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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 9,100 words

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Nationality: Greek
Occupation: Poet




  • Iliad and Odyssey (circa 8th-7th centuries B.C.).

Editio princeps

  • Homerus Opera, edited by Demetrius Chalcondylas (Florence: B. & N. T. Nerlius, and Demetrius Domilas, 1488).

Standard editions

  • : Odyssey, edited by T. W. Allen, second edition (Oxford: Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis, 1917).
  • Iliad, edited by D. B. Monro and Allen, third edition (Oxford: Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis, 1920).

Translations in English

  • Iliad, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).
  • Odyssey, translated by Lattimore (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).
  • The Iliad of Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1989).
  • The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Fitzgerald (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
  • Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Viking, 1990).
  • Odyssey, translated by Fagles (New York: Viking, 1991).


Homer is the name that has come down through the centuries as the author of the two earliest surviving poetic works of ancient Greece, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet nothing is securely known about the authorship of these poems. Such was the reverence with which the ancient Greeks approached these poems that Homer was often called "the holy poet"--not because he had produced sacred verse, but because the two poems established a view of humankind that was highly satisfying to their audience and because these texts, the earliest poetry the Greeks had, were suitable for recitation at the most solemn civic occasions. It is mildly ironic, therefore, that modern scholarship has established a theory of the origins of the Iliad and Odyssey that more or less dismisses the possibility of there having been any one author of both poems--or, for that matter, of either poem. Homer, it seems, was not an individual poet but, more likely than not, a group of singers who composed the works attributed to the name of Homer. And yet the Iliad and the Odyssey have always enjoyed such strong and universal popularity that in the Western European world Homer is the one poet's name that can be expected to be known by almost anyone.

The ancient Greeks generally described Homer as a blind poet who lived on the island of Chios in the eastern Aegean Sea. Since Demodocus, one of the two poets described in the Odyssey, is blind, this aspect of the traditional portrait of Homer probably came from the poetic description. It is probably fair to say that the idea of Homer that was developed over the centuries by the early Greeks was altogether inspired by the poems themselves. It is interesting to note, however, that the modern theory of the origin of the poems insists on a poet who neither read nor wrote; blindness is the perfect metaphor for this condition.

The theory that posits a preliterate poet in the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey starts with the fact that during the period in which the two poems most likely took shape, the ancient Greeks had no system of writing capable of transcribing or transmitting such long and complex poems. Therefore, it is argued, the two poems represent written versions that were set down after centuries of experimentation, of spontaneous performance, and, most important, of the development of a specialized language of formula and stereotype in which generations of poets slowly worked up ever larger story lines, refining some stories and dropping others, until two long narratives came to dominate the performance expectations of the populace. As these narratives were repeated time after time they began to coalesce into fixed versions until finally, after a Greek system of writing had been invented, these versions were somehow written down or dictated and eventually became not only fixed texts, but the two epic poems for which the Greeks would claim no equal. And thus they have entered the Western literary canon, from time to time, to be sure, challenged by the champions of the Aeneid, the late-first-century-B.C. epic by the Roman poet Virgil, but again and again reasserting their primacy of place.

Although there are few hard facts on which to proceed, there are tantalizing bits and pieces with which to fabricate a theory. For instance, the first-century-B.C. Roman writer Cicero refers to a tradition that credits the Athenian Peisistratus, who became tyrant in 561 B.C., with arranging for the commitment of the Homeric poems to writing and their subsequent recitation at the Panathenaic Festival, which he is also given credit for organizing. This notion fits in well with the idea that a centuries-long tradition of oral poets working out the story line and progressively more of its details had, by the sixth century B.C., fashioned a kind of monumental poem that easily made the transition to a written text, as demanded by Peisistratus. But the Ciceronian story also gave impetus throughout the nineteenth century to the theory that Peisistratus had authorized a synthetic treatment of a great many pieces of a story, that is, various episodes of the story of the Trojan War. The poem's growth and development by previously memorized episodes seems to be substantiated by the scene at the court of the Phaeacians where Demodocus is called on to sing various favorite bits (Odyssey, 8.492-495). Nineteenth-century Homeric criticism rested on the premise that the many inconsistencies and awkwardnesses in the text betokened the joining of these fundamentally discontinuous episodes.

This sort of criticism was largely influenced by what seemed to be analogous work on the Bible. Nineteenth-century biblical criticism was committed to detecting the variant texts that had been combined into the one sacred text. The early creators of the Bible narrative, however, would have been constrained by a different method: they would have introduced all the variants because all were equally sacred. But since the Iliad and the Odyssey are not sacred texts, one would imagine that if there had been editors of the Homeric poems they, like all editors since, would have taken out and smoothed over the problem passages. That inconsistencies and rough places remain seems to proponents of the oral theory as proof that in performance no one, neither performer nor auditor, noticed such things. And certainly once fixed recitation began (presumably in the sixth century B.C.), no performer seemed to have had the audacity to alter such passages. After the sixth century the Iliad and the Odyssey came to be recited formally by a guild of men, the Homeridae, who passed on from one generation to the next the style of delivery. There is a portrait of one of these men in Plato's dialogue Ion (circa 380s B.C.), in which Socrates, with his usual ironic, patronizing, and in some ways ridiculous questions, tries to discomfit the Homeric singer and force him to admit that he knows nothing of what he does other than the doing of it.

