One of the most puzzling things about the time in which the Homeric epic poem
s were created is that never before, or after, were there such magnificent works of art created in such a cultural vacuum
. The Greek Dark Age
, starting with the collapse of the Mycenean culture
and the Doric Invasion
, circa 1200 BC, though we know little about it, was a time in which Greece
retreated culturally almost to the stone age
. No poetic, or other artisitic traditions existed at that era. And yet, by the end the that age, at arount 750 BC, the Iliad
and the Odyssey
have almost reached their complete and final forms, and were already widely known throughout mainland Greece
, as well as the Aegeans
and Greek Asia Minor
That creation was used as a primary teaching and educational tools throughout Antiquity and until the rise of Christianity, and was used as primary source in matters of religion, law and tradition. The attempt to interpret Homer's works gave birth to the studies of grammer and linguistics. Moreover, Homer was considered, and not unjustly, as Father of All Poets, and indeed later poets used constantly themes and motifs from his work, and even adapted and rewritten actual parts of it. Painters and sculptors often created works inspired by and depicting scenes from his poems. In addition to that Homer's epics were considered to be divine, not in the sense that the Bible became sacred in later times, but in the sense of their being artistically perfect. This admiration never ceased, and each consequent generation always found within it things to fit into their own character and situations.
Until the end of the 18th century, almost no one doubted the fact that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed by Homer, Father of All Poets. However, in 1795 F. A. Wolf published his 'Prolegomena ad Homerum I', which has revolutionized the study of Homer's works: Wolf denied completely the unity of the poems, and doubted the very existance of Homer himself. These were his main argumants:
- During the composition of the epos no alphabet existed in Greece, and it is unimaginable, he said, that one man could compose such an enormous creation orally; there were many poets, and each composed limited stories about singular events.
- The poems were created originally for the purpose of recitation and not reading. Therefore, their length had to have been limited. Since there couldn't have been an audience willing to listen continuously to poems of such span as that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, even assuming that there was a poet who could compose them.
- The analysis of the two poems reveals in each of them contradictions, repetitions and inconsistancies, which indicate multiple composers.
His conclusion was that the epic poems, as they reached us, are mechanical combinations of short compositions, which existed since the beginning of the Greek Dark Age
. Some of the parts contain sparks of genius, but there was not in the poems in general an art of organizing material on a large scale. These works, in their current form, are therefore the creations of editors, who have sawn together many things they didn't always understand.
Wolf's book caused much dissension, and as a response two main movements in the research of Homer were created: the Separatist movement, and the Unitarian one.
The Separatists accepted Wolf's principles: the aim of their researches was to isolate and separate the different compositions within the Homeric ones. Some of them found 18 "earlier poems" and determined precisely the connection-lines, used as "stitches" between one poem to another, as well as lines inserted into the earlier poems in order to "justify" the stitching. This way they were able to supposedly reconstruct the earlier poems.
After some time a more moderate stream of the Separatists was created: The Evolutionists. They regarded the epos as a creation which developed and inflated gradually: at first there was a small poem of about 1500 lines (to which they sometimes referred to as the Achileia), which described the rage of Achilles and the death of Hector (possibly also the coming of Priam to Achilles' tent after Hector's death). Later, as poets travelled from place to place they added different episodes, in order to glorify local heroes and deities, and thus the epos expanded.
As an opposition to these "blasphemies", the Unitarians searched and found that the two poems had solid artistic structure. The Iliad had a plot about a specific subject and a gradual development, and was not just a collection of tales about different heroes fighting in Troy. There was one person who picked a specific theme and and prepared an artistic mould. The Odyssey had a similar quality. The reader of the two poems feels the progress of the plot. Later research of traditional folk poems in Finland, Yugoslavia and elsewhere showed that there were in existance until today epic poems, that are passed orally, with a greater span even than Homer's, 10,000 lines and more. Those who recite those poems are poets who compose their works on the spot accoding to a general plans and preprepared formulae. The poems vary from one poet to another; if a great poet appears and sets a grand form to a certain subject the changes become small from that point onwards. These poets cannot read or write; they are sometimes assisted by a person who can read and who holds a tablet on which the general lines of the plot are listed.
Wolf's second claim, about a long and many themed poem, that it cannot be heard in its entirety due to its length, was odd to begin with: nothing obligates the listener to hear the poem in one sitting. What is more natural than a series of poetic evening? In our time, when continuing stories in newspapers and magazines and continuing series appear on TV, it is almost hard to understand how these claims could be seriously made.
Wolf's main claim, the one regarding contradictions and inconsistancies, gave birth to an extensive and deep research in all the details of these creations. Along with that the Unitarians claimed that the emphasis of contradictions and the debating over every litle thing show nothing but pedantry and lack of understanding in the creative process and in poetry generally. The writer, and even more than that - the poet, does not check each and every detail to see of its intact with anything that preceded it. He indends to bring on images and people that will effect the reader (or listener) through his (or her) emotions. He does not deal with proofs and logic. One Unitarian researcher even published an essay in which he proves, using the same methods used by the Separatists, that Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained were not written by the same person. The additional claim, that there were earlier poems that were stitched together, was also rejected by them. An examination in the details of the poems revealed carefully laid plans: hints, that seem unimportant at first, are discovered to be significant as the plot moves on. There is gradual developing of situations and characters etc. etc.
The Separatists were not convienced and continued to examine the contradictions and the characterization of the earlier poems.
However, most researchers today support the Unitarian approach, moderated with some Evolutionist elements. According to this approach tales of heroes went around Greece for years, and poets sang them in aristocratic courts and public celebrations. At some point a genius poet, who could well have been called Homer, took all those separate poems, and composed a new poem based on all these as well as a main topic he selected beforehand and a certain structure that suited him. The fact that he used preexisting material does not diminish Homer's greatness, like many other geniuses (including Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Moliere) he moulded his masterpieces based on rough material. He came at the end of a tradition and created its form that was passed on to the next generations without significant changes.
Homer's time is determined by the following considerations: Relyable testimonies indicate that in 6th century BC Athens, during the time of the tyrant Peisistratus, parts of the epics were read aloud in the celebrations of the Panathenaia (it is assumed that the texts were finally written down at that time). However, hints in the texts of other poets indicate that he's preceded them all, and it is safe to say that between the years 750-700 BC, possibly even before that, the Homeric creations already existed in, more or less, the form we know them.
On the origin of the Homeric poetry we can deduce by its language: the Homeric Greek was close to the dialects of Asia Minor, but it is an artificial language (cf. Homeric Greek). There is a tradition of 12 cities that competed over the honour of being Homer's homeland. Most of these cities, like Smyrna, Kolophon, Chios and Kyme are in Ionia, but some are farther away (like Athens, Salamis, Pylos and Argos). In Historical times there was in the Isle of Chios a sort of school - the Homeridai (or 'Sons of Homer') and from there travelling poets set out throughout the Hellenic world. Based on this most researchers believed until recently that the epos was created in Aeolis and Ionia, and from there it spread to the rest of the Hellenic world. However, after Linear B was deciphered, it became clear that the Mycenean language (sometimes called Achaean) was very close to the Aeolic dialect, and since the poems deal greatly with Achaean themes, a theory was presented that the poems were created in mainland Greece before the collapse of the Mycenean Culture, and that following the Aeolians and the Ionians fleeing the Doric invasion, they were brought to Asia Minor. All this preceded the poet that unified the poems into one epos.