A recurring topic in classical studies concerns the existence (or fabrication) of Homer, the author/poet of the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many literary critics base their hypotheses upon the likelihood of whether the two major epics (the Iliad and the Odyssey) were possibly composed by the same author, and find that due to the differences between the works, if Homer did exist there is a chance he may not have been the poet who composed both epics. Whilst this subject matter may leave one wondering, “Why does it matter if Homer really existed?” it is obvious, due to the immense amount of studies and theorising on the subject, that many literary authors find this question compulsory, if not interesting. This assumption is verified by the controversial and conflicting essays/books surrounding the topic. Understandably, it would be an astonishing achievement for one man, one poet, to have composed such influential poems over 2,500 years ago which are still read, studied, and highly regarded today; and similar to debates concerning William Shakespeare’s authorship, many intellectuals find it problematic to believe that such remarkable works could have been composed by one single mind and not a collaborative effort. An essential question one studying authorship of the two epics must first consider is who Homer was. Felton and Flaxman state in summary that after centuries of studies and research, that all of which is known of Homer’s biography is that,
Homer was an Asiatic Greek, that he was a great traveller, that he chanted songs like the other bards, that he surpassed them all in genius, that the distinguished excellence of his songs caused so large a body of them to be preserved, and that he may at the close of his life have been blind.”
Some critics and literary intellectuals have altogether denied the existence of Homer, the poet, whilst others have admitted to his existence, but have denied him the authorship of the epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Furthermore, many question whether “admitting that there existed such a poet as Homer, the art of writing was known in his age, and was employed by him.” Whilst oral tradition was certainly the basis of these texts, whether or not Homer physically transcribed the words into textual form is still unanswerable, and the inability to come to a conclusion concerning this issue is the reasoning behind many critic’s beliefs that Homer is a fictional name ascribed to many Greek epics. These literary critics instead presume that the works were composed of oral stories pieced together by a scribe centuries after the presumed life of “Homer.” Even in ancient times, these two poems were often attributed to two different authors, and as stated by Mark W. Edwards in the essay “Homer’s Iliad“: “the question of authorship, like those of composition and recording in writing, remains controversial.” Despite the disagreements of theorists and intellectuals alike, it is obviously a question with no known solution, and little feasibility that there ever will be one. Whilst each theory has its own merits and demerits they remain mere speculations, and in studying the ongoing debates and arguments by theorists such as Friedrich August Wolf, Milman Parry, and M.L. West, I have found that the question of the “true author” of the works is insignificant. And with the days of biographical criticism departed, intellectuals and critics alike should focus less on authorship and more on content.
Regardless of the true authorship of the great Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is undeniable that both have been remarkably influential on society, especially since their Latin translation in the mid-fourteenth century. These works provided the foundation of Greek culture and education through the classical age, as well as the basis of education during the Roman Empire and through the early expansion of Christianity, as well as having an immense impact on the Italian Renaissance culture, which spread all throughout Europe. As early as 1795, Friedrich August Wolf published the first book to seriously question whether Homer truly existed, titled Prolegomena ad Homerum, or The Homeric Problem. The fundamental position of the book was that the Iliad and the Odyssey “are not the production of Homer or of any other single author, but a collection of rhapsodies composed at different times and by different persons, and subsequently had gradually wrought up into the form in which they now exist.” Wolf, a German critic and philologist, was often condemned by other professors at the University where he lectured for his views on Homer; however, he continued his studies and continued publishing his ideas and beliefs throughout the late 1700’s. Wolf’s fundamental ideas remain in many current hypotheses, which suggest that the epics were the work of several different poets over a long period of time, or collaborations that were attributed to the single poet name, Homer, at a later date. Among Wolf’s theory are two other commonly held positions in Homeric studies. The first, namely the “pre-Prolegomena ad Homerum” theory, or pre-Friedrich August Wolf, held that Homer was indeed a historical figure who composed both epics as well as a number of other less frequently read/studied poems that have been attributed to his name. However, those who accept this theory do remain unsure as to whether the poems were written down during his lifetime or after. Basically, they attest that they believe the truth in the oral tradition that has named Homer as the author of both epic tales, but are uncertain about whether or not he physically transcribed the texts in his lifetime. The other major theory hinges onto Wolf’s theory, in suggesting that if the poems were a collaboration of several poets, someone had to have collated them, and that someone was in all likelihood Homer.
In the early twentieth century, Milman Parry once again opened the debate over Homer’s authorship, portraying the Iliad and the Odyssey as “products of a generations-long process of composition in performance.” Similar to Wolf’s 1795 hypothesis, Parry’s argument proceeded in three steps. First, he completed a textual analysis; second, he proceeded in comparative anthropology, and thirdly, he completed fieldwork abroad in areas, such as Bosnia, where there was low literacy and strong oral traditions. Parry demonstrated the “traditional nature of the epics” in his textual analysis of the epics, showing how the names in both works were part of an “elaborate, flexible system for constructing hexameter lines,” and found that these formulaic phrases of diction reveal a symptom of poetry re-written and changed over centuries within the tradition. These “noun-epithet” names, including “grey-eyed Athena,” “swift-footed Achilles,” and “wily Odysseus” fit into a type of formula for the epics, but they are also rhythmic, most likely making them easier to memorise for bards in oral performances of the stories in antiquity. In completing the comparative anthropology, Parry found further evidence that the composition must have originally been oral, as both epics contain many repetitive verses. Parry suggests that the “Homeric diction” classically found in the epics attributed to him, is the product of a “long tradition of oral bards who must have sung (not written) ancient Greek epics.” Considering the fact that Parry’s hypotheses arose in the 1930’s, the “Oral Theory” has greatly expanded and become more popular in contemporary Homeric studies, alongside Friedrich Wolf’s collaborative author theory.