It could be said that Homer the poet, Homer the creator, is in fact the centuries-long tradition in which the Iliad and Odyssey took shape; or that Homer is the reflection of the deepest yearnings and expectations of generations of audiences who finally dictated what stories and manner of presentation were suitable, if not mandatory, for the singers. If, then, one is to try to understand Homer, to try to imagine the creative poetic undertaking that gave these two poems to the world, the poems themselves must be allowed to be the sole witness. There is simply no record of a poet. Modern literary critical theory insists on the supreme authority of the reader or of the text while denying to the author any stake at all in the text being read, and the Iliad and the Odyssey are perfectly suited to these theoretical positions. There is no poet's biography as there is, for instance, in the case of Virgil, Dante, or Percy Bysshe Shelley . The Homeric texts stand without antecedent, without author, without context, isolated fragments cast up out of the vast sea of the unknown. One reads the Iliad or the Odyssey, and one's imagination creates a poet, or at least a mind, a personality, an aesthetic stance, a moral and ethical sensibility to assign to the unknown creator of the texts. What, then, do the texts reveal?

First, it is immensely important that these poems were created in an oral culture. The poet in the early periods of Greek antiquity was a performer who created his poem anew on each occasion of its recitation. Scholars can identify with some degree of certainty the way in which the language of the poems came into being as an aid to spontaneous recitation and improvisation. The language of the Iliad and Odyssey was never used for everyday communication. It is a stylized language made up of formulas, noun and adjective combinations having metrical values that fill certain segments of a dactylic hexametric poetic line. The dactylic hexameter, one long syllable followed by two short syllables (for which another long syllable can be substituted), is possibly an inheritance in Greek from an earlier Indo-European poetic language. In any case, the epic language seems to be based on creative combinations of phrases rather than of individual words. Readers of the Iliad and the Odyssey are likely to remember expressions such as "the wine-dark sea," "Menelaus of the loud war cry," or "swift-footed Achilles." A great part of the narrative of the poems is made up of repeated phrases of a given metrical value. Modern-day readers are often repelled by what they consider the heavy, dragging effect of the repeated phraseology, but this reaction simply marks the great difference between the literate culture of the present and the oral culture of preliterate society. What is heard in repetition becomes part of the texture of the continuous utterance and does not have the prominence that the reader assigns to each word as he or she apprehends it from the printed page at varying speeds, depending on the individual's concentration or reading ability. Oral poetic narrative is in this sense more like late-twentieth-century rap music, the language of which is both repetitive and shaped and delivered by the singer, which means that the speed of apprehension is more in the control of the performer than the auditor, but it is by repetition principally that the singer makes the words accessible to the listener.

There are a few revealing references to singers in the poems. Achilles sulking in his tent, his comrade Patroclus at his side, is described (Iliad, 9.189) as "singing the deeds of famous men," the kind of formula that suggests that he himself is attempting the sort of stylized narrative that makes up the poem. This suggestion, in turn, implies that intelligent, well-rehearsed amateurs were sufficiently familiar with the style that they could try it. It gives a hint of the accessibility of these poems, of their central place in the lives of the listeners. In the Odyssey there is considerably more reference to poets, as befits a poem that has as its principal figure a man who, wherever he goes, tells stories and gives fictional accounts of his background ("lying," as the poet calls it). It is related that when Agamemnon went off to Troy he left Clytemnestra in the care of a bard who was, however, sent away to a deserted island by Aegisthus so that the latter could have a free hand in trying to seduce the queen. Whether the singers of the court ordinarily exercised such moral authority as this passage suggests, or whether the poets who created this poem were doing a bit of self-advertisement, cannot, of course, be known.

At the beginning of the poem (1.325-352) the grieving Penelope asks Phemius to desist as he sings to her son, Telemachus, and to the suitors about the aftermath of the Trojan War and the return of the heroes. Clearly, it reminds her too much of her still-absent husband. Telemachus intervenes, however, remonstrating with his mother and reminding her that "people always will more readily applaud the newest song to circulate among the singers." The reader will note with some surprise that the text seems to be endorsing originality, since the theory of oral poetic recitation lays a heavy premium on tradition and repetition. If, on the other hand, the reader stops to consider that the Odyssey is, in fact, one long tale of the return of a particular hero and that Telemachus is encouraging a poet to sing a song of returns against his mother's wish for other aspects of the Trojan story, it seems to be the case that at the beginning of the poem its creator or creators are insisting on the narrative line that is about to unfold.

There is a theory that the oral poetic tradition of these people arose from what is called "praise-blame poetry." This phrase obviously relates to the Iliad, a long narrative recounting, with high enthusiasm and approbation, the exploits of a variety of heroes on the field of battle and, on occasion, remarking as well on their failures of strategy and attitude. The Odyssey, however, seems to be something quite different. Perhaps as the return narratives began to take shape there was some impetus for the poets to apologize for their new creation, if only in the subtlest fashion, as in Telemachus's rebuke to his mother's tearful entreaties to Phemius.

