The passage of time has not diminished the greatness of the Greek poet, Homer. His timeless epics the Iliad and the Odyssey have been read, studied, and admired since their composition circa 750 BCE. The storylines of the Iliad and the Odyssey revolve around the Trojan War, which occurred circa 1250-1240 BCE, and provide a wealth of information about life in ancient Greece.
The elapsed millennia since Homer wrote his epics have effectively erased all traces of his existence. No authenticated historical record exists of a man named Homer in the timeframe associated with the Iliad and the Odyssey. There are mentions of his birth, travels, and death but such accounts came hundreds of years after he supposedly lived. After the Iliad and the Odyssey, there were many poems written about the Trojan War and its aftermath, these poems are usually included in a collection known as the Epic Cycle. The poems of the Epic Cycle are attributed to various authors but the Iliad and the Odyssey seem unique in that, in ancient times, they were always attributed to one man, i.e. Homer.
The question must be asked if Homer actually, single-handedly wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. We simply don't know the answer to that question ... however, with that awkward question asked and answered, we can begin making assumptions.
It has been suggested that Homer was blind. Those who encourage that notion imagine Homer traveling throughout Greece and Asia Minor reciting his epic poems at public festivals or simply writing poems for patrons who gave him a bed and a meal. As romantic as that sounds, it's probably not true. The idea that Homer was blind can be convincingly disputed by citing the eloquent and vivid way in which he related visual phenomena such as the sun glinting from bronze armor or the way Eos [Dawn] reddened the morning sky.
The renown classicist, Friedrich August Wolf [1759-1824], was the first modern scholar to dissect the Iliad and the Odyssey to determine their linguistic composition and origin. His conclusions were not reassuring to the "one man" theory. Professor Wolf concluded that the dialects used in the Iliad and the Odyssey were from Asia Minor, i.e. Ionic and Aeolian. He further asserted that the poems were probably a collection of many poems that were united to form the epics we enjoy today.
Regardless of whether we accept or reject Homer as the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the simple fact remains that his name has been enduringly linked to these masterpieces and will remain so until some new, definitive evidence is unearthed to prove otherwise.
The respect given to Homer by the Hellenistic and Classical writers should not be underestimated ... their admiration bordered on reverence. There seemed to be an overwhelming desire to understand Homer's origins but all efforts were hampered by the lack of solid evidence. There seemed to be no shortage of groundless assertions about Homer's life but the scholars who were seeking facts were not easily fooled and sincerely did their best to sort out the truth from the fantasy. The following are a few of the more common conclusions that were unearthed:
Homer was given the name Melesigenes, Melesagoras or Melesianax at birth. He was born beside the river known as the Meles, which was near the Cymaean colony of Smyrna. The different variations of the name, Melesigenes, simply mean Meles-Born. Most researchers concluded that Homer was born beside the river Meles but there were others who insisted he was the son of the river god, Meles.
An obvious question is: Why did a man named Melesigenes assume the name Homer? There are several explanations:
1) The Aeolians decided to abandon Smyrna as a colony and gave each citizen the choice of staying or leaving. Young Melesigenes said that he wanted to accompany [homerein] the leaders when they left the city and so he was thereafter called Homer. [Pseudo-Plutarch I, paragraph 3]
2) Although he was born with normal vision, Melesigenes became blind as a young man and was given the name Homer because it was a variation on the word for blind people, i.e. homeroi; [Pseudo-Plutarch I, paragraph 2] [Proklos Chrestomathy I, paragraph 3]
3) Another explanation for Melesigenes being given the name Homer was that he became blind as a young man and blind people required guides, i.e. homereuontes; [Pseudo-Herodotus, paragraph 13]
4) Finally, it was said that Melesigenes was given to the Chains [or a king of Persia] as a hostage and the name Homer was a variation on the word for hostage, i.e. homeron. [Proklos Chrestomathy I, paragraph 3]
1) When the Aeolian colony of Kyme was being founded, a man named Melanopus immigrated from Magnesia. He was the son of Ithagenes who was the son of Krethon. Melanopus married the daughter of Omyres and they had a daughter named Kretheis. After her parents died, Kretheis became pregnant by an unnamed man. Her guardian, Kleanax, sent Kretheis to Smyrna to avoid the shame her pregnancy would cause. Kretheis gave birth to her son by the river Meles and named him Melesigenes. [Pseudo-Herodotus, paragraphs 1, 2 and 3]
2) There were three brothers from Kyme named Apelles, Maion, and Dios. Dios left Kyme because of debts and migrated to Askara. Dios married Pykimede and their son was Hesiod [the second greatest poet of ancient Greece]. Apelles had a daughter named Kritheis but died and left his brother, Maion, as her guardian. Maion got Kritheis pregnant and, to hide his shameful deed, sent her to Smyrna to marry a man named Phemius. Kritheis gave birth at the river Meles and named her son Melesigenes. [Ephorus of Kyme, Local History]
3) A local girl from the island of Ios named Kritheis became pregnant by one of the Sprites who dance with the Muses. She was captured by slavers and taken to Smyrna where she was sold to King Maion. Kritheis gave birth at the river Meles and died soon after. Her child was named Melesigenes. King Maion treated the child as if it was his own but he too soon died and left young Melesigenes an orphan. [Aristotle, book 3, On Poets]
4) There are numerous other accounts of Homer's origins. His parents might have been mortals or divine but the idea that he was born beside the river Meles seems to be a recurring theme. According to Hesychius of Miletus [section 2], his parents might have been from any of the following places:
|Smyrna||Thessaly||Kenchreai in the Troad|
5) Several of the more romantic accounts of Homer's origins are simply too good to be true:
a) He was the son of Telemachos, son of Odysseus, and Polykaste, a daughter of King Nestor of Pylos. [Hesychius of Miletus, section 1]
b) He was the son of the god Apollon and the Muse, Kalliopie. [Hesychius of Miletus, section 1] [Pseudo-Plutarch, section 4]
The Classical and Hellenistic writers seemed to agree that Homer did in fact write the Iliad and the Odyssey but there are other poems that were emphatically declared not to be the work of Homer; such as:
|Margites||The Battle of Frogs and Mice||The Seven-Times-Shorn Goat|
|Kerkopes||On Outsiders||The Epic Cycle|
|Amazonia||The Little Iliad||The Returns|
|Epikichlides||Ethiepaktos [or Iamboi]||The Battle of the Spiders|
|The Battle of the Cranes||The Potters||Expedition of Amphiaraus|
|The Taking of Oichalia||The Homeric Hymns||The Kypria|
Despite the differences of opinion as to Homer's birth and travels, there at least seemed to be some agreement as to how and where Homer died. Presumably at an early stage of his life, he was told by an oracle that he would die on the island of Ios from an illness caused by a riddle posed to him by some boys. As strange as this may seem, it was "common knowledge" in Classical times that when Homer was on the island of Ios he encountered some Akadian boys returning from a day of fishing. When Homer inquired as to how their luck had been. The boys replied, "The ones we caught we left behind, the ones we missed we carry." The boys were jokingly referring to the fact that the fishing had been unproductive and they had spent their idle time removing lice from their clothing. Homer was so distraught by the incomprehensible answer the boys had given him to a seemingly simple question that he fell into a depression so deep he could not eat or sleep, and finally died. The people of Ios erected a grave marker that said, "Here the earth conceals that sacred head, adorner of warrior heroes, the godly Homer."