Homer Biography


The Homeric Question

After well over 2,500 years, we still cannot say for sure who created the Odyssey, exactly how it was composed, or precisely when it was written. Even though there is little autobiographical information in the epic and not much else to go on, we can make some educated guesses based upon research by top scholars.

Most early Greeks had no doubt that there once was a single individual named Homer to whom they attributed authorship of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the "Homeric Hymns," poems celebrating the ancient Greek gods. Although some seven different cities claimed to have been his birthplace, many thought Homer might have come from the island of Chios off the western coast of Asia Minor. In ancient times, a family bearing his name and living there was said to consist of his descendants.

Furthermore, because Homer composed his works in a form that blended Ionic and Aeolic dialects, it is likely that he was a native or resident of the western part of Asia Minor. He probably was a bard or rhapsode (a specialist in performing epics). Tradition has it that he was blind, a theory based largely on his portrayal of Demodocus, the blind singer of the Phaeacians (8.51), a passage in the "Hymns," and the somewhat romantic notion (partly supported by fact) that many such performers were blind.

By the second century BC, editors of the epics had raised what we now call the "Homeric Question." At issue are the authorship, origin, and means of composition of the works. Differences were noted in the styles and language of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Over the years, some critics have complained that the subjects and themes are too diverse for a single author. Some scholars even suggest that the works were the creation of a group. The dispute continues today.

In the past century, however, the preponderance of opinions seems to be on the side of single authorship. Some defend single authorship by citing William Shakespeare's varying approaches to King Lear and The Tempest, which deal with fading kings but in contrasting ways. Others point out that The Iliad appears to have been composed first and demonstrates the work of a younger man while the Odyssey is more mature and reflects an older author. Still others cite folk influences and the various themes and content as justification of conflicting styles.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, an American scholar named Milman Parry revolutionized classical studies by demonstrating conclusively that both The Iliad and the Odyssey were composed in an oral, formulaic style based on tradition and designed to help the rhapsode perform a long piece from memory. The poems were recited, or more likely sung, to audiences in the way that similar works are presented in the Odyssey. The performer often accompanied himself with a lyre. Metrical phrases were used as mnemonic devices, and everyday language was altered to fit this poetic language. That would account for the "elevated style" that has long been attributed to the works.

Parry's discovery clearly alters how readers look at the authorship of the epics. Some scholars, like Harold Bloom (Homer's Odyssey, 1996, p. 8) think that Homer, if he existed, was no more than an editor or organizer of poems created by others, perhaps over generations. Others, such as Seth L. Schein (Reading the Odyssey, 1996, p. 4 ff.), credit the poet with considerable creativity while welcoming the evidence of oral tradition. Schein points out that Greeks apparently had access to the Phoenician alphabet by the third quarter of the eighth century BC and that a poet trained in the oral tradition could have written down (or dictated to a scribe) The Odyssey as readers now know it. He sees literary (written), as well as folk or traditional influences, in the creation of the epic.

Date of Composition

Although some scholars still maintain that the epic was written in its present form in the sixth century BC in Athens, mounting evidence indicates an earlier date. The weight of the scholarship implies that The Odyssey was probably composed and possibly written down about 700 BC. The most convincing argument is that The Iliad was written first. Both epics probably were created, in the form we know them, by the same poet — a theory that is consistent with the views of those who see unusual genius, as well as technical similarities, in each work. While this poet may have composed each work completely, he probably borrowed metrical phrases and content from other bards. These elements, after all, were the rhapsodes' tools in the oral tradition, belonging to all. Although relying significantly on folk tradition and devices of oral creativity, the version of The Odyssey that we now have seems to have been influenced most strongly by a single poet, probably a veteran rhapsode, who likely dictated it to a scribe or wrote it down himself.

Let's call him Homer.