The most extended and vivid portrait of a singer is in the Odyssey, in the episode that takes place on the island of Scheria among the Phaeacians. The blind singer Demodocus is described as he entertains at the court of King Alkinous (8.471-521). The court assembles for his singing, and on one occasion he provides the music for formal dancing. He shows himself to be master of the heroic tradition as he sings stories of the Trojan War, responding to requests from his audience for various favorite episodes. The text contains the entirety of one of his songs (8.266-367); quite different from the narratives of the Iliad and Odyssey, it is a witty description of Aphrodite's adulterous relationship with Ares and of the clever capture of the two in their lovemaking by her husband, Hephaestus. It is much more like the narratives of the gods in the so-called Homeric hymns. This interlude serves as a reminder that the creators and practitioners of the oral poetic art had more than one kind of subject matter available for delivery.

If the Iliad may be styled a species of praise-blame poetry, then one may assume for the poet or poets enormous power in the community, since it is he or they who shape and assess the behavior of its young male members. The role of poetry is also to explain and, finally, to justify the evil in human life. Helen can say to her brother-in-law Hector, trying to make sense of the dreadful and fatal predicament in which they find themselves (Iliad, 6.357-358), "Zeus has set this horrible fate upon us so that we may be the subjects of song for later generations." Alkinous, king of the Phaeacians, in talking of the Trojan War, echoes the sentiment (Odyssey, 8.579-580) when he remarks that the gods caused the Trojan War and "the destruction of men" so as to provide story material for the singers in later generations.

In a preliterate culture the past exists only in oral poetic performance; people and their acts can live on beyond the moment only in the memory of the poetic tradition. So from one perspective it is possible to say that events happen only as song, and the people behind the events are, in turn, only part of the fabric of song. Then, too, people living during something so grand and so awful as the ten-year siege and final destruction of Troy can only make sense of these events by assuming that they are finally transcendent not simply as history but as saga, as traditional narrative, as the song that singers sing. People gain a place in history, in human consciousness, only by being memorialized in epic song.

In Euripides ' Medea (431 B.C.) Jason makes a telling remark to Medea when he is defending his behavior toward her. He says that he brought her out of the obscurity of Colchis to Greece, where she became known to all. Behind both the Homeric and the Euripidean passages lurks the notion that one who is forgotten is utterly dead, that some kind of immortality is promised to those who become the subjects of song. Thus, the praise-blame poetry has yet a greater role than justifying the existence of its heroes: it confers on them everlasting existence in the memories of their community. It is an existence similar to the eternal fame nowadays enjoyed by movie stars who appear forever on videocassettes or by opera divas whose recorded voices will not die out of the consciousness of humanity.

One may thus imagine for the ancient singer of epic poetic tales the kind of conferred value that Nestor in the Iliad is forever trying to wrest for himself from the younger men around him. Nestor is an old man who cannot claim to be one of the principal warriors in the battlefield, although the poet takes sufficient license so as to present Nestor girded up and in his chariot out on the field. Whenever he appears in dialogue, however, he insists on remembering events that he claims to have been of far greater moment than the present circumstance--there having been greater warriors, greater battles, far more momentous crises in the days of his youth--and thereby to establish his worth as memory's repository of valuable times gone by, now inaccessible to his audience except through his retelling of them. In the same way, only the epic poet can bestow on his contemporaries their own past. Just as any individual will hang in fascination upon the lips of some older relative who can describe the youth and early exploits of loved ones insufficiently understood or known, so the audiences of the oral poet, it may be assumed, desperately needed and hence valorized highly the performances of their singers.

If the reader stops to consider objectively the young male heroes of the Iliad, he or she will discover that they are possibly no more than brutes and thugs, the kind of physically overdeveloped and oversized males who terrorize people throughout the world today whenever social arrangements break down. The world Homer describes had no police force, no city government, no standing armies, no received body of law, no hotels nor restaurants for travelers, none of the amenities and securities on which modern civilized life depends. Any television viewer who witnesses the brutality and mayhem in areas undergoing revolution or in cities where law and order have broken down will recognize the modern Achilles or Diomedes among the smiling, handsome, brutish murderers, rapists, and plunderers, who are seen with gun in hand or being led off by grim-faced militia or police. When Phoenix says to Achilles in book 9 that the gods will give him strength but that he must curb the anger in his heart, he is essentially saying that the warrior class to which Achilles belongs is made up of physical specimens whose genetic inheritance is to be stronger than the rest of the community, by virtue of which they must watch their natural and acculturated inclination to act out their feelings in acts of mayhem. One can only pity such a class of young men who are trained to be the warriors and defenders of the community, whose very attributes make them dangerous to their society. Both poems are filled with the stories of young men who inadvertently kill a kin and must flee to another community (for instance, the description of Patroclus's background in the Iliad [23.86-87]: "I killed the son of Amphidamas. I was just a child, I didn't mean to do it, but I got so angry when we were playing chess").

The Homeric poems have become the property of Western Europe's middle class, and, as such, their characters have been reread as proper young men. But that is the necessary accommodation any society makes in order to assimilate a work of art to the culture's needs. The Diomedes who slits the throat of a young man to whom he has just promised freedom or the Odysseus who determines to hang in his palace vulnerable young women who have been forced into sexual service by the rowdy suitors are far more reminiscent of Mafia figures on the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1920s than gentlemen to be found in the drawing room. Certainly Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace (1862-1869) and Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind (1936) have modeled their tales of a society besieged by war on the Iliad, but there is no Prince Andrey or Ashley Wilkes to be found among Homer's gallery of heroes. They would long since have been muscled out of the action by their Bronze Age prototypes.

