Martin Mueller (Northwestern University)
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Homer is the name for the putative author(s) of the poems known since antiquity as the Iliad and Odyssey. The 16,000 lines of the former and 12,000 lines of the latter make up the bulk of Early Greek epic, which also includes about 2,000 lines of Hesiod as well as another 2,500 lines of Homeric Hymns (not by Homer), and a narrative poem called The Shield of Herakles.

The texts

The Iliad and Odyssey have been transmitted with exceptional fidelity since the second century BCE. The many papyrus fragments since that period show that texts had pretty much the same lines in the same order, and the manuscript tradition of Homer shows less internal variance than the texts of Shakespeare. Before the second century BCE textual variance was much greater. We know this from papyrus fragments and from citations by ancient authors, especially Plato, who rarely quotes quite the text we now read.

The remarkable stabilization of the Homeric text was the work of several generations of Alexandrian scholars, most famously Aristarchus. How to interpret that process of stabilization has remained an open question in modern Homeric scholarship. Do we read Homer's Iliad or that of Aristarchus? This question has been inconclusively debated ever since Friedrich August Wolf inaugurated modern Homeric scholarship with his famous Prolegomena of 1795.

Homer and oral poetry

While little is known directly about the creation of the Homeric poems or about their transmission prior to 200 BCE, it is certain that the poems are rooted in a tradition of oral verse-making. It was Wolf's great achievement to put that insight at the centre of what has come to be known as The Homeric Question. In the 1930s Milman Parry's systematic elaboration of that insight created the foundations for all Homeric scholarship since then.

The French Renaissance poet Ronsard in the preface to his epic La Françiade contrasted Homer's “na(t)ive facility” with the “curious diligence” of Vergil. In his Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns Perrault – followed by Pope – mused about an age in which beautiful princesses like Nausikaa did their own laundry on the beach. The distinctly modern and nostalgic condescension present in these moments of reception history has been the enabling and distorting mirror for the modern criticism of Homer as the oral poet par excellence, nowhere more so than in the many versions of the question whether one could or should distinguish individual poets from the tradition in which they worked.

At the practical level, oral verse making is a craft, not unlike musical improvisation. Through reverse engineering of its products, we can identify its component parts and rules. Greek epic is invariably hexametric. Each line consists of six feet that are normally dactylic (long-short-short), but may be spondaic (long-long). A hexametric line observes syntactic and prosodic rules in putting on average seven words into six feet. Makers and audiences of this poetry are very sensitive to the ways in which word end coincides (diaeresis) or does not coincide (caesura) with the end of a foot. Because the aesthetics of the hexameter depends on the pleasing distribution of caesura and diaeresis, its fundamental building block is neither the word nor the foot, but a syntacto-prosodic unit (colon) in which a syntactically correct phrase fits into an available metrical pattern. Such a colon may be either a fixed collocation, like “winged words” or it may be a more abstract template, such as “preposition+noun from the middle of the fifth to the end of the sixth foot.”

There is substantial agreement among scholars about the mechanics of this process, but there are debates about the rigor with which the rules operate. Milman Parry was a curious mixture of Herder and Henry Ford. He passionately responded to an anti-individualist aspect of Romantic ideology summarized in the title of Herder's famous anthology with its untranslatable pun “Voices|Harmony of the Peoples in Song. ” But he also grew up in the age of the assembly line. In his famous discussion of name phrases he saw Homeric poetry as governed by the principles of economy and extension: there is one phrase for every metrical contingency (extension), but only one phrase (economy). The Homeric muse transcends or precedes a modern desire for individuality: it is, in Saussurean terms, all “langue” and no “parole.” The Flexibility of the Homeric Formula, the programmatic title of J. B. Hainsworth's book (1968), usefully summarizes the efforts of later scholars to modify what is sometimes called “hard-core Parryism.”

Beyond the techniques of verse making, there have been broader attempts to distinguish between the ethos and procedures of “oral” vs. “literate” poetry. Unlike Sophocles, Shakespeare or Verdi, Homer probably composed without the help of writing, but the question how a poet encodes may matter less than how his audiences decode. The governing constraints on the texture and structure of an epic, play, or opera derive from what audiences can be expected to hear, but there may be little difference between the fundamental “aurality” of the intended audiences of Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Verdi.

