Homer, the major figure in ancient Greek literature, has been universally acclaimed as the greatest poet of classical antiquity. The Iliad and the Odyssey, two long epic poems surviving in a surprisingly large number of manuscripts, are ascribed to him.
It is not possible to supply for Homer a biography in the accepted sense of a life history, since there is no authentic record of who he was, when and where he was born, how long he lived, or even if one and the same oral poet was responsible for the two long epic poems universally associated with his name. To be sure, a number of "lives" of Homer are extant from Greek times, but their authority is subject to such grave suspicion that they have been rejected as unfounded fabrications. In both the Iliad and Odyssey the personality of the poet remains wholly concealed, since he does not speak in the first person or otherwise refer to himself as the plot develops or the narrative proceeds.
It is arguable that in one incident of the Odyssey the poet may be giving a glimpse of himself in the guise of a bard whom he calls Demodokos and whom he introduces to the court of the Phaeacian king, where the shipwrecked Odysseus is being generously entertained. This Demodokos (whose name may be rendered "favored of the people") is described as a "divine singer to whom the god gave delight of singing whatever his soul prompted him." He is introduced by a herald to the gathering of young and old and is called an "honored minstrel whom the Muse befriends— yet she gave him both good and bad, in that she conferred on him sweet song but deprived him of his eyesight." (In antiquity there was a persistent belief that Homer was blind.) Then the herald "placed for him a silver-studded chair in the midst of the feasters, propping it against a tall column. And from a hook above his head he hung the cleartoned lyre [phorminx] that he might reach it with his hand; and beside him he set a fair table and a basket of food and a cup of wine, that he might drink withal." And after the company had "partaken of food and put aside their desire of meat and drink, " then "the Muse stirred the bard to sing of the deeds of men, whose fame has reached wide heaven, to wit, the quarrel between Odysseus and Pelead Achilles, how they wrangled with violent words at a sacred banquet." When Demodokos finishes his heroic tale, Odysseus is made to remark how singers such as he "are held in honor and respect by all mankind; for the Muse herself has taught them." And again, addressing Demodokos, he says, "I praise thee beyond all mortals: either the Muse, God's daughter, has taught thee, or Apollo; for thou singest most fitly and aright the destiny of the Greeks, the deeds that they wrought and suffered, and the hardships they endured. Either thou thyself must have been present or heard it all from another."
This is the nearest and clearest approach to a picture of Homer in the act of reciting his poetry of heroic happenings. This passage from the Odyssey seems to have been responsible for the widespread modern idea that in the Homeric Age there were bards attached to the courts of local kings, who declaimed to the accompaniment of the lyre in great baronial halls—a complete misestimate of the poverty-stricken social conditions of the period.
This lack of any contemporary historical record of Homer's life leaves only what can be deduced from the poems themselves. On this task much ingenuity has been expended by modern scholars, often without acceptable result.
The setting of the Iliad is the plain of Troy and its immediate environment. Topographic details are set forth with such precision that it is not feasible to suppose that their reciter created them out of his imagination without personal acquaintance with the locality. To be sure, there is the apparent objection that not all the action of the poem can be made to fit the present-day terrain. This difficulty arises, however, only when it is assumed that the prehistorical fortified citadel which Heinrich Schliemann uncovered at a site known today as Hissarlik was the city of Priam described by the Iliad. But during the intervening centuries between the abandonment of Mycenaean Troy and its resettlement by Greeks of the classical period there could have been nothing to suggest to a visitor such as Homer that the meager traces of buried walls still visible to him could have marked the proud and great city about which local legend still recounted a protracted siege and sack. The plausible suggestion has been made that the ruins projecting at Hissarlik were locally identified as described in the Iliad as "the high tumbled wall of Herakles, that the Trojans under Pallas Athena built for him that he might escape the sea monster when it pursued him landward from the beaches." If this suggestion is accepted and the site of the storied city is moved farther inland, the congruence of local detail of gushing springs and running rivers will do much to convince the skeptic that the poet of the Iliad must have visited the Trojan plain and learned its topography from personal inspection.
