|Island of Freedom|
c. 850 B.C.
The Homer Homepage
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
The Iliad - divided by chapter
The Iliad - complete text
The Odyssey - divided by chapter
The Odyssey - complete text
The Homeric Hymns
Homer was the major figure of ancient Greek literature and the author of the earliest and finest epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Tradition has it that he lived in the 12th century B.C., around the time of the Trojan War, in an Ionic settlement, either Chios or Smyrna, where he made his living as a court singer and storyteller. But modern archaeological research has uncovered artifacts similar to those described in the poems, providing evidence that Homer wrote at a later date. Most scholars now suppose that Homer was Ionian of the 8th or 9th century BC. Homer writes nothing of himself in his poems, but similes in the Iliad and the Odyssey frequently make reference to the humble lives of farmers and artisans, so it is sometimes conjectured that Homer was of this class.
Both epics deal with legendary events that were believed to have occurred many centuries before their composition. The Iliad is set in the final year of the Trojan War, fought between the Greeks and the inhabitants of the city of Troy. The legendary conflict forms the background for the central plot of the story: the wrath of the Greek hero Achilles. Insulted by his commander in chief, Agamemnon, the young warrior Achilles withdraws from the war, leaving his fellow Greeks to suffer terrible defeats at the hands of the Trojans. Achilles rejects the Greeks' attempts at reconciliation but finally relents to some extent, allowing his companion Patroclus to lead his troops in his place. Patroclus is slain, and Achilles, filled with fury and remorse, turns his wrath against the Trojans, whose leader, Hector (son of King Priam), he kills in single combat. The poem closes as Achilles surrenders the corpse of Hector to Priam for burial, recognizing a certain kinship with the Trojan king as they both face the tragedies of mortality and bereavement.
The Odyssey describes the return of the Greek hero Odysseus from the Trojan War. The opening scenes depict the disorder that has arisen in Odysseus's household during his long absence: A band of suitors is living off of his wealth as they woo his wife, Penelope. The epic then tells of Odysseus's ten years of traveling, during which he has to face such dangers as the man-eating giant Polyphemus and such subtler threats as the goddess Calypso, who offers him immortality if he will abandon his quest for home. The second half of the poem begins with Odysseus's arrival at his home island of Ithaca. Here, exercising infinite patience and self-control, Odysseus tests the loyalty of his servants; plots and carries out a bloody revenge on Penelope's suitors; and is reunited with his son, his wife, and his aged father.
Both epics are written in an elaborate style, using language that was too impersonal and formal for ordinary discourse. The metrical form is dactylic hexameter. Stylistically no real distinction can be made between the two works. Since antiquity, however, many readers have believed that they were written by different people. The Iliad deals with passions, with insoluble dilemmas. It has no real villains; Achilles, Agamemnon, Priam, and the rest are caught up, as actors and victims, in a cruel and ultimately tragic universe. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, the wicked are destroyed, right prevails, and the family is reunited. Here rational intellect—-that of Odysseus in particular-—acts as the guiding force throughout the story.
The modern text of the Homeric poems was transmitted through medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, themselves copies of now lost ancient manuscripts of the epics. From classical antiquity until recently, Homer's readers may have distrusted the tales describing him as a blind beggar bard of Chios and may have argued that portions of the texts, such as the concluding scenes of the Odyssey, were added by another hand. However, they generally believed that Homer was a poet (or at most, a pair of poets) much like the poets they knew from their own experience. They believed that the Iliad and the Odyssey, although based on traditional materials, were independent, original, and largely fictional. In the last 200 years, however, this view has changed radically, following the emergence and continuing discussion of the "Homeric question"-—namely, by whom, how, and when were the Iliad and Odyssey composed? A generally accepted answer has yet to be found. In the 19th and 20th centuries the so-called analysts argued that inconsistencies in the works proved that the poems were collections, or accretions, of short, independently composed lays, simple narrative poems; the unitarians, on the other hand, argued that these inconsistencies were insignificant or imaginary, and that the overall unity of the epics proved that each was the product of a single writer. More recently, scholarly discussion has centered on the theory of oral-formulaic composition. According to this theory, the elaborate system of poetic diction found in the Homeric epics was developed over many generations by bards who performed the poems for aristocratic patrons. Since writing was not yet in use for literary purposes, these bards had to perform without the aid of a written text. However, instead of composing and memorizing fixed works, they built up over time a vast stock of verbal formulas that enabled them to improvise long poems on heroic topics more or less spontaneously. These formulas extended from short phrases, such as "swift-footed Achilles," to long scenes that depict repeated or stereotypical actions, such as the arming of a warrior, a duel, or the eating of a meal. The poet was free to alter or recombine elements of the longer formulas to suit the context.
No one view on this issue has prevailed, but it is fair to say that practically all commentators would agree that tradition had a great deal to do with the poems' composition and that each epic bears evidence that suggests a single creator. Meanwhile, archaeological discoveries of the last 125 years, especially those of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, have shown that much of the civilization Homer described was not fictional. The epics, therefore, can be considered historical documents, to a certain extent, and discussion of this facet of them has constantly been intertwined with the debate on the question of their creation.
In a direct way Homer was the parent of all succeeding Greek literature. Drama, historiography, and even philosophy all show the mark of the issues, comic and tragic, raised in the epics and of the techniques Homer used to approach them. For the later epic poets of Western literature, Homer was the greatest influence (even when, as in the case of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the poets did not know the works of Homer directly). But for his most successful followers, curiously enough, his work was as much a critical and comic target as a model. The Aeneid of Roman poet Virgil, for instance, is a refutation of the individualistic value system of the Homeric epic; and the most Homeric scenes in Paradise Lost, by English poet John Milton—-those stanzas describing the battle in heaven—-are essentially comic. As for novels, such as Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615), by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, or Ulysses (1922), by Irish writer James Joyce, the more Homeric they are, the more they lean toward parody and mock epic. Among English translations of Homer, the versions of George Chapman (1616) and Alexander Pope (Iliad, 1715-1720; Odyssey, 1725-1726) stand out as permanent classics. In contemporary English verse, the reader can choose among several versions: the highly literal renditions (1951, 1967) of American poet Richmond Lattimore; the versions (1961, 1974) of Robert Fitzgerald, another American poet, which tend to be freer and are often considered more readable; and the Iliad (1990) of American poet and translator Robert Fagles.
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