Homer, the Author- 750 BC

Homer, The Author - 750 BC

 

We know almost nothing for sure about the storyteller who is given credit for composing the earliest and greatest works in Western Literature. Tradition tells us he lived somewhere around 750 BC, was from the island of Chios off the west coast of what is now Turkey and was an old blind man who wandered the countryside reciting his two great epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.  We call him Homer, though that may have been a pseudonym, or the equivalent of a stage name, or it may have been a title for a poet who performed in a certain style.  We are not even sure that the composer of these works is one man or many.

We are forced therefore to make a number of guesses based on evidence from within the text of his two great works.  First, there is a unity of style in each of the works that suggests single authorship and the differences in style between the works is no more than one might expect from different ages in a man’s life.  If we assume the works are created by one man more assumptions can follow.  Such as, he must have been trained as a youth to be a storyteller.

Judging from Homer’s works a storyteller needed a thorough knowledge of the stories of the gods, and the heroes that made up the aggregation of classic Greek stories.  He needed to be trained to improvise poetry as he told his story so he could maintain the rhythms of the epic poet.  He needed to be trained to memorize the names and identities of the many characters in a story.  He needed to be trained to break a story down into its themes and typical scenes in order to be able to create a structure he could follow as he told his story.  

Storytellers in Homer’s time occupied a very important place in their society.  Not only were they the primary source of entertainment, (There was also music, dancing and singing and games but storytellers were the main attraction.)  But they were also the keepers of the History, Theology, Knowledge, Culture and Language of the peoples of the islands of the Aegean Sea and the lands surrounding it.  In a world without writing they were the glue that held the Greek speaking peoples together. 

We believe most of the stories the storytellers sang were traditional stories.  Stories handed down from storyteller to storyteller, from generation to generation for hundreds of years, in some cases maybe more than a thousand years.  Stories of heroes and gods, of magic and monsters and there was usually, somewhere in the story a beautiful princess who fell in love.  Stories like “The Labors of Hercules”, “Jason and Medea”, “Perseus and the Medusa”, “Oedipus” and the stories of the Trojan War.

One of the stories from the cycle of Trojan War stories was a story called “The Wrath of Achilles”.  The events within this story so closely parallel the events in Homer’s “The Iliad” that one can safely assume Homer used it as inspiration.  But Homer wanted to do more with his story than just tell another story of heroes and gods, magic and monsters and the love of a beautiful princess.  He wanted his story to be about the nature of man, about what man is. (Or was back when heroes and gods walked the earth together.) He wanted to explore a whole universe of human experience.  The experience of man and woman under the stress of war that brings out the best and worst that is in them.

To do this he needed a new way of telling a story.  He needed a way, which would more deeply display the ambitions and emotions of man.  He either invented or used more effectively than ever before the story telling devise of telling a story with dialogue.  That is, Homer gives the characters in his story long speeches which are answered with long speeches from other characters and these speeches clash against each other with great dramatic effect. 

But, more importantly, Homer is speaking his story he is not writing it, so these speeches are not reported to the audience by Homer.  Homer does not quote what the character is saying.  He becomes the character who is speaking.  He takes on the voice of the character, he speaks with the passion and purpose of the character. 

What this method of story telling does is it opens a window for the audience to see deep into the heart and soul of the character in a way that is not possible otherwise.  Homer does not need to attempt to describe the anger of Achilles, he becomes Achilles and the audience can see and feel the anger for themselves.  They can see and feel the joy when a loved one returns home safe from the war, or the heartbreak when he does not.  They can see, as Homer becomes the character, behind the words the character speaks, just as they can when observing real people.  They can see the virtue and attractiveness of a character for themselves (or lack of it).  They do not need to be told by Homer who is the good guy and who is the bad.

This revolutionary way of telling a story together with an awesome understanding of human nature together with an amazing ability to construct a story and to lead an audience from scene to scene made the works of Homer in his own day, and for hundreds of years after to be considered the greatest story teller of them all. 

From the glory days of the Hellenic empire till today Greek children have learned the language and rhythms of poetry by reciting Homer.  They learned the use of language by transcribing  The Iliad or The Odyssey.  They learned the virtues of bravery, honor and glory and the vices of cowardliness and veniality by reading Homer.  No other author outside of those in the Bible has had a great an effect of the shape of Western Culture as this one storyteller of 2,700 years ago.

 

 

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