Homer: The Blind Bard

The name Homer looms large in classical mythology. Homer is regarded as the greatest poet of the ancient world. More than that, he's considered one of the greatest and most influential artists in the history of Western literature. But did Homer actually exist? In other words, was he a living, breathing person, or was he a character created by other poets? Scholars and historians have debated this question for centuries. Everyone agrees, however, that the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems attributed to Homer, are important and fascinating literary works.

Homer the Man

For the moment, assume that Homer did exist and that he was the author of these two great epic poems. Many people, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, believed in his existence. Although no one knows for sure where or when he was born, some historians believe he may have been born around 750 B.C. Homer was a bard, a professional storyteller. The Greeks believed that he was blind, presumably because one of his poems mentions a blind bard.

Seven cities claim to be the birthplace of Homer: Argos, Athens, Chios, Colophon, Rhodes, Salamis, and Smyrna. Historians, however, have not settled on his birthplace.

Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, each run approximately 12,000 lines. To perform either poem in its entirety would take several evenings. To the ancients, listening to an epic poem was an exciting and entertaining way to spend an evening. These two poems tell of the Trojan War (discussed in Chapter 20) and its aftermath. The Greek victory over Troy was a defining moment for the Greeks and the catalyst for the foundation of Rome. Because the poems center on this pivotal historic event, and because Homer was such a gifted storyteller, these epics became an integral part of Greek culture. In fact, the Greeks were said to have introduced the study of these works into their schools around 400 B.C.

Homer the Myth

Several theories assert that Homer wasn't the single author of all the works attributed to him. Some scholars even doubt that he existed at all. One theory posits that several different people composed these poems, and the result was later attributed to Homer. Other theories suggest that Homer composed the first part of the Odyssey and that one or more other bards concluded the poem. Others hold that the man known as Homer never existed and that his name referred to poets in general, a catch-all term for all authors who composed heroic verse. Another theory is that Homer was the name of the scribe who first wrote down these works. By signing his name to the written texts, he got credit for creating them. In the early twentieth century, one scholar shocked his contemporaries by theorizing that the Odyssey had been written by a woman.

Why is there this skepticism? The works of Homer have been studied for centuries. Scholars who have compared the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other poems attributed to Homer have found significant differences. For example, some scholars believe that the subjects and themes of Homer's works are too broad to be the products of a single mind. Others note that Homeric works blend different dialects, even though people typically speak only one dialect. There are strong stylistic similarities between the poems, which may be due to the oral tradition from which they arose.

Although the differences among Homeric works raise questions about who composed them, “Homer” still created the foundation for classical mythology — whether he was a single man or several different authors.

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