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Homer of Ancient Greece: Mythology & Poetry

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will look at the famous Greek poet named Homer. We'll look at his work, the context in which he wrote it, and the things that scholars believe about him today.

Introduction

Of all of the writers that have contributed works to Western literature, few are as shrouded in mystery and legend as the Greek poet that we know as Homer. Yet Homer's poems are not only the first works in the Western literary canon - they are one of the best sources for contemporary understanding of Greek culture and mythology.

Although it is nearly impossible to determine exactly when Homer was born, most scholars believe he lived somewhere around the 7th or 8th centuries B.C.E. What little we do know about Homer's life comes mostly from the writings of other poets, resulting in the fact that it's difficult to separate the facts of his life from the legends that surround him. One of the most common and lasting descriptions of Homer was that he was blind. Despite the complexity surrounding Homer's life, it is generally accepted that he wrote two major works, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Homer is considered the one of the originators of Western literature and is celebrated the world over.
Homer

Literary Context

During this time in Greek history, poetry was an oral rather than a written tradition. Poets like Homer, often called bards, would travel around and recite poems. These poems followed specific literary conventions, especially in regards to the meter in which they were written. Homer wrote his famous Iliad and Odyssey in a metrical form called dactylic hexameter. A dactyl is a metrical foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; in dactylic hexameter, each line is generally made up of six of these (although technically, the Greek language prevents the last metrical foot from being an actual dactyl).

In addition to the content of his poems, the aesthetics of Homer's works were also influential. For example, Greeks used the term 'Homeric' to describe work that, while not necessarily written by Homer himself, is written in the same dactylic hexameter in which Homer wrote. For example, a collection of 33 anonymous poems written about Greek gods is titled the 'Homeric Hymns' despite the fact that most don't believe that Homer wrote them.

Mythology

According to Greek mythology, the first gods who ruled earth were called the Titans. The Titans, however, were eventually replaced by the twelve gods called the Olympians (because a place called Olympus was their home), whose leader was Zeus. In addition to the main twelve Olympians, there were numerous other gods who roamed not only earth, but the ocean, the underworld, and Olympus.

Although they were powerful and feared, the gods found in Greek mythology were far from the perfect, all-knowing entities that are commonly found in the popular religions we encounter today. In fact, the gods had clear and often humorous flaws and weaknesses that resulted in them acting foolishly. For example, Hera, the wife of Zeus, was incredibly jealous and frequently sought to punish the many women with whom Zeus had had affairs. Despite the respect that Hera's power earned her, she was frequently portrayed as the stereotypical and laughably jealous wife.

Although Greek mythology consists of a variety of stories, it's important to understand that their mythology grew out of a desire to understand the events of the world around them. Greeks, for example, did not simply tell these tales to entertain people or instill fear of their gods, but to explain physical realities such as why the sun always rose in the east and settled in the west and why the seasons occurred.

The Iliad

The Iliad is the oldest work of Western literature. Much like the exact dates of Homer's life, when and where The Iliad was written is difficult to determine, although many scholars point to around the 8th century B.C.E. What is known is that the poem is connected to a war that actually took place; various archaeological discoveries have proven that the Trojan War was a real event and have proven that the author of the poem was probably well acquainted with the events and locations that appear in the Iliad.

Achilles, shown here after defeating Hector, remains one of the most famous warriors in Western literature.
Achilles

The Iliad tells the history of the Trojan War, which took place between the Greek and Trojan armies. The poem begins in the ninth year of the war, when the Greek army has just attacked a city allied with Troy. Importantly, the Greeks have taken two women; Chryseis is claimed by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, and Briseis is claimed by Achilles, the best and most-feared Greek warrior. After suffering because of their capturing these two women, Agamemnon returns Chryseis but takes Briseis from Achilles to compensate himself for his loss. This starts a feud between Agamemnon and Achilles that results in Achilles refusing to fight for Agamemnon.

Achilles angrily turns to the gods to help punish Agamemnon, who begins to lose a tremendous amount of men as the Trojan army advances. It's only when Achilles loses a close friend, however, that he returns to fight. Eventually Hector, the Trojan's best fighter and son of the Trojan king, faces Achilles who, with the help of the gods, defeats Hector. Achilles then takes Hector's body and desecrates it in front of the Trojans. The poem ends with Hector's father retrieving Hector's body, a proper burial for Hector, and a brittle truce between the Trojan and Greek armies.

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