Homer (Ancient Greek: Ὅμηρος, Hómēros) in classical tradition is the ancient Greek epic poet, author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns and other works. Homer's epics stand at the beginning of the western canon of literature, exerting enormous influence on the history of fiction and literature in general.
The date of Homer's existence was controversial in antiquity and is no less so today. Herodotus estimates that Homer lived 400 years before Herodotus' own time, which would place him at around 850 BC; but other ancient sources gave dates much closer to the supposed time of the Trojan War, perhaps from 1194 to 1184 BC.
For modern scholarship, "the date of Homer" refers to the date of the poems' conception as much as to the lifetime of an individual. The scholarly consensus is that "the Iliad and the Odyssey date from the extreme end of the 9th century BC or from the 8th, the Iliad being anterior to the Odyssey, perhaps by some decades," i.e. somewhat earlier than Hesiod, and that the Iliad is the oldest work of Western literature. Over the past few decades, some scholars have argued for a 7th-century date. Those who believe that the Homeric poems developed gradually over a long period of time, however, generally give a later date for the poems: according to Gregory Nagy, they became fixed texts in only the 6th century. The question of the historicity of Homer himself is known as the "Homeric question": no reliable biographical information has been handed down from classical antiquity, and the poems themselves seem to represent the culmination of many centuries of oral story-telling and a well-developed formulaic system of poetic composition. According to Martin West, "Homer" is "not the name of a historical poet, but a fictitious or constructed name."
Alfred Heubeck states that the formative influence of the works of Homer in shaping and influencing the whole development of Greek culture was recognized by many Greeks, who considered him to be their instructor.
Life and legends
Although "Homer" is a Greek name, attested in Aeolic-speaking areas, nothing definite is known of him; yet rich traditions grew up, or were conserved, purporting to give details of his birthplace and background. Many of them were purely fantastical: the satirist Lucian, in his fabulous True History, makes him out to be a Babylonian called Tigranes, who assumed the name Homer only when taken "hostage" (homeros) by the Greeks. When the Emperor Hadrian asked the Oracle at Delphi who Homer really was, the Pythia proclaimed that he was Ithacan, the son of Epikaste and Telemachus, from the Odyssey. These stories proliferated and were incorporated into a number of Lives of Homer compiled from the Alexandrian period onwards. The most common version has Homer born in the Ionian region of Asia Minor, at Smyrna, or on the island of Chios, and dying on the Cycladic island of Ios. A connection with Smyrna seems to be alluded to in a legend that his original name was Melesigenes ("born of Meles", a river which flowed by that city), and of the nymph Kretheis. Internal evidence from the poems gives some support to this connection: familiarity with the topography of this area of Asia Minor's littoral obtrudes in place-names and details, and similes evocative of local scenery: the meadow birds at the mouth of the Caystros (Iliad 2.459ff.), a storm in the Icarian sea (Iliad 2.144ff.), and wind-lore (Iliad 2.394ff: 4.422ff: 9.5), or that women of either Maeonia or Caria stain ivory with scarlet (Iliad 4.142).
The association with Chios dates back at least to Semonides of Amorgos, who cited a famous line in the Iliad (6.146) as by "the man of Chios". Some kind of eponymous bardic guild, known as the Homeridae (sons of Homer), or Homeristae ('Homerizers') appears to have existed there, variously tracing descent from an imaginary ancestor of that name, or vaunting their special function as rhapsodes or "lay-stitchers" specialising in the recitation of Homeric poetry. Archeaeologists such as Wilhelm Dörpfeld in his works, suggested that Homer had visited many of those places and regions that he accurately described in his epics, such as Mycenae, Troy, the palace of Odysseus at Ithaca and more. According to Diodorus Siculus, Homer had even visited Egypt.
The poet's name is homophonous with ὅμηρος (hómēros), meaning, generally, "hostage" (or "surety"), long understood as "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow", or, in some dialects, "blind". The assonance itself generated many tales relating the person to the functions of a hostage or of a blind man. In regard to the latter, traditions holding that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word both in Ionic, where the verbal form ὁμηρεύω (homēreúō) has the specialized meaning of "guide the blind", and in the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where ὅμηρος (hómēros) was synonymous with standard Greek τυφλός (typhlós), meaning 'blind'. The characterization of Homer as a blind bard goes back to some verses in the Delian Hymn to Apollo, the third of the Homeric Hymns, verses later cited to support this notion by Thucydides. The Cumean historian Ephorus held the same view, and the idea gained support in antiquity on the strength of a false etymology deriving his name from ho mḕ horṓn (ὁ μὴ ὁρῶν: "he who does not see"). Critics have long taken as self-referential a passage in the Odyssey describing a blind bard, Demodocus, in the court of the Phaeacian king, who recounts stories of Troy to the shipwrecked Odysseus.
