of Mount Olympus..|..The
Michael J. Cummings...©
life is a shadow in the mists of ancient history. All that we know for
certain about him is that he composed two of the greatest epics in world
literature, The Iliad
and The Odyssey, as well as several
hymns to the gods. The content, ideals, and style of his epics formed the
basis of Greek education in the classical age of Socrates, Plato, Sophocles,
and Aristotle and influenced the course of western literature for centuries
Iliad and The Odyssey stand as two of the greatest works ever
composed. They have influenced writers throughout the ages for the beauty
and power of their imagery, for their character development, for the universality
of their themes, and for their extraordinary stories. They take their place
alongside the Bible, Sophocles’ Oedipus
the Rex, Dante’s The
Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don
Quixote, Shakespeare’s Hamlet,
and Peace as among the most popular and most
highly praised literary works in history. Remarkably, Homer had no authors
to imitate, no prototypical literature to guide him, for literature—indeed,
civilization itself—was still in its infancy
when he composed his works. He was the world's first great writer, a model
for others to imitate.
conjecture from scraps of evidence that Homer was a blind poet who may
have been born on the island of Chios (also spelled in English as Khios)
in the Aegean Sea; in Smyrna, a seaport in western Turkey; in Colophon,
near Ephesus, Turkey; on Rhodes, an Aegean island; in Salamis, Cyprus;
or in Athens or Argos on the Greek mainland. Because of the dearth of information
about him, it is not possible to determine specific details about his life:
where he lived, whether he was married, when he died. In fact, it is not
even possible to determine whether he was one person or several.
probably composed his works between 700 and 800 BC, according to linguistic,
geographical, and historical evidence in The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Rather than writing his compositions, he probably recited them. For this
reason, it is said, he called himself a “singer” rather than a writer.
(Although “sing” connotes music, it can also refer to spoken words that
describe or narrate, usually in verse.) After his death, others kept his
works alive by reciting them as they traveled from place to place. In Athens,
the tyrant Pisistratus commanded these traveling rhapsodists, as they came
to be known, to recite them in their entirety at a yearly festival in honor
of Athena. Eventually, scribes wrote them down. Civilization owes a great
debt to these anonymous rhapsodists.
Homer composed The Iliad and The Odyssey, the events in both
stories were already at least 600 years old. Thus, the plots unfold in
an age when recorded history was in its infancy, about 3,200 years ago.
At that time, humankind's imagination peopled the known world with superhuman
heroes, and nature–the seas, the skies, the forests, and the winds–reflected
the mood of the gods inhabiting unseen worlds above and below. In each
epic, humans–often noble persons of royal lineage–interact with the gods,
sometimes obeying them, sometimes defying them. The plot of each epic consists
of a series of exploits and adventures that help shape and define the main
character and provide examples of heroism, wisdom, and other desirable
qualities for the audience to imitate.
Iliad and The Odyssey are classified as epic poems, long narrative
works that are highly formal and elevated in tone but easy to comprehend.
Some translators present these epics in prose, making them read like novels.
of the hallmarks of the Homeric style is the epithet, a combination of
a descriptive phrase and a noun. An epithet presents a miniature portrait
that identifies a person or thing by highlighting a prominent characteristic
of that person or thing. In English, the Homeric epithet usually consists
of a noun modified by a compound adjective, such as the following: fleet-footed
Achilles, rosy-fingered dawn, wine-dark sea, earth-shaking
Poseidon, and gray-eyed Athena. The Homeric epithet is an ancient
relative of such later epithets as Richard the Lion-Hearted, Ivan
the Terrible, and America the Beautiful.
repeated his epithets often, presumably so the listeners of his recited
tales could easily remember and picture the person or thing each time it
was mentioned. In this respect, the Homeric epithet resembles the leitmotiv
of opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The leitmotiv was a repeated
musical theme associated with a character, a group of characters, an emotion,
or an idea.
meter (rhythmic pattern of syllables) of Homer’s epic poems is dactylic
hexameter. A dactyl is a metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable
followed by two unaccented syllables, as in the words technical (TEK nik
l), allocate (AL oh kate), and harbinger (HAR bin jer). Hexameter is a
line containing six metrical feet. Thus, dactylic hexameter is a scheme
containing six dactyls, as in the following line: MAKE me a BEAU ti ful
GOWN and a HAT fringed with TASS les of DOWN, good sir.