Homer is arguably the world's oldest known author and poet, assuming that he is an historical figure. The two earliest works of the Western canon are attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey. These two works have had a significant impact on other great works of literature throughout history. They tell stories about ancient Greek heroes and their gods, often blending history with legend and myth.

Homer Homer

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    Homer, Bust of Homer, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Bust of Homer in the British Museum, London.

    Homer: contexts and history

    It is generally accepted by scholars that the texts were written down by 750 B.C. and recited at Panathenaic festivals.

    Panathenaic Festivals

    Panathenaic means 'all-Athens.' It was a festival that gathered all of the inhabitants, excluding slaves, of the ancient Greek city state Athens. The festival took place during the end of July and the beginning of August. It marked the beginning of the Athenian New Year, and it was one of the most important holidays of ancient Athens. The significance of the Athenian New Year was based on a religious belief that it marked the birthday of the goddess Athena, patron goddess of Athens.

    The celebrations would often last for days, and there were many different competitions for attendants to compete in. The competitions can be separated into three distinct groups: sports, music, and poetry. In the poetry competition, competitors would compose or recite verses in order to win a prize. Homer would have been one of the first to compose his poetry because it became tradition to recite his verses in later history.

    Homer's recount of the The Iliad was important to the festival because the goddess Athena is a prominent character in The Iliad. Moreover, she is the goddess of war and wisdom. The Iliad is a story about war, and the Greeks cited The Iliad as a source in their discourses.1

    However, texts of the works from the third and fourth centuries B.C. are not consistent and represent different versions. By 150 B.C. a librarian from the city of Alexandria, published a version that has been considered authoritative ever since.

    There is no outside evidence that the poems were written until 550 B.C. While based on the text itself, scholars think that this date is a late date in Homeric poetry. Homer may have written the work down himself, but others believe that he could have composed the poem orally, memorized by others to be written down later.

    Homer's biography

    Some question the existence of Homer because in antiquity, there were multiple "Lives of Homer" written by different authors. The Homer they wrote about was romanticized, and most of the details are conjecture. Moreover, the different accounts attribute him to being born in seven different cities and placed his birth in six different centuries. The reason for such variety of stories is because ancient authors wanted to claim Homer's fame for their own country or city. Moreover, because of Homer's popularity in ancient Greece, his life was exaggerated into a larger-than-life figure. The exaggerations often didn't have any basis and were likely speculation.

    Because of this, historians typically dismiss the ancient biographies as false information. Without the ancient biographies, it's questionable whether Homer even existed, or if his works are just a conglomeration of other poets that have been blended together to make one long work. Because Homer's poems are so ancient, the questions may never be answered. However, this also means that the different perspectives on whether he was one person or several is legitimate.

    One accepted perspective is that Homer was from the Ionia (modern day Turkey) because the dialect in which The Iliad and The Odyssey were written is an Ionian dialect. According to this reconstruction, Homer was blind and made money singing songs at festivals. The oral composition of Homer's songs at festivals would mean that every time he sang, he would compose the song differently. This would account for the variations and differences in the earliest texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

    The opposite view is that Homer was multiple people who all composed parts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Over several centuries, it was written down and edited into the texts we have today. Some, such as Samuel Butler, have even conjectured that The Odyssey was written by a woman.

    Homer's books

    What did Homer write?

    The Iliad

    The Iliad is an epic poem that is more than 15,000 lines long. It was composed in dactylic hexameter, the standard for epic poetry in ancient Greece and Rome. It tells the story of how The Achaeans fought a ten year war with The Trojans, sieging the the city of Troy, or Ilium, from which the poem derives its name.

    Dactylic Hexameter

    Dactylic hexameter was the meter of choice for ancient Greek poetry. It was mimicked later by the Latin poets, and after them, the poets of the renaissance. Dactylic hexameter is a meter in which each line is thirteen to eighteen syllables. The syllables can be grouped based on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. These groups are called feet, and they typically have two to three syllables. The feet used in dactylic hexameter are primarily dactyls and spondees.

    A dactyl is a foot beginning with one stressed syllable and followed by two unstressed syllables. And a spondee is a foot that has two stressed syllables. The first four feet of Greek poetry could be either dactyls or spondee. The fifth foot would be a dactyl, and the final foot was almost always a spondee. An example of dactylic hexameter in English would look like this, "This is the | forest pri | meval. The | murmuring | pines and the | hemlocks."2 The first five feet are dactyls and the final foot is a spondee. This type of meter is rare in English.