The poets of these poems depict a society that survives to a large extent on plunder, whether it be the sacking of cities or the rustling of cattle (as reflected in the decoration of Achilles' new shield [Iliad, 18.491ff.], in which the archetypal city is portrayed as the city of peace and the city of war). Such a society is dependent on its physically powerful young men. The Iliad is a cautionary tale for these young men, and one can see how valuable such a narrative would have been in furthering the interests of the community. It tells the story of Achilles' great anger at his superiors, who make demands of him that he feels are unjust, of his leaving the battlefield and staying apart in his tent, and then, when his friend has died, of his returning to fight, acting out in a kind of surreal burst of murderous physical frenzy the rage that he feels in his loss. What is important to note is that Achilles is described in formulaic language, as are all the other young warriors of the poem; when he returns to fight one has the sense that for this young man, as for all the others, there is no other language in which he might be described, no other setting in which he might be portrayed, and, in so symmetrical a story line, no other place in which he could be. The truth of his stereotypical existence is that Achilles was born to live and die as a warrior. A great sense of weary desperation overcomes almost all the heroes, and especially Achilles, as the poet describes them in the Iliad. Henry David Thoreau says in Walden (1854) that most men "lead lives of quiet desperation." In the Iliad the men shout out their desperation all the time; nonetheless, it is perhaps this desperation that explains why this poem has been so immensely popular with generations of readers.

A narrative that presents everything in typical scenes with stereotypical characters described in conventional, formulaic language relies on monolithic, bold, almost caricature-like renderings of persons. Rather than an elaborated display of details such as one finds in the characterizations of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert , Homer limits, isolates, and emphasizes some single feature. From time to time Homer speaks of a man's areté or even an object's areté. This word is somewhat hard to define but seems to mean, more than anything else, a defining quality. Thus, although a knife may be richly embellished and have an ivory handle it is, nonetheless, defined only by its cutting surface. That is its areté. The areté of a young male of the class of Achilles, as he would be defined in the Homeric narrative, is his capacity to triumph on the field of battle. The community valorized him, as does the poem, for this one particular capacity. It follows that such a male warrior is exercising his areté to the utmost in the moment when he is committing all his superb strength and intellect against the one supreme force that will finally overpower him.

Thus, a male warrior realizes himself most completely by exerting himself to the utmost in that one moment before dying. The sixteenth book of the Iliad describes the star turn of Patroclus as he stands in for Achilles, fights brilliantly, kills such celebrities as Zeus's son Sarpedon, and finally is himself slain by Hector, the principal Trojan warrior, in a hero's death made all the more glamorous because the first blow struck against him was from the hand of the god Apollo. Hence it is that all Homeric heroes have the melancholic subconscious awareness that they are doomed to die. The poem presents this awareness in the dilemma of Achilles, who tells the others in book 9 of the Iliad that his goddess mother Thetis gave him the choice of living to old age in obscurity back home in Phthia or dying with glory on the field of battle of Troy. For the stereotype of which Achilles is representative that is, obviously, no choice at all. The poem demonstrates his relentlessly moving from his protest withdrawal back to the field of battle, in other words, away from life and back to death. That is the melancholic truth of this poem, a true precursor to Athenian tragic drama of the fifth century.

Some six hundred years later a critic whose writings have come down under the name Longinus claimed that the Iliad was the poem of Homer's youth and the Odyssey of his old age. While his reasons are less than compelling, it is possible to see the anguish of the young warrior in the Iliad as representative of any young male's sudden realization that all the vital energies on which his tremendous strength, courage, and daring rest are more than likely doomed in the incessant warfare and killing that define his culture. In ages that no longer have such bloodshed as part of their daily fare, the poem remains popular because it speaks to the anguished realization of the great nothingness of death that besets the young, by whom nothing yet has been accomplished, and lays to rest the compulsion to perform.

It is far more immediately apparent why one can style the Odyssey a poem of Homer's old age. It is the tale of a man who has survived the war at Troy where so many of his mates perished, who has wandered the world for ten years, encountering and surmounting all manner of real and fairy-tale obstacles, and who finally returns to his home, fights the forces arrayed there, and wins back to his arms a wife and son who have remained faithful to his memory throughout this period. In sum, it is the tale of surviving into old age. Unlike the constant self-pitying assessments of the characters of the Iliad, the hero of the Odyssey exudes satisfaction. The poem is about success and triumph in life.

From another perspective one could say that the Odyssey is yet another version of the Cinderella story. A hero who is the victim of a malign deity passes years of his life suffering one calamity after another because of this celestial ill will, and yet he has a protector goddess who follows his footsteps as he makes his way painfully through his life's journey. When, finally, a contest is held for the possession of the princess, it is he, disguised as a beggar, abused and mocked by all at the court, who manages to string the bow and shoot the arrow through the axe holes. Odysseus in this story is Cinderella among the ashes; the angry god Poseidon is the wicked stepmother; Athena is the Fairy Godmother; the suitors are the snickering, disbelieving ugly stepsisters; Penelope is Prince Charming; and, finally, the contest of the bow is the trying on of the glass slipper.

