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published: 1/20/05
updated: 12/19/13

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Homer




Who is Homer?

Homer is a legendary ancient Greek poet credited with authorship of the major Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey, the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia ("The Frog-Mouse War"), the corpus of Homeric Hymns, and various other lost or fragmentary works such as Margites. A few ancient authors credited him with the entire Epic Cycle, which included further poems on the Trojan War as well as the Theban poems about Oedipus and his sons.

Tradition held that Homer was blind, and various Ionian cities are claimed to be his birthplace, but otherwise his biography is completely unknown. It is also possible he did not exist at all, and that the Homeric epics were the product of many authors. It has repeatedly been questioned whether the same poet was responsible for both the Iliad and the Odyssey; the "Batrachomyomachia", Homeric hymns and cyclic poems are generally agreed to be later than these two epic poems.





It is generally agreed among scholars that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardization and refinement out of older material beginning in the 8th century BC. An important role in this standardization appears to have been played by the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival. Many classicists hold that this reform must have involved the production of a canonical written text.

Exactly when these oral poems would have taken on a fixed written form is subject to debate. The traditional solution is the "transcription hypothesis", wherein a non-literate "Homer" dictates his poem to a literate scribe in the 6th century BC or earlier. More radical Homerists, such as Gregory Nagy, contend that a canonical text of the Homeric poems as "scripture" did not exist until the Hellenistic period.

Other scholars, however, maintain their belief in the reality of an actual Homer. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that a common joke has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name," and the classical scholar Richmond Lattimore, author of a good poetic translation to English of both epics, once wrote a paper entitled "Homer: Who Was She?". Samuel Butler was more specific, theorizing a young Sicilian woman as author of the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further speculated on by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter.

In Greek his name is "Homēros" which is Greek for "hostage." There is a theory that his name was back-extracted from the name of a society of poets called the Homēridai, which literally means "sons of hostages", i.e. descendants of prisoners of war. As these men were not sent to war because their loyalty on the battlefield was suspect, they would not get killed in battles. Thus they were entrusted with remembering the area's stock of epic poetry, to remember past events, in the times before literacy came to the area.




References

  1. "Homer." Wikipedia, used under GDFL