Homer was a legendary early Greek poet and rhapsode traditionally credited with the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey, commonly assumed to have lived in the 8th century BC.
Identity and authorship
Tradition holds that Homer was blind, and various Ionian cities claim to be his birthplace, but otherwise little is known about his life. There is considerable scholarly debate about whether Homer was a real person, or the name given to one or more oral poets who sang traditional epic material.
Greek Homēros means "hostage." There is a theory that his name was back-extracted from the name of a society of poets called the Homeridae, which literally means "sons of hostages," i.e., descendants of prisoners of war. These men were not sent to war because their loyalty on the battlefield was suspect, hence they would not get killed in battles. Thus they were entrusted with remembering the area's stock of epic poetry, to remember past events, in the times before literacy came to the area.
It has repeatedly been questioned whether the same poet was responsible for both the Iliad and the Odyssey. While many find it unlikely that the Odyssey was written by one person, others find that the epic is generally in the same writing style, and is too consistent to support the theory of multiple authors. The Batrachomyomachia, Homeric hymns, and cyclic epics are generally agreed to be later than the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Homer was even at one time credited with the entire Epic Cycle, which included further poems on the Trojan War as well as the Theban poems about Oedipus and his sons. Other works, such as the corpus of Homeric Hymns, the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia ("The Frog-Mouse War," Βατραχομυομαχία), and the Margites were also attributed to him, but this is now believed to be unlikely.
Most scholars generally agree that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardization and refinement out of older material beginning in the 8th century BC. An important role in this standardization appears to have been played by the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival. Many classicists hold that this reform must have involved the production of a canonical written text.
Other scholars, however, maintain their belief in the reality of an actual Homer. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that a common joke has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name,". Samuel Butler argued that a young Sicilian woman wrote the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further pursued by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter.
Most Classicists would agree that, whether or not there was ever such a composer as "Homer," the Homeric poems are the product of an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets (aoidoi). An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems consist of regular, repeating phrases; even entire verses repeat. Could the Iliad and Odyssey have been oral-formulaic poems, composed on the spot by the poet using a collection of memorized traditional verses and phases? Milman Parry and Albert Lord pointed out that such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in an exclusively oral culture. The crucial words are "oral" and "traditional." Parry started with "traditional." The repetitive chunks of language, he said, were inherited by the singer-poet from his predecessors, and they were useful to the poet in composition. He called these chunks of repetitive language "formulas."
Exactly when these poems would have taken on a fixed written form is subject to debate. The traditional solution is the "transcription hypothesis," wherein a non-literate "Homer" dictates his poem to a literate scribe between the 8th and 6th centuries. The Greek alphabet was introduced in the early 8th century, so that it is possible that Homer himself was of the first generation of rhapsodes that were also literate. More radical Homerists, such as Gregory Nagy, contend that a canonical text of the Homeric poems as "scripture" did not exist until the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st century BC).
The cardinal qualities of the style of Homer have been well articulated by Matthew Arnold: "the translator of Homer," he says, "should above all be penetrated by a sense of the four qualities of his author: that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and finally, that he is eminently noble" (On Translating Homer, page 9).
The peculiar rapidity of Homer is due in great measure to his use of the hexameter verse. It is characteristic of early literature that the evolution of the thought, or the grammatical form of the sentence, is guided by the structure of the verse; and the correspondence which consequently obtains between the rhythm and the syntax, the thought being given out in lengths, as it were, and these again divided by tolerably uniform pauses produces a swift flowing movement, such as is rarely found when the periods have been constructed without direct reference to the metre. That Homer possesses this rapidity without falling into the corresponding faults, that is, without becoming either fluctuant or monotonous, is perhaps the best proof of his unequalled poetical skill. The plainness and directness, both of thought and of expression, which characterize Homer were doubtless qualities of his age; But the author of the Iliad (similar to Voltaire, to whom Arnold happily compares him) must have possessed this gift in a surpassing degree. The Odyssey is in this respect perceptibly below the level of the Iliad.
Rapidity or ease of movement, plainness of expression, and plainness of thought are not the distinguishing qualities of the great epic poets, Virgil, Dante, and Milton (Dante in fact mentions Homer in Inferno IV,88, ranking him as 'Poet sovereign' just above Horace, Ovid and Virgil). On the contrary, they belong rather to the humbler epico-lyrical school for which Homer has been so often claimed. The proof that Homer does not belong to that school, and that his poetry is not in any true sense ballad-poetry is furnished by the higher artistic structure of his poems, and, as regards style by the fourth of the qualities distinguished by Arnold, the quality of nobleness. It is his noble and powerful style, sustained through every change of idea and subject, that finally separates Homer from all forms of ballad-poetry and popular epic.
It may be recognized that there is an historical connection between the Iliad and Odyssey and the ballad literature which undoubtedly preceded them in Greece. It may even be admitted that the swift-flowing movement, and the simplicity of thought and style, which are greatly admired in the Iliad, are an inheritance from the earlier lays, such as the reference to Achilles and Patroclus singing to the lyre in their tent; even the hexameter verse may be assigned to them. But between earlier days and the time of Homer we must place the cultivation of epic poetry as an art. The pre-Homeric days doubtless furnished the elements of such poetry, but they must have been refined somewhat before they gave way to poems like the Iliad and Odyssey.
Like the French epics, such as the Chanson de Roland, Homeric poetry is indigenous, and by the ease of movement and its resulting simplicity, is distinguishable from the works of Dante, Milton, and Virgil. It is also distinguished from the works of the above artists by the comparative absence of underlying motives or sentiment. In Virgil's poetry a sense of the greatness of Rome and Italy is the leading motive of a passionate rhetoric, partly veiled by the chosen delicacy of his language. Dante and Milton are still more faithful exponents of the religion and politics of their time. Even the French epics display sentiments of fear and hatred of the Saracens; but in Homer's works, the interest is purely dramatic. There is no strong antipathy of race or religion; the war turns on no political event; the capture of Troy lies outside the range of the Iliad, and even the heroes portrayed are not comparable to the chief national heroes of Greece. So far as can be seen, the chief interest in Homer's works is that of human feeling and emotion, and of drama - indeed, Homer's works are oft referred to as 'dramas.'