September 28 th , 2011
No evidence for the life of Homer outside the Iliad and
Real or fictional? One person or several (i.e.
Believed to be from Asia Minor and fl. Ca. 750 BCE
(based mainly on linguistic evidence)
A Transitional Age
Iliad and Odyssey reflect the social identity and social
values of his audience.
Homer did not invent the story of the Iliad and the
Simply recorded a very old oral tradition
Homeric narrative contains tales of other epic tales
relating to a yet earlier mythic past.
Homer selected from these narratives and chose to
narrate the Trojan saga and the return of
Great caution must be exercised.
Mycenaean society collapsed between 1200-1000 BCE – writing was lost
The art of writing relearned ca. 800 BCE
Iliad and Odyssey written between 800 and 700 BCE (cf. Nestor’s Cup)
Frequent references to circumstances more appropriate to the Bronze
Age than to Homer’s day (i.e. Many of the important Greek cites (i.e.
Mycenae) were unimportant in Homer’s day – Many important sites are
in Homer’s day are insignificant; Heroes use bronze weapons and
armor; Use of chariots in battle; Open order combat/single combat;
Helmets of boar’s tusk (cf. Iliad 10. 305-8))
Possible that the Odyssey and Iliad contains elements of late Bronze
Poem transmitted orally (i.e. Milman Parry, 1902-1935) – performed by
rhapsodes at symposia
Evidence of orality: 1.Dactylic Hexameter, 2.Repetition (Mnemonic
device), 3.Fixed Epithets (i.e. The Swift Runner Achilles; the lord of
men Agamemnon; the tactician Odysseus etc.)
How did the story change over time before it was committed to writing?
Variant written versions until ca. 3rd century BCE
Evidence of interpolation of Archaic world (i.e. references to the use of
iron; use of round shields)
Reference to cities (cf. “The Shield of Achilles” in Iliad 18.571 – “And he
forged on the shield two noble cities filled with mortal men.”)
Use Homer as a reflection of his own time.
The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer are “epic” poetry.
Epic has several principal characteristics.
Generally in “dactylic hexameter” – the meter of epic poetry.
Narrates great deeds of gods, heroes, and great men.
Homer credited with the invention of Greek epic - Note: Standard themes of
Greek epic already present in Near Eastern epic (i.e. Epic of Gilgamesh).
Regarded in Greece as highest form of poetry.
Homer believed by many ancient Greeks to have achieved literary perfection.
All sought to imitate Homer.
Homeric epics = the standard by which all other literature was evaluated.
Homer = literary “gold-standard.
Iliad and Odyssey objects of study and discussion from their inception.
Homeric scholarship = integral part of intellectual life (esp. in the Hellenistic Perdiod – 323 BCE – 30
Roman national epic, Virgil’s Aeneid, rooted in the work of Homer.
Homer said to be an authority on religion & myth, geography, natural philosophy, ethics, politics,
warfare etc. (i.e. all paths to knowledge start with Homer).
Scenes from Homer’s epics ubiquitous in Greek art from an early date.
Aristocratic clans tried to trace lineage to Homeric characters (cf. esp. Iliad, Book 2 – Catalogue of
Ships; the wanderings of Odysseus).
Warrior elite of Greece attempted to imitate personal qualities of Homeric heroes.
Values of the Homeric hero coextensive with those of Greek aristocrats.
Many of the standard literary techniques and poetic devices of Western literature originate with
Tragedy frequently adopts Homeric themes – Expands on
events before, after, or during the Homeric epics
Aeschylus, Oresteia (458 BCE): Train of events set in
motion by Agamemnon’s return from Troy
Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis (ca. 406 BCE): Actions of
Homeric dramatis personae before the expedition to Troy
53. but whence the several gods had their birth, or
whether they all were from the beginning, and of what
form they are, they did not learn till yesterday, as it
were, or the day before: for Hesiod and Homer I
suppose were four hundred years before my time and
not more, and these are they who made a theogony for
the Hellenes and gave the titles to the gods and
distributed to them honours and arts, and set forth
their forms: but the poets who are said to have been
before these men were really in my opinion after them.
Of these things the first are said by the priestesses of
Dodona, and the latter things, those namely which
have regard to Hesiod and Homer, by myself.
