Homer's Life and the Creation of his Epics
Despite the grand status of the Iliad, very little is known about its creation or that of the Odyssey. Homer is a very murky figure, about whom we can say nothing with any great certainty. According to the tradition since the Greeks, he was a native of the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor, or of Smyrna. These are the most plausible suggestions, but many places at various different times laid claim to being his birthplace. When Homer lived and created his epics is equally shrouded in mystery. The Greeks suggested wildly different dates, the earliest being the actual time of the Trojan War, which would place him at the beginning of the twelfth century BC, and the latest being about five hundred years later. Modern scholars are generally agreed that the poems probably date from the mid to late eighth century BC.
The actual life of the poet is similarly unknown. The Greeks thought of him as a blind minstrel, wandering the countryside performing his poems, a view which - though not necessarily untrue - seems to owe more to a romantic wish than to fact. In truth, we know nothing about his life or the conditions of performance of his poems. All we can do is speculate.
If we are to speculate, it is to the poems that we must look for clues. It is perhaps best to start by noting the bards and singers who appear in the two epics. In the Iliad, we find no bards, but we are told that Achilles is found by the embassy in Book 9 'giving pleasure to his heart with a clear-voiced lyre... and singing tales of men's glory' (9.186ff.). Elsewhere, we see Helen, in reference to herself and Paris, stating 'on us two Zeus has set a doom of misery, so that in time to come we can be themes of song for men of future generations' (6.357ff.). Both of these passages establish that the deeds of great or notorious men and women are the subjects of poetry, as the Iliad evidences itself; but the former also shows that the likelihood is that a poet such as Homer would accompany himself on the lyre. More useful are the descriptions of Phemius and Demodocus in the Odyssey. Phemius is Odysseus' household poet in Ithaca and we see him performing for the suitors at their feasts. He has more than one song in his repertoire, since Penelope asks him to stop singing about the troublesome return of the Greek heroes after the Trojan War and to sing another song. Demodocus, meanwhile, is the blind minstrel at the court of king Alcinous in Phaeacia, who treats Odysseus to a song about the Wooden Horse, having also regaled his audience with a more light-hearted one about Hephaestus' punishment of Aphodite and Ares for their adultery. Therefore, we are presented, through the poems, with a picture of the poet as a source of entertainment after or during a feast at the court or the house of a nobleman. His subjects are the deeds of great men or the affairs of the gods, and these can, at least at the time that the Homeric epics are set, be relatively recent events. Their setting in the Heroic Age facilitates this, and Homer's continual refrain that the men of that age were so much greater than those of his own day validates his choice to relate only the deeds of those of a by-gone age.
To suggest that Homer's own life and the performances of his poems were similar to those of the bards that he himself tells of in the Odyssey is an attractive inference, but one that is dangerous if we place too much emphasis on it. The fact that the poems are so long and would require about twenty-four hours each to recite does imply that performance occurred in excerpts over a number of days. This, in turn, suggests either that they took place at one of the great festivals, or at a succession of feasts at the court of a nobleman, as seems to be the case in the Odyssey. However, we cannot know for certain, and cannot work from such a shaky premise to try to establish anything about the poems.
The question of authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a vexed one anyway, regardless of attempts to ascertain how and where the poems were performed. Since the end of the eighteenth century, much of Homeric criticism has been obsessed with the 'Homeric Question', namely trying to establish how the poems came into existence. Even in Hellenistic times, there were those who proposed that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not written by the same poet, who pointed to fundamental differences in the conception of the gods and the way in which the human characters related to them, and noting differences in the social customs of the two poems. For those who claimed that there had been two poets, the second consciously imitating the first, the clinching factor was the irreconcilable differences between the language used in the Iliad and that used in the Odyssey. Certainly, they claimed, the author of the Odyssey knew the Iliad very well, but he was not the same man. More recently, the question has become not
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