Modern students of romance narratives from the early Christian era draw attention to features of those stories that are found in the Odyssey, as though it were a prototypical romance. The common romance plot in which star-crossed lovers struggle to regain each other's side--he traveling across vast territories, surmounting all manner of plights and obstacles, she fending off one assault after another on her chastity--does resemble the story of Odysseus struggling to get home to his wife and of Penelope struggling to keep the suitors who want to marry her from achieving their ambition. Coupled with this pattern is a story line that is associated with what is called the comic sensibility, defined not as a view of the world as funny but as one that says yes to life--especially to eating and to sex: a story line that ends happily with the reunion of persons long thought to be dead, a reunion achieved through the revelation of identity through tokens. In the Odyssey the hero travels the world; he passes seven years on the island of Ogygia as the unwilling bed partner of the nymph Calypso; after a year of coupling quite happily with the witch Circe on the island of Aeaea, he has to be forcefully hastened on his way by his impatient crew. Shipwrecked on the island of Scheria, he meets and is attracted to the virgin princess Nausicaa, who would like nothing better than for the stranger cast up by the sea to end up as her husband. The story turns on arrivals and departures, occasions associated with lavish banquets and with strangers identifying themselves. These episodes culminate in the scene in which Penelope, always suspicious of arriving strangers--especially when they are dressed as beggars--provokes the masterful Odysseus into revealing himself through tokens so intimate (the secret construction of their conjugal bed) that only a husband would know them.

These analogies to Cinderella and to early romance narratives indicate how different a poem the Odyssey is from the Iliad and thus invite speculation about the former's authorship. For centuries it was assumed that the two poems were from the hand of the same author; but modern oral theory has encouraged the view that the Odyssey is not only from another tradition of storytelling but also, perhaps, from a somewhat later time than the Iliad. The two poems can be seen as two halves of a human reality: the tragic and the comic, the young and the old, the heroic and the fairy-tale -- even the masculine and the feminine: the Iliad is a story of violence, dominance, destruction, and competition, whereas the Odyssey is filled with powerful women characters and with relationships and events in which women play an important role, such as marriage, banquets, suitors, and contests for princesses.

It is also noteworthy that the narrator of the Odyssey never alludes to any event that occurs in the Iliad and that several ideas prominent in the Iliad are upset or rejected in the Odyssey. For instance, in the final scene in the Iliad Achilles offers Priam a kind of consolation, bleak and desperate though it may be: there are, he says, two jars in Zeus's palace, one filled with evil and the other filled with good; Zeus sometimes sprinkles evil and sometimes good mixed with evil upon the heads of humans far below. The implication is that the universe is indifferent, arbitrary, and wanton. This dark view is in keeping with the narrator's perspective throughout the poem. The Odyssey, by contrast, begins with Zeus complaining to the other gods that humankind have the habit of ascribing all their troubles to the gods when, in fact, they bring those troubles on themselves. He cites the example of Aegisthus, who was told not to seduce Clytemnestra, disregarded this heavenly advice, and was killed in revenge by her son, Orestes. The implication is that there is some system of good and evil in the universe and that the good and prudent man will triumph, and by the end of the poem Odysseus has killed the evil suitors who have wasted his resources with their constant partying and their attempts to get into his wife's bed. Other indications of a kind of dialogue between the two poems are the scene in the Odyssey in which the shade of Achilles says that he would rather be a laborer on earth than king of the Underworld, and the long description of Achilles' funeral with which the Odyssey ends as its hero rests at home with his wife and son. The glamorous embrace of death with which the glory-seeking killers of the Iliad justified their existence has been replaced by the less sensational but far more satisfying pleasures of hearth and home earned by the tired old traveler.

The narrative structures of the two poems differ considerably as well. The Iliad focuses on a small moment--approximately forty days--in the ten-year siege, capture, and destruction of the city of Troy; the story takes place mainly on the shore and plains before the great citadel and occasionally in Troy itself. But, as Aristotle remarked, the poet of the Iliad manages to weave into his narrowly focused moment almost all the other episodes of the war, which convey the panoramic sense of immensity that has thenceforth defined the word epic. Of course, modern critics assume that the Homeric audience had already heard the Iliad story and similar stories, so that they had a rather well-developed notion of the context before the performance began. In the Iliad there are also allusions--sometimes rather superficial, sometimes fuller--to other mythological systems, such as the stories associated with the hero Heracles. These allusions suggest a wide range of knowledge on the part of the audience of what passes for history in a preliterate society. The Odyssey, on the other hand, begins on Olympus with a council of the gods, then follows Telemachus as he journeys from Ithaca to the mainland Peloponnisos in search of news of his father. After another divine council in Olympus the story moves to the island of Ogygia, where Odysseus is introduced, then goes with him through a sea storm until he is washed up on the shores of the Phaeacians' island. While among the Phaeacians, Odysseus delivers a first-person account of his adventures during the ten years since he left Troy. The Phaeacians take Odysseus home, after which begins the tight, narrowly focused, temporally confined type of narrative that is associated with the Iliad.

