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Homer Biography

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The Odyssey Author/Context

Most scholars agree that the time period in which the events in the Odyssey took place was about 1200 B.C.E. Similarly, most scholars believe that the Odyssey was not written down until somewhere between 800 and 600 B.C.E. During and prior to this time period, there was a strong oral poetic tradition which involved traveling poets called rhapsodoi. These poets performed to audiences all over Greece. They sang the lines of epic poems while playing the lyre. Homer is believed to have been one of these poets. The modern understanding is that the story of the siege of Troy, an integral part of Greek mythology, was not created by a single man. The tale of Odysseus' journey home is a common theme of this tradition, called the nostos--homecoming. The epic form of this tale as we know it is most likely the synthesis of several oral traditions. The twenty four books of dactylic hexameter we now know as the Odyssey have been transmitted with various textual variation since about 300 B.C.E.

The two Homeric epic poems (Iliad and Odyssey) have very different stories each focused on its own hero. One is of war and honor (Iliad) and the other is of a long journey home and revenge (Odyssey). Both stories, however, share common themes that make them unmistakably part of the same culture and tradition.

The oral poetic tradition thrived before the advent of writing. The people who lived in and around Greece at this time lived primarily in rather isolated city-states. Frequent festivals were held where singers and poets would compete for prizes. Out of this tradition comes the poet Homer whom tradition maintains was born on an island bordering the Ionian Sea. Homer not only composed the two epics that now bear his name, but he also composed numerous hymns. He is often coupled with the archaic poet Hesiod who wrote the Theogony and Works and Days. While his works are on a different subject matter than Homer's, the two authors share many similarities. Both authors are said to have sung their works throughout the Greek mainland. The recitation of the Iliad was recorded as one of the early events at the Olympic games.

A critical debate exists about who is the true author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, or if a single author can even be credited for these works. The debate is not entirely based on the institution of writing, but it is also based on historical and linguistic analysis of the text. Homeric Greek is, in fact, a dialect unto itself. The Greek texts possesses many dialectical variants. The subject matter of the texts, specifically the understanding of warfare and description of phalanxes, calls into question the historical authenticity of its authorship. These works bear such a myriad of different traits that it is almost impossible to conceive of it as the work of a single individual. The subject matter of Odyssey, while vastly different from the Iliad, not only maintains the same characters and relationships, but it uses many of the same expressions as those found in the Iliad.

The classical belief, however, is that there was a man named Homer who codified the oral tradition of the siege of Troy. [This oral tradition was recorded by others and became the more standard text which we possess today. I would suggest deleting this line; its meaning is unclear] Although there are still many manuscript variants, the format and the story have remained the same. Through the centuries the Homeric epics have influenced writers and philosophers from many different countries. Every generation, poets and scholars try their hands at translating Homer from ancient Greek into modern languages. Solon is said to have used a portion of Iliad to assert that Athens had an ancient right to the island of Salamis. In Plato's apology, Socrates compares himself to Achilles and his paradox of living a short glorious life or a long life of anonymity, choosing to die a noble death rather than live in ignominy. According to Oskar Seyffert:

"[T]he Homeric poems remain unsurpassed as works of art, which have had an incalculable influence not only on the development of literature and art, but also upon the whole life of the Greeks, who from the earliest times regarded them as the common property of the nation, and employed them as the foundation of all teaching and culture."


Edwards, Mark W. Homer: Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Homer. Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Homer. Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1961.

Jensen, Minna Skafte. The Homeric Question and the Oral-Formulaic Theory. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1980.

Latacz, Joachim. Homer. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Lord, Alfred. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Muellner, Leonard. The Anger of Achilles. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Plato. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito. Trans. F. J. Church. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1948.

Seyffert, Oskar. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art. Trans. Henry Nettleship and J. E. Sandys. New York: Portland House, 1995.

Wolf, F.A. Prolegomena to Homer. Trans. Grafton, Most and Zetzel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

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