The earliest documents in Greek that can be called literature are the Iliad and the Odyssey, ascribed in antiquity, along with others, to Homer. A likely date for both is the 8th century BC. The Iliad, or ‘poem about Ilion (Troy)’, has as its central theme a single episode in the last year of the Trojan War—Achilles’ withdrawal from the struggle in anger at an insult from Agamemnon, and his eventual return to the fight and its result:
Of the wrath of the son of Peleus—of Achilles—Goddess, sing—
That ruinous wrath, that brought sorrows past numbering
Upon the host of Achaea, and to Hades cast away
The valiant souls of heroes, and flung their flesh for prey
To hounds, and all the fowls of air…
Picture: ‘swift footed’ Achilles
The incident covers only a few weeks of the ten-year siege; but the poem’s name is justified, for in the course of its fifteen-thousand lines, by digression and reminiscence and prophecy, we hear of the whole course and background of the war. The Odyssey, four thousand lines shorter, has the less majestic but more romantic theme of Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca and Penelope after the siege is over. Again, the telling ranges widely—not only through all the folklore and fiction which make up the hero’s adventures, but through other sequels to the war.
Both poems are focused, like most Greek literature, on people: not on people in the mass, the armies or populations involved in the war and its aftermath, but on the individual actions and the utterances (often lengthy) of individual men and women, many of whom emerge as clearly though simply defined characters as the story goes on. This is indeed ‘heroic’ poetry, naturally centered on a single hero and one particular chain of incidents. But its most remarkable feature for the modern reader is that other beings than men and women, though no less individual, are interwoven in the story and play the most decisive part in events—equally definite and particular gods and goddesses, superhuman in their immortality and their magical powers, but often prompted by motives and emotions that seem all too human. Homer’s gods are made in the image of man.
All this is related in hexameter verse in which are to be found the qualities of plainness of thought, plainness of speech, and rapidity. It is true that digressions are frequent and sometimes, especially in the Odyssey, there is a leisurely piling of incident on incident and speech on speech. But Homer’s way of describing a scene or an action is swift and direct. There is little metaphor in his lines to confuse or delay our understanding. Where imagery is used, it is formally set out in the simile:
As when in heaven the stars about the moon
Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid,
And every height comes out, and jutting peak
And valley, and the immeasurable heavens
Break open to their highest, and all the stars
Shine, and the shepherd gladdens in his heart:
So many a fire between the ships and stream
Of Xanthus blazed before the towers of Troy.
Dramatic or lofty moments in the poems call forth more than two hundred brief pictures of this kind, in which the storyteller often seems to go beyond his comparison and dwell lovingly on details for their own sake. In this, as in other features the Homeric style, became a model for poets of later centuries – Virgil, for example, and Milton:
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
There is one other principal virtue in the Iliad and the Odyssey: ‘nobility’. Although the word is out of fashion now, the quality is unmistakably there, and there throughout. Translators through the ages have found all Homer’s qualities difficult to reproduce, but this is where they most commonly fail. His narrative is uneven in dramatic power and our interest sometimes flags: it never becomes trivial or cheap.
Picture: The story of the homecoming of Odysseus. The voyage leads him into a fabulous world of folktale and imagination. The Sirens (right)
Who Was Homer?
What is the origin of these two great epics? Who was ‘Homer’? These questions have been keenly debated for centuries, and it is clear now that there is no simple answer. The poems themselves tell us nothing of their composer, and Greek tradition gave conflicting accounts of his date, his birthplace, and incidents of his life. Modern scholarship is agreed on one basic point: that the problem of authorship must be regarded as secondary, and the poems must be primarily seen as products of an evolutionary process.
Picture above: The blinding of Polyphemus: the one-eyed giant had found Odysseus and his men in a cave and imprisoned them there. After several had been seized and eaten, they contrived, by a stratagem of Odysseus, to blind his one with a red-hot stake. This was a popular subject on early vases c. 7th century BC.
In all but minor details our text of both epics goes back to the scholars of Alexandria in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Before their work on it many versions must have existed, but variation was kept in check by the requirements of public performance: at festivals in a number of places, and above all at the Panathenaea held every four years at Athens, the two poems were recited to vast audiences by ‘rhapsodes’, who with their long staffs were familiar figures throughout Greece. For the purpose of the Panathenaic performances a stable text may have been established as early as the 6th century BC.
The rhapsode, however, is certainly not the beginning of the story. Further back still stands a more shadowy but more important figure—the aoidos, the singer; and it is on him and his craft, illuminated by comparison with story-tellers of today in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, that the interest of Homeric scholars has centered in recent years. Such a singer is the blind Demodocus described in the Odyssey itself at the feast at the Phaeacian court:
The crier soon came, leading that man of song
whom the Muse cherished; by her gift he knew
the good of life, and evil—
For she who lent him sweetness made him blind
Pontonoos fixed a studded chair for him
Hard by a pillar amid the banqueters,
Hanging the taut harp from a peg above him,
and guided up his hands upon the strings…
In time, when hunger and thirst were turned away,
the Muse brought to the minstrel’s mind a song
of heroes whose great fame rang under heaven.
