Homer

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Homer is the poet to whom history has attributed the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to Greek legends about his life, Homer was blind. Homer did not write the Homeric Hymns; these are other poems in the style of Homer.

The poems appear to go back to at least the eighth century B.C.E., and were first written down at the command of the Athenian ruler Pisistratos, who feared they were being forgotten. He made a law: any singer or bard who came to Athens had to recite all they knew of Homer for the Athenian scribes, who recorded each version and collated them into what we now call the Iliad and Odyssey.

Homer is also rumored to have written a third, comic, epic. But if it ever existed, no fragments of it have been found.

For centuries, scholars have debated whether an individual named "Homer" existed. If he did live, how did he live and compose his poems. The two epic poems seem to be based on the assembly of legends that existed in rough form for many years. Did the man compose the poems, or did he collect traditional verses?

An analysis of the structure and vocabulary of the Iliad and Odyssey shows that the poems consist of regular, repeating phrases; even entire verses repeat. Could the Iliad and Odyssey have been oro-formulaic poems, composed on the spot by the poet using a collection of memorized traditional verses and phases? Such elaborate oral tradition, foreign to today's literate cultures, is typical of epic poetry in a pre-literate culture.

Seen this way, Homer's distinction is that his performance was recorded. There may have been hundreds of lyric poets in Homer's day, who performed hundreds of versions of the epics, but only one of these was committed to writing and survived to this day.

All in all, the belief in the reality of an actual "Homer" may have more scholarly adherents now than in the 19th century. So little is known or even guessed of his actual life, that scholars joke the poems "were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name," and the classicist Richmond Lattimore, author of a good poetic translation to English of both epics, once called a paper "Homer: Who Was She?"

Another question is: do the tales have a factual basis? The commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written in the Hellenistic period (3rd century--1st century B.C.) began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems. Modern classicists and BBC television producers continue the tradition.

The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century began to convince scholars there was an historical basis for the Trojan War. Research into oral epics in Serbo-croatian and Turkic languages began to convince scholars that long poems could be preserved with consistency by oral cultures until someone bothered to write them down. The decipherment of Linear B in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and others convinced scholars there was linguistic continuity between 13th century B.C. mainland Greek Mycenaean civilization and the Greek language of Homer.

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