Homer is the conventional name of the supposed unitary author of the famous Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey that were composed shortly after written language came into use again in the first half of the 8th century BCE. The Iliad dates to the second half of the 8th century BCE and is the oldest written literature in the West that has come down to us. The Odyssey seems to have been written slightly later, possibly by a different author. Marking the end of a long oral tradition, both poems show characteristics of oral improvisation, as in the use of formulaic phrases typical of extempore epic traditions, including the repetition of entire verses. At the same time the poet is held in highest esteem because of his ingenious and creative composition.
There is not a single contemporary document about Homer’s life, person, and time, since the first sources from the 7th and 6th centuries mentioning him do not seem to know an official calendar and refer to him merely as a poet of past times. The question of authorship, date, and transmission, the so-called Homeric question, was discussed by modern scholars for about 200 years. Whereas F. A. Wolf (1795) and his school of “Analysis” tried to identify different poets emphasizing the inconsistencies in both epics, the “Unitarians” put stress on their artistic unity. Since the 20th century, the mechanisms and effects of oral transmission, as well as the poetic and aesthetic quality of the poems, have been the focuses of attention.
In both the Iliad and the Odyssey time is referred to in a highly elaborate way. Times of the year and the day are expressed by verbal pictures; for example, the morning is frequently described by the appearance of the rosy-fingered goddess Dawn (Eos) and by a variety of terms, such as the frequent use of etos for a certain year and eniautos for the general course of a year with its regular natural phenomena that recur every 12 months. The meaning of some of these terms is still under discussion: looking prosso kai opisso is usually translated as looking “forward and backward,” that is, “into the future and into the past,” although it seems to mean looking “forward and beyond” at times. In this latter case, one anticipates the near future and the more distant future that hides behind the immediate future.
Modern scholarship has proved wrong H. Frankel’s theory of Homer’s indifference toward time and Th. Zielinski’s opinion that Homer was not fully able to describe parallel plots. Scholars have underlined the difference between the time of narrating and the narrated time (the described actions do not happen as fast or as slowly as the narration goes on) as well as the fine technique of looking back and forward that creates a complex view of time instead of a simple chronological account of the events. Thus both poems consist of a selection of scenes essential for the plot, necessarily focusing on certain periods of time within the set time span. For instance, the plot of the Iliad, whose theme is the anger of Achilles, extends over 51 days within the 10th year of war between the Achaeans and Trojans. It does not include the end of the war, because Achilles’ anger had ended before the conquest of Troy. The events of only 15 days and 5 nights are described in detail, while those of the remaining days are merely mentioned (e.g., 9 days of plague, absence of the gods for 11 days, Achilles’ ill-treatment of the corpse of Hector for 11 days). Aristotle praised Homer for concentrating on the plot in a way that would befit tragic writers, by leaving out all scenes that would need to be included from a historical point of view but that are not an essential part of the plot, which evolves from the characters of the protagonists and their interaction with the gods according to Zeus’ plan.
See also Herodotus; Hesiod; Mythology; Presocratic Age;
Morris, I., & Powell, B. (1997). A new companion to
Homer. Leiden, New York, & Köln: Brill.