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Masterpieces of Greek Literature (1902)/Homer

 

HOMER




The name Homer now stands for ancient Greek epic poetry. We know nothing of the man and his life. In times past, scholars asked with regard to his birthplace, but now they ask rather where epic poetry had its rise. The earliest Greek epics seem to have been sung in Thessaly, south of Mount Olympus, where was the fabled home of the gods; and the muses were called Pierian, from Pieria in Macedonia, not far to the north. But epic poetry was brought to its perfection by Ionian Greeks, on the western coast of Asia Minor. Thirty years ago many scholars believed the whole story of the Trojan war, on which both the Iliad and the Odyssey are based, to be a mere figment of the imagination, developed perhaps from misinterpreted expressions relating to the Dawn; but the excavations of the last quarter of the nineteenth century showed that, rather more than a thousand years before the beginning of our era, powerful and wealthy cities with mighty walls stood where Homer placed Mycenae and Troy, the homes of Agamemnon, "king of men," and the old king Priam. So we need not doubt that the Trojan war was a real war, though doubtless the poems exaggerate the numbers of those who took part in it. Achilles and Agamemnon may have been real men, though "Homer" was a poet and not a historian.

How much of the poems, as we have them, is due to any one poet, no one can say. Doubtless the poet who gave them their unity used very freely older lays and poetic material of every sort, adapting this to his use, while the bards who followed our Homer added verses, brief passages, or even whole lays. Before the age when writing was used for literary purposes, the sense of literary property was not strong, and each bard or "rhapsode" felt at liberty to modify and to add. But that a true and great poetic genius put the poems into essentially their present form, fewer doubt now than a quarter of a century ago. This poet probably lived as early as the ninth century before our era. Other scholars would hold that the poems are the product of three or four poets in different ages,—the later poet extending and developing the plan of his predecessors. The earliest of these may have lived as early as the tenth century, and the latest in the eighth century B. C.

The translations from the Iliad are by William Cullen Bryant; that from the Odyssey by Philip Stanhope Worsley.