Towering over all Greek culture past and present are two ancient epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), the great Greek demotic writer, wrote a sequel to The Odyssey (it was not well received). Constatine Cavafy (1863-1933), the great Greek poet, wrote numerous poems with allusions to events and personages; perhaps his best known poem is “Ithaca”, a meditation on journeys and arriving at one’s destination.
The Iliad tells the story of a few weeks towards the end of a long, ten year war between the Greeks and the city-state of Troy. It features Achilles and Paris, Agamemnon and Odysseus, and Menelaus and Helen. The Greek gods are very active, above all Athena, but also Zeus and Poseidon, and Aphrodite and Hermes. The Odyssey is its sequel, telling the story of how Odysseus spent ten long years trying to get home to Ithaca.
Arguably the two poems stand over all “Western” culture, too. Following the Renaissance the ancient classics of Greece and Rome were rediscovered, and these epics in the original archaic Greek were the focus of education for several centuries. It inspired paintings and sculptures. In the First Century CE Virgil could do no better than to emulate it in his Aeneid, which told of how Aeneas of Troy escaped from the ruins of Troy to found a new city in Italy, whose descendants would one day found Rome. The great Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941) spent the Great War writing Ulysses (1922) which at first glance told the story of one day in the life of two drunken men in Dublin, but in fact paralleled The Odyssey. The Coen Brothers Oscar-winning movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was loosely based on The Odyssey. The movie Troy (2004) retold the story of The Iliad as an action movie, and it featured Brad Pitt, but was not as well received as the Coen Brothers’ movie, especially as it did not have any of the deities of Olympus showing up. Oh, and at least twenty-six places in the USA are named Troy.
Each of the epics is massive. The Iliad has 15,693 lines of non-rhyming dactylic hexameter, and The Odyssey has 12,110. In Emily Wilson’s recent brilliant English translation of The Odyssey (2018) the epic takes up 421 pages. The sheer size of it is, well, epic!
So who wrote these great and influential works? The tradition, which was believed as solid history up until the 19th century, was that they were written by a blind man named Homer, who may have come from Smyrna on the west coast of Anatolia but became known as a great poet on the Aegean island of Chios. Several lives were written in antiquity, but they contradicted each other.
“The Homeric Question” (which was really a whole series of questions relating to the author) emerged in the 19th century as German classicists began to apply historico-literary techniques to the texts (just as they were being applied to the texts of the Bible). It was noted that the texts had several dialects of archaic classical Greek, and occasionally seemed to contradict itself; could they be, in fact, composite works by different authors? Examination of other ancient authors seemed to suggest that there were variations in the manuscript that were not just scribal errors – so what was the history of the text, and was it “tidied up” at some point? Given the tradition that Homer was blind, was it in fact recited to an amanuensis, as Milton’s Paradise Lost was, or did it have a free-standing existence as an oral epic for a time before being put down on paper? Which of the two epics was written first? How does someone compose a work like The Iliad if you are blind? If it did have an oral existence prior to it being written down, how the heck do you remember something that long? How was it performed – was it spoken, read, or sung? Was writing in fact in existence when Homer supposedly lived (850 BCE, according to Herodotus)? Was there anything of historical value in the two epics? And, finally, was there ever actually someone named Homer?
I’ll look at these issues in the next post, and explain how it came to be that a revolution in the study of the Homeric epics took place in the middle of the 20th century – a revolution that has now created a new consensus and refashioned the Homeric Question.