Homer and History

  • Influential poet, every Athenian schoolboy studied and knew his works by heart
  • A guild, the Homeridae claiming to be descendants of Homer devotes their lives to the recitations of his poems (rhapsodes, did professional recitations of Homer)
  • Apart from his name, all aspects of Homer are controversial, the exact time of his written epics are debatable
  • Heinrich Schliemann, prior to his Mycenae excavation excavated Hissarlik in northern Turkey, believed to be the site of Troy
  • Recorded nine settlements, the seventh one destroyed in a great fire that seems to lend support to the Trojan War and Homeric accounts
  • After the fall of Troy came the collapse of the mainland centres of Mycenaean civilization, and the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age
  • Might mean that the Homeric poems were set in the Bronze Age culture
  • Golden cup of Nestor resembles an actual cup found in the graves at Mycenae, another discovery, the boar’s tusk helmet of Odysseus, found in Mycenaean tombs not in later excavations
  • Weapons in Homer included a lot of iron, recording of customs that differ from the Mycenaean times
  • Trial before a jury, depicted on Achilles shield, use of phalanx and hoplites (infantry soldiers) did not come into play until the development of the city states suggesting a date as late as 700 BCE
  • Some say that Homer is drawing a parallel between the heroic past, humble present
  • Homeric poems are believed, mostly on linguistic grounds to have emanated from Ionia, preserving the Mycenaean culture and later settling in the Asia minor
  • Archaic elements coexist with later elements, the Homer language is a fusion of Ionic (predominant element, fusion of latter two), Aeolic and Arcadian (spoken in mainland Greece during Mycenaean period)
  • “cloud gathering Zeus,” “ox-eyed Hera,” traditional epithets, oldest linguistic elements, their presence is because of the formulaic composition of the poem
  • “winged words,” “rosy-fingered dawn,” examples of formulae
  • They are convenient units readily committed to memory to aid improvisation to a pre-literate world where poet wholly dependent on memory
  • Traditional inheritance is constantly being added to, to meet contemporary needs, formulaic technique in Homer is highly complex, Homer’s language is specifically developed for poetic recitations, never a spoken language, not from one genius
  • Scholarly opinion suggests that Homeric poems evolved from many centuries of sophisticated techniques of formulaic diction, historians believed these epics have been composed long after the culture they describe had passed away

The Iliad

  • Achilles, greater than any hero known to man was recruited for the Trojan expedition, he was the son of Thetis the nymph and Peleus, king of Myrmidons, it is prophesized that Thetis would bear a son greater than his father
  • Homeric heroes in Iliad exemplifies aristocratic virtues, dominantly honour, excellence and greatness, to do better than the rest (better than his father)
  • Trojans equally responsive to heroic impulse, all about glory gain, honour, pride
  • Aristocrats had to earn their distinguished social status through their fearless fighting on the battlefield, since we can’t avoid aging and death in a matter of forms, but as well join the fight and gain honour or have it for others to gain
  • Risk a glorious death as opposed to forgo glory for the sake of holding onto insignificant life, choice made wholeheartedly (charma: eagerness for battle)
  • Hector: despite foreboding of his own death he gallops onto the battlefield as if confident to win
  • Achilles: supreme because of virtue, superior physical prowess but also choosing to be at Troy, his mother had told him to choose: long, undistinguished life or eternal fame if he stayed at Troy. Greatest glory at greatest price, heroic choice aware of ultimate cost.

