, emphasis on Homeric. They range in length from a few lines to hundreds of lines. Most of them address the Greek gods and "To Earth, the Mother of All";
Concerning Earth, the mother of all, shall I sing, firm Earth, eldest of Gods, that nourishes all things in the world; all things that fare on the sacred land, all things in the sea, all flying things, all are fed out of her store. Through thee, revered Goddess, are men happy in their children and fortunate in their harvest. Thine it is to give or to take life from mortal men. Happy is he whom thou honourest with favouring heart; to him all good things are present innumerable: his fertile field is laden, his meadows are rich in cattle, his house filled with all good things. Such men rule righteously in cities of fair women, great wealth and riches are theirs, their children grow glorious in fresh delights: their maidens joyfully dance and sport through the soft meadow flowers in floral revelry. Such are those that thou honourest, holy Goddess, kindly spirit. Hail, Mother of the Gods, thou wife of starry Ouranos, and freely in return for my ode give me sufficient livelihood. Anon will I be mindful of thee and of another lay.--The Homeric Hymns, Andrew Lang (1899)
As for the Homeric Question, similar to the life of William Shakespeare, it is difficult to ascribe much in the way of personal details to the man Homer, if he even existed. Some say "Homer" was a common name given to blind men who roamed the country entertaining people with their recitations of poetry. They plied their trade from town to town, singing of everyday events or the heroic deeds of notable people. They stood to crowds in open markets, at festivals, or in the courts of kings. Ancient Greek historian and "Father of History" Herodotus, or "Pseudo-Herodotus" for those who question his existence, and who lived much later than Homer wrote Life of Homer (c. 500 BC). Homer has been said to have lived in the area of Ionia as far back as the 12th century BC although now most scholars place his existence between the 7th and 8th centuries. Some say 'he' is a construct of many ancient Greek scholars. Many claim that Iliad and Odyssey contain autobiographical details. Some say his mother was named Themisto; or that she was a nymph named Kretheis, his father the river Meles. Many cities claim to be Homer's birthplace including Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), the Island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, Athens, and Rhodes, Greece. They say Homer died on the island of Ios. As to the doubt of his identity, existence and authorship is posed the Homeric Question which Homeric Scholars study yet today.
Nothing about the man Homer is certain, except for the fact that he was greatly influential in the history of Greek and Western culture, spirituality, government, literature, education, the arts, and everyday society. Homer, 'the father of poetry', continues to inspire modern intellectuals, poets, artists, film makers, and authors. Maybe it matters not who the author, translator, or the reader of his works are, but certainly in the timeless works of Homer we will continue to see reflections from past civilisations, and of our own, and of those in the future. The scribes, storytellers, biographers, historians, and poets all have played a part in shaping the Homer that we know today. "....Homer and his poems are the beginning of all our stories" (Ch. 2, Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography, Alberto Manguel, 2007)
"Do not be angry with me Ulysses," she cried, "you, who are the wisest of mankind. We have suffered, both of us. Heaven has denied us the happiness of spending our youth, and of growing old, together; do not then be aggrieved or take it amiss that I did not embrace you thus as soon as I saw you. I have been shuddering all the time through fear that someone might come here and deceive me with a lying story; for there are many very wicked people going about..." Then Ulysses in his turn melted, and wept as he clasped his dear and faithful wife to his bosom. As the sight of land is welcome to men who are swimming towards the shore, when Neptune has wrecked their ship with the fury of his winds and waves; a few alone reach the land, and these, covered with brine, are thankful when they find themselves on firm ground and out of danger—even so was her husband welcome to her as she looked upon him, and she could not tear her two fair arms from about his neck.--Book XXIII, Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler, (1900)
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2013. All Rights Reserved.
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