Homer and the Odyssey

Did Homer write The Odyssey and The Iliad, and what is known about the life of this famous Greek writer, when did he live, where was he born, and was he blind?

Detail from A Reading from Homer (1885) by Lawrence Alma-TademaDetail from A Reading from Homer (1885) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

If people are aware of one thing about the ancient Greek poet Homer, it is that he was blind. In fact, he may not have been blind at all as very little is known for sure about his life. We don’t know where he was born, although Ithaca is one of several places that claim him as a son. Another is the island of Chios, where he is regarded as having been a blind beggar poet. We don’t know when he lived, but it was sometime around the 9th century BC. 

Did Homer Write The Odyssey and The Iliad?

Did he even write the two works with which he is credited, The Iliad and The Odyssey? As with the works of Shakespeare, there are people who believe it unlikely that one mind can have come up with such a rich and creative body of work. For some time it was thought that Homer might have been two different writers, collaborating on the works, although the latest linguistic analyses suggests that both of them are indeed the work of one author.

The Greek Shakespeare

Also as with Shakespeare, they are not original works but based on a mix of history and myth, blended with the art of a supreme storyteller. And in Homer’s day, storytellers is literally what people were. The epics were related orally, not written down, so the author had to be an actor too – and have a phenomenal memory.

The Iliad

The Iliad is set at the end of the Trojan War, three centuries before Homer was born. That is, if there was such a war. There is no absolute proof of the existence of Troy, although it may prove to be at Truva, in Turkey, where excavations were begun by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1870. He certainly believed that he had found the site of Troy, although Schliemann was always more noted for enthusiasm than accuracy. Research at Truva still continues.

The Odyssey

The better-known of the two epic poems attributed to Homer is The Odyssey, where again an intriguing mix of legend, history and heroism leaves scholars guessing as to what is truth and what is fiction. The book follows the story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, who had been fighting in the Trojan Wars and set off on his voyage home, which was so eventful as to make a Hollywood action movie look tame.

The Story of The Odyssey

Roman bust of HomerRoman Bust of Homer

Odysseus’s journey took him ten years, as one of his first encounters was with the one-eyed giant Cyclops, who holds the men prisoner in a cave. In order to escape, Odysseus blinds the Cyclops after getting him drunk. Unfortunately for Odysseus, Cyclops is the son of Poseidon, the Sea God, and if there is one person you don’t wish to anger when you have a long sea voyage across the Aegean, from Western Turkey to the Ionian Islands, it is the God of the Sea.

Needless to say, when he does eventually make it home, after encounters with sirens and whirlpools, shipwrecks and lotus-eaters, his adventures are still not over. He has to regain his Palace on Ithaca from those who have taken advantage of his absence and moved in. Is there a happy ending? Sorry, no spoilers here!

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