The Iliad is about Achilles' reaction to being forced to yield. In the opening book his overlord Agamemnon demands that Achilles give up a young woman awarded to him as a prize for his valor. He is stayed from murderous anger by a common sense that tells him to yield to Agamemnon. He compensates for this humiliation by refusing to fight any longer, and he retires from the field of battle to his tent. His mother, the goddess Thetis, wins from Zeus the promise that the Achaeans will lose in battle so grievously as to leave no doubt of her son's overwhelming importance to their cause and of Agamemnon's folly in abusing him so. This promise is kept in books 8 through 16, until Achilles' friend Patroclus, in a desperate attempt to make up for his comrade's defection, takes the field and is killed by the city's principal defender, Hector. Thereupon Achilles' wrath against Agamemnon is converted into anger at his fate and at human destiny in general.

In the nineteenth book Achilles and Agamemnon reconcile their differences before an assemblage of the troops. Achilles wishes to rush out to the fight; but Odysseus delivers a crucial speech advising him to accept the necessity of stopping to eat, arguing that nothing will bring back the dead and that the living must get on with the process of living, a process most obviously represented by the act of eating. Eating is also a way of acknowledging the necessity of yielding to the body, whether in hunger or in death. Achilles proceeds to fight wantonly and brutally, expelling the demons from his psyche, until he kills Hector before the walls of Troy. It is only at the end, when Hector's father, Priam, comes to ransom his son's body, that Achilles yields to the demands of human existence: he gives back the body and encourages the old man to stop crying and to eat dinner. Achilles' encouraging the grief-stricken old king to eat is the final revelation of his own yielding to death, a process that began so dramatically in his anger at Agamemnon's haughty behavior twenty-four books earlier.

At the beginning of the poem the narrator introduces a series of events that seem more suited to other moments in the chronology of the Trojan War, but he lodges them securely into the nexus he is creating in his more restricted story line. Thus, in the second book there is a catalogue of the ships and crews that sailed from Aulis, masquerading as a review of the forces on the beach at Troy; in the third book there is a duel between Menelaus and Paris that obviously belongs to the beginning of the war. Aristotle praises Homer for this technique because it keeps the focus on the briefer moment, whereas some of Homer's contemporaries and successors managed to bring off nothing more than a dreary chronicle of events strung together by the mechanical connective "and then." And, as Northrop Frye remarks in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), there are many narratives from military cultures, not unlike the one depicted in this poem, in which the high courage and manly power of young men are sung in praise and glory; but the Iliad also portrays a great city on the verge of absolute and inevitable destruction, with its principal defender, Hector, bravely resigned to the doom that he knows will come. It is this added dimension that gives the Iliad the intimations of tragedy that make it unique in its genre.

The "ring" form of narration--events that create the beginning return at the end--is much in evidence in the Iliad. In the third book, for instance, the scene of Helen and Priam on the walls, gazing down on the opposing army chieftains, followed by Menelaus and Paris fighting below, comes back with great tragic irony in the twenty-second book when Priam and Hecuba watch from the walls in horror as Achilles kills their son Hector, after which Hector's wife mounts the walls to watch her husband's corpse being dragged behind Achilles' chariot.

The Odyssey has an entirely different structure, consisting of three discrete elements: the Telemachia, or story of Telemachus's search for his father; the father's travels; and the homecoming. One might otherwise categorize the Odyssey narrative in terms of heroic or saga material, folktale or fairy-tale material, and domestic comedy. The early portion of the narrative focuses on Telemachus, Odysseus's son, as he sets out to get news of his father; what he learns from Nestor and Menelaus are a series of heroic-saga legends in which his father plays a role. The tone changes when Odysseus himself enters the narrative in the fifth book as the captive of a nymph on a seagirt island -- hardly the posture of a hero of the Iliad. Shortly thereafter he finds himself at the court of the Phaeacians, where he delivers a first-person narrative several thousand lines long describing his adventures prior to that moment. These adventures incongruously place a male of the heroic-warrior tradition into the context of fairy tale. When, about halfway through the poem, Odysseus arrives on the shores of Ithaca, yet another narrative tone is introduced as the Iliadic hero enters a world of domestic intrigue in which the loyal servants, his son, his wife, and he himself in the disguise of a lowly beggar slowly position themselves, whether knowingly or not, for the final conflict with the suitors and the beggar's revelation of himself as master of the house.

The Iliad and the Odyssey were long regarded as the first poems in the Western literary tradition. In the nineteenth century, however, tablets in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hittite were discovered that, when assembled, present a coherent story about a great king, Gilgamesh (there are records of an actual king of that name in the third millennium B.C.), whose adventures have a striking similarity to events in the two Homeric poems. Gilgamesh, for instance, has a dear friend, Enkidu, with whom he travels, and whose death halfway through the narrative plunges Gilgamesh into profound despair. This situation reminds one of the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad; there is, in fact, a striking parallel between the two texts when the grieving survivors are compared in simile to a mother deer who has lost her young. Also, Gilgamesh rebuffs the overtures of the goddess Ishtar, as Odysseus, in the Odyssey, declines the gift of immortality from Calypso. Furthermore, Gilgamesh rejects the advice of the barmaid Siduri, who encourages him to give up his quest for immortality and stay with her to eat, drink, and make babies, which one suspects is the subtext of Odysseus's visit to the court of the Phaeacians and the interlude with Nausicaa. Gilgamesh has a goddess mother, Ninsun, who is not the mater dolorosa that Thetis is to Achilles but is, nonetheless, a hovering, nervous presence. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill a giant, Humbaba, an act that earns them the enmity of the gods, much as Odysseus's blinding of the giant Polyphemus causes him to incur the wrath of Poseidon. Gilgamesh's journey through the Underworld to the old wise man Utnapishtim, who foretells his future, is similar to Odysseus's journey through the underworld to meet with Tiresias. All these similarities suggest a kind of Mediterranean story tradition--and several scholars extend it to the relationships of Jesus, his disciples, and the women in the Gospel narratives. The greatest difference between the Gilgamesh story and the Greek poems is the profound sense of despair that colors every action in the former.

