the greek hero odysseus spent 10 long years fighting his way home after the trojan war. The stories of how he tricked the one-eyed Cyclops, evaded the carnivorous Laestrygonians, and resisted the lure of the sirens while fighting his way to Ithaca are some of the most memorable from Homer’s Odyssey. these stories may be fictional, but they form the heart of a poem that has resonated through the centuries as a vessel of timeless truths.
For centuries, people have been trying to figure out who was behind the timeless stories of the Odyssey and its predecessor, the Iliad. Homer, the name associated with the two poems, remains a mysterious figure. was he a man? Was ‘homer’ a group or lineage of poets? Homer was a woman? The late-nineteenth-century novelist Samuel Butler was convinced that the author of The Odyssey, at least, was a woman. for most people in antiquity, however, the two epics were the product of a single male mind.
in the 2nd century AD, a satirist named Lucian imagined meeting the poet and questioning him about who he really was. ‘homer’ revealed to him that many people believed he came from the aegean island of chios, or from smyrna or colophon, on the west coast of what is now turkey. while his words were to be taken lightly, scholars today consider it highly likely that the Homeric poems originated from these places. Their Greek, though never spoken, is generally more typical of the ancient dialects of Turkey’s west coast and offshore islands than of those of mainland Greece.
Homer was associated with this part of the world from a very early date. Several writers described a gifted poet from Chios, where a group of bards calling themselves “Homeridae” or “sons of Homer” had also settled in the sixth century BC. There are also references in early sources that Homer was conceived on the island of Ios or Cyme and was born in Smyrna (present-day Izmir).
Ancient writers had various ideas about what Homer looked like. the word ‘homeros’ could mean ‘hostage’ in Greek, so some imagined that it was a captive. but ‘homeros’ could also mean ‘blind’, and the image of a blind bard proved particularly compelling. One of the reasons for this was that the Odyssey features a blind but immensely talented poet named Demodocus who recites his work before a royal court.
It is possible that Homer’s blindness was a myth invented to explain the fact that the Homeric poems originally evolved orally, before the development of writing in Greece, by being interpreted and transmitted from bard to bard. Like the blind poet Demodocus in The Odyssey, a bard would have sung the poems before an audience, repeating passages and set phrases, such as ‘odyssey odyssey’, to suit the poetic meter.
The Iliad and Odyssey are conventionally dated to the late 8th or early 7th century BCE. At that time, the use of writing was becoming more widespread in Greece and it seems that poems were also written down for the first time. but it is clear that the poems contain features preserved from the era before writing.
the story of the origins of the trojan war, for example, in which homer alludes only briefly to paris, prince of troy, to aphrodite, goddess of love, the golden apple. it is taken for granted that anyone coming close to the poems would already have known the details. the story of the judgment of paris, in other words, is at least contemporary, if not older, than the poems themselves.
Poems can also hold memories of an earlier, heroic era. the men of this time are presented as much stronger and more powerful than those who came after them. many scholars today believe that if anything resembling the trojan war ever happened, the most likely historical background for the heroic age of the epics is the late bronze age, some 400 years before they were first written. the iliad and the odyssey still today the monumental architecture of the city of troy speaks of the highly developed civilization that flourished in this period in anatolia. finds its counterpart in the great palaces that the Mycenaean Greeks built in the Peloponnese in the period between 1600 and 1200 BC. the precise reasons why their civilization collapsed in the twelfth century B.C. c. are still the subject of academic debate.
The poems contain descriptions that evoke this glorious lost era. but they also contain details that derive from later times. there is a reference to building temples to the gods, for example, but the earliest known Greek temples to the gods were built in the 8th century BC. it is partly accidental that the Homeric epics are such a chronological jumble – they preserve real memories and traces and phrases of the ancient past – and partly intentional. the war is set in the ancient past, so words and objects were chosen to characterize this earlier time.
so where could homer fit into this? following the theory that there was a homer, perhaps a poet who was born in smyrna and worked in chios, was he the original storyteller who devised the plots of the epics, influenced perhaps by a conflict just north of where he came from? , in trojan?
or was homer at the other end of the process? having been passed down orally from generation to generation, the poems must have been refined when they were first written. so should we think of homer as some kind of editor, who turned legacy material into complete poems?
or is ‘homer’ more of a spirit than anything else, just a name for a couple of remarkable poems that evolved and grew over hundreds of years and can be attributed to no one in particular ?
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on this. mine is that it is not inconceivable that there was an original bard who came from the part of the world we now know formed the setting for the poems. he perhaps composed the epics in broad outline, on the basis of stories handed down by his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, which later poets developed and perpetuated orally. finally these poems were written.
It is up to each of us to decide whether to believe in one homer or many, in a blind bard or in a spirit that encapsulates the most amazing process of preserving stories told long ago. the important thing is that we have the poems and continue to recognize their value. It is heartening to think that we can find as much joy in Homer’s poetry today as our ancestors did 3,000 years ago.
Daisy Dunn is the author of Homer: An Expert Book on Ladybugs (Penguin Random House) and Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome (Head of Zeus).
the exhibition bp troy: myth and reality was open from november 21, 2019 to march 8, 2020.
Buy the book that accompanies the exhibition.