(Herodotus, Histories. 2.53, Trans. G.C. Macaulay,
“Now the desire to "invest" Homer with all knowledge might be
regarded as characteristic of a man whose zeal exceeds the
proper limit, just as would be the case if a man — to use a
comparison of Hipparchus — should hang apples and pears, or
anything else that it cannot bear, on an Attic "eiresione"; so
absurd it would be to "invest" Homer with all knowledge and
with every art. You may be right, Eratosthenes, on that point, but
you are wrong when you deny to Homer the possession of vast
learning, and go on to declare that poetry is a fable-prating old
wife, who has been permitted to "invent" (as you call it) whatever
she deems suitable for purposes of entertainment. What, then?
Is no contribution made, either, to the excellence of him who
hears the poets recited? I again refer to the poet's being an expert
in geography, or generalship, or agriculture, or rhetoric, the
subjects in which the poet naturally "invests" the hearer with
special knowledge.” (Strabo, Geography 1.2.3, Trans. H.L. Jones,
“He was naturally a great lover of all kinds of
learning and reading; and Onesicritus
informs us that he constantly laid Homer's
Iliad, according to the copy corrected by
Aristotle, called the casket copy, with his
dagger under his pillow, declaring that he
esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all
military virtue and knowledge.” (Plutarch,
Alexander. Trans. J. Dryden)
“Once he arrived in Asia, he went up to Troy,
sacrificed to Athena and poured libations to the
heroes of the Greek army. He anointed with oil the
column which marks the grave of Achilles, ran a
race by it naked with his companions, as the
custom is, and then crowned it with a wreath: he
also remarked that Achilles was happy in having
found a faithful friend while he lived and a great
poet to sing of his deeds after his death.” (Plutarch, Life
of Alexander, 15. Trans. I. Scott-Kilvert, 1973)
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922) consciously modeled on
Margaret Atwood, Penelopiad – Retelling of the
Odyssey through the eyes of Odysseus’ wife Penelope
Film: Troy = Iliad; Oh Brother Where Art Thou =
“Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless
losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many
sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their
bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the
will of Zeus was moving toward its end.” (Homer, Iliad.
R. Fagles, 1990)
The argument between Achilles and Agamemnon.
The death of Patroclus.
The choice of Achilles.
The death of Hector.
“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was
driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred
citadel. Many were they whose cities he saw, whose
minds he learned of, many the pains he suffered in his
spirit on the wide sea, struggling for his own life and
the homecoming of his companions.” (Homer,
Odyssey 1. 1-5. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967)
Summarize the Odyssey?
Divided into 24 Books.
Books 1-4 – The rude suitors; Telemachos in search of news of Odysseus; The
plot of the suitors.
Books 5-12 – Odysseus freed from the island of Kalypso (5); Shipwrecked
among the Phaiakians (6-8); Odysseus tells of his adventures at sea (9-12)
(Kikonians, Lotus-Eaters, Polyphemos, Aiolos, Laistrygones, Circe, Voyage to
the underworld, the Sirens, Skylla and Charibdis, the cattle of Helios, Kalypso).
Books 13-24 – Odysseus in Ithaka; disguised as a beggar; reveals himself to
Telemachos; Odysseus and Telemachos plan vengeance against the suitors;
Odysseus goes to his palace disguised as a beggar – abused by the suitors –
shown kindness by Penelope; The contest of the bow and the axes; Suitors and
faithless maids massacred; Penelope does not believe the beggar/hero is
Odysseus; The test of the bed; The dead heroes learn of Odysseus’ return; the
massacre of the suitors’ kinsmen.
Story Within a Story
“And now Athene waved the aegis, that blights humanity, from high
aloft on the roof, and all their wits were bewildered; and they
stampeded about the hall, like a herd of cattle set upon and driven wild
by the darting horsefly in the spring season, at the time when the days
grow longer; but the other men, who were like hook-clawed, beak-bent
vultures, descending from the mountains to pounce upon the lesser
birds; and these on the plain, shrinking away from the clouds, speed
off, but the vultures plunge on them and destroy them, nor is there any
defense, nor any escape, and men are glad for the hunting; so these
men, sweeping about the palace, struck down the suitors, one man
after another; the floor was smoking with blood, and horrible cries rose
up as their heads were broken.” (Homer, Odyssey 22.298-309. Trans. R.