Much the same conclusion results from a passage in the thirteenth chapter (or "book") of the Iliad, in which it is recounted how the sea-god Poseidon seated himself on the highest peak of the island of Samothrace "whence all Ida was visible and the city of Priam and the ships of the Achaeans." A map of the Aegean Sea will show that the direct line of sight between Samothrace and the Troad is blocked by the intervening island of Imbros, but the modern visitor to Troy discovers that the sharp 5, 000-foot peak of Samothrace is visible over a notched shoulder of Imbros. Therefore when Homer put Poseidon "on the topmost peak of wooded Samos, " he must have known that the god could have seen Troy because he himself had seen and remembered that from Troy one could see the peak of Samothrace.
In the Odyssey the situation is in many respects quite different. Although the poet demonstrably knew the western Greek island of Ithaca (where the second half of the epic is staged) as intimately as the poet of the Iliad knew the plain of Troy, the Odyssey elsewhere extends over many strange distant lands as Odysseus's homeward voyage from Troy to his native Ithaca is transformed into a weird sea-wandering from adventure to dreadful adventure—first to the land of the indolent Lotus-eaters, thence to the cave of the giant one-eyed Cyclops, thereafter to the island of Aiolos, king of the winds, and the harbor of the savage Laistrygones, and Circe's bewitched isle, to be followed by a visit to the underworld of dead souls, and finally past the fateful singing Sirens and between the sea beast Scylla and the vast whirlpool of Charybdis to the uttermost western land where the sun-god pastures his cattle.
Perhaps misled by the minute accuracy with which the Trojan plain is described in the Iliad and the island of Ithaca is pictured in the Odyssey, various modern commentators have attempted to impose the same topographic realism on Odysseus's astonishing voyage, selecting actual sites in the western Mediterranean for his adventures. But the true situation must be that the Homer of the Odyssey had never visited that part of the ancient world but had listened to the yarns of returning Ionian sailors such as explored the western seas during the 7th century B.C. and had fused these with ancient folktales that were the inheritance of all the Indo-European races.
That the author of the Iliad was not the same as the compiler of these fantastic tales in the Odyssey is arguable on several scores. The two epics belong to different literary types; the Iliad is essentially dramatic in its confrontation of opposing warriors who converse like the actors in Attic tragedy, while the Odyssey is cast as a novel narrated in more everyday human speech. In their physical structure, also, the two epics display an equally pronounced difference. The Odyssey is composed in six distinct cantos of four chapters ("books") each, whereas the Iliad moves unbrokenly forward with only one irrelevant episode in its tightly woven plot. Readers who examine psychological nuances see in the two works some distinctly different human responses and behavioral attitudes. For example, the Iliad voices admiration for the beauty and speed of horses, while the Odyssey shows no interest in these animals. The Iliad dismisses dogs as mere scavengers, while the poet of the Odyssey reveals a modern sentimental sympathy for Odysseus's faithful old hound, Argos.
But the most cogent argument for separating the two poems by assigning them to different authors is the archeological criterion of implied chronology. In the Iliad the Phoenicians are praised as skilled craftsmen working in metal and weavers of elaborate, much-prized garments. The shield which the metalworking god Hephaistos forges for Achilles in the Iliad seems inspired by the metal bowls with inlaid figures in action made by the Phoenicians and introduced by them into Greek and Etruscan commerce in the 8th century B.C. In contrast, in the Odyssey Greek sentiment toward the Phoenicians has undergone a drastic change. Although they are still regarded as clever craftsmen, in place of the Iliad's laudatory polydaidaloi ("of manifold skills") the epithet is parodied into polypaipaloi ("of manifold scurvy tricksters"), reflecting the competitive penetration into Greek commerce by traders from Phoenician Carthage in the 7th century B.C. Other internal evidence indicates that the Odyssey was composed later than the Iliad.