The Iliad tells us little, but the Odyssey a great deal, about the social context of poetry in Homer's day. The hospitality expected from a rich landowner included performances by professional singers, who accompanied their tales with a lyre. In the Odyssey we only learn about great “kings” like Alkinoos or Odysseus, who employ such a singer on a continuing basis. No doubt, the typical singer's life was more nomadic. The Odyssey never misses an opportunity for “be nice to poets” rhetoric, leading one to think that such advice was needed.

The Odyssey includes the story the Phaeacian court poet Demodokos tells about Ares and Aphrodite. Its 100 lines probably condense standard practice, and the more representative performance is the long story Odysseus tells to the Phaeacians. He talks rather than sings, but he begins by praising the singer's art, his narrative is received with rapt silence by the audience, and this central part of the epic is clearly framed as a performance. It goes on for some 2,200 lines, with an intermission two thirds of the way. Assuming an average of 5 seconds per line, Odysseus's performance took three hours — more than what Shakespeare called “the two-hour traffic of our stage,” but less than a performance of Tristan. Some basic parameters of oral/aural performance may not be so different from what goes on in theatres and opera houses. And it is dubious to derive hypotheses about larger discursive structures in orally composed works from assumptions about audience capacities that sit below the threshold of what Shakespeare or Verdi expected their audiences to hear without consulting a score or text.

Greek beliefs about Homer

Conventional ancient ideas about Homer are neatly summarized by Herodotus, writing about 450 BCE. Homer wrote some 400 years before his time about events that in turn occurred some 400 years earlier. He stood head and shoulders above other poets, about whom we know nothing except for a few names, titles, plot summaries, and fragments. While the Iliad and Odyssey speak reverently of poets and name several of them, neither reveals anything about its author, in marked contrast to the roughly contemporary Theogony and Works and Days, whose author Hesiod says much about himself.

Seven cities vied for the honor of Homer's birthplace – on no particular evidence. The story of his blindness is quite old. The speaker of the Hymn to Apollo (ca. 600 BCE) is envisaged as Homer engaging in a mutual publicity deal with the god and his temple maidens. He will always sing their praise if in reponse to questions about the best poet they will say:

He is a blind man whose home is on Chios, that rugged and rockbound
Island, and all of his poems are excellent, now and hereafter.

A few ancient scholars, known as the “chorizonts” or “separators” believed that the Iliad and Odyssey were the work of different poets. Even more marginal was a tradition, casually cited in Cicero, that the poems were stitched together from shorter poems on instructions from the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus (550 BCE).

Modern hypotheses of authorship

The memory of the so-called “Pisistratean recension” was picked up by F. A. Wolf and transformed into the Homeric Question, i.e. the question of what kinds of procedures by one or many singer/poets led to the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey as we now read them.

Different answers given to that question are radically underdetermined by the available evidence and are deeply shaped by what you think creative processes are or should be like. If you like to think of the Iliad or Odyssey as predominantly the work of one great poet, you have a strong interest in conceiving of the “Aristarchan” stabilization of the texts as a more or less successful representation of the texts as they were originally composed. But if you think of them as expressing a dynamic and collective tradition that lives through performance, stabilization appears as loss: the Medusa's face of scholarship turns living performance into stony text.

While modern scholars have a deeper and more precise understanding of the craft of oral verse making than Wolf and his contemporaries, on the larger questions of authorship fundamental disagreements remain. Martin West, the most recent editor of the Iliad sees the poem as the “work of a single great poet,” who had writing at his disposal. Richard Janko thinks the poems were dictated, but like West emphasizes the shaping power of a single mind. For both of them, the Homeric question resolves into how to approximate the lost original through the texts we have. Gregory Nagy, on the other hand, would like to unfreeze the results of the Aristarchan recension and restore the fluctuations of a once living tradition in a “multi-text.”

The subject matter of Homer

Whoever Homer was, what are his poems about? A surprisingly nuanced answer comes from a tabulation of the most common nouns, adjectives and verbs in descending frequency and in terms of their relative frequency in the Iliad and Odyssey.

