On Reading Homer, first of a series

I’ve just finished a phase of slow reading and note taking, most immediately for teaching purposes, on ‘Homer’, the supposed author of The Iliad and The Odyssey (transklared by Richmond Lattimore). From now on references to ‘Homer’ should be taken as references to these two poems, not carrying the implication that there was a single author of those two epics or that if such an author existed he or she was named Homer.

Having made those specifications of the use of ‘Homer’, I have to say I do lean towards the view that there was a single author if in a rather qualified way, that the author was male, and did bear the name Homer. I’m not scholarly specialists in these issues and I am certainly not suggesting that anyone take my views as remotely on a level with the specialists. However, it seems absurd to write a lot about Homer, as I will in blogging in the near future, and avoid these issues of authorships. At any rate I feel it best  to clear up what assumptions underly my comments, as a bit of context for what I say and to satisfy my general urge to foist my opinions upon the world through blogging, so a few words will follow about my non-expert views on these basic issues round Homer.

There does not seem to be any reasonable doubt that the Homeric poems draw on a tradition of oral poetry, largely sung in a communal environment, going back to the Mycenaean Greek period, which ended about 1,100 BCE. It also seems very widely accepted that the poems were written down in the eight, or at the latest seventh centuries BCE, in a form of Greek indicating that the writing down took place in western Anatolia, which at least establishes a possibility that the scribe, and the earlier minstrels had visited sites on the northwestern coastline of Anatolia, including the site we now know as Troy. Sites which might provided some historical origin, or origins, for the siege of Troy in The Iliad, and visiting them might have influenced the composition of the Homeric epics, and the preceding tradition. It is as at the very least suggestive that the poetic tradition goes back to people of the time of whatever wars inspired the story of the Trojan War, people who had fought in those wars or witnessed them, or knew such people, or at the minimum picked up on local accounts of those conflicts.

Though there is the possibility that the scribe, or scribes, who first wrote down The Iliad and The Odyssey, were just transcribing the oral tradition as they knew, my view is that there is too much unity of various kinds in The Iliad and The Odyssey, including unity across them for those texts to have been produced by the random accumulation of variations introduced into the oral traditions by various troubadours. Of course I am only reading in translation, I greatly regret to say, but since all translations indicate stylistic and unity in the pattern of thought, I’m willing to go so far as to assert that this tells us something about the Greek text.

On reaching the end of The Odyssey, I felt a great sense of return to the beginning of The Iliad. The Odyssey ends with reconciliation between Odysseus and the families of the Suitors. The Suitors are the local and regional aristocrats who consumed the wealth of Odysseus’ palace while aggressively courting his wife Penelope, during the twenty years Odysseus was away at the Trojan War or making the troubled journey back from Troy. In a very brief concluding passage it looks like a genuine social peace has been established under a rule of justice backed by oaths. It feels like a resolution not just of deep anger, envy, and rage in Ithaca, but a resolution of the anger, envy, and rage, between Achilles and Agamemnon, which opens The Iliad, itself following on from anger, envy, and rage between Menelaus of Sparta and Paris of Troy, regarding the marital status of Helen of Sparta/Troy.

The central character of The Iliad is Achilles direct and fierce in his passions, in which killing enemies in battle and sacking their cities plays a large part. The main Trojan character is Hector, who is given a milder side then Achilles, but is nevertheless a counterpart. The character of Odysseus, who is capable of great violence and anger, is nevertheless one largely characterised by cunning, intelligence, and deception. He is plays a large role in The Iliad so that his dominant role in The Odyssey seems like a natural outgrowth.

Minstrels appear in Homer, which is a fascinating topic in itself. At this point, in relation to the authorship question, it is necessary to refer to the uniform maleness of the minstrels. This is not in itself proof that Greek troubadours were all male from the Mycenaean era onwards, it does very much suggest that the poems were written down in a very patriarchal context, in which any history of female minstrels was erased. If the poems are the creation, inspired by oral tradition, of one author, it seems very unlikely that there was a female author in such a patriarchal context. Adding those considerations to the general ancient belief that Homer was a male author, the probabilities must lie in that direction. There is a possibility that the author was a woman hiding under a male identity, as in the nineteenth century cases of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin writing under the name of George Sand and Mary Ann Evans, writing under the name of George Eliot, but we just have no evidence of this and it would be wrong to confuse a fascinating possibility, or wishful thinking, with where the probabilities direct us.

On the name, Homer (Omeros) is the name we have from the ancient Greeks and we do not have any other names. We cannot exclude the possibility of some misunderstanding in the chain of transmission of information, or interference from the wish of some people somewhere in western Anatolia to manufacture a figure called Homer as a convenient way of simplifying some more complicated story of composition and authorship, but in the absence of evidence for such complications, I believe it proper to follow the simplest explanation: an Archaic Era Greek man in western Anatolia wrote down a collection of traditional oral poetry, a tradition going back to late Bronze Age wars between Mycenaean Greeks and Anatolians, through a process of such thorough revision, addition, and unification that it was an act of composition in itself.

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