One thing, however, is certain: both epics were created without recourse to writing. Between the decline of Mycenaean and the emergence of classical Greek civilization—which is to say, from the late 12th to the mid-8th century B.C.—the inhabitants of the Greek lands had lost all knowledge of the syllabic script of their Mycenaean fore-bears and had not yet acquired from the easternmost shore of the Mediterranean that familiarity with Phoenician alphabetic writing from which classical Greek literacy (and in turn, Etruscan, Roman, and modern European literacy) derived. The same conclusion of illiterate composition may be reached from a critical inspection of the poems themselves. Among many races and in many different periods there has existed (and still exists sporadically) a form of purely oral and unwritten poetic speech, distinguishable from normal and printed literature by special traits that are readily recognizable and specifically distinctive. To this class the Homeric epics conform. Hence it would seem an inevitable inference that they must have been created either before the end of the 8th century B.C. or so shortly after that date that the use of alphabetic writing had not yet been developed sufficiently to record lengthy compositions. It is this illiterate environment that explains the absence of all contemporary historical record of the authors of the two great epics.
It is probable that Homer's name was applied to two distinct individuals differing in temperament and artistic accomplishment, born perhaps as much as a century apart, but practicing the same traditional craft of oral composition and recitation. Although each became known as "Homer, " it may be (as one ancient source asserts) that homros was a dialectical lonic word for a blind man and so came to be used generically of the old and often sightless wandering reciters of heroic legends in the traditional meter of unrhymed dactylic hexameters. Thus there could have been many Homers. The two epics ascribed to Homer, however, have been as highly prized in modern as in ancient times for their marvelous vividness of expression, their keenness of personal characterization, their unflagging interest, whether in narration of action or in animated dramatic dialogue.
Later Greek times credited Homer with the composition of a group of comparatively short "hymns" addressed to various gods, of which 23 have survived. On internal evidence, however, only one or two of these at most can be the work of the poet of the two great epics. The burlesque epic The Battle of the Frogs and Mice has been preserved but adds nothing to Homer's reputation. Several other epic poems of considerable length—the Cypria, the Little Iliad, the Phocais, the Thebais, the Capture of Oichalia—were widely ascribed to Homer in classical times. None of these has survived except in stray quoted verses. But even if they were preserved in full, it is highly doubtful whether modern scholarship would accept them as all by the same author. The simple truth seems to be that the name Homer was not so much that of a single individual as a personification for an entire school of poets flourishing on the west coast of Asia Minor during the period before the art of writing had been sufficiently developed by the Greeks to permit historical records to be compiled or literary compositions to be written down.
Excellent translations of Homer are Richmond Latimore's Iliad (1962) and Odyssey (1967) and Robert Fitzgerald's Odyssey (1961). The literature on Homer and his age is vast. A useful guide is John L. Myres, Homer and His Critics, edited by Dorothea Gray (1958). Since little is definitely known about the authorship of the Homeric poems, all studies on their origin are subject to controversy. Representing the view that, because of similarities, the Iliad and Odyssey were written by one man are the studies of Adam Scott, The Unity of Homer (1921) and Homer and His Influence (1930), which surveys what is known about Homer. Working from archeological evidence, Hilda Lockhart Lorimer, Homer and the Monuments (1950), concludes that the two poems were written by different men. Examining the poems in the tradition of oral literature, Rhys Carpenter, Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics (1946), suggests that the poems began as oral literature; while Albert Bates Lord, The Singer of Tales (1960), contends that Homer was not an original writer but a singer of folktales. Homer's work is viewed as an aspect of the Greek genius in Gilbert Murray's classic study The Rise of the Greek Epic (1907).
Other useful studies include M. P. Nilsson, Homer and Mycenae (1933), a reconstruction of the historical background of the poems; S. E. Bassett, The Poetry of Homer (1938); Henry T. Wade-Gery, The Poet of the Iliad (1952); Cedric H. Whitman, Homer and the Homeric Tradition (1958); and Denys L. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad (1959), a detailed survey of the research on the Iliad. Cecil Maurice Bowra, The Greek Experience (1957), is recommended for background.