Alternatively, Martin Litchfield West, a scholar of classical studies and philology, takes the position that not only was Homer not the author of the Iliad or the Odyssey, he was a completely fabricated and fictitious person altogether. In West’s essay “The Invention of Homer,” he argues for two complementary hypotheses:
Firstly that ‘Homer’ was not the name of a historical poet, but a fictitious or constructed name, and secondly that for a century or more after the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey there was little interest in the identity or the person of their author or authors. This interest only arose in the last decades of the sixth century; but once it did, ‘Homer’ very quickly became an object of admiration, criticism, and biographical construction.”
West points out that both epics have only been attributed to the author “Homer” due to “antiquity” and tradition, or essentially, the belief that through oral traditions, the name of the author has been passed down through the centuries. Furthermore, West delves into the reasoning behind why he believes “Homer” is constructed and not the name of the historical poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey. His first argument is that the name Homer is “not a regular Greek name, and hard to account for as such. No other person so named is known from before Hellenistic times.” Despite West’s contorted and confusing prose, his argument is understandable. Whilst the argument may be insignificant in modern times when new and unique names are created every day, unique names were unheard of in ancient times. Furthermore, West believes that a sixth-century clan, the Homeridai, had created a “fictitious ancestor,” namely, the poet Homer. He remains unsure about this argument in his essay, as he could not decide whether the name of the clan Homeridai came before or after the estimated dating of the poet Homer; however, he retains the original argument that this clan may be responsible for Homer’s creation. He also traces the “elaboration of the fiction, the process which provided Homer with a biography…and set him up as an object of universal admiration.” Essentially, West traced any literary and/or historical mentions of the poet Homer as far back as possible, tracking the additions to his biography as well as the build up of critical praise for his epics and political ideals. He suggests that the “process” reached its culmination in the late sixteenth-century, but that the Homeridai clan may have “attributed their repertoire to ‘Homer’ for many generations before that. West found through his research that commencing from the last third of the sixth-century “Homer springs into life. Author after author names him and comments on his achievements. The epics are no longer treated as free-standing records of the past, but as the artistic creations of an individual, to be praised or criticized.” In the case of the Iliad and the Odyssey, it was mostly praise- that is until the question of authorship became an issue, and lack of biographical information of the author was thought to make the work itself more difficult to understand. West mentions in his essay that
Most scholars nowadays consider that the Iliad and the Odyssey are the work of different authors. This is what is indicated by the many differences of narrative manner, theology, ethics, vocabulary, and geographical perspective, and by the apparently imitative character of certain passages of the Odyssey in relation to the Iliad.
In short, West is mentioning the commonly held theory that the Odyssey and the Iliad could not be written by the same author due to distinctive textual differences; differences that the “pre-Prolegomena” believe are due to Homer’s age when writing each text and that he was of a different frame of mind and state of maturation. Whilst West obviously relates this commonly held theory, he remains more concerned throughout the essay with the fabrication of the poet Homer overall than his improbable authorship of the two epics.
In conclusion, despite the disagreements of theorists and intellectuals alike regarding the authorship question of the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is, and will remain, a question with no feasible solution. Whilst each theory has both positive and negative aspects, they continue to remain just theories, and in studying the ongoing debates and arguments of many theorists in the field of Homeric studies, I have found that the question of the “true author” of the works is insignificant. In the contemporary climate of literary criticism, intellectuals and critics alike should focus less on authorship and more on content in considering these works. From the earliest theories of Friedrich August Wolf to the more contemporary theories of Milman Parry and Martin Litchfield West, the debate/discourse concerning who was the poet Homer and whether or not he wrote the epics attributed to him, is vast. With some believing that Homer was the original author as well as scribe of the works, and others believing it was a collaborative effort, and even more others who remain unsure, there are still many unanswered questions that will keep this debate permanently open-ended. First of all, there are little to no known facts documented about a poet/bard by the name of Homer; second, it is possible that Homer was the name of the scribe who wrote out the poems rather than the poet(s) who composed them centuries before; and furthermore, regardless of who was the original author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is unquestionable that the texts studied in present day are not as they were originally composed. Besides the literal emendations of the text, the English language has gone through many changes over time with the replacement of archaic terms and the additions of new forms. Basically, whether than analysing the author’s name associated with the works, critics and scholars alike should instead read these epics for the content- the epic journeys of travels, fights, defeats, and struggles of the Greek tragic figures who have so significantly influenced society. An influence which has shaped education from Greek and Roman times, throughout the Renaissance, and still today, in the twenty-first century; the influence and lessons from the epic stories, not from the poet Homer, whether he be a fictional creation of a clan of Homeridai on the island of Chios, or a real Greek classical genius.