    The reason for the prevalence of dactylic hexameter in ancient Greek poetry is because the meter is naturally suited to the rhythm of the language. This is true for many languages, as English speakers typically speak in iambic pentameter. The same is true for the Greeks. Their language is most easily adapted to dactylic hexameter.

    In addition to the natural rhythm of Greek, dactylic hexameter is useful because it does not require rhyme. As long as the rhythm stays consistent, the poetry still works without need of other poetic devices.

    The beginning of the war and what had taken place during those ten years are briefly recounted. Paris, prince of Troy, abducted Helen, Queen of Sparta and the wife of its King. In response, Sparta raised an army uniting Greek city states to sail to Troy and reclaim the King's wife. However, Homer offers little information about the details of the war and begins the poem at the very end of the story.

    The story centers on many great warriors on both sides of the war. However, Homer is chiefly concerned with the greatest two heroes on both sides, Achilles of the Greeks and Hector of the Trojans. Achilles, a king himself, is told a prophecy that says that if he remains at home, he will live a long and fulfilling life and rule a prosperous kingdom. But if he goes to war, he will win great glory and be remembered forever as a great warrior, but the war will cost him his life. Hector is the brother of Paris, and he saves the city of Troy several times. Achilles spends most of the story quarreling with the other Greek kings, particularly Agamemnon. Achilles agrees to fight again after Hector kills his cousin and kills Hector in revenge. The book ends with a reconciliation between Achilles and Hector's father, and Achilles returns Hector's body to his father.

    In addition to the politics and war, the Greek gods play a major role in the war. Each god has favorites and interferes with the events of the war in favor of their heroes or army. Moreover, the end of The Trojan War creates the groundwork for Homer's next work The Odyssey and Virgil's own epic poem The Aeneid which creates a mythology of how exiled Trojans founded Rome.

    Homer Odyssey

    The Odyssey, like The Iliad, is 12,000 lines written in dactylic hexameter and continues the story of the aftermath of The Trojan War. Odysseus has survived the war and sets sail on his return home.

    He sails first to an island home to a cyclops known as Polyphemus. Polyphemus is the son of the god of the ocean, Poseidon. Polyphemus does not take too kindly to having Odysseus and his men on the island. The cyclops keeps his men from returning to their ships and Odysseus blinds Polyphemus.

    Odysseus is successful in saving his men and returning to finish his voyage, but his actions anger the Poseidon. So Poseidon curses him. He is blown off course and loses all of his ships except one. He makes his way to the domain of Circe, a goddess, where his men are taken captive. While in her captivity, many of his men are turned to pigs. Odysseus manages to save some of those who haven't been turned into swine.

    Odysseus was able to gain important information from Circe that if he traveled to the Western edge of the world, he could gain access to the underworld. Odysseus does so, and in the underworld he encounters a prophet that tells him that there are suitors trying to usurp his authority at home. The prophet also warns them not to eat the sacred cattle of the sun-god, Helios.

    On their journey from the western edge of the world to Ithaca, they encounter two sea monsters and enticing sirens. Odysseus is able to make it past the sirens, then the two sea-monsters. They take shelter at the island of Helios, only for Odysseus' men to ignore the warning of the prophet. They kill and eat the sacred cattle which angers Helios and the chief god Zeus. In anger, Zeus summons a storm after they set sail again and wrecks Odysseus' ship. All of his men are drowned while Odysseus washes ashore onto an island.

    On this island, he is held captive as a lover by the demi-goddess Calypso. With the help of Hermes and a local king, Odysseus is able to escape from Calypso and return home.

    When he returns to his wife Penelope, he finds that his servants have usurped him and one of them is trying to marry his wife. The usurpers have a competition as to who will become the King of Ithaca and rule Odysseus' house, in which whoever can shoot an arrow through a number of axe heads will win.

    Odysseus, disguised in rags, wins the competition and reveals himself. He then has the usurpers killed and the house maids who were in bed with them killed too. In the end, Odysseus is united with his wife. Odysseus ten year exile was a fate that had been put upon him by the god Poseidon. The gods in The Odyssey are very interested in and play with the lives of mortals just like they are in The Iliad.

    Homer's influence

    What influence has Homer had?

    Homer's influence on writers in antiquity and the Middle Ages

    The Romans considered the Greeks the hallmark of civilization and culture. Since Homer was the greatest of the Greek poets, the Romans mimicked him. For most of Roman history, the best of Latin verse was written in dactylic hexameter because that's what Homer wrote in. Moreover, in the same way that The Iliad and The Odyssey created a mythos for Greek culture, Virgil was able to create his own mythos for Rome. He did this through his epic poem The Aeneid, in which Virgil again borrows from Homer because he tells the tale of how Aeneas escaped Troy and founded Rome.

