Two epic poems are attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are composed in a literary type of Greek, Ionic in basis with Aeolic admixtures. Ranked among the great works of Western literature, these two poems together constitute the prototype for all subsequent Western epic poetry.
The "Homeric question" was the great dispute of scholarship in the 19th cent. Scholars tried to analyze the two works by various tests, usually to show that they were strung together from older narrative poems. Recent evidence strongly suggests that the Iliad is the work of a single poet. Modern scholars are generally agreed that there was a poet named Homer who lived before 700 B.C., probably in Asia Minor, and that the Iliad and the Odyssey are each the product of one poet's work, developed out of older legendary matter. Some assign the Odyssey to a poet who lived slightly after the author of the Iliad.
Legends about Homer were numerous in ancient times. He was said to be blind. His birthplace has always been disputed, but Chios or Smyrna seem most likely. The study of Homer was required of all Greek students in antiquity, and his heroes were worshiped in many parts of Greece. The Iliad and the Odyssey are composed in dactylic hexameter and are of nearly the same length. The Homeric Hymns were falsely attributed to Homer.
Divided into 24 books, the Iliad tells of the wrath of Achilles and its tragic consequences, an episode in the Trojan War. The action is in several sections. Achilles quarrels with Agamemnon over possession of the captive woman Briseis, and Achilles retires from the war to sulk in his tent. The Greek position gradually weakens until Agamemnon offers amendment to Achilles (Books I-IX). Book X tells of an expedition by Odysseus and Diomedes leading to Greek reverses in the war. Thereupon Patroclus, Achilles' friend, is inspired to go into battle wearing Achilles' armor. He is killed by Hector (Books XI-XVII).
Book XVIII tells of the visit of Thetis, mother of Achilles, to comfort her grieving son and of the forging of new armor by Hephaestus for Achilles. Achilles then determines to avenge his friend, kills Hector, buries Patroclus, and finally, at the entreaty of Priam, gives Hector's body to the Trojan hero's aged father (Books XIX-XXIV). The Iliad is a highly unified work, splendid in its dramatic action. Written in a simple yet lofty style, it contains many perceptive characterizations that make exalted personages like Hector and Achilles believable as human beings.
The Odyssey is written in 24 books and begins nearly ten years after the fall of Troy. In the first part, Telemachus, Odysseus' son, visits Nestor at Pylos and Menelaus at Sparta, seeking news of his absent father. He tells them of the troubles of his mother, Penelope, who is beset by mercenary suitors. Menelaus informs him that his father is with the nymph Calypso (Books I-IV). The scene then shifts to Mt. Olympus with an account of Zeus' order to Calypso to release Odysseus, who then builds a raft and sails to Phaeacia. There he is entertained by King Alcinoüs and his daughter Nausicaä; he relates to them the story of his wanderings in which he has encountered Polyphemus, Aeolus, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, the Laestrygones, and the lotus-eaters (Books V-XII).
Dramatic tension mounts with the return of Odysseus and Telemachus to Ithaca; together they plan and execute the death of the suitors. Afterward Odysseus makes himself known to his wife and his father, with whose aid he repulses the suitors' angry kinsmen. Athena intervenes, peace is restored, and Odysseus once again rules his country (Books XIII-XXIV). The atmosphere of adventure and fate in the Odyssey contrasts with the heavier tone and tragic grandeur of the Iliad.
Among the many notable translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey are the prose translations by A. Lang et al., the mid-20th-century poetic translations by R. Lattimore, and the late 20th-century translations by R. Fagles and S. Lombardo. See C. H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (1958, repr. 1965); M. Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse, ed. by A. Parry (1971); C. M. Bowra, Homer (1930, repr. 1973); A. J. B. Wace and F. H. Stubbings, ed., A Companion to Homer (1962, repr. 1974); C. R. Beye, The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic Tradition (1966, repr. 1976); G. S. Kirk, The Songs of Homer (1962; repr. 1977); A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (1960, repr. 1978); W. A. Camps, An Introduction to Homer (1980); H. W. Clarke, Homer's Readers (1981); M. W. Edwards, Homer (1987); K. C. King, ed., Homer (1994).
Although Homer excelled above all as a watercolorist, his oils and watercolors alike are characterized by directness, realism, objectivity, and splendid color. His powerful and dramatic interpretations of the sea in watercolor have never been surpassed and hold a unique place in American art. They are in leading museums throughout the United States. Characteristic watercolors are Breaking Storm and Maine Coast (both: Art Inst. of Chicago) and The Hurricane (Metropolitan Mus.). Characteristic oils include The Gulf Stream (1899) and Moonlight—Wood's Island Light (both: Metropolitan Mus.) and Eight Bells (1886; Addison Gall., Andover, Mass.).
