Last modified on April 6, 2020, at 04:44



Homer (8th century B.C.) was a Greek poet and the attributed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He was also supposedly blind; but, if he was, it would not have been from birth for no one could describe the world as he did without having seen it. We don't know whether he wrote them or whether his words were put down after his death.

His name, in Greek, means "ransomed", so there is some thought he may have been taken hostage by the Greeks during war. Little is known about his life beyond such speculations, but his poems have been recognized as two of the greatest epics in Western culture for thousands of years. There has been speculation that Homer did not actually exist, with the poems taking shape through many years of collaboration by multiple poets. Scholars point to seemingly dramatic changes of pace and wording from one section to another in the poems. Nonetheless, a strong cultural tradition has grown up around the assumption of Homer's existence and the recognition of the essential impossibility of determining the truth.

Seven cities claim him as their own. Studies of the language of his two great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, point to the region between Ionia and Aeolia, both areas in the eastern Aegean Sea. He may have been born on Chios, a major island in that area and moved to Smyrna on the Asian coast, or gone in the other direction—there are hints of both dialects in his writing. There are also hints that other writers have added to the original text, especially the end of the Odyssey; and some have even suggested he did not write the Odyssey at all.

Of the two, it is thought the Iliad was written first. Apart from the too obvious and simplistic view that the events at Troy occurred before Odysseus’ travels; the Odyssey feels like it was written by an older man – at least to the experts. Controversy has occurred because they are both seemingly the works of an extremely mature person. This question has been argued since the 17th century and is ongoing.

The beauty of the Iliad – the genius and craft of it – is that whilst the action is concentrated in only one episode of the conflict - two months of action during the legendary 10 years - Homer is able to supply all the whys and wherefores and what went before by alluding to them without interrupting the tightening of tension in the main narrative.

He does the same thing in the Odyssey but by different means. The time from the fall of Troy to his homecoming and the recognition of him by his wife, Penelope (the point where many believe Homer's original work ends) is ten years; yet the immediate narrative describes events during a time span of only about forty days. The seeming irrelevance to the main narrative of his son Telemachus’ fruitless search for his father is a way of connecting the return to the overall legend of Troy and its story.

The society described by Homer is not classical Greece or even his own time (which was a period when the Greek world was awakening from an illiterate dark age.) He was writing of a period what we these days call the Mycenaean after its major centre Mycenae, whose king, Agamemnon, is leader of the Greek forces. The traditional date for the fall of Troy is in the 1180s or 1194 B.C.

Neither is the language Homer used the Greek of the classical period. It is very similar but idiomatically different to the vernacular of his ancient readers. His language was copied of course and his importance can be gauged by the fact that we call a whole culture - and its time - Homeric.

The Homeric epics became foundational elements of late Greek and Hellenistic culture, as well as informing ancient Greek and Roman notions of morality and history. The epics, together, taught the importance of arete—noble, virtuous warfare, without excess and with respect for one's fatherland—along with defining mankind's relation with the gods in the Greek cosmology, along with various other cultural notions. As an example of their importance, Alexander the Great is said to have slept with the two epics either under his pillow, or at his side.[1]

Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer by Rembrandt (1653)

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  1. Plutarch, Vitae Parallae, Life of Alexander.