Homer's Life and Epics and Their Effect and Contribution to Western Civilization Term Paper

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Homer was a legendary Greek poet who is traditionally credited as the author of the major Greek epics the "Iliad and the Odyssey," as well as the comic mini-epic "Batracholmyomachia" (The Frog-Mouse War), the corpus of Homeric Hymns, and various other lost or fragmentary workd such as "Margites" (Homer pp). Some ancient authors credited him with the entire Epic Cycle, which included other poems about the Trojan War as well as the Theban poems concerning Oedipus and his sons (Homer pp). According to legend, Homer was blind, and aside from several Ionian cities claiming to be his birthplace, there is nothing else known about him (Homer pp). Aristotle and Pindar believed that Homer was born in Smyrna, on the coast of modern-day Turkey, and enjoyed years of fame on the Aegean island of Chios (Tolson pp). Although the great scholar-librarians of Alexandria scrutinized the epics for historical and geographic errors, they never doubted Homer's standing as sole creator of the works (Tolson pp). His Greek name is "Homeros" which means "hostage," leading to one theory that his name was back-extracted from the name of a society of poets called the Homeridai, which means "sons of hostages" or descendants of prisoners of war (Homer pp). Because the loyalty of these men could not be trusted on the battlefield, they were never killed in battles, but instead were entrusted with remembering the "area's stock of epic poetry, to remember past events, in the times before literacy came to the area (Homer pp). Except for a few ancient quotations, the Homeric papyri are the oldest surviving witnesses to the text of Homer (Due pp). All of these documents, most of which were discovered in Egypt, are fragmentary and range in date from as early as the third century BCE to the seventh century CE, and today reside in collections all over the world (Due pp).

There are no other texts from the Western imagination that occupy such an influential position concerning the self-definition of Western culture as Homer's two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey (Hooker pp). These two poems relate the defining moment of Greek culture, the Trojan War, and regardless of whether the war really occurred, or happened exactly as the Greeks portray it, is not really important (Hooker pp). Historians agree that a war did take place around a city that was quite likely Troy, and that the city was completely destroyed, however, anything else is pure speculation (Hooker pp).

The war sparked the imaginations of the Greeks and came to be the defining cultural moment in their history (Hooker pp). Although the war was fought by the Myceneaens, and not by Greeks in the classical sense, the Greeks, nevertheless, viewed the Trojan War as the first moment in history when Greeks untied with a common purpose (Hooker pp). Whether this unification was a myth or not, the lore gave the later Greeks a "a sense of national or cultural identity, despite the fact that their governments were small, disunified city-states" (Hooker pp). Because the Greeks had such regard for the Trojan War, believing it to be the moment that established Greek character, they were literally obsessed about the events of the war and repeated the stories with great variety, thus as the Greek idea of cultural identity changed, so did the storied of the Trojan War (Hooker pp). And the fact that the Greeks regard the Trojan War as the defining moment of their culture is due to the poetry of Homer (Hooker pp).

Homer's poems are the single most important texts in Greek culture because, "while the Greeks all gained their collective identity from the Trojan War, that collective identity was concentrated in the values, ethics, and narrative of Homer's epic poems" (Hooker pp). Thus, the Greeks were equally obsessed with Homer's poems as they were about the Trojan War, and referred to them repeatedly, especially in times of cultural crisis (Hooker pp). However, the Greeks did not believe that the poems were sacred or even that the history was flawlessly accurate, and for much of Greek history, Homer was criticized for his unflattering portrayal of the Greek gods (Hooker pp). The Greeks acknowledged the poems as poetry, and during the Hellenistic period came to accept that through the ages the poems had been deeply corrupted (Hooker pp). Therefore, "unlike most ancient cultures which rooted collected identity in religious texts of some sort, the Greeks turned to literature" (Hooker pp).

Just as the Trojan War was the product of the Mycenean culture, Homer's poems were the product of the Greek Dark Ages (Hooker pp). The events that happened at Troy were so captivating that the Greeks continued to tell the stories long after they had abandoned their cities and abandoned writing (Hooker pp). By narrating the events over and over, from person to person, the history of the war was preserved (Hooker pp). And it is quite possible that these stories were the dominant cultural artifact of the Greek Dark Ages (Hooker pp). What began as short tales concerning isolated events and heroes eventually grew into a profession of storytelling that led to combining the stories into larger narratives, and as the narratives grew, the technique of story-telling also changed (Hooker pp). It is likely that the early bards simply memorized the stories with great exactitude and as the stories grew longer, they probably improvised many of their lines (Hooker pp). There is evidence from the classical age in Greece that people memorized, word for word, the complete poetry of Homer, over 25,000 lines (Hooker pp). It is safe to say that by the end of the Greek Dark Ages, these storytellers were probably the cultural center of Greek society, and as Greeks began to slowly urbanize, the bards' status greatly improved (Hooker pp).

An average night in the late Greek Dark Ages would consist of a community, probably the wealthiest people, who would gather for an evening's entertainment (Hooker pp). The storytellers would sing the stories of the events of the Trojan War and its Greek heroes, creating the equivalent of a mini-series because the stories were so long that they would often take days to complete (Hooker pp). The Greeks considered the best of these storytellers was a blind man named Homer who sung ten epic poems about the Trojan War, "of which only two survived, (although the Greeks seem to have known them)" (Hooker pp). As a group these poems told the entire history of the Trojan War, yet each poem only covered a small part of that history (Hooker pp). Many scholars believe that the two surviving Homeric epics were actually composed by several individuals, yet in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the majority of classicists accept the Greek idea of a single author (Hooker pp). However, regardless of the compositional history of the poems, they were recorded into writing within a few decades of the composition (Hooker pp). This occurred because the growing urbanization of Greek society led to the rediscovery of writing, learned this time from the Phoenicians, and thus, Homer's poems were set to writing very quickly (Hooker pp). Although time and transmission "added much extraneous material to the poems, in their basic character and outline they seem to be the original compositions" (Hooker pp).

The "Iliad" is an account of a brief event during the ninth year of the Trojan War, a war that the Greeks claim lasted ten years (Hooker pp). The story involves Achilles who becomes offended when the Greek leader, Agamemnon, takes a slave girl that has been awarded to Achilles (Hooker pp). Achilles is so upset that he refuses to fight in battle and prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, asking that the tide of battle turn against the Greeks (Hooker pp). Achilles' prayer is granted by the gods, and thus, he does not return to battle until his best friend is killed by the Trojan hero, Hector (Hooker pp). He then returns to battle, confronts Hector and kills him, and in a final gesture of contempt, drags Hector's body around the walls of Troy (Hooker pp). Richard Hooker explains that the epic's theme is actually "Achilles choice," for he has been offered the choice of dying young as a great and famous hero, or living a long and happy life with no fame (Hooker pp). Initially choosing to live a long life, Achilles is forced to make the choice when his friend dies, a choice that will make him famous for eternity, but tragically die at a young age (Hooker pp).

The "Odyssey" is the story of the homecoming of another Greek hero at Troy, Odysseus, who unlike Achilles, is not famous for his great strength or bravery, but for his ability to deceive and trick (Hooker pp). For it is Odysseus' idea to offer Troy's citizens a large wooden horse filled, unbeknownst to the Trojans, with Greek soldiers (Hooker pp). Odysseus is the "anthropos polytropos," the "man of many ways,"…

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