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Homer: an Ancient Mystery

As the first entry in the 'Who's Who?' section of the blog, we must start with 'Homer'. But who was he?

This might seem like an odd question. Surely the answer is, ‘the poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey’? Quite possibly. However, the history of Homer is not quite so straightforward. Poems that were once attributed to Homer, we now know were not by Homer, the collection of works known as the Epic Cycle, for example, and also the Homeric Hymns.

One issue has always been, who wrote the poems down? They were orally composed, as shown by the frequent recurrence of epithets (‘swift-footed Achilles’ – Iliad; ‘wily, full of cunning Odysseus – Odyssey) and even entire passages. The offer Agamemnon makes in book 9 of the Iliad to try and placate Achilles, is repeated almost verbatim by Odysseus when he, Ajax, and Phoenix visit Achilles in a bid to bring him back to battle. There was a tradition that Homer was blind, so that he was unlikely to have written it down in the form as we have it. Another argument against ‘Homer’ writing it down was posed by the work of Milman Parry. Working with poets who composed their works orally, He suggested that the two great Homeric poems had been composed in this fashion. When some of these poets were taught to write, they could apparently no longer create the oral compositions they had once done. So, it seemed unlikely that Homer could both create these huge oral compositions and write them down.

Was he just a genius? A lovely romantic view, of this exquisitely talented poet standing at the dawn of western literature. Sadly, unlikely.

There had been doubt before then about whether the two poems were written by the same person. Several differences were discerned between the poems. Cultural references suggested they may have belonged to different historical periods, for example. The gods behave differently – Athena of the Iliad, as Jasper Griffin once put it in a lecture, ‘won’t shut up for anyone’. In the Odyssey, she is more respectful of gods who are her elders such as Poseidon. This is not, however, a very strong argument. Her different portrayal may simply have fitted the poem’s different outlook and the poet’s different purpose. The Odysseus of Sophocles’ Philoctetes is far more unpleasant than the reflective and merciful Odysseus of the Ajax.

Nevertheless, ‘who was Homer?’, is clearly not an easily answered question. Was he even real? Were the poems even written by one person, or performed by a series of singers who each composed different parts, compiled into one. Did this compiling even happen in a single instance? Certainly, the unity and ring composition of the Iliad suggests the work of one person at some point. But was this a poet, or a compiler who brought the various pieces together and strung them together with modifications. No idea, and sadly these questions are probably unanswerable.

But, I am not going to leave you in Platonic state of aporia. We do still have two extremely fine pieces of poetry that still speak to us across centuries, nay, millennia and which still inspire modern film, drama, and other cultural areas. Moreover, the themes remain as ‘human’ as they ever were: quarrels between rivals, war and its horrors, grief, loss, family, shame, revenge, love, resentment, fear, cultural differences, mercy, pity…some things never change (okay, we don’t have gods rocking up in disguise and or deflecting well-flung spears). It is in this incredible and emotional universality of the poems that, for me, their genius in part lies.

For more about the different poems of the Epic Cycle and other so-called Homeric poems see: (retrieved 07/08/2021).

Also check out the Brtitish Museum blog entry, 'Who was Homer?' written by historian Daisy Dunn: (retrieved 07/08/2021).


Graziosi, B., (2019) A Very Short Introduction: Homer (OUP)

Griffin, J. G., (2001) Homer (Bloomsbury)

And, if you like Audiobooks, there is abeautiful Audiobook of Ian McKellan reading the Odyssey. (translated by Robert Fagles). (retrieved 07/08/2021).

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