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The western heritage
     Twin sources, Bible and Homer
     The Homeric question
     Written texts of Homer
     The oral tradition

Greek drama
Greek history
Greek philosophy

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Twin sources, Bible and Homer: from 1000 BC

Two great reservoirs of source material for European literature (and indeed for all European art) are recorded for posterity in regions bordering the eastern Mediterranean during the centuries after 1000 BC.

The holy books of Judaism are slightly the earlier of the two. Known to Christians as the Old Testament, they are written down (at first from earlier oral sources) from about 1000 BC onwards. The other comparable body of material derives entirely from an oral tradition. Somewhere around 750 BC the Odyssey and the Iliad are transformed from bardic songs into written texts - the transition from folklore to literature. They are credited to a blind poet, Homer.


The Homeric question

Who was Homer? When did he write? What did he write? These difficult matters, known collectively as the 'Homeric question', have puzzled scholars since as early as the 6th century BC. The problem is neatly avoided in Max Beerbohm's phrase 'those incomparable poets Homer'. And it is well stated in a legendary schoolboy howler: 'Homer was not written by Homer but by another poet of the same name.'

The truth is that nothing is known about Homer other than what can be gleaned from the Iliad and the Odyssey (and it is not even certain that they are by the same hand). But a greater truth is that European literature begins, in Homer, with two amazing masterpieces.


Important clues to the date of Homer are provided by physical details recorded in the poems, such as the design of costume and armour, or methods of fighting. These reflect the realities of life (as known from archaeology) at two particular periods, the 13th century and the 8th century BC.

The 13th century sees the final flowering of Mycenaean Greece. It is the time when the Greeks probably go to war against Troy and it is therefore the period of the events remembered, in heroic form, in the story of the Iliad (see the Trojan War). The 8th century is when the poems become fixed in approximately the versions now known to us.


In the unsettled centuries following the Trojan War, the art of writing (known in Mycenae in the form of Linear B) is lost. But the events of the war are remembered, celebrated and richly embroidered by generations of bards. At festivals, or in the houses of great men, these bards recite incidents from the story.

Their narratives, made more memorable in rhythmic couplets, are the stock in trade of these men. Their livelihood depends on exciting an audience, eager to enjoy the exploits of heroes and gods. A well-told episode, honed in performance, is a valuable property, to be handed on to the next generation.


Newly added details, if found to give pleasure, are included for a while as a regular part of the story. But details added a generation a two or ago are easily recognized by the audience as anachronistic, old-fashioned. They are neither from the heroic past nor up to date. They are yesterday's material. They are dropped.

So the bardic recitals at any time tend to consist of the original core of the stories with a sprinkling of contemporary detail. This is the basis for the conclusion that the poems become stabilized (or written down by the mysterious Homer) during the 8th century BC.


Written texts of Homer: 8th - 5th century BC

There is a good reason for this particular date, the 8th century BC. It is when writing returns to Greece, in a more congenial alphabetic form.

But it is not a case of someone simply writing down an existing poem. The strongest argument for Homer as a single writer of genius is the accomplished literary form of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The separate incidents which make up the two stories must certainly have been in the repertoire of many performers, but no single bard is likely to have sung all the material that Homer uses. And nobody, in an age before writing, has either the incentive or the opportunity to fashion such skilfully shaped overall narratives - with beginning, middle and end.


The Plot of the Iliad follows one very precise thread, announced in the opening words of the poem: 'The wrath of Achilles is my theme'.

Achilles is wrathful at the start of the poem because Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, has taken from him a beautiful girl, Briseis, a prize of war. Achilles, the great warrior, sulks in his tent and the Greek cause suffers. Many dramatic events follow directly from this premise, and while describing them Homer fills in the broader picture of the Trojan War. By the end there is reconciliation; order is restored; Briseis is back in the bed of Achilles. In masterly fashion, and with wonderfully vivid story-telling and characterization, a wide canvas has been sketched without loss of focus.


By contrast the Odyssey is a collection of fantastic adventures, experienced by Odysseus on his ten-year journey home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. But again they are held within a clear narrative frame.

At the start of the poem Penelope, wife of the absent Odysseus, is plagued by a crowd of suitors. They abuse her servants and consume her wealth. At the end Odysseus returns home. Having by now the appearance of a beggar, he too is roundly abused. But in a contest to string the great bow of Odysseus, he is the only one with the strength to do so. He uses it to kill the suitors, in a dramatic climax reminiscent of a shoot-out in a western. Even Penelope at first fails to recognize him, but soon the pair are happily reunited.


The oral tradition of Homer: 8th - 5th century BC

The writing down of the Homeric poems in the 8th century BC does not mean that they become available to readers. The texts merely enable his followers to preserve the works and to perform them in a consistent manner.

A group of such followers, the Homeridae, become associated with the island of Chios, off the coast of Ionia. Ancient tradition links Homer himself with Ionia, and the language of the poems seems to confirm an Ionic background.


It is not until about 425 BC that a book trade develops in Athens, with educated people acquiring papyrus scrolls to read in the privacy of their homes. Plato, writing in the Phaedrus in about 365 BC, expresses strong disapproval of this new-fangled fashion for reading by oneself.

So the first great flowering of European literature reaches its original audience through their ears rather than their eyes, in public performance. This convention provides not only the beginning of epic poetry, in Homer. It also produces another extraordinary Greek innovation - the theatre.


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