Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who was Homer?

Homer I
Photo by Martin Gruner Larsen

This month's Classics Circuit explores the literary productions of ancient Greece. I am thrilled to help kick off the week with a discussion of the history and context of these works.

As hard as it is to imagine a world without written language, that is exactly what Greeks experienced before texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey came into being.  Before the Mycenaean civilization fell (in roughly the 12th century BCE), residents of area used a script called Linear B in order to write an early form of Greek.  This writing script was based on signs for syllables and on ideograms rather than on alphabetic notation.  We have discovered no stories or personal narratives written down in Linear B.  Instead, the language seems to have been used in more utilitarian ways--for record-keeping and the like.

When the Mycenaean culture was decimated, Greece was left with no written language for at least two or three hundred years.  This period, sometimes called "the Greek Dark Ages," was a time without writing but not a time without stories.  Bards traveled the land creating and refining stories of the exploits of gods and goddesses, myths and histories of war, and stories of men and women and their experiences of love.

As late as the eighth or ninth century BCE, an alphabetic writing system began to develop and spread in Greece.  Two of the texts we can date back all the way to this date are the Iliad and the Odyssey.  We know nothing about how these books were created and written down, nor do we know much about the authorship of these books.  As the old joke goes, we think these works were written by Homer--but perhaps they were written by some other Greek chap who went by the same name. 

Was Homer the poet who constructed a poem out of the storytelling tradition?  Many scholars believe so, given the two poems' connections to the traditions of oral poetry (such as repetition and stock epithets).  If the poems were composed by an oral storyteller, was he (or she, as some scholars suspect) also literate?  Did he write the poem later, or did he recite it to a scribe, slowly and in pieces as the writer scratched the words laboriously onto animal skins?  It is a process that is hard to imagine.

Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography (Books That Changed the World)As Alberto Manguel shows in his wonderfully written and clearly argued study Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, the fact that  these two epics were written had profound consequences for the development of literature.  The Iliad and the Odyssey "may have been the first to take advantage of the possibilities offered by written language" including the ability to tell a much longer story, a more complex development of both plot and character, new ideas about poetry with rules to be obeyed and appreciated by the eyes as well as the ears, etc.  But perhaps most importantly, a "poem set down in writing allowed the work a wider, more generous reach," argues Manguel.  "He who received the poem no longer needed to share the poet's time and space."

Although individual scholars put forth many theories about the composer(s) and writer(s) of these two poems, we are left with a great deal of uncertainty.  As Manguel says, "It may be that Homer was born not as a man but as a symbol, the name that ancient bards gave their own art, turning a timeless activity into a legendary primordial person, into a celebrated common ancestor of all poets."

15 comments:

  1. The Manguel book is fascinating. I'm pretty sure Homer the individual was more of a collator of oral tradition than an author in our sense of the word. I had to read most of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the original Greek at school (I went to one of the few schools that still teaches it in England) and was always struck by how the language and the use of devices like epithets and repetition of description lent itself to being memorised.

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  2. Fascinating post! I know so little about this historical era, although I have read and enjoyed both the Iliad and the Odyssey. My son is working on parts of the Odyssey at school for his exams and he loves it too - it's amazing to think of stories lasting that long and giving so much pleasure. I hope Homer was a real person, and was aware when he was writing just what a gift he was giving to civilisation.

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  3. Falaise: I'm so envious! I remember my mother talking about how much her father, educated at the beginnning of the last century, could recite from memory. Not a skill taught much any more, but one that seems to bring so much enjoyment to people even late in their lives.

    litlove: My son, now 11yo, has been a huge inspiration to me in this project. He has lapped up Homer and Shakespeare with about as much pleasure as he inhales Harry Potter and the Rick Riordan books. I love seeing how the classics resonate across a great variety of generations.

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  4. Boy, Alberto Manguel keeps popping up all of a sudden in my bloggy reading. His Iliad/Odyssey book looks fascinating; you're a wealth of additions to my TBR. :-) Love his line about Homer as accumulated legendary poet-ancestor.

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  5. My pleasure, Emily! :) That is a wonderful quote, isn't it? I have not read other Manguel books yet, but I have a couple of them out of the library right now and the snowstorm is arriving as I type. Sounds like a match made in heaven.

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  6. Fascinating post, I had no idea of the varied disputes about Homer. I also love that you are reading these with your son. I have a 10 yr old nephew who is an advanced reader and bored with everything appropriate for his age-group. I hadn't thought of trying out some of the classics on him.

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  7. Yay for ancient history! And I think that classics like this are perfect for middle grade boys!

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  8. My husband has the Manguel book on his TBR shelf! I'd like to spend some time with The Iliad before I read Manguel's biography of them, but I do hope to get to it eventually.

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  9. Rebekah: I definitely recommend the Odyssey for your nephew. It might help to read a version for children first--and there are several good editions. I'll try to talk about them in a future post. But any modern translation of the whole thing should definitely be a follow-up once he is familiar with the story. The Lombardo translation might be especially readable. I'm eager to hear what he thinks!

    Trisha: Thanks! I think you are absolutely right. I've been stunned by how much my son has taken to them. He sets a good model for his mother.

    Erin: There is definitly an argument to reading the Iliad first, but it isn't essential. Manguel is a great writer and the book is a quick and thoughtful read. Hope you enjoy it.

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  10. In reading both The Iliad and The Odyssey, I often imagined the path of the original oral poem (in Greek) to the (translated into English) version that I read. I find it fascinating to wonder what events, both purposeful and accidental, led to our possession of these ancient text. I've only recently discovered the awesomeness of Manguel, and I'm really excited to learn that he has a book about both works.

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  11. great post-I learned a lot from it

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  12. I really enjoyed your post. It brings back a lot of memories of my college era studies. The "oral tradition" is what fascinates me - and its transition into a written form at some "unknown" point, with the fact that scholars don't - and won't ever - know when this happened kind of romanticizes it a bit for me.

    I'm glad you mentioned the "repetitions and stock epithets" too. Many readers don't understand this. Years ago, I remember jokingly referring to a fellow employee - whose good fortune was to have the first name "Hector" - as Hector of the Shining Helm on a regular basis at the office. (Nerd alert!)

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  13. libellulebooks: Is is awfully interesting to consider how we came to have these books. I kept being stunned with that question while I was reading Gilgamesh. I too am fairly new to Manguel and am thrilled to have found his books!

    mel u: Thanks! Manguel has a lot to teach.

    bibliophilica: I love it! I think I would have enjoyed working in your office.

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  14. i like the sound of that Manguel book, must look it up. And I find Homer traditions fascinating. I have a hard time believing he wasn't a real person -- and that people just wrote things down later. The works he wrote are so LITERARY. I think Fagles talks about him in the intro to his translations.

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  15. Rebecca: I hope you enjoy the Manguel. Thank you so much for your work organizing this month's Classics Circuit on the Greeks. The timing is just perfect for me!

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