Most of us can resign ourselves fairly easily to the idea of not knowing exactly who wrote Beowulf, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. The occasional scholar might spend his wish on meeting one of those ancient storytellers, if presented with that chance to go back in time and speak to any one person in history; but the civilian population is having no difficulty in sleeping soundly nights in blissful ignorance. It would be nice if we knew, but we don't, so we don't. The stories, the words, the culture that produced and nurtured the tales -- those are the important things.
But the question of who, exactly, was Homer is a nagging one for the simple reason that, having been presented with the name of an author, we feel a right to know something about the man behind the name. We feel cheated at knowing no more than two syllables about the creator of hundreds of pages of poetry -- poetry that can draw the coolest, most skeptical reader back in time, by virtue of a writing that feels startlingly modern, in spite of its obvious antiquity. No one feels that they have stepped into Beowulf's relentlessly manly boots on reading the poem bearing his name; no one feels he has breathed Babylonian air after watching Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestling. But Hector taking off his war helmet so as not to frighten his infant son is the sort of deeply human moment that any living writer would cheerfully sell her soul to match. To the ancient Greeks, having one's praises sung after death was the only true immortality a man could create for himself. Homer's work earned him a place in the ranks of the deathless. And so it's one of life's little ironies that the identity of the man whose writing sings so flawlessly has completely disappeared, leaving only a two-syllable shadow in its stead.
For the little conclusive information I've been able to gather about the authorship of Homer's work, as well as the summing up of speculation, I'm indebted to the writing of three extraordinary scholars: Barry Powell, author of Homer (one volume in the series of Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World); A.T. Murray, who translated and wrote a brief introduction to the Loeb Classical Library edition of The Odyssey; and the ever-reliably brilliant and accessible Bernard Knox, whose introduction to Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey is essential reading for anyone wishing to learn more about Homer, his time, and his poetry.
In seeking the identity of Homer, as much care should be given to who he wasn't as to who he was. For instance, the traditional idea of Homer is a blind and wandering bard, a singer of epic poetry. This is good to know for the sake of cultural literacy, but shouldn't be mistaken for historical accuracy. There is no reason to believe that Homer was blind, and good reasons to believe he wasn't. And there is much to be quarreled with in the idea of his being an oral performer rather than a brilliant employer of that then-new invention, Greek in written form.
Similar traditions state that Homer was born in either Chios or Smyrna, two ancient Greek city-states. We have references to Homer dating from as early as 660 B.C.E.; by the time of the great Classical Greek period, the fifth century B.C.E., his work was known, admired, and quoted by scholars and citizens alike. Perhaps the closest we can come to a comparison is the work of Jane Austen in America: academics turn out tomes about her novels, but she is also simply read and loved by ordinary folk, and serves as an inspiration for other writers. Homer influenced playwrights, Austen script writers. If her words aren't as widely quoted as Homer's were, it is only because even educated Americans don't do the sort of memorizing of beloved texts that ancient Greeks did.
As long ago as Josephus (Jewish general and historian, first century C.E.), the idea of Homer the chanting bard as separate from the writing credited to his name has been argued. Much later, the nineteenth-century German scholar Friedrich A. Wolf insisted that internal evidence in the poems themselves pointed to the idea of Homer living and working in a pre-literate Greece several centuries before classical Greek giants were committing their words to writing and a century and a half before the Greek alphabet was invented, around 800 B.C.E. In other words, his poems were handed down literally by word of mouth until the time came when they could be more lastingly recorded and preserved for posterity.
The early twentieth-century American scholar Milman Parry reinforced this idea of Homer as singer rather than writer. He compared this bardic Homer to the Balkan guslari -- illiterate singers of long poetic songs they patiently committed to memory.
The trouble with this theory is that a guslar wouldn't memorize a work like Homer's if presented with it. He would tell a story of Odysseus' journey home, but he wouldn't tell the story of it. Word-for-word memorization simply wasn't the point; the idea was to bring across to his listeners, as strongly as possible, the passion and power of the events of the tale. He wouldn't apply Homer's care to meter; the "lines" of the song (a difficult term to apply to a work that lives entirely in the air) would never have anything like the faithful Homeric ten syllables each, because such a notion would be a non-issue for these bards.
I'm glossing over a great deal of intricate linguistic and historical explanation in an attempt to be succinct. I would like at this point to interject my own arguments with the theories of Wolf and Parry. Wolf claims that there was no writing in the poetry of Homer; therefore writing did not exist for Homer. (He argues down the one incident of writing that does occur in The Odyssey in a manner too convoluted for me to do it justice here.) But Homer was supposedly telling a story of long ago -- long ago even to him. If he lived in a time when writing had only recently been invented, why wouldn't he simply leave it out of the story? It would have been as anachronistic for one character in The Iliad or The Odyssey to scribble a note to another as it would be for the heroine of a romance novel written today but set in the Victorian or Regency era to send an agitated e-mail to a friend.
And as for Homer being some savant who could remember hundreds of pages of poetry word for word -- Bernard Knox says it best: "Why should an oral, illiterate poet, whose poetry exists only in its performance before an audience, create a poem so long that it would take several days to perform? For that matter, if his poetry existed only in performance, how could he create a poem of such length?" Such a beautiful point hardly needs elaboration, but I'd just like to add that I think the idea of the illiterate peasant as a sort of brilliant noble savage who carries around whole tomes of poetry in his uncorrupted mind is too appealing to be believable. Of course the guslari existed; but as Barry Powell points out, "the average length of an oral song, according to Parry's studies and modern field studies, runs to about 800 lines, roughly the length of a single book of the Iliad." And bear in mind that no listener to these songs would mind or notice when the guslar shifted or switched words or whole lines at his own discretion.
The evidence and arguments seem to point to one conclusion: Homer was a poet who lived and worked when written Greek was new enough to be a fascinating novelty. He was a writer, not -- or at least not merely -- a wandering minstrel. The length of his works seems to support this, as Powell points out; writing down a poem of this length with the tools available at the time is the sort of "insane ambition as sometimes happens at the beginning of a new technology." It would be expensive, difficult, and magnificent. An ancient Greek with an eye to giving posterity something to sing about him would leap at the chance to undertake such a project. Apparently one did.
Hesiod is another extremely early Greek poet, possibly even a contemporary of Homer. His Theogony is a beautiful collection of Greek mythology; Works and Days is a strange and touching telling of the life of a man struggling to make a go of working the stubborn, stony Greek soil. These works are available together in inexpensive paperback editions.
Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece is a wonderful collection of early Greek poetry. It includes such gems as this one by Archilocus, who lived perhaps a hundred years after Homer:
The fox knows many things;
the hedgehog, one big thing.
Sappho is another early poet. We have exactly one complete poem by her; all the rest are fragments. Anne Carson's incredible If Not, Winter give the original Greek, the fragments in translation, and ample footnotes to explain each piece. Less accurate but more enjoyable as a poetic read is Mary Barnard's translation of Sappho's work.
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