Few authors are surrounded in so great a cloud of reverence and doubt as that of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In fact, it is probably safe to say that aside from the Biblical writers no other author is placed under greater scrutiny or on a higher pedestal. Many of these questions revolve around the identity of Homer and the degree to which these works might be attributed to his own imagination. In past generations, we would have viewed the most fundamental question as whether Homer even existed, or whether he was instead invented by later poets (such as, the Homeridae) to serve as an archetype for themselves and their work.
In recent years, however, the emphasis has shifted away from the question of organic unity and authorship and more to the biographical details of the author and the dating of his works. Though literary and historical sources concerning Homer remain scant, much of the evidence, combined with new insights regarding the origin of written Greek, make a compelling case for the historic Homer and the traditional mid-eighth century date for the writing of The Iliad and The Odyssey. We will deal in turn, then, with three aspects of Homer’s life: his hometown, the broader historical context in which he worked, and the role he played in the final form of his texts.
Concerning the hometown of Homer much may be said, but, “The large island city of Chios has a claim better than most” (Cartledge 41). As Cartledge goes on to state on the same page, Thucydides finds literary evidence as early as the fifth century pointing to the belief that “the blind man of Chios” in a portion of an ancient hymn to Apollo refers to Homer. One must also consider the seventh-century poet Semonides’ reference to Homer as “the man of Chios” and Ephorus’ belief that Homer lived in a small village called Bolissus (or Volissos) located on the island (Grant 139). Such a fact would also explain the location on Chios of the Homeridae, a group of poets who were “devoted to reciting his poetry” and “claimed to have originated from his descendants” (Grant 139).
Though it is reasonable to conclude from these references that Homer did most, if not all, of his writing from Chios, these facts do not make it necessary for us to conclude that this was also the writer’s birthplace. The contradictory claims of Homer’s hometown may indeed be rooted in a simple misunderstanding of one’s “hometown.” Consider, for example, a modern parallel known all-too-well by families serving in ministry or the military, the simple question: Where are you from? This could mean where you were born, where you were raised, where you entered into the service/ministry, where you currently vote, or the place of your most recent work.
With this thought in mind, Grant sets out to reconcile two traditional claims for Homer’s hometown: “despite the contradictory and fragmentary nature of our sources . . . it seems probable that, although he might have been born at Smyrna, he lived and worked in Chios” (Grant 139). So, though Homer was born in the Ionian town of Smyrna, he quite possibly participated in a two century-old immigration pattern from the mainland of Greece onto the island, and became more associated with his adopted home there (see Grant 140). What makes this conclusion even more interesting is the meaning of the writer’s name. Homer (Greek Homeros) literally means “hostage” and could refer to how the writer made that passage as well as his vocation upon his arrival. The poet may even have a cameo (or two, see below) in his work in the form of Odysseus’ swineherd, who was taken from his home at an early age and sold into slavery later in Ithaca (Od. XVII). Such a personal history also fits well with what we know of the eighth century BC (for which, see below).
More significant than this, however (and more readily conceded by most scholars), are the early influences that Homer likely employed to complete his works. Though the influence of specific works is still debated, there is general agreement that The Iliad and The Odyssey are the product of a long oral tradition, stemming primarily from the events of the historical Trojan War. As Grant explains:
During the intervening centuries, the bards who gave performances had been illiterate, but the vanished songs that they sang had been orally transmitted from one generation to another. They no doubt included numerous recurrent formulas which served as mnemonic guides and landmarks to help the impromptu singers; and such formulas . . . continued to abound in the Iliad and Odyssey. Indeed, their 28,000 lines include 25,000 of these repetitive formulaic units. (Grant 140)
As Bertonneau points out, however, it is also important to recognize the apparent chronological gap between the Trojan War itself and when they were recorded by Homer: “While Homer’s poems were, after centuries of oral transmission, written down, thereby becoming the foundation of Western literature, they depict bronze-age types, and indeed an entire ethos, which predate literacy and are defined by the hallmarks of an oral society” (Bertonneau 4). Our question then becomes, why did Greek epic wait until then to take the form of written poetry?
A number of factors may be cited here as contributing to what many scholars now regard as “the Greek Renaissance” that began in the ninth century BC (Cartledge 44). Around the turn of the century, “the Aegean Greek world experienced a general economic, social, and cultural renewal,” that consisted of more than mere trading contacts and increased prosperity, but also a revival in the written word (Cartledge 44). The most significant impetus for these changes was the steady and sustained contact between the Greeks and Eastern civilizations after the end of the Mycenaean Age. As a result of the Assyrian conquest of Syria and Phoenicia, the Phoenicians expanded westward throughout the Mediterranean, settling in places such as Cyprus and Crete (see Teodorsson 166).
