The Life and Work of Homer
Homer is the traditional author of two of the classical world's great epics, The Iliad and
The Odyssey. These are Europe's oldest literature. Their influence on later Greek, Roman and European culture has been enormous.
Very little is known about his life apart from the fact that he may have been blind. Most historians agree that the writings attributed to him were
probably compiled from older oral traditions.
Tradition also has it that Homer was born in the city of Smyrna (the modern
Izmir in Turkey) around 850 BC.
The two epics are written in an old version of Ionic Greek mixed with Aolic Greek. The style is rapid, plain and
direct. The epics are written in verse - the style of which is called Dactylic Hexameter. This gives six three syllable blocks for
each line. The style was developed by early Greek poets of the oral tradition and, after Homer, influenced later
writers both Greek and Latin (even though the latter language was less suited
to the style).
The Iliad is the story of what is known in the English speaking world as the Trojan War. It was
fought between various Hellenic armies (the Greeks) and the Trojans (actually
the city of Troy and their Anatolian allies) around 1190 BC. The Greeks spent ten years besieging the city without
success. The Iliad includes many characters and phrases still familiar to the modern English speaking world.
The war ends after the Greeks build a wooden horse (the Trojan Horse) which they leave outside the gates of the city and apparently leave.
The Trojans take it into their city but it was full of solders who sneak out at night and open the city gates, leading to a Greek victory. Hence the
phrase "beware of Greeks bearing gifts".
- Priam - king of Troy. His sons, Hector and Paris.
- Helen - Queen of Sparta. According to Homer it was the Paris' kidnapping of Helen that began the war.
Helen is described as being very beautiful "the face that launched a thousand ships".
- Archilles - leader of the Myrmidons. In the story he was said to be invulnerable after his mother dipped
him into the River Styx. He was killed by a poisoned arrow into his heel (which was not invulnerable as his mother had held him by that part of his
body). We talk of someone's weekness as their "Archilles' heel".
- Agamemnon - king of the Mycenae.
- Odysseus - a warrior king famed for his cunning. His journey home after the war is recounted in The Odyssey.
The Iliad begins with the following verses:
"Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought
countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send
hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs
and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the
day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first
fell out with one another."
It contains 15,693 lines of verse. Later Greeks divided it into 24 books. Modern critics are of the opinion that The Iliad possesses
a high degree of poetic flow. It has been the inspiration for many later dramas including:
The Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad. It tells the story of the ten year voyage of Odysseus and his crew
back to their homes in Ithaca after the Trojan War. In his 20 year absence his son,
Telemachus and his wife Penelope must deal with a group of unruly suitors
who are squatting in his palace and competing for the right to marry Penelope and become king, having assumed that Odysseus was dead.
- The trilogy by Greek dramatist, Aeschylus (525 BC to 456 BC): Agamemnon, The
Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. These follow the story of Agamemnon following his return
from the war.
- The play by English playwright, William Shakespeare (1564 to 1616): Troilus and Cressida.
- The UK television series, Dr Who, has a four-part story called The Myth Makers. This is set at the time of the Trojan War and
features characters from the epic.
- The USA film, Troy (2004) is loosely based on the epic.
The Odyssey has a non-linear plot with flashbacks and stories describing previous action. It is full of vivid characters and scenes.
The story is so famous and influential that the word odyssey itself has come to refer to any epic voyage.
Scenes from the epic include:
The Odyssey has been influenced by the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest story, written in Mesopotamia around
2200 BC. The Odyssey, in turn has influenced many later writers:
- Odysseus marooned on the island of the nymph, Calypso.
- A group of suitors at Odysseus' palace attempting to marry his wife, Penelope. She fobs them off for as
long as possible believing her husband will return.
- The god of the sea, Poseidon, destroys a raft on which Odysseus is
- On the island of the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus and his crew find a strange lotus. Some of the crew taste this
plant and lose all desire to leave.
- Sheltering in a cave they are held captive by a one eyed giant (The Cyclops). They escape by gouging out the
Cyclops' single eye and hanging on to the underside of the giant's sheep.
- They are given a bag by the Keeper of the Winds. When the curious crew open it they release a
- They meet the enchantress Circe who turns some of the crew into pigs.
- Odysseus visits the underworld and meets the blind prophet Tiresias who
gives him a prophesy on his future and path home.
- The Sirens use sweet singing to lure sailors to their doom. Odysseus
gets his crew to stuff their ears with wax so they cannot hear the song. He is then tied to the mast so he can hear the song without being lured to
- Odysseus returns to his palace disguised as an old beggar. He joins in an archery contest, the winner of
which will marry Penelope. The test is to string Odysseus' bow. None of the suitors can do it.
Odysseus does and with his son's help kills the suitors.
The first few verses of The Odyssey:
- A humorous play by Greek dramatist, Euripides (480 BC to 406 BC), called Cyclops.
- Some of the tales of Sinbad the Sailor from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) were
taken from The Odyssey.
- The novel, Ulysses (1922) by Irish writer James Joyce (1882 to 1941.
- The USA musical, The Golden Apple (1954) by John Treville Latouche and
Jerome Moross was based on both of Homer's epics.
- The play Highway Ulysses by Rinde Eckert (2003) bases the story of a USA veteran from the
Vietnam-USA War (1954 to 1975) on the characters and plots in The Odyssey.
- The UK group Genesis mention Tiresias in the song The Cinema Show.
- The Penelopiad (2006) by Margaret Atwood retells the story from the point of view of
"Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide
after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.
Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations
with whose manners and customs he was acquainted;
moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life
and bring his men safely home;
but do what he might he could not save his men,
for they perished through their own sheer folly
in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion;
so the god prevented them from ever reaching home.
Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove,
from whatsoever source you may know them."
Homer was later deified. Shrines were built to him throughout the Greek speaking world. Later Greeks viewed him
as the father of all literature. Greeks tend to regard Homer's two epics as the highest cultural achievement of their people and the defining moment
in Greek culture. These two epics are the focal point of Greek values and the Greek world view.
In the 1990s Homer's name was revived when a USA cartoon character is named after the writer: Homer Simpson.
All images external copyright.
KryssTal Related Pages
Inventions from the period that includes early and later Hellenic culture.
These are words found in English from Greek.
A list of episodes and stories from the first Dr Who.
External Homer Links
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Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey
A brief biography.
The complete Odyssey.