Homer

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Homer (Greek Όμηρος Hómēros) was a legendary early Greek poet and rhapsode traditionally credited with authorship of the major Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey, the comic mini-epic Batrachomyomachia ("The Frog-Mouse War"), the corpus of Homeric Hymns, and various other lost or fragmentary works such as Margites. A few ancient authors credited him with the entire Epic Cycle, which included further poems on the Trojan War as well as the Thebes poems about Oedipus and his sons.

Tradition held that Homer was blind. Various Ionian cities are claimed to be his birthplace, most notably Smyrna, Chios, Cyme, Colophon and Salamis, Cyprus, otherwise his biography is a blank slate. There is considerable scholarly debate about whether or not Homer was actually a real person, or the name given to one or more oral poets who sang traditional epic material.

It has repeatedly been questioned whether the same poet was responsible for both the Iliad and the Odyssey; the Batrachomyomachia, Homeric hymns and cyclic poems are generally agreed to be later than these two epic poems.

The Homeric Question

It is generally agreed among scholars that the Iliad and Odyssey underwent a process of standardization and refinement out of older material beginning in the 8th century BC. An important role in this standardization appears to have been played by the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus, who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival. Many classicists hold that this reform must have involved the production of a canonical written text.

Other scholars, however, maintain their belief in the reality of an actual Homer. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that a common joke has it that the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name," and the classical scholar Richmond Lattimore, author of well regarded poetic translations to English of both epics, once wrote a paper entitled "Homer: Who Was She?" Samuel Butler was more specific, theorizing a young Sicilian woman as author of the Odyssey (but not the Iliad), an idea further speculated on by Robert Graves in his novel Homer's Daughter.

In Greek his name is Homēros, which is Greek for "hostage". There is a theory that his name was back-extracted from the name of a society of poets called the Homeridae, which literally means "sons of hostages", i.e., descendants of prisoners of war. As these men were not sent to war because their loyalty on the battlefield was suspect, they would not get killed in battles. Thus they were entrusted with remembering the area's stock of epic poetry, to remember past events, in the times before literacy came to the area.

Most Classicists would agree that, whether there was ever such a composer as "Homer" or not, the Homeric poems are the product of an oral tradition, a generations-old technique that was the collective inheritance of many singer-poets, aoidoi. An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems consist of regular, repeating phrases; even entire verses repeat. Could the Iliad and Odyssey have been oral-formulaic poems, composed on the spot by the poet using a collection of memorized traditional verses and phases? Milman Parry and Albert Lord pointed out that such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in an exclusively oral culture. The crucial words are "oral" and "traditional." Parry started with "traditional." The repetitive chunks of language, he said, were inherited by the singer-poet from his predecessors, and they were useful to the poet in composition. He called these chunks of repetitive language "formulas."

Exactly when these poems would have taken on a fixed written form is subject to debate. The traditional solution is the "transcription hypothesis", wherein a non-literate "Homer" dictates his poem to a literate scribe in the 6th century BC or earlier. More radical Homerists, such as Gregory Nagy, contend that a canonical text of the Homeric poems as "scripture" did not exist until the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st century BC).

Historical Aspects of the Poems

See main article Troy.

Another significant question regards the tales' possible historical basis. The commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written in the Hellenistic period began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems. Modern classicists continue the tradition.

The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century began to convince scholars there was a historical basis for the Trojan War. Research (pioneered by the aforementioned Parry and Lord) into oral epics in Serbo-Croatian and Turkic languages began to convince scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until someone bothered to write them down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and others, convinced scholars of a linguistic continuity between 13th century BC Mycenaean writings and the poems attributed to Homer.

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