The reader can project certain values from the Iliad and the Odyssey onto the putative narrators of the poems. These values are an allegiance to hierarchy, the absolute superiority of the male sex, and the overriding obligation to pursue glory. The aristocratic males of the Iliad are constantly boasting of their genealogies, jockeying with one another so as to determine their ranking. The only occasion in the Iliad when a male who is other than an aristocratic warrior speaks is in the second book, when Thersites speaks against Agamemnon. Thersites, the narrator says, is a brute, ugly man. This description is, of course, true to the facts of this period in which the absence of good prenatal care, then later of superior diet, as well as the body-deforming experience of hard labor, would clearly distinguish the ordinary man from the aristocracy and its cult of the body beautiful.

There is a further distinction in the response to Thersites' verbal attack. Odysseus strikes him harshly with his staff; Thersites sheds a tear of shame and humiliation; and his fellow soldiers snicker. In the Odyssey, Odysseus's constant contempt for his crew, his indifference to their welfare, indeed, his willingness to subject them to fatal risks, underscores the haughty and cruel nature of the overlords in these poems. The principal heroes of both poems are descended of family lines that contain some births in which one of the parents was a god. Furthermore, the major figures in these narratives, if they cannot actually converse with a god, are nonetheless under the benign and special protection of some deity. Another aspect of hierarchy in both poems is the large class of slaves who perform the daily labor in the army camps, in the citadel of Troy, and in the palaces. More often than not these are women who were taken when a settlement was pillaged and destroyed and the males were put to death -- all part of a system of enrichment, it must be remembered, rather than strategic necessities of warfare.

Rejecting the priest Chryses' request for the return of his daughter, taken in just such a raid, Agamemnon remarks that he intends to bring her home to work at the loom and service him in bed, since he has concluded that she is in no way inferior to his wife, Clytemnestra. Agamemnon's casual and public appraisal of his wife as though she were no more than a paid concubine underscores the great separation between the sexes. Each had a function, and more emotional and altruistic relations between them seem not to have developed. On the other hand, Achilles, as the narrator makes abundantly clear, deeply loves Patroclus. While in fifth-century-B.C Athens this relationship would ordinarily have had a physical, sexual basis, there is no evidence of that here. Rather, the extreme valorization of males likely made only male relationships significant; thus, the loss of a companion who had shared one's life since childhoood, who had lived in the same tent, where each man's female sexual partner was enjoyed--a species of homoeroticism that would clearly produce the deepest bonds--would be just as devastating as, in modern culture, would be the loss of a beloved partner of either sex. These poems are written from the male's point of view, and women are denied a sympathetic treatment.

For instance, the scene in the sixth book of the Iliad, when Hector goes into Troy, has been set up as an occasion to view the women of the city--for whom, to some degree, Hector is fighting. He meets his mother, Hecuba, who offers him a glass of wine and asks him to rest; he meets his brother Paris's woman friend, Helen, who asks him to sit down and rest; he meets his wife, Andromache, who, using her son as a kind of emotional blackmail, begs her husband to stay within the walls. He rejects all three women's solicitations and returns to battle. To Andromache he says, in effect: "Go back to the loom and your household tasks and leave the fighting to me," underscoring the rigid separation of gender-defined activities as they were perceived by the narrator and presumably his audience. (Ironically, Andromache's advice makes strategic sense, and Hector's return to the field of battle ends in the twenty-second book with his standing before the walls, facing Achilles' last mad dash, and wishing he were inside.) In this episode the male narrator presents women in the narrowest, most typical, most minimally defined fashion as they figure in a male's life: the nurturing mother; the companiable, sensuous woman; and the emotionally demanding wife.

Furthermore, there seems to be a pattern of women trying to hinder males from the natural exercise of their inherent goals or ambitions. Hecuba, Helen, and Andromache try to keep Hector from dying in glory on the field of battle. Likewise, in the Odyssey there are three women who attempt to prevent Odysseus from returning home, which in this poem is the equivalent of the glorious death in battle. These are Calypso, who attempts to get him to stay with her by offering him immortality; Circe, whose sexual charms are such that he cannot bear to leave her side until his crew force him; and Nausicaa, whose young, fresh, erotic presence, coupled with the desirability of life on Scheria, represents, although in an understated way, another challenge to the tired old hero's determination to get back to Ithaca.