Many scholars take the name of the poet to be indicative of a generic function. Gregory Nagy takes it to mean "he who fits (the Song) together". ὁμηρέω (homēréō), another related verb, besides signifying "meet", can mean "(sing) in accord/tune". Some argue that "Homer" may have meant "he who puts the voice in tune" with dancing. Marcello Durante links "Homeros" to an epithet of Zeus as "god of the assemblies" and argues that behind the name lies the echo of an archaic word for "reunion", similar to the later Panegyris, denoting a formal assembly of competing minstrels.
The Ancient Lives depict Homer as a wandering minstrel, much like Thamyris or Hesiod, who walked as far as Chalkis to sing at the funeral games of Amphidamas. We are given the image of a "blind, begging singer who hangs around with little people: shoemakers, fisherman, potters, sailors, elderly men in the gathering places of harbour towns". The poems themselves give evidence of singers at the courts of the nobility. Scholars are divided as to which category, if any, the court singer or the wandering minstrel, the historic "Homer" belonged.
The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik in the late 19th century provided initial evidence to scholars that there was a historical basis for the Trojan War. Research into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages, pioneered by the aforementioned Parry and Lord, began convincing scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until they are written down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris (and others) convinced many of a linguistic continuity between 13th century BC Mycenaean writings and the poems attributed to Homer.
It is probable, therefore, that the story of the Trojan War as reflected in the Homeric poems derives from a tradition of epic poetry founded on a war which actually took place. It is crucial, however, not to underestimate the creative and transforming power of subsequent tradition: for instance, Achilles, the most important character of the Iliad, is strongly associated with southern Thessaly, but his legendary figure is interwoven into a tale of war whose kings were from the Peloponnese. Tribal wanderings were frequent, and far-flung, ranging over much of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The epic weaves brilliantly the disiecta membra (scattered remains) of these distinct tribal narratives, exchanged among clan bards, into a monumental tale in which Greeks join collectively to do battle on the distant plains of Troy.
In the Hellenistic period, Homer was the subject of a hero cult in several cities. A shrine, the Homereion, was devoted to him in Alexandria by Ptolemy IV Philopator in the late 3rd century BC. This shrine is described in Aelian's 3rd century work Varia Historia. He tells how Ptolemy "placed in a circle around the statue [of Homer] all the cities who laid claim to Homer" and mentions a painting of the poet by the artist Galaton, which apparently depicted Homer in the aspect of Oceanus as the source of all poetry.
A marble relief, found in Italy but thought to have been sculpted in Egypt, depicts the apotheosis of Homer. It shows Ptolemy and his wife or sister Arsinoe III standing beside a seated poet, flanked by figures from the Odyssey and Iliad, with the nine Muses standing above them and a procession of worshippers approaching an altar, believed to represent the Alexandrine Homereion. Apollo, the god of music and poetry, also appears, along with a female figure tentatively identified as Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses. Zeus, the king of the gods, presides over the proceedings. The relief demonstrates vividly that the Greeks considered Homer not merely a great poet but the divinely inspired reservoir of all literature.
Homereia also stood at Chios, Ephesus, and Smyrna, which were among the city-states that claimed to be his birthplace. Strabo (14.1.37) records a Homeric temple in Smyrna with an ancient xoanon or cult statue of the poet. He also mentions sacrifices carried out to Homer by the inhabitants of Argos, presumably at another Homereion.
Transmission and publication
Though evincing many features characteristic of oral poetry, the Iliad and Odyssey were at some point committed to writing. The Greek script, adapted from a Phoenician syllabary around 800 BCE, made possible the notation of the complex rhythms and vowel clusters that make up hexameter verse. Homer's poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the alphabet's invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BCE, appears to refer to a text of the Iliad; likewise, illustrations seemingly inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey are found on Samos, Mykonos and in Italy dating from the first quarter of the seventh century BCE. We have little information about the early condition of the Homeric poems, but in the second century BCE, Alexandrian editors stabilized this text from which all modern texts descend.
In late antiquity, knowledge of Greek declined in Latin-speaking western Europe and, along with it, knowledge of Homer's poems. It was not until the fifteenth century AD that Homer's work began to be read once more in Italy. By contrast it was continually read and taught in the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire where the majority of the classics also survived. The first printed edition appeared in 1488.