History is important. Every historian you’ll ever meet will tell you that. And it is true, because only through our shared history can we hope to learn from mistakes made and knowledge gathered. In an ideal universe that would mean that we are constantly evolving and improving through time, something our war and poverty riddled world cannot attest to.
But casting behavior aside, certain things have managed to endure for centuries and are still in high regard today. One of which is the first poet of the western world, Homer, and his works. What many do not realize though, is that this Greek genius might not have existed at all.
Many people usually have heard the stories that Homer allegedly told many thousand years ago. About Achilles and the Trojan War, about Odysseus’ ten year Odyssey home, which in itself became a noun in western languages. Once the title of anyone’s work becomes synonymous with an actual word encompassing the general content of it, that’s when you know that it is more than just a story.
A Story That Never Gets Old
The first piece attributed to Homer is The Iliad, a lyrical epic consisting of more than 15,000 lines of text. While maybe not known by anyone for its title, the general content is widely known, used and taught.
It takes place within the last year of the Trojan War, describing the dispute between King Agamemnon and Warrior Achilles in the Greeks war effort to seize Troy. What’s described here is a war that eventually became an integral part of Greek Mythology, though it is not entirely clear whether the story, at least at its core, is related to actual historic events.
The Second epic is Odyssey, which clocks in at fewer, but still massive, 12,000 lines of text describing the war hero Odysseus’ efforts to return home, ten years after the Trojan War has ended.
Both stories are riddled with intrigue and political themes, as well as divine interventions by gods and other mythical creatures alike, making it not only the first western lyrical work that is known to us today but also one of the longest and highest regarded by any author.
The influence they had on many famous writers throughout history is varied. Lyrical masterminds such as Virgo, Dante, and quite a few German authors have spent an enormous amount of time studying Homer and his stories. Why? Simply because it displays the fundamental nature of humanity in a way that is so complex and thought out, that it is almost hard to wrap your head around.
While The Iliad describes war and the slaughter of the Greeks in a lot of detail, Odyssey pictures the times following war and Odysseus’ trouble to break out of a circle of violence that seems almost imposed on him by nature which can, in his case, only be broken by divine intervention.
But who was this Homer then, that he could produce such epic tales that date back hundreds of years?
The Mystery Surrounding Homer
If I said “not much is known about Homer” I would be lying, because as a matter of fact, nothing is known about the man that was allegedly the pinnacle of Greek Mythology and story telling, influencing countless artists in the past until today. We don’t even know exactly when he was born, where he died or where he may have lived.
Most experts say he must’ve been alive around 850 Years BC, which, if true, would’ve been almost 400 years after the events described in his stories. That his work is mostly fictional shouldn’t be surprising, regarding that the Greek Gods, such as Zeus or Athena (which is comparable to a Divine Guardian to Odysseus in the Odyssey), have a pivotal role in the story as well as other mythical creatures like Cyclopses.
The apparent time gap does indicate that even if there was a historical accurate core at the heart of the story, it might have been extorted over the years since the events must have taken place.
Homer, The Illiterate Poet?
But the mysteries do not end there. Upon close inspection of both The Iliad and the Odyssey experts determined very early on, that both these epics did not have a written origin, instead, they must’ve been told orally and then be written down at one point. Furthermore, if actively searched for, it is evident that in both stories the act of writing in any form is not mentioned, which made some experts believe Homer himself might not have known what writing is when he thought of the story.
One person that is currently studying the matter, with a couple of books published about Greek Mythology and Homer himself including his translation of the source material, is Barry B. Powell, Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Powell goes as far as to suggest, that Homer was one of the reasons the Greek Alphabet was invented in the first place (as published in his book “Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet”), to write down his stories. This could mean that Homer was one of the first literates, but even Powell concludes that he was probably illiterate and a third person wrote it down for him. Some others say that the first written edition might have even been produced a couple of hundred years after Homer’s death.
There is also the persistent saying Homer was blind which is, again, hard to verify. If true, it could be a reason he did not write it down himself, on top of which some people believe him being blind is one of the reasons he refers to blindness or blind characters a few times throughout the stories.
So What Does That Mean?
This could mean anything and nothing. There is much more mystery surrounding the issue of Homer and his stories. One of them is the fact that there are more poems that have been attributed to Homer, some of them we know existed, but we don’t know what the exact content was. There are also many people saying that there never was a “single Homer,” that the whole story is a collection of many stories tied together by many oral artists, which others deny, because they reference each other in a way, only one mind could’ve done it back in the day.
Then there is the issue that our translations might not in the slightest sense resemble the source material. Our translations most likely go back to the versions stored in the ancient Library of Alexandria, which most likely bundled the many different versions that must’ve been created by then into one canonical version. Since then many additional versions and translations have been created, which is because some parts of the original scripts we use are open to interpretation. As the older languages were not as flexible as ours today, it is sometimes hard to determine what kind of emotions are in play. Is it meant to be sad, funny or angry? Those are all things most translations have interpreted at their own free will and maybe distorted the meaning and contents even more.
It is fascinating in its own right that two of the most important literary pieces of our History are shrouded in mystery. Starting with the actual events, to the author, to the way we got a hold of the story as it is told and published today. What is important though, is this:
It influenced many great personalities so far, and it will continue to do so for all time to come. Because if it survived close to 3,000 years already, partly through oral presentation, it can survive at least 3,000 more.
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