Master Storyteller in the Age of Myth
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......The Iliad and The Odyssey stand as two of the greatest works ever composed. They have influenced writers throughout the ages for the beauty and power of their imagery, for their character development, for the universality of their themes, and for their extraordinary stories. They take their place alongside the Bible, Sophocles’ Oedipus the Rex, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace as among the most popular and most highly praised literary works in history. Remarkably, Homer had no authors to imitate, no prototypical literature to guide him, for literature—indeed, civilization itself—was still in its infancy when he composed his works. He was the world's first great writer, a model for others to imitate.
.......Scholars conjecture from scraps of evidence that Homer was a blind poet who may have been born on the island of Chios (also spelled in English as Khios) in the Aegean Sea; in Smyrna, a seaport in western Turkey; in Colophon, near Ephesus, Turkey; on Rhodes, an Aegean island; in Salamis, Cyprus; or in Athens or Argos on the Greek mainland. Because of the dearth of information about him, it is not possible to determine specific details about his life: where he lived, whether he was married, when he died. In fact, it is not even possible to determine whether he was one person or several.
.......Homer probably composed his works between 700 and 800 BC, according to linguistic, geographical, and historical evidence in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Rather than writing his compositions, he probably recited them. For this reason, it is said, he called himself a “singer” rather than a writer. (Although “sing” connotes music, it can also refer to spoken words that describe or narrate, usually in verse.) After his death, others kept his works alive by reciting them as they traveled from place to place. In Athens, the tyrant Pisistratus commanded these traveling rhapsodists, as they came to be known, to recite them in their entirety at a yearly festival in honor of Athena. Eventually, scribes wrote them down. Civilization owes a great debt to these anonymous rhapsodists.
.......When Homer composed The Iliad and The Odyssey, the events in both stories were already at least 600 years old. Thus, the plots unfold in an age when recorded history was in its infancy, about 3,200 years ago. At that time, humankind's imagination peopled the known world with superhuman heroes, and nature–the seas, the skies, the forests, and the winds–reflected the mood of the gods inhabiting unseen worlds above and below. In each epic, humans–often noble persons of royal lineage–interact with the gods, sometimes obeying them, sometimes defying them. The plot of each epic consists of a series of exploits and adventures that help shape and define the main character and provide examples of heroism, wisdom, and other desirable qualities for the audience to imitate.
.......The Iliad and The Odyssey are classified as epic poems, long narrative works that are highly formal and elevated in tone but easy to comprehend. Some translators present these epics in prose, making them read like novels.
.......One of the hallmarks of the Homeric style is the epithet, a combination of a descriptive phrase and a noun. An epithet presents a miniature portrait that identifies a person or thing by highlighting a prominent characteristic of that person or thing. In English, the Homeric epithet usually consists of a noun modified by a compound adjective, such as the following: fleet-footed Achilles, rosy-fingered dawn, wine-dark sea, earth-shaking Poseidon, and gray-eyed Athena. The Homeric epithet is an ancient relative of such later epithets as Richard the Lion-Hearted, Ivan the Terrible, and America the Beautiful.
.......Homer repeated his epithets often, presumably so the listeners of his recited tales could easily remember and picture the person or thing each time it was mentioned. In this respect, the Homeric epithet resembles the leitmotiv of opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The leitmotiv was a repeated musical theme associated with a character, a group of characters, an emotion, or an idea.
.......The meter (rhythmic pattern of syllables) of Homer’s epic poems is dactylic hexameter. A dactyl is a metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables, as in the words technical (TEK nik l), allocate (AL oh kate), and harbinger (HAR bin jer). Hexameter is a line containing six metrical feet. Thus, dactylic hexameter is a scheme containing six dactyls, as in the following line: MAKE me a BEAU ti ful GOWN and a HAT fringed with TASS les of DOWN, good sir.