Word type Much more common in Odyssey More common in Odyssey About equal More common in Iliad Much more common in Iliad
Nouns house megaron woman household mother work father goddess companion human earth man ship god spirit hand child polis story mind word son foot lord crowd spear horse war
Adjectives bad/ugly beautiful all much dear well immortal divine big quick
Verbs come/go put carry arrive go have say give said become lead want see walk know throw stand seize rush fight

The very ordinary words tell a story with a power and charm of their own. Focusing on the middle column, we notice that “man,” “ship”, and “god,” in that order, are the most common Homeric nouns, followed by the word for hand and “thumos,” a peculiar psychological organ that marks desire and the will to go after things but also can stand for life itself. Thus the top five nouns identify the masculine agent, the human artefact that extends human dominion beyond the land, a power beyond man, the quality that makes him go after things, and the hand that enables him to execute his desire.

“All” is the most common of adjectives (and is in fact the most common of all content words). At the next level we find “much” and “dear”, and at the third level the generally approving adjective eus, which corresponds closely to English “well” . We also find two adjectives that can be translated as “divine”, but are used quite differently. Dios attributes the power and beauty of gods to humans, while athanatos is only said of gods because gods are always and humans never “deathless”. Homeric characters want to have all or much. They treasure things and people dear to them. They like quality, and they worry about the ways in which people are sometimes like and always unlike the gods.

If we now look at the columns to the left and the right, we see very clearly how the narrative priorities of the Iliad and Odyssey are reflected in the distribution of basic words. The importance of the warrior's size and speed are marked in the two Iliadic adjectives megas and tachus. Similarly, the predominance in the Odyssey of “good/beautiful” and “bad/ugly”, the two basic adjectives in the moral-aesthetic lexicon, points to the judgmental quality of the Odyssey that critics have often remarked on.

The Odyssey is a world of travel and business. People come and go. They carry things and put them somewhere. By contrast the Iliad is an epic of war. This is obvious from the verb “fight,” but it also appears in the more generic verbs that are more common in the Iliad. Men take a stand, throw , seize, and rush. Nouns tell a similar story. The four nouns that are respectively much more common in one epic sharply contrast the domestic world of women with the warrior world of men. On the Odyssean side there is “woman” and three different words for “house” and “household”. On the Iliadic side, there is the “troop of men”, “spear”, “horse”, and “war”.

The privileging of the son in a warrior culture shows not only in the fact that it is the most common kinship term but that it is more common in the Iliad. Father and mother are more important in the Odyssey. “Foot” and “lord” belong more to the Iliadic world. On the Odyssean side of the ledger we find the world of arts and crafts, earth, and the generic word for human. The predominance of “goddess” and “companion” reflect very specific narrative constraints: the special relationship of Odysseus with his companions and with Athena. Perhaps the most interesting point about this survey of the most common content words is their ordinariness.

Characters walk, talk, see, know, give, put, throw, stand, take, and rush. They like things big and fast. They want it all. They are sons and have mothers and fathers. They have a sense that there is a world beyond them. What else is new? But the fact that the basic lexical fabric shows us a very familiar world is very important. It does not prove that Homeric characters are “just like us”, but it points to fundamental similarities that guarantee intelligibility and provide a framework for understanding difference.

Difference there certainly is. Consider the ten most common nouns in Shakespeare: lord, man, sir, love, king, time, god, eye, heart, hand. Homer and Shakespeare share an androcentric bias. But “lord”, “sir”, and “king” point to the much more hierarchical nature of Shakespeare's world. And the prominent position of “love” and “time” point towards distinctly Shakespearean preoccupations.

Differences between the Iliad and Odyssey

The differences in subject matter complicate the question whether the two epics are the work of the “same poet,” however one wishes to understand that phrase. On the one hand, the Iliad and Odyssey differ quite measurably in their use of function words and other low-level stylistic criteria that are presumed to be independent of narrative context. On the other hand, they are more like each other than either is like Hesiod or the Homeric Hymns. More importantly, within each epic there is a huge (and very similar) difference between the distribution of very common words in narrative and speech. Thus it appears that the clearly measurable differences between Iliadic and Odyssean lexical usage do not provide good evidence for hypotheses about different authorship.

Much stronger evidence for separate authorship comes from the deep differences in ethos and narrative perspective that do not obviously follow from the difference in subject matter. The characters and narrator of the Odyssey like to make moral judgments. Iliadic characters are less judgmental, and the Iliadic narrator is much more interested in a logic of consequences than in apportioning moral praise or blame.

