On the Homeric Question

The question of Homer’s authenticity has sprung forth in our age as a uniquely modern desire to discover the true sole source for the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Could these poems have actually been the creation of one man? Or are they merely the works of many hands? At the root of this question, lies a deep cultural longing and anxiety to unearth a single author, one unique authority, behind which the epics were inspired, sung, and later written down. The problem is not unlike the question of Mosaic authenticity. By seeking one author, or at least by seeking a satisfying answer to the question of authorship, we look for justification for the texts. In our age, with the rise of the internet, there is great power in anonymity, and we moderns actually have great difficulty in accepting ambiguous authorship. We prefer to know an author’s name, see his face, diagnose his psychology, so we can put him on trial, and thereby examine the “social political context” in which he was writing. However, our demand to demonstrable proofs finds no kinship in antiquity. Among the multitude of texts attributed to Homeros and the Homeric body of literature –later delineated by Pausanias and others– we search in vain to locate the origins of these vitally important works. We can only find approximations that will not, in the long run, suffice. Therefore, we modern scientific-minded researchers must find alternatives to quench our thirst for comforting answers.

However, does this dissatisfaction render it impossible to credibly believe in the mythological story of Homeros? After all, we find greater ease in accepting that the Homeric texts are mere products of a cultural milieu –emerging from a rich Greek tradition of oral poetry. From this, we might survey the scene and dust our hands clean of any further need for inquiry –the author is the public, itself. There is no individual agency because great high-minded classical works simply emerge out of populist demands. Under this manner of thinking, Homer is nothing other than a word representing a truth we confirm for ourselves –namely that history proceeds dialectically, and that great works of art emerge from a democratic body politic. But what of the truth of mythology, itself? Is there not any truth to mythos which extends beyond what many have called the socio-political-historical context? For example, when Homer is accepted throughout the Greek world to be the author of the texts in question, can we not accept an element of truth in this widespread “historical fact”? Or also, when the Christian narrative of the death of Christ is accepted throughout the Western world, is this not evidence of a kind of truth? Why must we ask ourselves for criteria to justify the myth, rather than accepting its significance as justification enough? Again, we find ourselves run aground with the infinite multitude of cultural impulses that might lead us to believe in such a truth. The closest we are willing to venture is into the realm of probability (i.e. the “likely story” as in Plato’s Timaeus).

At any rate, underlying this modern question of Homeric authorship is not simply a need to find a single person who can be responsible for the texts, rather it is the need to find a psychology behind the authorship. Who was Homer? Why did he write these texts? What did he believe? These are all personal and psychological questions that demand answers in order to accept modern standards. Homer’s authority is not justified on its own account. Instead, a reader demands a psychoanalysis be performed on the probability of Homer’s life. The texts, the Iliad and the Odyssey, again become subordinate to the account of the author.

In seeking answers to these questions, our scientists dig for evidence, linguists search for cultural inconsistencies, professors teach the improbability of Homer. We cannot find justification for Homer, only possibilities and improbabilities. While we possess the texts as evidence of a bygone age, they do not come coupled with a biography of the author. We have only the inheritance of classical antiquity to rely on.

However, for the most part, we do not deny the greatness of the texts: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other hymns attributed classically to Homer. It is not as if we believe the artist (or artists) had strung together a series of unrelated thoughts –a mosaic or montage that happened to fall into place by the work of many hands. Rather we accept that Homeric literature forms a whole, it is consistent, and is a work of beauty. For why else would we call it Homeric? This awe-inspiring beauty and symmetry found in Homer implies that it must have been the work of a very profound poet or poets, as consistency is rarely found among the works of many hands. Therefore, we moderns believe these texts to be the work of a great poet – just not Homer.

“Homerus” by Rembrandt in 1663

We tell ourselves, gloomily, not to accept the Homeric, the Orphic, or the Bacchic, because they are mere mythos. Yet deep down we accept a grain of truth to these stories. If the myths are mere “social constructions,” as is commonly accepted, we then convince ourselves both that there is a dull and dry story confirmed only by evidence, and we also tacitly accept that “social constructions” still have locations deeper than their social context –they are not entirely fabricated out of rumors. Consider a coin passed through many hands (Nietzsche, Homer and Classical Philology 1910). As it proceeds, the coin, perhaps bearing the face of Alexander the Great, is steadily worn by the passage of time. Yet, the vital significance of the coin, itself, remains. Similarly, consider the Homeric epics –once sung by traveling bards throughout the Hellenic world. Did the first bard, whom we call Homer, have a perfect recollection of each line and stanza before performing the Iliad for his first Greek audience? And then, following on this absurd insinuation, did the first scribe recall perfectly each verse and stanza to be replicated authentically onto tortoise shells and papyrus scrolls? An affirmative answer to these questions cannot be believed by a thinking person, unless he relies on divine revelation of some kind. However, the Homeric works make no claims to divine revelation, and instead they present a far more human-centered cosmos than, say, the books of the Torah.

Therefore, the Homeric works cannot be the products of perfect algorithms –the Iliad was not borne out of a full and complete thought, that was put to song, which was then committed to memory, and then eventually captured perfectly on paper, as if in a museum. Rather, the Homeric works and the Homeric identity are organic, living impulses. Homer is an enduring poet, perhaps the most enduring poet, because his epics find homes, even today, in modern impulses. We have not yet capitulated to modern advancements and relinquished our memory of the naked truth of antiquity. We may, from time to time, find ourselves in a stasis, condescending to the noble Achaean warrior-chieftains, but we still cannot let go of our deeply held Homeric roots.

In our relentlessly Quixotic quest to discover the one authentic Homer, the blind bard, we should tread lightly in pursuing the answer. Otherwise we may find ourselves blinded, like Oedipus. Let us, instead, relinquish the need to unearth the original Homer, and his prove his falsity. Let us, instead, embrace the life-giving truths embodied within the Homeric corpus, and guide our inquiry into the enduring nature of Homeros. Far greater truth, goodness, and beauty can be found therein.

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