Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.
A 'Classic' Case of Mistaken Identity
If you haven't read the Iliad, you've certainly heard of it. Written by someone we call Homer, it is one of the oldest and most celebrated works of literature in western civilization. It tells an exciting story about war, honor, and homecoming and features some of the most famous characters from Greek mythology. But did you know that this great work of literature may just be one version of many poems that had been around much longer? That 'Homer' may not have written it at all? These are issues that centuries of literary criticism have tried to settle. Let's have a look at the history of this criticism.
The Homeric Question
Criticism of the Iliad has always been intertwined with that of Homer's other great epic, the Odyssey. This scholarship has historically been based on the Homeric Question, which is actually a set of questions:
- Who was Homer?
- Did Homer write both the Iliad and the Odyssey?
- How did the work we know now as the Iliad come to be written?
The Homeric Question over Time
Let's look at how modern scholars over the centuries have dealt with and modified these questions.
Scholars have debated for centuries about the identity of Homer. There has never been any reliable account of Homer's life, and in the seventeenth century, Abbé d'Aubignac, a French author, suggested that the man did not even exist. He proposed instead that numerous poems had been assembled by various editors.
In the eighteenth century, an English scholar named Richard Bentley agreed that the poems that became the Iliad were gathered together by others, but allowed that there was a poet named Homer who presented these works orally for money centuries earlier. Bentley suggested that the Iliad was a work for men, probably due to its emphasis on war and masculinity.
By the end of the eighteenth century, it was widely accepted by scholars that the Iliad, along with the Odyssey, were products of an oral tradition and were made up of many separate poems. In 1795, Friedrich August Wolf suggested a specific timeframe for their composition and collection and argued that many changes had been made during this process.
By the 1800s, scholars realized that there was inadequate historical material to answer the Homeric Question. They began to analyze the poems that made up the Iliad (and, as always, the Odyssey) themselves to look for clues. The similarities and difference in various parts of the text led to two schools of thought. Some scholars concluded that the Iliad was a fusion of separate and independent poems, called lays. Others thought that the Iliad arose from a shorter work that contained the nucleus, all the central features of the Iliad, and was later expanded.
In the twentieth century, three schools of thought developed:
- Unitarianism pointed to the unity of the Iliad and argued that it must, indeed be an original and complete work of a singular genius: Homer.
- Oralism focused on the importance of oral traditions in poetry in explaining the Iliad.
- Neoanalysis made textual connections between Homer and other 'lost epics.' For example, a scene from the Iliad in which Achilles and Hector battle while Zeus weighs their fate on a scale also appears in at least one of these other epics.
Scholars generally agree that the Iliad was carefully designed by a single author, whether or not it drew from earlier works. It is also increasingly accepted that the author of the Iliad is not the same as that of the Odyssey. These two works, scholars have noted, adopt different moral perspectives, use slightly different language, and focus on different geography.
As we have seen, literary criticism of the Iliad is closely tied to that of the Odyssey, and it centers on the Homeric Question. This question alludes to the unknown circumstances under which these epic poems were composed and the identity of those who actually composed them. Scholarship began in earnest towards the end of the seventeenth century and continues to this day. Some of the most prevalent early scholarship considered whether the Iliad was composed of smaller poems called lays or from the nucleus of a single, shorter work. Later scholarship explored the ideas of unitarianism, oralism, and neoanalysis. Scholars today still debate the origin of the Iliad, but they seem to agree that the same author is not responsible for the Odyssey, as previously thought.
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