The Anger of Achilles: the Tragic Pattern

  • Heroic choice was taken for granted, anything else was only secondary consideration
  • First words of the poem: the anger of Achilles that brings ruin in its train
  • His aspirations threatened by a series of events, including his intensifying rivalry with Agamemnon who insults his honour
  • 9th year of the siege of Troy, Apollo is angry because Agamemnon will not give up his war spoils, the young daughter of priest worshipping Apollo and Greek camp is infested with a plague
  • Council called by Achilles gets Agamemnon to relent but he vows to make up for his loss by taking Achilles’ slave girl Briseis, Achilles is then dishonoured by this arrogant behaviour that upsets the god (hubris) and asks his mother to convince Zeus to grant Trojan success so the Greeks will realize his worth, Zeus agrees
  • Trojans advance from the city to the camp upon the plain and the Greeks petition for Achilles to return, Agamemnon admits errors and offers gifts to compensate going beyond what was required by good form alone (swallowing his pride)
  • Achilles is obdurate, unmoved because his honour is felt so deeply, never forgive
  • To some Achilles may be arrogant and self-centred, acting as if he were a law unto himself but his behaviour originates in something exceptionally pure and noble
  • No other Homeric hero has the aspiration for glory in so intense a form, he’s seeking glory and glory and honour alone, he’s not fighting for revenge or defence of others
  • With purity of this motive, he has absolute sense of his own worth and honour, any diminution of his honour diminishes the person, renders his choice of life null, void
  • This honourable truth is all he sees, blind to all other truths, eventually leading to the destruction of many others including himself
  • When doctors are treating other Greek leaders, Achilles alone can’t be treated until he finally relents to let his comrade in arms Patroclus to fight in his place but only to save the ships and not fight on to Troy thus diminishing Achilles’ honour
  • It’s the first sign of Achilles realizing his error, “a man can not be angry forever,” but his sense of pride is still overriding
  • Both magnanimity and irony that his final wish is to take Troy with Patroclus
  • The death of Patroclus pushes Achilles over the edge, whom he loves more than his own life, he then realizes his own error and folly
  • The gods have done much for him, there is no pleasure for achievement, he’s ready for death, Thetis reveals his fate to him and he vows to welcome death, seeking only glory and death of Hector (who killed Patroclus)
  • His once pure motive of glory is tainted with revenge, he’s resolute for death, losing all the chivalry he had in earlier duels against Paris and Aeneas, Glaucus, Diomedes
  • He first captures 12 young Trojans to sacrifice, he’s deaf to the pleas, his arrogant challenge to the river god contradicts his respect for the gods
  • Darkening moral tone of the poem, images of corpses exposed to dogs, carrion birds
  • Hector, in final combat asks for restoring body for burial (terms agreed on in earlier duels) but Achilles refuses. Even in dying breath, Hector begs for mercy but Achilles refuses in fury; his cruel spirit wishes he can tear him up into pieces and eat him but dogs and birds will feast upon him
  • Fastens Hector’s body to his chariot and drags him, hauling his corpses three times around the funeral mound of Patroclus for several days
  • Andromache recalled how Achilles had chivalrously reverenced the bodies of her killed family in Thebes, and his behaviour is offensive to the gods
  • Final book with the meeting of Priam, reminding him of his own aged father, Peleus
  • Achilles comes to full recognition, looks beyond grief and anger, comes to calm, steady realization that men can do no more than bear the indiscriminate mixture of good and bad that comes from Zeus
  • Human happiness is incomplete, grief is of little use in the face of inevitable human suffering, his acceptance we find noble simplicity and quiet classical spirit
  • He shares a meal, symbolizing the continuing of life, even passion of grief yields to necessity, amid ruins of hope, he sees life steadily and sees it whole
  • This heroic myth has been written into a tragedy, Homer, the father of tragedy, passionate nature of a hero that causes both immeasurable greatness and error
  • Main themes: error (Agamemnon’s folly, Achilles’ persistence), reversal (arming of Patroclus), calamity (death), recognition (Achilles’ conversation with Thetis, Priam)

Unity of design

  • Homer doesn’t spend time telling us the story from the start, but jumps right into the 9th year of the siege of Troy, selecting only particulars that contribute to his central theme: anger of Achilles, which has a clear beginning in the quarrel scene, middles with all the consequences that flow from it and end resolution of anger
  • Chain of cause and effect in the main action is the classic plot made famous in Aristotle’s Poetics, plot is diversified but never takes us too far away from Troy
  • Telling a story that spans only over a couple days, Homer interweaves the whole Trojan story
  • He jumps back and forth, doesn’t go in chronological order: book 3 shifts to Troy, action revolving around Menelaus, Aphrodite, Paris, Helen, recalling the original causes of war, book 6, Hector says farewell to his family, sees into foreboding future
  • Prophecies of Troy’s doom makes the main action part of a larger design
  • Clear concentration and unity of simple design shapes the universality Greek art is famous for, main plot of Iliad revolves around pattern of behaviour, causes and effects, representing inevitable sequence
  • His writing allows us to see throw particulars into universal, imposing of forms, telling of moral truth of the human world, representative in his poem