The gods in the Iliad

The audience and characters experience the gods in quite different ways. In the Iliad you see an Olympian society with interactions of intricately paired gods that are contrasted with each other and with other pairs. Apollo and Athene are the Olympian gods par excellence: forces of order and reason that are opposed to each other through their mode of interacting with humans. While Athene is close to you, whether she helps or deceives you, Apollo, who “shoots from afar” always stresses the distance between the human and the divine.

Ares and Aphrodite, the gods of passionate love and war, are the least Olympian of gods and treated by the other gods with a mixture of contempt and ridicule. But they motivate much of the human action. Zeus and Hera demonstrate the cockney wisdom that marriage is “trouble and strife,” but Zeus is more often and importantly seen as the prime mover and as separate from the other gods as the gods are from mortals. Hephaistos, Poseidon, and Hermes play important supporting roles in particular regions of the poem.

The Iliadic audience see the gods constantly meddling in human affairs, breathing strength into a warrior or deceiving him with false promises, making this spear hit and that spear miss, and so on. Virtually any action is “doubly motivated” by a human and a divine cause, but divine intervention does not subtract from human achievement. The gods may be said to inhabit the gap that always lies between human intention and success or failure, closing or widening it at their discretion.

The gods in the Odyssey

There is some, but not very much, of this in the Odyssey. Athene is very close to – almost chummy with – Odysseus and Telemachos. But the other gods are largely gone, and the characters and audience are typically more in the dark, sensing that some god is doing something, without knowing exactly what. Thus it makes only limited sense to speak of the “Homeric” gods, and the phrase does more harm than good if it distracts attention from deep differences in the manifestation of the divine, which do not follow obviously from the narrative exigencies of the two epics.


Similes are another area of strong differences. The extended simile is far more common in the Iliad than in the Odyssey. Its “tail,” as Perrault called it disparagingly, is rarely an irrelevant elaboration but typically mirrors the wider context of the narrative in which it occurs. It is tempting to speculate that similes add variety to long stretches of monotonous battle narrative and for that reason are less common in the Odyssey. But this is probably wrong. Iliadic similes are typically drawn from wildlife or encounters between farmers and wild animals. They underscore the savagery of battle rather than add variety to it.

Many scholars have drawn attention to distinctive linguistic features of similes. To the extent that linguistic variants in Homer can be put on a time line, the special features found in similes appear to be late. While shorter similes are certainly rooted in traditional forms of epic verse-making, it is quite possible that the extensive and systematic use of the long simile is an Iliadic specialty.


Imitators and parodists from Vergil through Fielding to Joyce have seized on phrasal repetition as a defining feature of Homeric poetry. If you know nothing else about Homer you expect to encounter “rosy-fingered Dawn,” “swift-footed Achilles,” and the “wine-dark sea.” But phrasal repetition is also an area of major difference between the two epics. Not only is there more of it in the Odyssey, but it is of a different kind. Dawn rises thirteen times in the Iliad and 32 times in the Odyssey. In the Iliad, there are ten different phrases, and none of them occurs more than twice. In the Odyssey, there are eight phrases, but one of them occurs twenty times: “When early-rising rosy-fingered Dawn appeared.”

The tendency to concentrate a high percentage of the tokens of a type in a few dominant subtypes (or even a single subtype) is a striking Odyssean feature that appears in a variety of different contexts at the lexical and phrasal level. Most modern readers form their ideas of Homeric repetition through an early encounter with the Odyssey and may think of the “rosy-fingered dawn” effect as a Homeric feature. But it is more properly seen as an Odyssean effect.

Intentional differences between the epics

Some differences between the epics appear to be intentional and suggest that whoever put the Odyssey together had the Iliad in mind. In the story space of Greek mythology, the memory of the great triumph over Troy is inseparable from the Nostoi, the stories about the mostly disastrous fates that awaited the conquerors on their return home. The Iliad portrays the events that make the fall of Troy (and the death of Achilles) inevitable. The Odyssey tells the story of the most famous survivor and contrasts it with the death of Agamemnon, while touching on the fortunes of other warriors, such as Menelaos and Nestor.

The story of the Wooden Horse is never mentioned in the Iliad, because it undermines the central assumption that Troy is doomed with the death of Hektor, who according to his name “holds” it. In the Odyssey, the story is used as a very artful splice to achieve narrative continuity between the epics, but Hektor is never mentioned.