“But after you have killed these suitors in your own palace, either by
treachery, or openly with the sharp bronze, then you must take up you
well shaped oar and go on a journey until you come where there are
men living who know nothing of the sea, and who eat food that is not
mixed with salt, who never have known ships whose cheeks are painted
with purple, who never have known well-shaped oars, which act for
ships as wings do. And I will tell you a very clear proof, and you cannot
miss it. When, as you walk, some other wayfarer happens to meet you,
and says you carry a winnow fan on your bright shoulder, then you
must plant your well-shaped oar in the ground, and render
ceremonious sacrifice to lord Poseidon, one ram and one bull, and a
mounter of sows, a boar pig, and make your way home again and
render holy hecatombs to the immortal gods who hold the wide
heaven, all of them in order. Death will come to you from the sea, in
some altogether unwarlike way, and it will end you in the ebbing time
of sleek old age.” (Homer, Odyssey 11.119-136. Trans. R. Lattimore , 1967)
“There lie the community of the Kimmerian people,
hidden in fog and cloud, nor does Helios, the radiant
sun, ever break through the dark, to illuminate them
with his shining, neither when he climbs up into the
starry heaven, nor when he wheels to return again
from heaven to earth, but always a glum night is
spread over wretched mortals.” (Homer, Odyssey 11.14-
19. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967).
Book 11 in toto – the tales of the dead.
“Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus, not in the ships, nor did
Poseidon, rousing a stormblast of battering winds that none would wish for, prove my
destruction, nor on dry land did enemy men destroy me in battle; Aigisthos, working out
my death and destruction, invited me to his house, and feasted me, and killed me there,
with the help of my sluttish wife, as one cuts down an ox at his manger. So I died a most
pitiful death, and my other companions were killed around me without mercy, like pigs
with shining tusks, in the house of a man rich and powerful, for a wedding, or a festival,
or a communal dinner. You have been present in your time at the slaughter of many men,
killed singly, or in the strong encounters of battle; but beyond all others you would have
been sorry at heart for this scene, how we lay sprawled by the mixing bowl and the loaded
tables, all over the palace, and the whole floor was steaming with blood; and most pitiful
was the voice I heard of Priam’s daughter Kassandra, killed by treacherous Klytaimnestra
over me; but I lifted my hands and with them beat on the ground as I died upon the
sword, but the sluttish woman turned away from me and was so hard that her hands
would not press shut my eyes and mouth though I was going to Hades.” (Homer, Odyssey
11. 405-426. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967)
The “heroic” not characterized by good-guys and bad guys
The heroic character is larger than life
Physically bigger, more beautiful, stronger, smarter, faster etc. than the
Either descended from, or at least beloved by, the gods
Has more profound emotional states (i.e. Joy, Anger, Sadness, etc.)
The heroic is concerned with magnificent exploits (usually in warfare)
of the individual heroes, not of nations, tribes etc.
“Here, come closer, tell me the name of that tremendous fighter. Look, who’s
that Achaean there, so stark and grand? Many others afield are much taller,
true, but I have never set eyes on one so regal, so majestic….That man must be a
king!” (Homer, Iliad 3.201-209. R. Fagles, 1990)
“And sighting Odysseus next the old king questioned Helen, ‘Come, dear child,
tell me of that one too – now who is he? Shorter than Atreus’ son Agamemnon,
clearly, but broader across the shoulders, through the chest. There, you see?
His armour’s heaped on the green field but the man keeps ranging the ranks of
fighters like a ram – yes, he looks like a thick-fleeced bellwether ram making
his way through a big mass of sheep-flocks, shining silver-gray.” (Homer, Iliad
3.231-239, R. Fagles, 1990)
“Catching sight of a third fighter, Ajax, the old king asker her next, ‘Who’s that
other Achaean, so powerful, so well-built? He towers over the Argives, his head,
his massive shoulders.” (Homer, Iliad 3.270-272. R. Fagles, 1990)
“So spoke Athene, and with her golden wand she
tapped him. First she made the mantle and the tunic
that covered his chest turn bright and clean; she
increased his strength and stature. His dark colour
came back to him again, his jaw firmed, and his beard
that grew about his chin turned black...His beloved
son was astonished and turned his eyes in the other
direction, fearing this must be a god....” (Homer,
Odyssey 16.172-180. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967)
Odyssey composed at a time of overseas exploration and colonization.