When the telling of stories by such singers began, we do not know. It may well go back to Mycenaean times, though no direct evidence for this has yet come to light. But there is general agreement that the aoidos with his lyre is the source of the kind of verse narration which reaches its highest achievement the Iliad and the Odyssey. The singer’s art, unaided by writing, involved both improvising new material and remembering the old, and in these twin needs lies the explanation of the main features of Homeric narrative: the hexameter framework; the language, an amalgam of dialect elements and invented forms which were never used in ordinary speech, but must have been shaped by generations of singers to suit the metrical framework; the stereotyped word-groups or formulae constantly employed to fill this or that part of the hexameter line. Repetition, an essential aspect of the improviser’s technique, leaves its mark everywhere in the two epics, whether a noun-plus-adjective formula (‘stock epithet’) is repeated, such as ‘swift-footed Achilles’, ‘resourceful Odysseus’, ‘the wine-dark sea’; or a stock line recurs to describe a familiar event:
But when early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered…
Some whole sets of lines do service more than once—a message, for example, or an account of preparations for the fight.
The Date of Homer
With the help of these means a growing body of verse stories must have been created and handed down, until recital by rhapsodes replaced the singer’s chant and (not necessarily at the same time) oral composition gave way to the use of writing. Plainness of thought and speech and rapidity of movement would be their natural attributes. But at what stage in this long evolution did the Iliad and Odyssey emerge in something like their present form?
There can be no certain answer to the question. Some scholars see the beginning of festival recitations as the occasion which called such monumental poems into being; others place their creation in the time of the aoidos, as much as two centuries before the coming of the rhapsode. Some maintain that they cannot have been composed or handed on without the use of writing; according to others, oral composition is more credible and a period of oral transmission may have followed. Few now suppose that epics of such magnitude, far surpassing the ordinary singer’s tale in unity of theme and poetic quality, could be the product of a mere compiler of lays; but while some believe in a single ‘Homer’, study of the differences between the poems points rather to two poets of genius, separated perhaps by several generations, the second of whom sought to emulate the achievement of the first. Both must have incorporated in their work much narrative material handed down from the past; and some episodes—the ambushing of Dolon, for example, in the Iliad, and Odysseus’ visit to the world of the dead—were probably added at a later date.
Picture above: (6th c. vase) After Polyphemus had been blinded, Odysseus and his companions had still to escape from the cave. He tied each man to the belly of a ram, so that when the giant felt them as they went-out, he did not know that a man was escaping too.
Amid these uncertainties one vital point is now established: both epics belong to a late stage in the evolution of such narrative verse, when the singer’s art was no longer crude but polished to its highest perfection. The simile, at any rate in its elaborated form, is now thought to be an enrichment added in the final phase of the development of his technique. This lateness goes a long way towards explaining the relation of ‘Homer’ to history. The poems were far removed in time from the Trojan War, and it is not surprising that their representation of it is very different from the reality suggested by archaeological research, or that their picture of Mycenaean life, with its concentration on the heroic individual, has little in common with the bureaucratic society revealed by the Linear B tablets. Because they combine traditional material of various periods, they reflect not one stage of social development but several; and where tradition failed, the poet’s imagination must have filled the gap.
If the two epics are seen as the climax of a long evolution, other features of them are also more easily understood: their treatment, for example, of the gods. In the course of centuries, the Olympian deities have been adapted to the storyteller’s needs. They have been humanized and individualized until they can play their part in the narrative alongside the mortal characters and their less reputable antics can even provide comic relief.
Equally linked with the poems’ remoteness from the events of which they tell is their attitude to man. Although they are concerned with a war and its sequel, they do not take sides: Achaeans and Trojans alike are seen as subject to the common lot of mortality—a fate which the hero must undergo no less than the commoner, for all his prowess and pride. There is no mawkish sentiment in Homeric epic: its scenes of suffering and death are often too starkly realistic for the modern palate. But it does share with other great poetry the quality of compassion for the human lot. The note is struck in such scenes as the farewell of Hector to his wife and infant son, or in brief moments like the glimpse of happier days as Achilles later pursues Hector around the walls of Troy:
There by the springs are roomy washing-troughs,
Fine troughs of stone, where in old days of peace
Or ever the sons of the Achaeans came,
The ladies and fair daughters of the Trojans
Would wash their shining robes. Thereby they ran,
One fleeing, one pursuing.
Pity for human frailty is most strongly present in the Iliad and finds its greatest expression in the tragic figure of Achilles, the mighty warrior foredoomed to an early death, whose individual drama of moral degradation and redemption is seen against the background of the larger tragedy of Troy itself.
The influence of these first masterpieces is evident in nearly all later Greek poetry. For epic they were accepted as models which all must imitate but none could equal: narrative hexameters continued to be composed in Greek until Byzantine times, but it was left to Roman Virgil, still following the same tradition, to produce a work worthy of comparison with Homer.
The Odyssey seems to have been soon followed by a large number of shorter poems using the same metre and technique, which centuries later were arranged into an ‘Epic Cycle’ covering the whole range of myth and legend. From all this only a few pages of fragments survive today. Time has been kinder to thirty-four examples of the ‘Homeric Hymn’—a form which began as a brief tribute to a deity before epic recitation, but itself developed into an epic narrative relating with great charm, if not with full Homeric power, the story of Demeter and Persephone or Apollo or Hermes or Aphrodite.