The first line of the Iliad names Achilles and puts his full patronymic inside a phrase about the destructive anger that engulfs him and others (mênin ... Pêlêiadeô Achilêos / oulomenên). By contrast the first line of the Odyssey identifies its protagonist as an unnamed “man of many turns” (andra ... polutropon), and the central Polyphemos adventure hinges on Odysseus' ability for self-denial when he punningly gives his name as “Nobody” (outis). This is something Achilles could never do. In fact, his most often quoted line is his passionate outburst to Odysseus that he “hates the man who thinks one thing and says another” (Il.9.312).

On the other hand, all of Odysseus' troubles on his way home stem from the fact that in the end he cannot keep his mouth shut and tells Polyphemus who it was that blinded him (Od.9.502). And while Odysseus is the born survivor, like Achilles he chooses mortality and the glory of his name when he rejects Kalypso's offer to stay with her forever in the anonymity of her “concealing” cave (Od.5.215).

Large-scale narrative structure

Aristotle tells us in the Poetics that unlike other epic poets Homer focused on a single action and disposed of subordinate materials in “episodes.” Horace famously remarks that Homer does not tell his story ab ovo (from the egg laid by Leda), but plunges the reader medias in res. Both of these remarks refer implicitly to the large-scale architectural devices by which the author(s) of the Iliad and Odyssey “scaled up” from the presumably shorter traditional narratives in which the epics are rooted. The central action of the Iliad, which involves the triangle of Achilles, Patroklos, and Hektor and occurs, like the plot of a Greek tragedy, at the very end of the story, is surrounded by montages of scenes that represent the beginning and end of the war. In the Odyssey, the simple homecoming plot is deferred by a large retarding movement, the visit to Phaeacia, which provides the setting for the first-person flashback narrative of Odysseus' adventures.


The Iliad

The story of the Iliad combines narrative threads that go back to a famous wedding. On learning that the sea goddess Thetis would bear a son stronger than his father Zeus thought better of his interest in her and married her off instead to the mortal Peleus. Everybody was invited to their famous wedding except for Quarrel (Eris). She came anyhow and dropped a golden apple with the inscription: “To the fairest.” In time Paris was appointed to adjudicate the claims of Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite, who respectively promised him power, wisdom, and the most beautiful of women. He chose the latter, and with the help of Aphrodite abducted Helen, wife of Menelaos. The Trojan War is the story of the victorious Greek effort to avenge this wrong. Brought together by “evil-designing quarrel” (kakomêchanos eris), Achilles, son of Thetis and most brilliant of man, and Helen, daughter of Leda and most beautiful of women, bear witness to the Iliad's persistent identification of splendor with disaster.

Achilles initially has no stake in the war over Helen. He quarrels with Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition, and withdraws from battle, asking Zeus to harm the Achaeans. The death of his friend Patroklos at the hands of Hektor is the fatal consequence of his destructive anger. By forcing Achilles to take revenge on Hektor, it turns the Trojan war, which began as a war about Helen, into a war about Patroklos. The death of Hektor settles two outcomes that need not be told directly: the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy.

The progress of the central plot articulates the fundamental narrative triangle of the warrior epic: A kills B and is in turn killed by C. This triangle is motivated by the mutual commitment of the warrior and his companion, which is absolute and far deeper than loyalty to cause or country. Some aspects of the relationship of warrior and companion are captured well by thinking of Patroklos as Achilles' “buddy.” But others are not: warrior and companion are never full equals, although their friendship lacks the formal hierarchical component of feudal relationships.

Fighting in the Iliad is a chain of such triangles, but because their strict observance would quickly clear the stage of characters, they are implemented with characteristic displacements. Major characters are injured rather than killed, or a spear intended for them misses and hits a minor character instead. But the central action is a pure version of the chain. Patroklos kills Sarpedon, Hektor kills Patroklos, Achilles kills Hektor, and Paris will kill Achilles. The major victims Sarpedon, Patroklos, and Hektor are the only characters who have something to say at the point of death, which is typically sudden in the Iliad. Once Patroklos has fallen, Achilles thinks of himself as a dead man, and his utterances have the finality of a death speech.

