In search of Homer

Homer (the word homeros in Greek means hostage) is the author of epic poems known as the Iliad and the Odyssey. These stories have had enormous influence on Western literature, although if and when Homer lived remains controversial.

The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) thought that Homer lived 400 years before his own time, which would place him around 850 BC. Other ancient sources claim that he lived much nearer to the supposed time of the Trojan War, in the early 12th century BCE.

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 BCE, the Iliad being composed before the Odyssey, perhaps by some decades. Writing in The Oxford History of the Classical World (1986), Oliver Taplin comments on the uselessness of searching for Homer “by the marshlight of a pocket biography of the author” since what we think we know is minimal and most of it is demonstrably fictitious:

“Homer is, then, for our purposes, the Iliad and the Odyssey. And what are they? They are narrative poems; they ‘tell a story’. But the interest lies not in the story, but in the telling, the way it turned into literature.” Many thought that such a long account could not have been transmitted orally and that it must originate in a later, written culture. However, research into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages convinced scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until they were written down.

Linear B (right) is a syllabic script used for writing Mycenaean Greek and which predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries. It seems to have died out with the fall of Mycenaean civilization. Most clay tablets inscribed in Linear B were found in Knossos and Cydonia on Crete, at Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae on what is now mainland Greece. All are places mentioned by Homer.

The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris (and others) convinced many of a linguistic continuity between 13th century BCE 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 that actually took place. Lacking any form of literature and relying solely on public spectacles for entertainment, one can only imagine the sheer excitement of recitations recounting such a glorious past.

In the Introduction to his vivid new translation of The Iliad (2011), Stephen Mitchell writes: “In ancient Athens, more than twenty thousand people, as we know from Plato’s Ion, would go to the marketplace, theater, or open hillside, the way we might attend a concert, to hear a famous rhapsode recite ‘The Death of Hector’ or ‘The Meeting of Priam and Achilles’ … This was poetry that gave pleasure to everyone – men and women, adults and children, the simple and the very sophisticated. It still has power to move us all.”

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3 comments on “In search of Homer

  1. tillyv says:

    Fascinating – but I had to laugh as my first response was “I wonder what Philip has written about Homer Simpson”…! My son’s bedroom is a shrine to The Simpsons so you will have to forgive me!

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