The women of the Odyssey are so portrayed as to suggest the fundamental fear and dread that women generated in males of the time. Instead of representing the pleasure of the nurturing woman or the sexual woman, these female figures appear to be projections of the male fears of dependency on nurture and of losing control in orgasm. The mixture of nurture and sexuality in the Circe story (the episode almost fills the tenth book) is clear for all to see. Circe offers men food and then turns them into swine. When Odysseus approaches Circe's house, however, the god Hermes appears and gives him a magical charm that will ward off her dangerous power. He tells Odysseus that she will try to drug him and that, when she is about to tap him with her transforming wand, he is to pull his sword, after which she will invite him to bed. Still, he finds this bed so wonderful that after a year it is only his crew's pleadings that get him to leave.

Penelope, although she is presented entirely sympathetically as the proper counterpart to her clever husband, is not unlike Circe. Her palace swarms with young males who wish to marry her on the assumption that after ten years of silence it is legitimate to presume her husband to have died at sea. They pass their days and possibly their nights in the ground-floor quarters of Odysseus's palace, drinking, eating, playing games, carrying on with the servant women, generally debauching themselves -- it is a picture of males kept at the point of sexual tension day in and day out over a long time--and they resemble nothing so much as Circe's swine. Penelope keeps them excited by indicating that she will remarry one day in the near future; she sends them messages, and at one point she is described as descending the stair from the women's quarters and so exciting them sexually that they rush home to bring still more presents to her in their suit. She is the same fairy-tale, malign witch that Circe is, although dressed by the narrator in the proper psychological and behaviorial habiliments of a noble squire's wife.

Two small details in the two epics are particularly telling: Briseis, the girl who was captured and enslaved and given to Achilles for his sexual needs, is described crying along with the other slave women over the corpse of Patroclus. She speaks out, telling of his kindness to her, and then the narrator remarks that the women cried for Patroclus only as a pretext; in reality, they were crying for themselves. At the close of the Odyssey Odysseus determines to put to death by hanging all the women slaves who had been sleeping with the suitors. Only a patriarchal male who considers all the females of his palace private property, to be used and exploited by himself alone, would so overreact to the sexual violation of these women. That they no doubt had been coerced into sex, probably raped--they were no more than slaves; the young men were the bully aristocrats of the neighborhood -- is never a consideration. They are the master's property and are now damaged goods; as such, they need to be disposed of. The suitors, who are male, are killed in a dignified fashion; these slaves, who are women, are humiliated and degraded even in death. Perhaps the most telling detail of all is that Penelope, for whom the hero has been yearning and to whom he has been struggling to return throughout the poem, disappears from the narrative once Odysseus has managed to get back into her bed and into her embrace. Penelope as a person does not really figure for him.

These two poems have exercised enormous influence on the art, literature, and thought of the Western world. The Odyssey, in particular, stands as the model for all the stories of a hero who travels and overcomes obstacles until he finally reaches his goal. Clearly, that is a story line congenial to Christian thinking, and one finds it used often -- for instance, in John Bunyan 's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Yet Odysseus's duplicity, already a strike against him in fifth-century-B.C. Athenian tragic drama, causes Dante to place him well down in the circles of his hell. The Roman poet Virgil's epic poem, the Aeneid, was a work of striking originality that is, among other things, a reading of the moral, ethical, spiritual, and theological implications of the two Homeric poems. Thereafter direct knowledge of the Homeric poems was less common, and the Aeneid provided a template for epic narrative. Through the centuries critics, scholars, and informed readers have carried on a quarrel over the relative merits of the Homeric and the Virgilian epics. The extraordinarily polished style of the Aeneid, its intimations of Christianity, and its emphasis on empire made it a favorite at Christian courts where, by and large, the populace spoke languages that had evolved from Latin. In nineteenth-century Germany, however, a revival of interest in folk art and folk legends produced a wave of sympathy for the Homeric poems, which were thought somehow to be more populist.

This assessment is undoubtedly true. While one must imagine that the poets who created the tradition that lies behind the Homeric poems were supported and thus controlled by powerful figures such as the ones who populate their narratives, there is nonetheless strong evidence to suggest that their performance was available to the assembled throng, and to that extent the Iliad and the Odyssey could be said to be popular art. The Aeneid, by contrast, was created by a highly educated man writing for a refined audience of cognoscenti at the court of Augustus Caesar, the most powerful figure in the Mediterranean world. No one would have imagined that this poem would become popular, yet within a generation it had become a school text, and thereafter it was known to every educated person in the Western world. The final irony, of course, is that in the twentieth century, to the extent that there still exists a reading public, the Homeric poems are far more popular and accessible than the Aeneid because their gripping story lines and penetrating portraits of the archtypal figures of humanity come through in English translation as the Latin of Virgil does not. Contemporary college students read the Iliad and the Odyssey in translation, and thus yet another generation goes forth secure in the knowledge that it knows something about a certain Homer, who, though often referred to as one of the world's great poets, is probably no more than a construct or a myth.




Samuel Eliot Bassett, The Poetry of Homer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938).

Charles Rowan Beye, Ancient Epic Poetry (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Howard Clarke, Homer's Readers: An Historical Introduction to the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1981).

John Miles Foley, Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

Richard Heinze, Virgil's Epic Technique, translated by Hazel Harvey, David Harvey, and Fred Robertson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Geoffrey Kirk, Songs of Homer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962).

Robert Lamberton and John J. Keaney, eds., Homer's Ancient Readers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

William Bedell Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero (Oxford: Blackwell, 1954).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200007429