The narrative of the Iliad has a strong pro-Achaean bias. Even when Achilles is absent and the Trojans are victorious, individual duels are more likely to result in Achaean victories. There are also glimpses of a moralizing Orientalism that sees manly Greeks fighting dissolute Trojans. But these are rare, and the dominant narrative stance is a deep sympathy for the victims whoever they are. Since the Trojans usually lose, the pro-Achaean bias develops its own counterpoint, which is sounded through the little necrologues in which the narrator for a few lines dwells on the youth of a fallen warrior or the grief of his wife and parents.

Most of the events directly narrated in the Iliad happen during four consecutive days in the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. Their account is framed by the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon (Iliad 1) and the ransoming of Hektor's body (Iliad 24). The first day (Iliad 2-7) includes a number of scenes that may have been adapted from earlier narratives about the beginning of the war, such as the scene in which Helen on the walls of Troy identifies Achaean warriors for Priam or the duel in which Menelaos and Paris seek to settle their conflict without harm to innocent third parties. The gods, alas, prevent so sensible an outcome. The fighting on this day is indecisive. On the Achaean side it is dominated by Diomedes as a substitute for Achilles. It ends with a peculiar and quasi-chivalrous tournament that pits Hektor against Aias.

The second day of fighting (Iliad 8) begins with Zeus ordering the pro-Achaean gods to stop supporting their side, thus guaranteeing Trojan success and glory for Hektor. During the ensuing night, Agamemnon tries to conciliate Achilles, but his emissaries fail to move his intransigence. The same night is also the time for a reconnaissance mission by Diomedes and Odysseus that leads to the entrapment of a Trojan spy and the ruthless slaughter of sleeping Thracian allies. This episode, the so-called “Doloneia,” has been suspected as an insert since antiquity. It certainly differs markedly in style and ethos.

On the third day of fighting (Iliad 11-18) , Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus after initial successes are wounded, and Achaean hopes now rest on Aias, the greatest warrior after Achilles and greatest of all defensive fighters. (Iliad 11). Hektor takes the offensive, and the Trojans breach the Achaean wall (Iliad 12). There follows a long retarding interlude in which the Achaeans are secretly aided by Poseidon, and Hera seduces her husband to distract his attention from the fighting. The Kretan leader Idomeneus is prominent in this part of the narrative (Iliad 13-14). But once Zeus wakes up from post-coital sleep, Hektor is once more unstoppable and succeeds in setting fire to the ships. (Iliad 15).

Patroklos now joins the battle, succeeds in repulsing the Trojans but is killed by Hektor (Iliad 16). The long battle over his body (Iliad 17) comes to an abrupt end when Achilles learns about his death and his mere appearance terrifies the Trojans (Iliad 18).

The fourth day of fighting begins with the formal reconciliation between Achilles and Agamemnon (Iliad 19). There follows a long “aristeia” of Achilles in which we see him slaughtering countless Trojans, with only Aeneas escaping his savage anger. Zeus lifts the ban on the pro-Achaean gods, and the gods not only support their protégés but fight each other (Iliad 20-21). The day concludes with the duel of Achilles and Hektor, which decides the war that the duel of Paris and Menelaos had failed to settle. The dying Hektor predicts the death of Achilles at the hands of Paris and Apollo (Iliad 22).

The remaining two books of the Iliad are taken up with the funeral of Patroklos and games in his honor and with the ransoming of Hektor's body and his funeral. When Achilles chases Hektor around the walls of Troy, they pass the hot and cold “springs of whirling Skamandros” and

the washing-hollows
of stone, and magnificent, where the wives of the Trojans and their lovely
daughters washed the clothes to shining, in the old days
when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaians.

This is perhaps the most poignant of a number of scenes in which the narrator looks briefly at the world of peace that is ignored and destroyed by the boundary situation of war, the subject of his epic. War is a minor and distinctly subordinate theme of the Shield of Achilles, which may be said to celebrate and elevate ordinary human life. A peaceful world, though deeply threatened, also appears in Hektor's visit to Troy (Iliad 6) and in his successive encounters with his mother, with Helen, and above all with his wife Andromache and their son Astyanax. The barely hundred lines of their dialogue, at once formal and deeply intimate, allow us to trace the ideal of marriage as conversation back to the very origins of Western literature.