See biographies by P. C. Beam (1966), J. Wilmerding (1972), and M. Judge (1986); studies by L. Goodrich (1968 and 1972); B. Gelman, ed., The Wood Engravings of Winslow Homer (1969); studies of his watercolors by D. Hoopes (1969), P. C. Beam (1983), H. A. Cooper (1987), M. Unger (2001), and R. C. Griffin (2006).
Homer (ancient Greek: Ὅμηρος, Homēros) is a legendary ancient Greek epic poet, traditionally said to be the author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. The ancient Greeks generally believed that Homer was a historical individual, but modern scholars are skeptical: no reliable biographical information has been handed down from classical antiquity, and the poems themselves manifestly represent the culmination of many centuries of oral story-telling and a well-developed "formulaic" system of poetic composition. According to Martin West, "Homer" is "not the name of a historical poet, but a fictitious or constructed name. The poems are now widely regarded as the culmination of a long tradition of orally composed poetry, but the way in which they reached their final written form, and the role that an individual poet, or poets, played in this process is disputed. By the reckoning of scholars like Geoffrey Kirk, both poems were created by an individual genius who drew much of his material from various traditional stories. Others, like Martin West, hold that the epics were composed by a number of poets. Gregory Nagy maintains that the epics are not the creation of any individual; rather, they slowly evolved towards their final form over a period of centuries and, in this view, are the collective work of generations of poets.
The date of Homer's existence was controversial in antiquity and is no less so today. Herodotus said that Homer lived 400 years before his own time, which would place him at about 850 BC; but other ancient sources gave dates much closer to the supposed time of the Trojan War. For modern scholarship, "the date of Homer" refers to the date of the poems' conception as much as to the lifetime of an individual. The scholarly consensus is that "the Iliad and the Odyssey date from the extreme end of the 9th century BC or from the 8th, the Iliad being anterior to the Odyssey, perhaps by some decades", i.e. somewhat earlier than Hesiod, and that the Iliad is the oldest work of western literature. Over the past few decades, some scholars have been arguing for a 7th-century date. Those who believe that the Homeric poems developed gradually over a long period of time, however, generally give a later date for the poems: according to Nagy, they only became fixed texts in the 6th century.
Alfred Heubeck states that the formative influence of the works of Homer in shaping and influencing the whole development of Greek culture was recognised by many Greeks themselves, who considered him to be their instructor.
The association with Chios dates back at least to Semonides of Amorgos who cited a famous line in the Iliad (6.146) as by "the man of Chios". Some kind of eponymous bardic guild, known as the Homeridae (sons of Homer), or Homeristae ('Homerizers') appears to have existed there, variously tracing descent from an imaginary ancestor of that name, or vaunting their special function as rhapsodes or "lay-stitchers" specialising in the recitation of Homeric poetry.
The poet's name is homophonous with "homêros", meaning, generally, "hostage" (or "surety"), long understood as "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow", or, in some dialects, "blind". The assonance itself generated many tales relating the person to the functions of a hostage or of a blind man. In regard to the latter, traditions holding that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word both in Ionic, where the verbal form "hómêreuô" has the specialized meaning of "guide the blind", and in the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where homêros was cognate with tuphlós, meaning 'blind'. The characterization of Homer as a blind bard goes back to some verses in the Delian Hymn to Apollo, the third of the Homeric Hymns, verses later cited to support this notion by Thucydides. The Cumean historian Ephorus held the same view, and the idea gained support in antiquity on the strength of a false etymology deriving his name from ho mê horôn (ὁ μὴ ὁρών: "he who does not see"). Critics have long taken a passage in the Odyssey describing a blind bard, Demodocus, in the court of the Phaeacian king, who recounts stories of Troy to the shipwrecked Odysseus, as self-referential.
Many scholars take the name of the poet to be indicative of a generic function. Gregory Nagy takes it to mean "he who fits (the Song) together". "Hómêréô", another related verb, besides signifying "meet", can mean "(sing) in accord/tune". Some argue that "Homer" may have meant "he who puts the voice in tune" with dancing. Marcello Durante links "Homeros" to an epithet of Zeus as "god of the assemblies" and argues that behind the name lies the echo of an archaic word for "reunion", similar to the later Panegyris, denoting a formal assembly of competing minstrels.
The Ancient Lives depict Homer as a wandering minstrel, much like Thamyris or Hesiod, who walked as far as Chalkis to sing at the funeral games of Amphidamas. We are given the image of a "blind, begging singer who hangs around with little people: shoemakers, fisherman, potters, sailors, elderly men in the gathering places of harbour towns". The poems themselves give evidence of singers at the courts of the nobility. Scholars are divided as to which category, if any, the court singer or the wandering minstrel, the historic "Homer" belonged.
Most scholars agree that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardisation and refinement out of older material beginning in the 8th century BCE. An important role in this standardisation 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 still support the idea that Homer was a real person. Since nothing is known about the life of this Homer, the common joke, also recycled in disputes about the authorship of plays ascribed to Shakespeare, 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 and Andrew Dalby in Rediscovering Homer.
