Introduction to the Odyssey (Part 2): Homer and the origin of the epics

Map of Homeric Greece with English labels

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The third and the final parts of this introduction will respectively discuss Greek religion (for which one is largely referred to Burkert for actual practice and attitudes) and the story of the Odyssey as a whole, at least enough to get the reader started with an understanding of what’s going on. Before one gets to the story though, one needs to talk about Greek religion– both how a contemporary Greek would have understood the discussion of gods and goddesses and for context the broader scope of Greek religion and religious attitudes. Part and parcel of this is the role of the Homeric epics in Greek and (later) Roman education. Even before that discussion of Greek religion and the cultural context of the epics, one needs deal with the question of Homer himself and how the epics developed– in the sense of composition.

The ancients were unanimous in the belief in a single poet Homer to whom they credited composition of at least the Iliad and the Odyssey and possibly other minor works. Modern scholars debate whether Homer existed at all and if so how much of the works he actually composed. My own view (supported by much of the scholarship such as this) is that Homer the poet did exist, and that he was the greatest of many traveling bards. Specifically, the manner in which he composed the various traditional stories into two coherent wholes– the Iliad and the Odyssey– was viewed by his contemporaries and later generations as so great that his form of those stories quickly became standardized, a process greatly aided by the rapid spread of writing at about this time. We know virtually nothing about Homer as a human being although there are several ancient biographies of questionable reliability. According to legend, Homer was a blind poet. (An on-line source linked above claims that ὅμηρος means “blind man” but according to the standard lexicon, Liddell & Scott’s, it means rather “a pledge for surety or a hostage” in the sense of things or people exchanged as a guarantee to keep the peace.) Nevertheless pseudo-Herodotus (30) asserts that Homer was not born blind. The dialect of Homer is archaic but is recognizable as primarily Ionic with some Aeolian– arguably for metrical reasons. I have seen contended that Homeric Greek used its own non-natural bardic dialect, but the language seems to me too similar to Hesiod to entirely buy into this idea. The explanation of dialectical mixing to me seems simpler if one bears in mind that bards as individuals originated throughout the Greek world and so various bards over the years would have left their marks on the telling of the tales, including influences from their own dialect. This observation does not negate the probability that Homer the historical personage also was probably a speaker of the Ionic dialect.

Unfortunately Homer’s works came so to dominate in the minds of the Greeks that very little other contemporary material in iambic pentameter (and hence of the same genre) remains extant. The formulaic language of the epics themselves and the quasi-episodic structure of the stories provide the major evidence of composition via an oral tradition, but evidence of traveling bards greatly supports the idea.

The fact that the ancients credited Homer with composition of both the Iliad and the Odyssey (and possibly of the Homeric hymns as well) does not contradict the notion that Homer wove the epics from a pre-existing story tradition. The ancient Greek notion of originality encompassed taking a story people already knew (from history and/or mythology) and telling it in a fresh new way. Making up stories from whole cloth was not viewed in the same light. One professor of mine said that the ancients thought, “Anyone could do that,” of making things up completely, but I suspect it had more to do with the fact listeners to a bard’s performance (and later theater) would come and go and so latecomers could only follow stories they already knew well.

Greece - Scene of the trojan war, Metropolitan...

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The story tradition on which Homer drew was a mixture of history and mythology, drawing so much on the latter that modern scholars strongly doubted that the Trojan War (about which the epics revolve) had even taken place until Schliemann found the ruins of Troy. The ancients always maintained that the Trojan War had taken place, although the exact date was not certain even then. We now date the Trojan War to the late Mycenaean period, approximately 1200 B.C.E.

The period from the end of the Mycenaean civilization (which came on the heels of the Minoan civilization) to the rise of pre-classical Greece has been termed the Greek Dark Age, although the validity of the term is debated. How much knowledge and technology was lost during this period remains a matter of academic controversy, but writing at the least was lost and rediscovered during this period. The Greeks of the Mycenaean period used what we now term Linear B. The pre-classical and later Greeks used the Greek alphabet as we know it today, allowing for at least a couple of archaic letters (digamma ϝ and qoph ϙ). The importance of this development in terms of the Homeric epics is that the history of the great war of the Mycenaean Greek world, the Trojan War, became mixed with mythology in a purely oral tradition. Then after the effective culmination of that oral tradition in the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey became written down in the form we know today.

Knowing the origin of a work– who the author was and how, when and why he came to compose it– helps the reader (or listener) better understand the purpose. The Iliad and the Odyssey served to provide both entertainment and religious instruction. The latter purpose of these will be the topic of my next post. The former was the role of the bards, of which Homer was the pre-eminent.

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