Although the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath is a story of great disaster for victors and vanquished alike, the Iliad concludes with celebrations – muted, to be sure – of a civilizing order. That is the point of the funeral games for Patroklos, admired so much by Schiller (Iliad 23). And it lies at the heart of the extraordinary encounter of Achilles and Priam when they find common ground in seeing each other as father and son (Iliad 24). It is quite productive to see the plot of the Iliad as a sequence of events in which customs are broken and negotiations are refused. At the low points Achilles denies Hektor's plea for respecting burial rights, and Hekuba becomes a cannibal metaphorically when she says of Achilles: “I wish I could set teeth in the middle of his liver and eat it” (24.212-3). But Achilles and Priam, who have every reason to hate each other, transact the ransom of Hektor's body and share a meal. The peace and beauty of that encounter are no less real for being temporary and known by them to be such.


The Odyssey

The outlines of the story

If you read the Odyssey from beginning to end you are first told about a nameless and wily man who saw and suffered a lot after the fall of Troy, tried his best to protect his companions against their own folly, but lost them all, and ended up in the cave of Kalypso, who wanted him for her husband. The gods decide it is time for him to return home, but before you meet him, you learn much about his son Telemachos and the riotous suitors of Penelope who waste Odysseus' household and are barely held in check by her. Prompted and supervised by Athene, the original “mentor,” he travels to Pylos and Sparta in search of news about his father, and entertained by Nestor, Helen, and Menelaos, he learns something about the ways of the world and shows himself an adept pupil. (Odyssey 1-4).

The narrative then turns to Odysseus. He turns down Kalypso's offer for immortality but anonymous pleasure, suffers yet another disastrous shipwreck, and is rescued and royally feasted by the Phaeacians (Odyssey 5-8), before he tells them the story of his adventures (Odyssey 9-12). The Phaeacians conduct him home safely, and Athene disguises him as the beggar that is, so to speak, the natural role of a man who has suffered so much (Odyssey 13). He spends some time at the farm of the loyal swineherd Eumaios (Odyssey 13-16) before setting out for his house, where the suitors mercilessly tease the unknown beggar, unwittingly stoking the passion of his revenge. Penelope has set a contest and promised herself to the man who can string her husband's bow. The suitors all fail. The beggar, with Telemachos' help, gets hold of the bow, strings it, throws off his disguise, kills the suitors, and is reunited with his wife (Odyssey 17-24).

The adventures

The stories Odysseus tells to the Phaeacians add up to a single story of loss and error. The first adventure – rather in the manner of the Iliad – is a raid on the Kikonians, who rally and kill six men on each ship. Driven off course by a nine-day storm, Odysseus and his men move out of a historical into a mythical world – a point well made by the ancient geographer Eratosthenes who, when asked about the map of Odysseus' travels, said that he would show it if the interrogator could show him the bag in which Aeolus sewed up the winds.

While the famous adventures of the Odysseus sit outside history, the epic is full of stories that give readers now a sense of what life was like then. The false stories that Odysseus tells about his Cretan and Aeyptian adventures or Eumaios' account of how he was kidnapped as a child by Phoenician sailors have a “real life” flavor to them (It is an odd feature of Odysseus as a narrator that he is most realistic when he lies most blatantly). The only comparable episode in the Iliad is Nestor's long story about a cattle raid (Il.11.670ff.)

The central episode in Odysseus' performance before the Phaeacians is the story of the Cyclops Polyphemus, one of the one-eyed giants who live without cities, laws, ships, fire, or wine and are in every respect the antithesis of the hyper-refined Phaeacians who were once their neighbors. And Odysseus telling the Phaeacians about Polyphemus is strategically poised between nature and culture – a powerful theme of the epic as a whole.

Odysseus intrudes into the crude pastoral life of Polyphemus, and his men pay the price of the violence he provokes: for six of them are killed and eaten raw by the giant. Odysseus blinds Polyphemus in a daring plot that involves the use of wine, depends on the high-tech skills of shipwright and blacksmith, and turns critically on dissimulation. Asked his name, Odysseus tells Polyphemus that he is Outis or Nobody. The pun serves him well when the blinded giant shouting for help says that “Nobody hurt me.” But believing himself at a safe distance, Odysseus from his ship tells Polyphemus who he really is, and Polyphemus praying to Poseidon puts a curse on Odysseus so that he will come home “late, in bad case, with the loss of all his companions, in someone else's ship, and find trouble in his household” (9.534-5).

