Who was Homer?

Tradition says that a great blind poet named Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, the epic poems about the Trojan War and its aftermath. But who was Homer?

Inside St. Mark’s church in Venice lies the oldest complete version of the Iliad, a hand written manuscript created about AD 900. Before that, we have partial manuscripts and written references to poetry by Homer. The earliest of those date from the Sixth Century B.C.

But Homer’s poetry was created even farther back in time. Repetitions and formulas in the poems suggest that

they were orally composed in the beginning. Before writing was generally known among Greeks, poets recited and sang stories for audiences at the courts of city leaders and at festivals. A poet could actually improvise a tale in the six-beat rhythm of Greek verse if he knew the plot of his story, the themes and characters, and had descriptive formulas in mind such as “the wine dark sea” or “Hector, breaker of horses.”

Could “Homer” really be a group of poets whose works on the theme of Troy were collected? Perhaps; but no one can agree on where the boundaries of each original poem might be. The Iliad especially is knit together in many ways. Although there are many inconsistencies in the work, its main dramatic action is clear and unified, suggesting a guiding hand. It seems likely then that Homer was one magnificent oral poet, who

gathered the best of the Troy stories, reworked them, and pulled them together.

Yet if Homer was strictly an oral poet, how could he keep such long works as the Iliad in his head? It would take days to recite all of the Iliad or the Odyssey! It is now thought that Homer worked some time between 725 and 675 B.C., when the alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians was just coming into use among the Greeks. It seems likely that writing helped Homer in collecting and composing. Writing out the long epics of Troy could well have been the work of a lifetime.

In the end, though, we can only make educated guesses abut Homer’s way of working, or even his very existence. All we know for sure is that the poems we call his have served as the foundation stones of European literature, and that the ancient stories still spring to life every time someone opens a work by “Homer” and begins to read.