    The Romans thought of themselves as a continuation of Greek culture. After the fall of the Roman Empire, much of the Greek texts were lost to those in Western Christendom, and only Latin translations of Homer were accessible. However, The Aeneid was also very popular among the educated classes, and so many cultures produced their own stories and myths by setting them in the Trojan War.

    Homer, Homer Sculpture, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Blind Homer Led by the Genius of Poetry sculpture by Edward Sheffield Bartholomew.

    Dante (famous for the Divine Comedy (1320) includes Homer in his company of the greatest poets, and others like the Gawain poet begin England's histories with the Trojan War. Europeans in the Middle Ages traced their history back first to the fall of Rome, then to the Roman Empire and Republic.

    Medieval people believed in the founding myths of Rome and in the Trojan War. However, they did not believe the gods of the Romans and Greeks were true gods. Because they accepted the stories as historically accurate, they traced their own lineage beyond Rome through The Aeneid and believed that they were the heirs of Trojan culture. Moreover, they were also aware of The Iliad, but they did not view the Greeks favorably. In fact, most medieval authors had contempt for the Greeks because they believed that in sacking Troy, the Greeks committed a crime against an earlier form of their own civilization.

    Regardless, Homer has always been admired for his poetry, even though they may not have been considered on the right side. This is why he is honored by Dante, but the content of his poetry is lamented in the first lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th Century poem).

    Homer and the Modern World

    The influence of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey are much like the influence of the Bible because wherever people have been able to read and write through out the history of Europe, they have read Homer. Many modern works of art try to emulate and reimagine Homer's work. One example is James Joyce own rendition of a modern Odysseus who wanders through Dublin in his novel Ulysses (1920).

    Homer's Iliad and Odyssey has been subjected to the study of comparative mythology. One of the most important concepts is that of heroes. Heroes act as characters that are worthy of imitation, and the ancient Greeks admired the heroes of Homer's poetry so much that they would establish mini-religions devoted to different heroes.

    Many modern readers now see The Odyssey as a narrative that is repeated throughout cultures and history. Odysseus is a hero of exploration. He has been compared to heroes of other cultures such as Nala from Hindu mythology, Aeneas from Roman mythology, and other folklore stories around the world. Odysseus is an exploratory hero. He goes beyond the known world and travels to new lands. Along the way he encounters fantastic creatures, most of whom want to kill him, and must overcome them.

    He's considered brave because he goes on a journey in which he does not know he will return. In fact, most of his men don't make it. Moreover, he goes places where no one else has been before, and he sees things that no one else has seen. Odysseus is a hero that is worthy of admiration because his exploration into unknown territory brings new and important knowledge. Moreover, his experience makes him a wiser and more mature man, which is evident in the cunning he uses to deal with his wife's suitors. The exploratory hero is a common trope that has been repeated in countless modern books, films, and short stories. In fact, it's so prevalent that a hero's journey is referred to as an odyssey.

    Homer - Key takeaways

    • Homer is the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
    • His existence is debated, and much of what we know about him is exaggerated or legendary.
    • The Iliad is about the Greeks siege of Troy. However, some doubt if the war ever happened.
    • Homer's work was very influential to the Romans, Medieval Europe, and still has precedence today

    Reference List

    1 Gary Zabel. Panthenaic Festival. University of Massachusetts Boston. http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Morals%20and%20Law/M+L/Plato/rligious.htm

    2 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 'Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.' 1847.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Homer

    What is Homer's full name?

    Homer doesn't have a full name. And if he did, it is not known to us. We simply know him as Homer.

    Who was Homer?

    Homer is the man attributed to writing The Iliad and The Odyssey. He was a blind bard who lived in Ionia.

    Did Homer exist?

    His existence is disputed because of the wide variances of details in ancient biographies. However, it is likely that he was originally blind bard from Ionia who performed his works orally at annual festivals. 

    Why is Homer so important?

    Homer is important because The Iliad is arguably the oldest book, outside of the Bible, in the Western tradition. His work has inspired and influenced literature, film, and art in every generation.

    Did Homer invent Greek mythology?

    Homer did not invent Greek mythology. He simply believed in the gods and goddesses of his time and incorporated them into his work.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Was Homer a real person?

    What war is the The Iliad about?

    Who is the main character of the Odyssey?


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