In Search of Homer

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The epics of Homer – the Iliad and the Odyssey – are in many ways the cornerstones of Western literature. In the ancient psyche, the Homeric epics occupied a uniquely powerful position. The poems formed a core part of the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman educations, with Nikeratos (a figure in Xenophon’s Symposium) noting “my father was anxious to see me develop into a good man, and as a means to this end he compelled me to memorise all of Homer.” Alexander slept with a copy of the Iliad below his pillow, while the Attic tragedians explored the moral universe developed by Homer in their own writings.

Homeric Epic became the model for future writers; when writing his tale on the founding of Rome, Virgil was heavily inspired by the Greek author, as was Apollonius of Rhodes when writing his Argonautica. Today, the observations made in the Iliad and the Odyssey on the nature of mortality, the pursuit of glory and the pity of war still resonate, despite all the societal developments of the last three millennia. For all his significance to the Western canon, however, the identity of Homer remains one of the most controversial questions of classical academia.

The ancients viewed Homer as a historical figure, a blind poet who lived anything between a few generations to a few hundred years after the Trojan War. The epics of Homer are presented as divine revelations, with events being relayed from the perspective of a celestial Muse. This is made evident by the first words of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are, respectively, “Sing, Goddess” and “Tell me, Muse.” Homer presented himself as a mouthpiece for the gods, a fact which largely explains the distinctly impersonal and objective tone of the two poems.

Yet despite this semi-mythical shroud, Homer was treated and written about as a real individual, not some shadowy spectre from a distant age. According to Plato, Socrates termed Homer “the best and most divine of poets”, while Aristotle wrote that “Homer deserves praise for many reasons.” When discussing epic poetry, Plato frequently linked Homer with Hesiod (an epic poet of known identity, who lived at a similar time to Homer), suggesting he felt the former was as real as the considerably less mysterious latter. 

The ancients also attributed other works to Homer, such as the comedy Margites and the epic Thebaid, both of which are largely lost today. However, thirty-three hymns dedicated to the deities of the Greek pantheon have survived, and the ancients believed that these were written by Homer. In the hymn to Delian Apollo, the speaker describes himself a “blind man who lives in rocky Chios,” possibly providing a rare biographical detail.

The name Melesigenes (which roughly translates to “son of Meles”) also regularly appears in connection to Homer. One theory posits that Homer was given the name Melesigenes at birth, as he was born beside the river known as Meles, nearby the Cymaean colony of Smyrna, a city in Asia Minor. There are two possible reasons that Mesigenes would become known as Homer. The first is that, as a young man, Melesigenes became blind, and was so called Homer, since the Greek word for a blind man was a homeros. The other theory is that the inhabitants of Smyrna decided to abandon the city as a colony, and gave each citizen the option of staying or leaving. The young Melesigenes said that he wished to accompany (homerein) the departing leaders, and was nicknamed accordingly. 

Herodotus believed Homer existed four centuries before himself, which would mean the poet was alive during the 9th Century BC. It is worth remembering that, to the Greeks, the Trojan War as described in the Iliad was a true event from the distant past, as real as the Norman Conquest and Viking Age are to us today. Troy was a real city, and Greeks could visit the tombs and battle sites of the heroes who fought there, as described by Homer. 

Over time, the world began to see the events described by Homer as entirely fictional, no more real than the tales of Kronos eating his children. In the 19th Century, however, Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ruins of the city of Troy, and this discovery sparked debate as to how much truth there was to the tales of Homer. Debate today is divided, though there is a general consensus that the events described in the Iliad may be based on a siege of Troy that occurred at some time between the 13th and 11th Centuries BC. This siege would have been much shorter and on a far smaller scale than that described by Homer, but may have provided the historical inspiration for the author.

Most modern readers of the Homeric epics encounter them in the form of completed books, creating the impression that they were originally created as such. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, however, European scholars began comparing the Homeric epics to the folk songs found in the cultures of contemporary peasants. In the 1930s, the American scholar Milman Parry journeyed to the Balkans to listen to the songs of the illiterate farmers who dwelt there. These Balkan farmers were able to repeat oral epics thousands of lines long entirely from memory, without the aid of prompts or the written word.

The secret to this miraculous ability was the use of stock phrases –collections of words which formed a complete bundle – that were regularly repeated throughout the recitation. Using these metrical building blocks to describe scenes, settings and people, the bards were able to weave together their epic poems, partly through memorisation and partly through improvisation.

Parry noted that the Homeric epics contained similarly formulaic phrases. These stock lines such as “when early-born rosy-fingered Dawn appeared” and “Wily Odysseus” suggested that the poems had oral origins, and were originally performed by trained bards known as aoidoi and rhapsodists. These bards would entertain their listeners by singing out the stories in the form of long, stately lines of archaic Greek verse, while plucking a lyre as an accompaniment. Parry’s theory therefore claimed that there was no single genius behind the Iliad and Odyssey, but that these epics evolved for centuries as oral folks songs, changing subtly with each retelling.

There is other evidence to support this theory. Despite the beliefs of the ancients, modern scholars have noted substantial stylistic differences between the Iliad and Odyssey and the Homeric Hymns, suggesting the Hymns were composed by a different figure entirely. It is also strange that in neither Iliad nor Odyssey does Homer make a single autobiographical comment. Most epic authors who lived at a similar time did make occasional references to themselves, with Hesiod once writing “they once taught Hesiod a beautiful song.” Homer’s lack of such a self-reference implies the lack of a single composer. Finally, the complete absence of any contemporary sources testifying to the author’s existence suggest that the figure of Homer is most likely a legendary creation. Indeed, despite the theories surrounding Melesigenes, the name Homer most likely seems to have been taken from the ‘Homeridae’, a clan of bards. 

In the 6th Century BC, the Athenian ruler Peisistratus supposedly commissioned an editorial committee to produce ‘definitive’ written compilations of both the Iliad and Odyssey. Two individual poets appear to have taken the lead in compiling the two works, though their names have since been lost to history. We ought to note that these figures were not simply scribes, recording what more gifted minds had devised. The works of Homer are extremely well-organised, and the chiastic structure of both the Iliad and the Odyssey point to the existence and ability of these individual poets, who edited and ordered an existing canon of oral tales into the masterpieces read today. Ultimately, these two figures are perhaps the closest figures to the Homer of legend, even if they were standing on the shoulders of much older bardic tradition.

Aristotle., Poetics

Homer., Hymn to Delian Apollo

Homer., The Iliad

Homer., The Odyssey

Hesiod., Theogony

Pseudo-Plutarch., Placita Philosophorum

Plato., Ion