Greeks had used writing since c. 1400 BC, but it was not until the late 8th century BC that their literature was first written down. Greek literature began in Ionia with the brilliant epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These mature products of a long tradition of oral poetry brought together a vast body of divine and heroic myths and sagas that served as a foundation for much subsequent Greek literature. The epic view of humankind had a lasting influence on Greek thought; indeed, it has been said that later Greek literature is but a series of footnotes to Homer.
Homer is said to have been blind and told his stories orally. Because the facts of Homer’s life when he was born or died, where he lived, who he was- remain unknown and shall most likely never be known. Many scholars have doubted the existence of a “Homer” and point to his texts as the work of a collection of authors over a long period of time. This criticism stems from a disbelief that epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey could have been formulated, maintained, and transmitted within an oral culture.
However, new research on human memory and careful analysis of text reveals evidence that the textual style of each poem does emanate from one author. We know that he wrote two poems about the Greeks and their gods. The Iliad was Homer’s first epic poem, which tells the story of the Trojan War. His second epic is the Odyssey, which tells the story of a great hero Odysseus, and the adventures he embarks on. Tradition has it that he lived in the 12th century BC, around the time of the Trojan War, in an Ionic settlement, either Chios or Smyrna, where he made his living as a court singer and storyteller.
Modern archaeological research has uncovered artifacts similar to those described in the poems, providing evidence that Homer wrote at a later date. Because the poems display a considerable knowledge of Eastern, or Ionian, Greece and are written in the dialect of that region, most scholars now suppose that Homer was Ionian of the 8th or 9th century BC. Homer writes nothing of himself in his poems, but similes in the Iliad and the Odyssey frequently make reference to the humble lives of farmers and artisans, so it is sometimes conjectured that Homer was of this class.
The question of how the poems were composed also remains a matter for debate. It is likely that Homer and his audience were members of a preliterate, oral culture and that his poems were written down long after their original composition. Nineteenth-century scholars argued that one person could not memorize so long a text and that an editor, who merged several independent works into a consistent whole, must have compiled the poems. This view is supported by the occasional inconsistencies of narrative and awkward transitions from subject to subject.
Twentieth-century studies of preliterate societies have shown, however, that poets whose recitations belong to a long tradition of storytelling can compose lengthy works orally. The oral poet constructs his poem from verbal formulas, groups of two or more words that have already been composed in order to serve recurring needs in the narrative. These may be used, for example when the poet wishes to reintroduce a character that he has already described. Formulaic passages may also extend over several lines and describe actions such as combat or the preparation of a meal.
The oral poet composes for listeners who, like the audience at a musical concert, base their appreciation on the repetitive elements that bind a work together and impress its theme on the memory. Like the poet of Beowulf, Homer was probably a practitioner of an inherited art, retelling a story that his audience had heard many times before. Differences of style and language between the Iliad and the Odyssey have led some critics to argue that each is the work of a different poet.
The 3rd-century AD literary critic Longinus suggested, however, that the Iliad was the work of Homer’s youth and the Odyssey of his maturity. This simple but acute perception accounts for the wide divergences in moral and religious tone between the two. The Iliad is the tragic story of the noble Achilles, who perfectly embodies the ancient Greek ideals of heroic conduct but also suffers from the human failings of pride and anger. The Grecian army is divided by bickering, many admirable men are killed, and even the gods quarrel.
The Odyssey, by contrast, contains many comic episodes, and its hero, Odysseus, triumphs over formidable adversaries through his superior intelligence, not by brute strength. The Iliad portrays a universe marred by moral disorder, but the Odyssey shows gods punishing men for their sins and granting good man his just reward. The ancient Greeks regarded Homer as divine and respected his work as a source of wisdom and model of heroic conduct. His influence on later literature is too extensive to be assessed but may be traced from Hesoid to the present day.
The Roman poet Virgil emulated both the Iliad and the Odyssey in his Aeneid, whose hero, Aeneas, displays the courage of Achilles and the wisdom of Odysseus. Aeneas’s wanderings from Troy to Italy–where he founds the city of Rome–provided Roman readers with a myth that linked their own culture with that of ancient Greece. The Homeric tradition in literature inspired William Shakespeare’s tragic and antiheroic Troilus and Cressida (1609) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which transports the deeds of Odysseus to the setting of 20th-century Dublin.