Independent of the question of single authorship is the near-universal agreement, after the work of Milman Parry, that the Homeric poems are dependent on 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 contain many formulaic phrases typical of extempore epic traditions; even entire verses are at times repeated. Parry and his student Albert Lord pointed out that such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in a predominantly oral cultural milieu, the key words being "oral" and "traditional". Parry started with "traditional": the repetitive chunks of language, he said, were inherited by the singer-poet from his predecessors, and were useful to him in composition. Parry called these repetitive chunks "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 it is possible that Homer himself was of the first generation of authors who were also literate. More radical Homerists like Gregory Nagy contend that a canonical text of the Homeric poems as "scripture" did not exist until the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st century BCE).
The study of Homer is one of the oldest topics in scholarship, dating back to antiquity. The aims and achievements of Homeric studies have changed over the course of the millennia. In the last few centuries, they have revolved around the process by which the Homeric poems came into existence and were transmitted down to us—first orally and later in writing.
Some of the main trends in modern Homeric scholarship have been, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Analysis and Unitarianism (see Homeric Question), schools of thought which emphasized on the one hand the inconsistencies in, and on the other the artistic unity of, Homer; and in the 20th century and later Oral Theory, the study of the mechanisms and effects of oral transmission, and Neoanalysis, which is the study of the relationship between Homer and other early epic material.
The language used by Homer is an archaic version of Ionic Greek, with admixtures from certain other dialects, such as Aeolic Greek. It later served as the basis of Epic Greek, the language of epic poetry, typically in dactylic hexameter.
The cardinal qualities of the style of Homer are well articulated by Matthew Arnold:
[T]he translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of 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.
The peculiar rapidity of Homer is due in great measure to his use of 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 periods are 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 poetic skill. The plainness and directness, both of thought and of expression, which characterise him 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 distinguishing qualities of the great epic poets, Virgil, Dante, and Milton. 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.
Like the French epics, such as the "Chanson de Roland", Homeric poetry is indigenous and, by the ease of movement and its resultant simplicity, distinguishable from the works of Dante, Milton and Virgil. It is also distinguished from the works of these 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 considered 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 events; the capture of Troy lies outside the range of the Iliad; and even the protagonists 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, his works are often referred to as "dramas".
The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik in the late 19th century provided initiatory evidence to scholars that there was a historical fundament for the Trojan War. Research into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages, pioneered by the aforementioned Parry and Lord, began convincing scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until they are written down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris (and others) convinced many of a linguistic continuity between 13th century BC Mycenaean writings and the poems attributed to Homer.
It is probable, therefore, that the story of the Trojan War as reflected in the Homeric poems derives from a tradition of epic poetry founded on a war which actually took place. It is crucial, however, not to underestimate the creative and transforming power of subsequent tradition: for instance, Achilles, the most important character of the Iliad, is strongly associated with southern Thessaly, but his legendary figure is interwoven into a tale of war whose kings were from the Peloponnese. Tribal wanderings were frequent, and far-flung, ranging over much of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The epic weaves brilliantly the disiecta membra of these distinct tribal narratives, exchanged among clan bards, into a monumental tale in which Greeks join collectively to do battle on the distant plains of Troy.
In the Hellenistic period, Homer was the subject of a hero cult in several cities. A shrine, the Homereion, was built devoted to him in Alexandria by Ptolemy IV Philopator in the late 3rd century BC. This shrine is described in Aelian's 3rd century work Varia Historia. He describes how Ptolemy "placed in a circle around the statue [of Homer] all the cities who laid claim to Homer" and mentions a painting of the poet by the artist Galaton, which apparently depicted Homer in the aspect of Oceanus as the source of all poetry.
A marble relief, found in Italy but thought to have been sculpted in Egypt, depicts the apotheosis of Homer. It shows Ptolemy and his wife or sister Arsinoe III standing beside a seat poet, flanked by figures from the Odyssey and Iliad, with the nine Muses standing above them and a procession of worshippers approaching an altar, believed to represent the Alexandrine Homereion. Apollo, the god of music and poetry, also appears, along with a female figure tentatively identified as Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses. Zeus, the king of the gods, presides over the proceedings. The relief demonstrates vividly that the Greeks considered Homer not merely a great poet but the divinely-inspired reservoir of all literature.
Homereia also stood at Chios, Ephesus and Smyrna, which were among the city-states that claimed to be his birthplace. Strabo (14.1.37) records a Homeric temple in Smyrna with an ancient xoanon or cult statue of the poet. He also mentions sacrifices carried out to Homer by the inhabitants of Argos, presumably at another Homereion.
In late antiquity, knowledge of Greek declined in Latin-speaking western Europe and, along with it, knowledge of Homer's poems. It was not until the fifteenth century that Homer's work began to be read once more in Italy. The first printed edition appeared in 1488.