The Homeric Question

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I was once asked in a job interview which historical figure I would most like to meet. (The strangest question I was ever asked was what sandwhich filling was my favourite.) My answer was of course Homer. I then had to explain that no, I did not mean the yellow douche with a donut obsession. The two Homers have only two things in common: the name and the fact neither of them are real (probably).

There are several signs that show when a story began its life as oral poetry. The details are long and complicated, and documented in a ground-breaking bit of research by Parry and Lord back in the early 1900s. In short, Homer’s epics began life as oral poetry. That led to what became known as the Homeric Question: who was he, and did he even exist?

If a poem is oral, it means that tracing authorship is next to impossible. Bards of the time would have memorised chunks and embellished them with retelling. Portrayal of the gods would have changed depending on where the poem was being recited, as different places worshipped different aspects. Was Homer the composer of the original story, or just the man who collected enough chunks to write it down as a coherent whole?

I’ve already talked a bit about the origins of the original story in an earlier blog. If we say Homer was the primary author, even then he was plagiarising (or, if we’re being generous, was heavily influenced by the popular themes of the time). If he wrote it down, can we really call him the poet? Some scholars have concluded that ‘Homer’ was sort of a catch-all name, like ‘John Doe’. It was a name that could be given to the written version of the poem without upsetting the hundreds of bards who had been retelling and rejigging the story for years.

But, in the end, does it really matter who wrote it? I may get lynched for this but how much does it matter who writes any great piece of literature? So long as the work exists, and we understand the context (time, society and influences) in which it was written, the authorship is a far lesser question. The story is the thing.

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