The Odyssey

  • While Iliad focuses on simple plot and involves emotion and calamity, Odyssey is complex and revolves around character
  • Odysseus is said to be a man of many turnings, very witty (both intellectually and physically), polytropus, polymetis and polymechanos (much contrivance and devices), polytlas (much suffering and enduring), great versatility and virtue
  • Seen great cities and the minds of great men, depends on his wits and intelligence
  • Odyssey starts near the end of his journey home from Troy, after being a prisoner of Calypso, the nymph on the island of Ogygia for seven years
  • He recounts his years of travelling at the dinner table to the Phaeacians, who sends him home, whose island he ends up on after his shipwreck upon leaving Calypso
  • Meanwhile, the scene shifts to his palace in Ithaca, with his nine year absence, aristocrats from neighbouring kingdoms have come to seek his wife’s hand in marriage, these suitors feast and spend his income and forces Penelope (his wife) to choose one of them
  • Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, just of age tries to eject the suitors but is weak, decides to journey to Pylos, to Nestor and Sparta, to Menelaus to seek news of his father
  • Penelope is in a delicate position, not wanting to choose a successor but has to protect his son as she finds out about their plot to ambush him upon his return
  • Riotous actions and insulting speeches are a gross breach of Homeric manners, the stage is set for the ultimate triumph of right over wrong in poetic justice
  • At this time we see Odysseus growing homesick, Hermes is sent to order the release of Odysseus, he builds a ship to sail home but because he had killed Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus the Cyclops, the sea god raises a storm and shipwrecks him, eventually he ends up on the island of Scherie, home of the Phaeacians
  • When declaring his identity, he announces he is famous among men for all manner of stratagems (dolos: wiles, crafts, stratagems, cunning)
  • His tale reveal him to be a versatile Greek who has been tested on a variety of experiences, thirsting for adventured, tempered with good sense, enhances his character for his final encounter with suitors
  • He’s sent home and sleeps during the journey, upon waking up he realizes that he’s home in Ithaca. He encounters Athena disguised as a shepherd. He invents his tale of identity, however involving mentioning of Cyclops and his other adventures, his wits proving worthy of Athena’s attention
  • Athena helps him disguise as a beggar and devises a plan to win his household back, the disguise is to test loyalty and only reveal when necessary
  • He is well received by his faithful steward Eumaeus, who sees him as a beggar and also encounters his son who’s returning from Sparta, he reveals himself to his son and together they take down the suitors
  • When taken into the palace, he’s received generously by his wife who questions him about Odysseus, this convo is full of irony and pathos, she unburdens herself of her sorrows and to comfort her he assures Odysseus’ prompt return
  • His old nurse also recognizes him and he reveals himself to her as well
  • Penelope decides to arrange for a contest with the great bow of Odysseus, whoever is first to string it, she will marry, when all the suitors prove inadequate, Odysseus has his turn (guaranteed by Telemachus) and shows his strength
  • This is climatic recognition followed by a bloodbath, where Odysseus slays all the suitors and their spirits proceed to tell the shades of Achilles and Agamemnon (who had been murdered by his own wife) in the underworld their story where they applaud Odysseus for his great virtue and his wife’s unwavering loyalty
  • The happy ending in the Odyssey show the natural bonds between parents and children, wife and husband, wise restraint of character
  • Both poems are two great maxims of Greek culture inscribed on the temple of Apollo, “nothing in excess,” “know thyself.”

Homeric Ideals: Civilized Social Living

  • The end of Odyssey restores conditions in which civilized living is again possible, in Scherie, a rich land with song and occupations of peace, contrasting with the island of Cyclopes, who dwell in caves, do not practise agriculture, no respect for civility
  • Cyclops: savage to strangers while Phaeacians show respect for the suppliant, unconditionally welcoming Odysseus, honouring him with gifts, delicate manners, we see highest standards of Homeric civilization, and Odysseus reciprocates
  • These standards are also present when Telemachus is received so generously as a guest in Pylos and Sparta
  • Most striking example is the compassion shown to Odysseus in disguise as a beggar by Eumaeus, Telemachus and Penelope, contrasts the shameless behaviour of suitors
  • Scherie is described in Greek ideals, beautiful garden and magnificent palace (reminder of sophisticated monuments of Mycenaean culture), harmony, order
  • Beauty: when Athena helps Odysseus impress the princess of Scherie, Nausicaa
  • At the palace he is asked to compete in Paeacian games but he politely declines until his honour is provoked (not able to combine good looks, brains, eloquence) and he participates, excels, proving himself as the Greek idea of all three

