Who was Homer?

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Homer is the earliest poet in Western culture who, given his presence in writings of antiquity and the later legends, was a central figure of tremendous importance to ancient Greek culture.

Although no one actually knows where and when he was born (historians have suggested somewhere between the twelfth and eighth centuries BCE), Homer was clearly of great status and influence to Greek writers of the time such as Archilochus, Alcman, Callinus, among others. Over the following centuries, many works were attributed to him. Authors penned accounts about Homer’s life, although these do not offer much historical value.

Homer is known for two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These significant texts were used in Greek and Hellenistic education and later influenced Western ideas. The poems were composed somewhere in the eighth or early seventh century BCE. Homer conveyed his poems through oral practices rather than writing them down. They make use of similes, metaphors, and repetitive elements similar to a chorus, which suggests a musical element was involved. As an epic poet Homer probably spoke and recited his work with a lyre in hand.

However, scholars hold a range of views on the epics. This is called the Homeric Question in which scholars attempt to determine the author of the poems, as well as when and where they were composed. Some historians think that the stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey were the products of a group rather than a single individual. They incorporate older oral traditions and the differences in style, theology, ethics, vocabulary, and geographical perspective suggest they come from different authors. 

Some suggest that the two poems were composed centuries apart and, on this view, it is possible that Homer did not actually exist as a historical figure. Other historians posit that an individual, Homer, did, in fact, compile the stories and then recited them to memory. Regardless of these questions, the poems were significant morally and practically to the ancient Greeks.

The Iliad tells of the siege of the city of Troy during the legendary Trojan War fought between the Greeks and the Trojan army. It narrates the conflict between the commander of the united Greek armed forces, King Agamemnon, and the warrior, Achilles, who was said to have bested Hector, the greatest and most skilled warrior on the side of Troy. Legend is that Achilles died after being shot in the heel with an arrow towards the conclusion of the Trojan War. 

The historicity of the events described in the Iliad has been a topic of much debate. It appears that Homer invented certain details concerning the city of Troy and many references also suggest that it incorporated different periods of Greek history. This might be explained by the 400 or so years of oral tradition before the poems were composed.

The Odyssey, perhaps acting as a sequel to the Iliad, focuses on later events, namely the journey home of the hero Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, around twenty years after the fall of Troy during the Trojan War. On their journey, Odysseus and his men encounter all kinds of ominous creatures such as witches, nymphs, man-eating giants, and water monsters. They were also at the mercy of the gods who intervened in their affairs.

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