Practically nothing is known for sure about Homer, or indeed whether he existed at all. The nineteenth century dispute between one major and many minor Homers has been superseded by a general acceptance that both the Iliad and the Odyssey result from reworkings of oral material. The stories refer to the Doric invasions and the Bronze Age Mycenaeans (before 1100 B), while the poetic and musical affinities suggest the Indian Vedas, and so may have elements that go back another thousand years.

Legend makes Homer a blind bard who was a native of the west coast of Asia Minor, possibly Chios or Smyrna, before 700 BC. Many readers also feel that, however edited, there exists a supreme literary intelligence behind these compositions. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are written as dactylic hexameters in a mixture of Greek dialects.

Oral poetry is now better understood, and seems to be composed by formulas and themes. The first are epithets, groups of words expressing an essential idea: they are necessarily in, or create, a poetic pattern that can be further developed. Themes are the larger outlines, incidents and stories, which can take many shapes. Oral poets do not memorise their compositions, but create them afresh in each retelling by deploying these two types of building block, exercising (and passing on) a skill that long practice makes second nature.

The 24 books of the Iliad describe a brief episode in the 10 year Trojan War, a conflict brought about by the abduction of Menelaus's wife Helen by Paris, son of Priam. Achilles is angered when Agamemnon takes the captive woman Briseis for himself, and retires to his tent. Without their hero, the Greeks suffer reverses. Odysseus and Diomeded lead expeditions that end badly. Achilles' great friend, Patroclus, goes into battle wearing Achilles' armour, but is killed by Hector. Achilles is comforted by a visit from his mother Thetis, and has new armour forged by Hephaestus, whereupon he enters again into the war and kills Hector, dragging his body behind his chariot as vengeance for the death of Patroclus. Eventually, following a visit from Hector's father, the aged Priam, Achilles relinquishes the body of Hector, and the rites proper to war are observed. In both epics, despite the heroic splendour of the writing, and the occasional inconsistency, the plotting and characterisation bring the protagonists vividly to life.

Many scholars think the Odyssey was written later, by someone other than Homer. Again in 24 books, the epic relates the wanderings of the crafty Odysseus and his companions in their long return from the Trojan War. The story opens with Odysseus' son Telemachus seeking news of his father from Nestor at Pylos and Menelaus at Sparta, where he reports that his mother Penelope is besieged by suitors wishing to take Odysseus' kingdom of Ithaca. Menelaus tells Telemachos that Odysseus has been detained by the nymph Calypso. Zeus then orders the release of Odysseus, who sails to Phaeacia, where he recounts to King Alcinoüs his adventures with Polyphemus, Aelus, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, the Laestrygones and the lotus eaters — places which can be identified around the Mediterranean. Odysseus returns to Ithaca and, with the help of Telemachus and Athena, kills the suitors and regains his kingdom.

Homer is a classic in many senses. Though odd at times, his language has never been bettered. The morality is primitive, but formed a basis of Greek and later education. The two epics are the fountainhead of western literature and no translation quite recaptures the splendour and nobility of the original.

General books include The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1989) and the those listed in biographies following the Greek and Oral Poetry sections of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993). The Homer bibliography is immense, but short listings can be found on the California State University, London University and Brooklyn College sites.


Suggestion: The Odyssey (1997). Starring Armand Assante and Greta Scacchi, and directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. $32.66.

No one wants to choose between the many versions of Homer's works now available: it's really a matter of taste. Here is something different: a DVD recording of the Odyssey. 12.5 hours' extravagant entertainment on 11 CDs. After that, in a more serious mood, you might want to consider: Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.