Homeric Ideals: Poetry and Art

  • As he begins narrating his tales, Odysseus praises the feast and music, palace and generosity of the king, “something like perfection”
  • Phemius, the singer at the court of the suitors “by necessity” is spared but the direct appeal of the priest Leodes to Odysseus is not
  • While Homeric man is not irreligious, the roles of poet and priests are very distinct,  commemorating values, transmitting cultural ideals were singers like Phemius, presiding over sacrifices and rituals are not priests but the heroes themselves
  • Homer celebrates the vibrancy of the human spirit, manifested in the godlike actions of his heroes, he is opposite of otherworldly (like prophets and Hebraic teachings)
  • Fullest, most dynamic portrait – Hephaestus in Iliad forging the shield of Achilles, recreating on it the Homeric world, beginning with moon, sun constellations, ending with ocean stream, encircling the world of Homer, rim of the divine artefact
  • Homer gives a very vivid impression of the shield’s manufacture, so much poetic energy, rational movement, some critique it no longer accurately represents the object but Homer is going for still art but lively representation, full of energy
  • The god creates two beautiful cities: the first harmonious, at peace, weddings with music, feasting, dancing, market with litigants disputing claims over a homicide, putting their case before a tribunal of elders, give judgment, expounding law
  • Second city: state of siege, ambush and bloody battle, five agricultural scenes, ploughing of field, harvest on king’s estate, grape-picking with accompaniment of music, song and dancing, herding of cattle with the intrusion of a lion carrying off a bellowing bull, and the grazing ground for sheep, final picture is young men and woman dancing to music with delightful crowd of onlookers
  • Although scenes are idyllic, overall representations don’t idealize men, first city is at peace but still a homicide has been committed, in the second city, soldiers are in battle, dragging their dead like real living men. The poet admires the realism of the picture, ability to bring it to life, war has representational beauty, both cities beautiful
  • The godly craftsmanship sets out vital details: gods bigger than people, unploughed fields gold, cows gold and tin etc
  • Final picture: beautiful dance floor like the one in Knossos, movement of dancers compared to the perfect symmetry and speed of potter’s wheel, and finished art, acrobats perform in the background, bard singing, celebration of youth and vigour
  • Fitting climax encapsulating the essence of Homeric art

Greek Love of beauty and Homer’s style

  • Athenian: come to mean cultured and cultivated, yield to the civil spirit of Homer more completely, unlike Spartans who turn their back upon it
  • “for we are lovers of beauty without extravagance and lovers of wisdom without unmanliness,” – Pericles (Athenian leader)
  • Greek’s love of beauty almost evident when old men catch glimpse of Helen and say who can blame the Trojans and Achaeans for being at arms for a woman’s sake, she is the image of immortal goddess
  • Achilles, the very image of a God, perfect beauty always implied, “golden Aphrodite”
  • Homeric descriptions such as dark eyebrows and ambrosial locks of Zeus, or Hermes’ gold sandals and wand, princely youth, most graceful time when the beard first begins to grow fits exactly into the representation in statues of later time
  • Beauty of poetry derives from the metrical order of its composition, even without figurative language or elegant speech, using common words, Homer’s stylish range is varied in his subject matter, inspired new poetic heights
  • True sublime is to elevate the reader, take him out of himself, truly beautiful sublime is what can be seen to have this effect on different people in different times
  • Praised passage, Hector’s farewell of Andromache, grandeur of Hector’s prayer for heroic future, full of pathos and irony, Hector’s foreboding, and fall of Troy and death of his child
  • A scene of grandeur and great pathos also depicts human reality when the child fears the nodding plume of Hector’s helmet, causing laughter, increasing intimacy, a human touch distracting any notion of false grandeur, making heroism human context. Homer’s works details common human experience and can tolerate comic
  • Homer’s style has unaffected beauty without rhetorical extravagance or ornamental excess, beauty springs from delicate decorum, brings artist’s language into perfect harmony with what he seeks to express, truly natural, hallmarks of classic art
  • Miraculously perfect like the goddess of beauty herself, poetic genius of archaic Greece
author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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