HOMER

ca. 700s B.C.

Greek epic poet

Homer is believed to be the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the earliest and greatest of the Greek epic* poems. Although these two poems are among the best-known and most widely read works of world literature, little is known about their author. There are no documents or historical records to indicate when or where Homer lived, what other works he may have produced, or what kind of life he led. The information about Homer that scholars agree on is based almost entirely on analysis of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The Historical Homer. The vocabulary and language in the Iliad and the Odyssey suggest that both poems were composed during the 700s B.C., with the Iliad dating to about 750 B.C., and the Odyssey perhaps 25 years later. Homer probably lived most of his life during the 700s B.C. Because of the dialect* in which the poems are composed and several references that indicate a familiarity with the areas around the cities of Miletus and Troy, it is believed that Homer was from Ionia, the Greek region on the west coast of Asia Minor. Seven different cities have claimed to be his birthplace. According to some traditions, Homer was blind. Literary scholars and historians have even debated whether Homer composed both poems, although many experts now believe that he did.

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* dialect form of speech characteristic of a region that differs from the standard language in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar

The Oral Tradition. Epic poems, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, were originally sung by bards, singer-poets who entertained audiences in live performances. The opening line of the Iliad— “Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus”—suggests that the poet heard the song of his muse, or divine inspiration, which he, in turn, sang to his listeners.

The Greek language has a musical quality that Homer used to enhance the enjoyment of his audience. A poet can manipulate severed qualities of vocal sounds—meter (rhythm), volume, rate, tone, and pitch. Homer used a traditional meter called dactylic hexameter, in which each line consists of six rhythmic measures. The Greek dialect in which Homer wrote has rich vowel sounds and crisp consonants. These sounds could be intensified by the poet’s delivery—perhaps a combination of singing and speaking the words.

Homer selected smooth and easily flowing phrases to describe pleasant scenes (“Along the sounding river, along the swaying reed-beds”— Iliad, Book 18), and harsh, choppy words to depict ugly or disturbing images (“For a great wave crashes down on the stark mainland”—Odyssey, Book 5). Homer’s mastery of language can perhaps be best appreciated in the original Greek.

The Epics of Homer. An epic is a long, narrative poem about the adventures of a hero*. This hero embodies ideals and values of the society from which the epic arose. Epics are usually filled with adventures, in which the hero takes many risks and often is aided, or thwarted, by supernatural forces. Homer’s two epics share many characteristics but differ in several ways. The Iliad is a tragedy about the hero Achilles, who is brave in battle but possesses an anger that he cannot curb, which leads him to his own destruction. The Odyssey is essentially a comedy, for its hero, Odysseus, does not cause his own undoing but instead is forced to face many trials, and overcoming them, meets with a happy ending. The Iliad takes place during the Trojan War and is a tale of destruction and savagery but also of honor. The Odyssey is the story of a heroic soldier’s return to his homeland and wife after the war—a journey that takes him 10 years.

Homeric Description. Homer was a master of description, using specific details rather than abstract phrases. Instead of saying that whoever attempts to take away Achilles’ possessions will be killed, Homer said that “dark blood will spurt out upon the spear.” Homer often used extended similes, as when he compared the sudden movement of the entire Greek army to ears of corn in a field, blown by a strong wind, that all bend in the same direction. Homer often named a person or a god with a short descriptive phrase, or epithet*—“swift-footed” Achilles, “wide-ruling” Agamemnon, “golden-throned” Hera. Some phrases are repeated throughout his poems. For example, “When the rosy-fingered, early-rising dawn” appears 27 times in the Odyssey. Choosing certain well-worn phrases to express a thought is called “formulaic diction.” Rather than boring his audience, Homer probably recognized his audience’s enjoyment of hearing words repeated—much as people enjoy recalling famous lines from movies or from fairy tales that they heard as children. The use of traditional formulas also helped the singer conform to the strict metrical requirements of the verse line.

OMENS FROM THE GODS

Homer's poems are filled with symbolism that was familiar to the ancient Greeks. In the Iliad, the Trojan king Priam seeks to retrieve the body of his son Hector from Achilles, who slew him. Priam selects expensive gifts for Achilles and has them loaded into a wagon. Then, he makes an appeal to Zeus for help and waits for an omen, or sign. Soon an eagle with an enormous wingspread appears and swoops down over the town to the right of the king and queen. The Trojans rejoice, believing that this is the sign from Zeus that Priam's request will be granted.

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* epithet descriptive word or phrase that accompanies, or is used in place of, the name of a person or thing

A Feel for Timing and Emotion. Homer was an intuitive and brilliant storyteller who knew how to captivate his audience. In Book 6 of the Iliad, for example, just as the images of war and death threaten to overwhelm the audience, Homer shifts away from the fighting to a tender reunion scene between the Trojan hero Hector and his wife and infant son. However, their joy is short-lived, for the Greek code of honor compels Hector to leave his beloved family and return to the battlefield.

While the Iliad and the Odyssey are tales of war and adventure, they are also stories packed with emotion. The Iliad explores the ideas of anger and pride, showing how such passions can lead to the tragedy of war, the death of noble men, and the grief of women and children. The Odyssey is about the pain of separation from loved ones, the hope of reunion, and the hardships and sacrifices people endure in the name of love. Homer’s ability to express human feelings with great sensitivity accounts for much of the lasting popularity of his poems.

The Storyteller's Craft. The scene in which Hector meets his family at Troy appears in the first third of the Iliad, and it hints at Hector’s ultimate fate at the end of the tale. Homer uses this technique, called foreshadowing, in both the Iliad and the Odyssey to increase suspense and build anticipation.

Homer also uses a technique in constructing his plots known as ring composition. No matter how many extra tales of adventure he might add and how many new characters he might introduce, Homer always returns to the main plot. For example, on the island of the Phaeacians, Odysseus makes a long speech after dinner telling the Phaeacians about all of his previous adventures. Odysseus’s account fills most of Books 9-12 of the Odyssey. Finally, Odysseus concludes his story, and the action comes full circle back to the present—completing the ring.

Homer's Legacy. Homer’s works were revered in ancient times. His epics were recited at religious festivals throughout ancient Greece. Greek schoolchildren, learning to read, copied Homer’s works and studied the myths and speeches contained in his poems. The tragic dramatists of classical* Greece drew upon Homer’s works in formulating their own characters and plots. The Roman poet Vergil greatly admired and derived inspiration from the Greek master. Homer had a profound influence on later European writers, including the medieval Italian poet Dante. For centuries, Homer’s works continued to be read in Greek, but eventually they were translated into many other languages so that people everywhere might enjoy them. They are still among the most-studied and best-loved works of literature. (See also Iliad; Literature, Greek; Odyssey; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

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