We all learned in school that Homer is author of The Odyssey and The Iliad, the two oldest extant works of Western literature. However, since the two poems were born in an oral tradition, it’s not at all clear what that actually means. Ergo, the Homeric question.
Who’s the storyteller?
Homer has intrigued scholars since antiquity. In the 1st century CE, Plutarch gave ten possible cities as his birthplace: Salamis, Cyme, Ios, Colophon, Thessaly, Smyrna, Thebes, Chios, Argos, and Athens.
The very name “Homer” has been plumbed in the hope of clues. Some note similarities to the word for captive or hostage, suggesting that prisoners, or their children, who could not be trusted on the battlefield would be assigned the task of memorizing the songs of heroes.
Hmm, do you really want your prisoners of war telling your history? Of course it might explain why the Greeks don’t appear very heroic in The Iliad…
Others interpret Homer’s name to derive from a word which could mean saga, or collection of tales. Some note that it means sightless.
By the way, besides the possible etymological link, the main evidence for Homer being blind comes from the blind singer Demodocus in the Odyssey, at the court of the Phaeacians.
The Homeric epic poems were sung
The epithets used in description, like Odysseus the cunning or the wine-dark sea, and the ubiquitous scenes that follow a fixed form, such as banquet scenes, are commonly used in the oral tradition.
Epithets play many roles: to aid in memory, to characterize and add vividness, and very importantly, to enable the oral poet to adhere to the line length required by meter.
So, there’s widespread agreement that the poems are rooted in the oral tradition.
But was their composition textless?
Some scholars, as represented by Martin West, say that a single author pulled together different oral pieces and reworked them in writing. They believe the poems are too complex and too consistent (for the most part) for wholly oral composition. Since a scribe would be unable to keep up with the singer at his usual speed, even transcribing the songs would be challenging.
Others, such as John Miles Foley, believe not only that the poems were composed orally, but that they cannot be understood in any other way. This conclusion is based on copious research in the oral tradition, especially in the Balkans, where singers of long epic poems could still be found in the early 20th century.
It is also possible that an oral poet learned to write and put it down.
It has long been suggested that The Odyssey was written by a woman. Recently, Andrew Dalby used arguments about women’s roles in language and story-telling to propose that The Iliad was as well.
Statistical analyses of words or letters seem to support single authorship for the poems.
The experts tend to agree that four hundred years transpired between the fall of Troy around 1250 BCE and the first possible transcription of the Iliad. That period has been called the “Dark Ages.”
No single climatic or historical event can explain the collapse of the Mycenaean culture nor that of other complex societies. In fact, the decline may simply reflect a lack of archeological remains.
Homer described with great detail objects from both Mycenaean times, such as the boar tusk helmet, and from the 8th century.
Careful studies to date different parts of the poems only confuse matters more as the references from different periods are blended. The combination supports the idea of the story constantly being recreated. Though at some point, probably when it was written down, it took a form similar to what we know now.
Ćor Huso Husović
Foley tells us of a famed singer, called a guslar, mentioned by the Bosnian poem singers to the field anthropologists and linguists: Ćor Huso Husović. This master-singer was the source of all the best songs and singer of the largest repertoire. Very stout and tall, he traveled from town to town on horseback and was still spry at the age of 120.
Although different researchers independently heard of the fabled guslar, and though they tried to track him down, they never found him. As accounts were compiled, it became evident that it amounted to a tall tale: each singer was aligning themselves with the ultimate fictitious master, a legend.
Interestingly, Ćor means one-eyed.
We still don’t know if there was a Homer
For a non-expert reader, the Homeric question seems like a snake chasing its own tail, since our best, if not only, clues about Homer come from the stories themselves.