Concern expressed for loss of identity.
“My men went on and presently met the Lotus-Eaters, nor did these Lotus-
Eaters have any thoughts of destroying our companions, but they only gave
them lotus to taste of. But any of them who ate the honey-sweet fruit of the
lotus was unwilling to take any message back, or to go away, but they wanted to
stay there with the lotus-eating people, feeding on lotus, and forget the way
home. I myself took these men back weeping, by force, to where the ships were,
and put them aboard under the rowing benches and tied them fast, then gave
the order to the rest of my eager companions to embark on the ships in haste,
for fear someone else might taste of the lotus and forget the way home….”
(Homer, Odyssey 9.91-102. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967)
Close relationship between diet and cultural identity.
Odysseus fated to return to home.
Kalypso cannot keep him.
Poseidon cannot prevent his return; can only make his
“Now Zeus tells you to send him on his way with all
speed. It is not appointed for him to die here, away
from his people. It is still his fate that he shall see his
people and come back to his house with a high roof
and to the land of his fathers.” (Homer, Odyssey 5.112-
115. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967)
Hubris = Overweening pride; violent arrogance; exceeding one’s social position.
Prominent theme in the Odyssey (i.e. The Suitors, Polyphemos, Odysseus’ taunt).
“The rest of you, who are my eager companions, wait here, while I, with my own ships
and companions that are in it, go and find out about these people, and learn what they
are, whether they are savage and violent, and without justice, or hospitable to strangers
with minds that are godly.” (Homer, Odyssey 9.172-176. Trans. R. Lattomore, 1967)
“Stranger, you are a simple fool, or come from far off, when you tell me to avoid the wrath
of the gods or to fear them. The Cyclopes do not concern themselves over Zeus of the
aegis, nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better than they, and for fear
of the hate of Zeus I would not spare you or your companions either, if the fancy took me
otherwise.” (Homer, Odyssey 9.273-278. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967)
“Ah now, a prophecy spoken of old is come to completion. There used to be a man here,
great and strong, and a prophet, Telemos, Eurymos’ son, who for prophecy was pre-
eminent and grew old as a prophet among the Cyclopes. This man told me how all this
that has happened now must someday be accomplished, and how I must lose the sight of
my eye at the hands of Odysseus.” (Homer, Odyssey 9.507-512. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967).
Piety (Eusebia) = Devotion to gods, family, and
community; doing one’s duty.
Telemachus = Loyal to his father; seeks news of his
return; defends his father’s oikos.
Penelope = Loyal wife and mother; guards her chastity;
protects Odysseus’ oikos.
Odysseus = Loyal to wife and son; devoted to the gods.
“Young men, my suitors now that the great Odysseus
has perished, wait, though you are eager to marry me,
until I finish this web, so that my weaving will not be
useless and wasted. This is a shroud for the hero
Laertes, for when the destructive doom of death which
lays men low shall take him, lest any Achaian woman
in this neighborhood hold it against me that a man of
many conquests lies with no sheet to wind him.”
(Homer, Odyssey 2.96-102. Trans. R. Lattimore, 1967)
Women have less prominent role in the Odyssey.
More noble, more beautiful, and better than ordinary
Still defined by their relationship to men; patriarchal
society; wives, daughters, mothers, or monsters (i.e. the
antithesis of Penel0pe and Klytaimnestra).
Penelope possesses characteristics similar to Odysseus.
Both are clever and deceptive.
Both are loyal to their families.
The refusal of Kalypso; the refusal of Nausikaa.
The trick of “nobody.”
The disguise as a beggar.
The refusal of the suitors.
The trick of Laertes’ shroud.
The trick of the marriage bed.
Significance lies in Odyssey’s place in Greek culture.
Homeric epics performed at symposium (i.e. drinking
Reflects the value and belief system of the audience.
Shaped the value and belief system of subsequent