Homer (8th or 7th century BCE)

Very little is known of Homer's life, to the extent that many wonder if Homer is an actual poet. His name means "hostage", and due to this, it is supposed that he could have been a slave or prisoner of war. He is sometimes considered to be blind, because the bard in the Odyssey, Demodocus, is blind. Based on the research of Milman Parry, it is generally agreed that the poems of Homer were oral compositions, only recorded in written form hundreds of years after their creation. It could be that these poems were composed by many different poets over hundreds of years, and the oral bard would improvise on a pre-defined, general structure when performing. Homer, if he existed, could be the best of these oral bards, and quite possibly the one whose own version of the Iliad and Odyssey became fixed in the tradition. It could also be likely that "Homer" is just a name for the general oral tradition that produced his epic poems.

His Works

Homer has two works attributed specifically to him: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War and the hero Achilles. After Agamemnon takes away Briseis, a girl won in battle, Achilles, enraged, sulks in his tent and avoids battle. While Hector and his Trojans drive the Greeks back to their camp near the sea, the Greek chiefs continue to persuade Achilles to fight. Instead, Achilles gives his armor to his friend Patroclus, who drives the Trojans back until he is killed by Hector. Enraged by the death of his friend, Achilles enters the battle and devestates the Trojan forces. Finally, Achilles slays Hector. The work concludes with both funeral games for Patroclus and the ransoming of Hector's body by his father Priam.

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus and his travels after the Trojan War as he tries to return home to Ithaca. Unlike many Greek heroes after Troy, Odysseus experiences many adventures, including the Cyclops, Laestrygonians, Lotus Eaters, Aeolus, the witch Circe, and Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus also traveled to the edge of the world to visit the dead, where he learns from the prophet Tiresias how to appease Poseidon and return home. Back in Greece, Odysseus obtains the help of the Phaeacians to travel to Ithaca, where he finds suitors attempting to marry Penelope, Odysseus' wife. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus enters his house, performs a feat of strength, and slays the suitors with the help of Athena, his son Telemachus, and others.

His Style

The hexameter of Homer is a little different from those of the Latin poets.

  • Homer's lines have a large preponderance of dactyls, in contrast with later Greek and Latin poets. Among the active lines on this site, 71.97% of his feet are dactyls. Compare that to Ovid, who has % dactyls, or Vergil, with only 43.53%.
  • Homer also allows for the fifth foot spondee much more frequently than later poets.
  • Often, words will suffer correption, that is, a long vowel at the end of a word will become short when followed by a word beginning with a short vowel. We see this in Iliad 1.14: στέμματ᾽ ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος, where the long syllable -ου at the end of ἑκηβόλου is treated as short because of the short A at the beginning of Ἀπόλλωνος.
  • Synizesis is common, where two different syllables will be pronounced as one single syllable (in order to preserve the meter). We see this in the first line of the Iliad: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος.
  • Lastly, because of the oral nature of Homer's poetry, and because his work was composed hundreds of years before being written down, several of his lines are unscannable, and possibly reflect old, unused Greek letters. For example, Iliad 1.108 (ἐσθλὸν δ᾽ οὔτέ τί πω εἶπας ἔπος οὔτ᾽ ἐτέλεσσας:) is unscannable with the fourth foot consisting of three short syllables. This can be solved by using the Ionic Greek form ϝέπος (adding the digamma ϝ-), making this foot a dactyl.

The scansion of Homer was made possible with the help of Paula Debnar of Mount Holyoke College, along with Thalia Pandiri and Barry Spence of Smith College.

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