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Homer - Has He Existed ?

Homer

The Iliad and the Odyssey: these two poems form the oldest and best known of the classical texts. But who is the author?

Multiple versions

"Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, the son of Pelaeus: hateful anger, which to the Achaeans was worthless sufferings, and threw so many proud heroes soul like to pasture at Hades, while from these heroes she made the prey of dogs and all the birds of the sky for the completion of Zeus's plan. "It is through these lines that the Iliad begins, the first of two poems attributed to Homer. He tells in twenty-four versified songs, the Trojan War. The second Homeric poem, the Odyssey, has for hero Ulysses, king of Ithaca, a secondary character in the Iliad. After returning from Troy, Ulysses lost his way in the midst of storms, and for ten years he traveled the Mediterranean, battling monsters and magicians. Back in Ithaca, he defeats the contenders who fight over his wife Penelope and regain his throne. During the 7th century BC, aedes, poets and bards travel through Greece singing the two new epics. Everywhere, their stories are a great success, and they are soon known to all. In the sixth century, Athens organized an integral public reading. From the fifth century, young Greeks memorized both poems: they are long-standing as the basis of classical education. In addition to their literary qualities, they express, indeed, the Greek cultural unity: they constitute in a way the symbol of a civilization. In the fourth century, the conqueror Alexander the Great keeps with him a copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey, wherever his campaigns lead him.

Both poems are widely copied and disseminated. However, it often happens that a copyist adds some verses of his own. Today, hundreds of versions of the Iliad are preserved, each slightly different, until the text is refined in the Alexandrian era.

How to date the work?

Tradition has long made Homer a man of the tenth or ninth century. But the first documented readings of his two poems take place in the seventh century only. The German Schadewaldt therefore locates the gestation of the two works in the second half of the eighth century, precisely around 720 BC. Archaeological data seem to confirm this date. Indeed, Homer, who recounts events supposed to take place in the Mycenaean period, commits many anachronisms. But these anachronisms do not mean that the work is pure fiction, nor that a single man - Homer - invented it. An oral tradition has been maintained, the stories recounting the events of the Trojan War passing from mouth to mouth, and this tradition was written in the eighth century, thanks to the invention of new writing in Greece.

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A unique poet ...

Until the 17th century, no one doubted the historical existence of Homer. Tradition makes it come to Colophon. Unless it is at Chio, Smyrna, Ios or Cymè ... Many cities vie for the honor of having been his homeland. The same tradition wants him to have been blind. In 1670, in his Academic Conjectures, the Abbé d'Aubignac denounced the inconsistencies of the Homeric poems. For the first time, he questions the existence of a single author. His claims hardly echoed, but a century later, in 1795, the German scholar Friedrich-August Wolf published a book, Prolegomena ad Homerum, where he asked the same questions. We are then in the Age of Enlightenment, the critical spirit towards the classics has developed and, soon, the debate is open: several anonymous authors do not hide behind a pseudonym.

... or several authors?

The composition of the two poems is analyzed. The Iliad is an accomplished work, irreproachable in its composition. The Odyssey appears, in comparison, more disordered, less united. Great differences of substance and spirit separate the two texts. The Iliad is an epic story, its author has a grandiose, cosmic vision, the gods are omnipresent. He uses fixed patterns in the structure of certain scenes, such as fights and encounters. It is close to the oral tradition of aedes: ancient epics, genealogical poems.

The author of the Odyssey, he, appreciates the fantastic themes: monsters, witches, enchanters and sirens; the gods, on the other hand, are very discreet. Even Athena, who protects Ulysses during the Iliad, does not venture with him into the western Mediterranean; she does not reappear until the return to Ithaca. The Odyssey is a part of the scenes of everyday life, in search of peace and the sweetness of life. We do not find the warrior spirit that marks the Iliad.

The legacy of the oral tradition

The fact is admitted today that the author of the Iliad is probably not that of the Odyssey. The analysis of language, but also of poetic vision, reveals two different characters. The author of the Iliad probably lived in the eighth century, that of the Odyssey, rather in the seventh century: the characteristics of his poem reveal a Greek open to navigation and the discovery of the Mediterranean. He has a new vision of the role of the gods who are no longer omnipresent "supermen". But this poet probably exploits multiple sources himself. The structural flaws and lack of unity of the Odyssey suggest that the text is the work of different storytellers, the adaptation of several tales of oral tradition unified by a skilled editor.

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