Homer (About 850 BCE)
We do not know who Homer was, but that is what the ancient Greeks called him. Scholars have debated whether there was ever a single actual author rather than a collection of oral stories but it is now thought that such an author existed. His defining works are The Iliad and The Odyssey. The adventures described in these two epic poems have shaped our thinking about the ancient Greeks – their religious and social structures – and have profoundly influenced subsequent writers, who have used his characters in multiple ways, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, James Joyce to Star Trek, and several poets have adopted his verse forms. The two poems are so vivid and detailed that we are seduced into thinking that he has written an actual history, and to this day we quote from Homer as though we were rehearsing actual history.
The study of Homer appeared on the school syllabus of the Roman empire for centuries, where students copied and imitated passages. All subjects – reading, writing, history, law, music – were approached with Homer at their centre. All the writers of that time, including the authors of the New Testament, will have been familiar with the details of Homer’s stories, and their poetic styles were heavily influenced by his verse. The two epics have become central models in world mythology. They give us an important glimpse into early human society and show how little has changed in three thousand years.
All of us, whoever we may be, know something about the siege of Troy, the Trojan Wars, the kidnapping of Helen of Troy, the heroes, Achilles and Ajax, and the epic journey home of Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans).
Many of the stories are with us all the time in the form of science fiction novels, stories, films and television series. Star Trek, with its characters who are able to become invisible, change human beings into animals and effect so many magical tricks use the stories. They are an inspiration to science fiction writers as they search for interesting characters with powers beyond those of human beings.
Homer’s life may have been a mystery but his works are clear, immediate and ever present.
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