Thus Odysseus is the victim of a curse that he himself provoked. Adorno and Horkheimer did not read “into” the text when in their Dialectic of Enlightenment they interpreted the Odyssey as a deeply skeptical tale of human progress. To the leader's hubris corresponds the companions' distrust. In the Aeolus adventure, the king of the winds welcomes Odysseus with great hospitality and as a parting gift gives him a bag in which he has sewn up all the hostile winds. Within sight of the homeland and while Odysseus is asleep, the companions open the bag thinking it is treasure that Odysseus is withholding from them. They are blown right back, and this time Aeolus dismisses them harshly. In the subsequent encounter with another race of giants, the Laistrygonians, most of the companions are killed, and Odysseus escapes with a single ship.

In the final adventure, the exhausted companions rebel and disregard their leader's advice not to land on the island of the Oxen of the Sun. Once they do, hostile winds keep them from sailing, and driven by starvation, they slaughter the oxen, incur the wrath of the god, and once they are on the open sea again, are drowned in a sudden storm. Odysseus alone escapes.

The themes of folly, error, and doom are complemented by the theme of oblivion. In a brief adventure, Odysseus and his men encounter a people who eat “lotus,” which makes you forget your desire to go home. Some of his men taste it and must be compelled by force to return to their oars. This is the opposite of the temptation of illusory fame that is promised by the Sirens. Odysseus listens to them, but he has ordered his men to stop their ears with wax and to tie him to the masthead.

The theme of oblivion ties together the encounters with Kalypso (literally the Concealer) and Kirke, the goddess who with a touch of her wand turns men into animals or slaves of anonymous pleasure. The visit to the underworld, on the other hand, is a celebration of fame or the name that still remains attached to the ghostly existence of the dead, most famously in Achilles' paradoxical outburst that he would rather be the living servant of a poor man than lord it among all the dead.


Plato said that Homer is the father of tragedy, which may be said to have inherited from the Iliad its love for late-starting plots (wonderfully imitated in the plot and name of the Western High Noon). By contrast, the deep interest of Greek tragedy in recognition-centered plots is an Odyssean legacy. Recognition is the central theme that organizes the events from Odysseus' first setting foot on Ithaca to his tearful and overjoyed reunion with Penelope. The theme is clearly linked to the concern with fame and oblivion that governs the adventures, not to speak of the dialectic of concealment and revelation in the Polyphemus story.

The reader first sees Odysseus weeping on the shores of Kalypso's island and wanting to go home (5.150ff.). He gets his wish when the Phaeacians leave him asleep in the harbor of Ithaca, but when he wakes up he does not recognize his own country and has to be told by Athene (13.187ff.). Telemachos returning from his travels in search of news about his father is reunited with him in a recognition scene stage-managed by Athene (16.167ff.). From there the narrative unfolds as a series of progressively complex revelations of identity. The beggar Odysseus entering the courtyard of his house is recognized by his old dog Argos, whose name speaks to the swiftness he no longer has (17.290ff.). But time has no power over the undying loyalty that ties a dog to his master, and simple as their relationship is, it is also beyond deception.

The relationship of nurse and child, barely more complex than that of master and dog, underlies the famous scene in which Eurykleia recognizes Odysseus by a scar that he got as a boy in a hunting injury (19.386ff.). Odysseus reveals his identity to the servants Eumaios and Philoitios once he has tested their loyalty (21.191ff.). But this sequence of recognitions is only the prelude to the magnificently complex reunion of Odysseus and Penelope (23.85ff.). Theirs is the most complex of all human relationships, and unlike that of master and dog, it is very much subject to time.

The recognition turns on the marriage that Odysseus as a young man built around an olive tree. It also turns on a trick in which Penelope shows that she matches her husband in resourcefulness. In an order to Eurykleia she implies that the bed has been moved, prompting a passionate outburst from Odysseus. For once, he “loses it,” but in so doing he gives her the certainty that she can now fall in her husband's arms.

The bed stands in an ironic relationship to the raft that Odysseus builds for his voyage from Kalypso's island. It is the last handiwork of Odysseus that we see, but it is the first that he made. The raft, on the other hand, is made last but seen first. The raft is made from trees that are cut down and is mercilessly smashed by Poseidon. The bed is built around a tree and endures. The pervasive Odyssean meditations on nature and culture are poignantly captured in this chiastic image.

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Citation: Mueller, Martin. "Homer". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 19 November 2003 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2190, accessed 18 July 2024.]

2190 Homer 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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