Such increased contact led to two further developments in the Greek mind: a yearning for the glory of the ancient days (when the Mycenaeans bested the Easterners at Troy) and the simplicity and practicality of the Phoenician alphabet. So as the Greeks noticed “several [Eastern] resemblances to their own epics . . . their renewed feeling of national strength enhanced their self-assertion,” thus reviving interest in their ancient oral traditions (Teodorsson 174). Thus, while the Greeks shamelessly borrowed the Eastern alphabet, poetic techniques (such as the dactylic hexameter), and various mythological and religious expressions, they “reshaped the material according to the forms of their own culture;” a culture that in their eyes was uniquely Greek, rather than Eastern (Teodorsson 167).
Though the facts of this period are generally accepted, scholars are still divided as to the primary reason the Greeks adopted such an alphabet. The dominant view is that, “Euboean merchants carrying on commercial interchange with Phoenician colleagues in Cyprus” learned the Phoenician alphabet to facilitate their trade, and eventually “decided to use it for writing Greek,” and so the purpose of the Greek alphabet was “solely commercial” (Teodorsson 172).
Bertonneau, however, points to previous work by Powell and Wade-Gery, in an attempt to reverse the conventional understanding of literature’s relationship to the alphabet: Homer’s works were not successful because of the Greek alphabet, but instead, the alphabet was invented “to commit to a settled form . . . the Iliad and Odyssey” (Bertonneau 1). He points out that the vast majority of extant texts from the period are literary, rather than commercial, and that even today the Greeks are looked to not for their business sense, but for their literary and philosophical contributions to the humanities.
In his view, then, literacy has always been about literature, rather than the economic and religious purposes assumed by Greece’s neighbors in the Ancient Near East. More than likely, however, a balance of both descriptions is true: commercial contact led to linguistic imitation, which led to applications wider than mere commercial purposes (including literary, philosophical and religious ends), purposes which soon became primary.
One final question remains concerning the dating of The Odyssey: whether Homer himself wrote the text, or whether he did so with the aid of a personal scribe (an amanuensis). The significance of this question is usually viewed as twofold: first, in relation to the dating of the text and the origin of the Greek alphabet; and second, in relation to the traditional belief that Homer himself was blind. Concerning the first point, as demonstrated above, the mid-eighth century BC provides the perfect context for the ascension of the alphabet and the writing of The Odyssey, and therefore makes Homer’s use of the new alphabet at least plausible.
The answer to our question, then, relies primarily on our views concerning Homer’s sight (or lack thereof). Though in modern times sight alone does not imply the ability to read and write, in the ancient world blindness almost always meant that one could do neither of the other two. As you may recall, “the Pythian (Delphic) section of the Hymn to Apollo . . . speaks of him as a supreme poet who ‘dwelt in rocky Chios’ and was blind” (Grant 140). There is also a second candidate for a literary cameo as Demodocus, a blind bard in The Odyssey VIII.
Many have challenged this as an unfounded assumption. Indeed, tradition holds that many ancient prophets, poets and singers were blind and many modern scholars attribute the claim that Homer shared this disability as merely a misappropriation of a common trend. But since the historical record here is ambiguous, and since appeals to a lack of material evidence have thus far proven unfruitful, it is best to accept the traditional view of Homer as blind, at least at some point in his life. As Lord, then, argues:
In my own mind there remains no doubt that Homer dictated the Iliad [and The Odyssey] to someone else who wrote them down, because the Homeric poems have all the earmarks of dictated texts of oral epic songs. They are not the improvised texts of normal oral performance; without recording apparatus it is impossible to obtain such texts. (Teodorsson 165)
Though this remains the most plausible explanation, it remains possible that Homer himself acquired the ability to write and did not lose his sight until later in life, allowing him to first dictate his work, then rework it himself into the form in which we read it today. In either case, Homer was a visionary who saw that the “future” of the great epics was in the written word and not in the power of any single man’s memory.
The Iliad and The Odyssey remain two of the most important literary works of all time, especially in the West. On one level, the questions addressed above may seem to undermine the truth, beauty and timelessness of the poet’s work. On another, though, by better understanding both Homer and the context in which he worked, we are better equipped to see the true genius of his epics. For this reason, we have surveyed the historical and literary evidence concerning Homer’s life and times, and the significant role Phoenician displacement had on both Homer’s personal story and the form his language and works ultimately assumed. In the end, we have confirmed our wonder and admiration of the blind bard of Chios, and strengthened our resolve as we fight our generation’s battles and take the long road home.