The Odyssey

By Homer

Who was Homer?

Very little is known about the author of the Odyssey, despite its immense importance in world literature. [See the Bibliomania guide to the Iliad to learn more about the ancient tradition]. The certainties of the Greek view of a blind poet from Chios have not always been accepted by modern scholarship; debate over the identity of Homer, and even over his existence has raged since the end of the 18th Century with the work of Wolf, reaching a peak in the German scholarship of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. For there are indeed numerous problems concerning the works, which have been taken as signs of dual or multiple authorship. Indeed, even the dates of composition are hotly disputed. The dating problem can be briefly, if inconclusively dealt with: the modern consensus agrees that the Odyssey was written from mid to late 8th Century BC.

The question of who wrote the works is rather more problematic. Firstly, there is an argument that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by different people. Secondly, some schools of thought claim that each work was the result of a number of different poets' contributions all stitched together to form a greater work. There is no convincing evidence to prove anything about either contention, and as a result, it is arguably fruitless to postulate them at all. There certainly are major differences between the two poems, such as the differing treatment of the gods in each and seemingly irreconcilable differences in the style of each. But these difficulties can easily be explained by the fact that there are bound to be different stylistic and thematic methods used in each because they are generically (in the loosest sense of the word) separate works. As an example, the Iliad is much more reliant on similes than its counterpart as its plot and action are much more static, thus requiring more imagery to maintain interest in what might otherwise be fairly repetitive battle scenes. Conversely, the Odyssey has a much swifter plot, and correspondingly less need for such a technique. The gods are portrayed differently in each work as they perform a different role. The Odyssey has little need for such a direct contrast between men and gods as the Iliad provides, as it is "a romance, while the Iliad is a tragedy" to quote E. V. Rieu. This generic distinction is important, and arguably invalidates the need for two different authors, especially when good evidence to the contrary is so lacking.

From the dispute over the authorship of each work, classical scholarship moved on to claim that there might actually be multiple authors of the Odyssey. The early 20th Century saw a great increase in experimental anthropology being used to further classical studies. Classicists such as Wade-Gery researched contemporary oral poetry in the Balkans in the 1920s, and extrapolated the results to consider Homer in a new light. Men such as he and Milman Parry were highly influential in postulating the hypothesis that there was no one "Homer", but that the effects of oral poetry were the crucial aspect which caused the creation of the "Homeric" epics. In short, they were of the view that the stories described in the Odyssey and the Iliad were collations of the traditional songs that had been told over generations by travelling bards in Dark Age Greece. The effects of oral poetry are clear in the Odyssey, such as the amount of exact repetition, both in epithets, and in whole speeches and scenes, which do seem to imply the effect of an oral poet, who memorised convenient metrical phrases and passages to make his song easier to recite. However, this does not mean that there is more than one poet of the Odyssey. If one reads the work, the unity in the structure and characterisation are surely evident, and thus should be taken as the work of one man, whom we might as well call Homer, for want of any other name to give him.

Interpolations are a problem with the Odyssey, just as with any other work of ancient literature. All too often, scribes would 'improve' a text with another line of their own which they felt to be particularly apposite, or miscopy the words, perhaps putting them in the wrong order. The most obvious example of this in the Odyssey is at XX. 67ff, where Penelope, in a prayer addressed to Artemis, tells her a story in which she, Artemis, is referred to in the third person. There are also numerous small additions to the text, some of which we can spot, but many which we cannot. Thus, it should be borne in mind that, despite the organic unity and the sole authorship of the Odyssey as a whole that I am arguing for, we will never possess exactly what Homer wrote.