The Iliad and the Odyssey: Homer's World

The Iliad and the Odyssey are considered to be masterpieces of ancient Greece, the first of Western literature. These are two epics attributed to a Greek poet named "Homer (in ancient Greek Ὅμηρος, Hómêros, hostage) ". The Greeks did not doubt of its existence. It was said that he was born in Ionia in Chios or Smyrna around 850 BC, that he was blind, dictated his poems to his daughter, and that his inspiration was divine which would explain his blindness. He is said to have died in Ios around 800 BC. Today we know that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written in the 8th century BC. at a time when we had just rediscover writing.

The Iliad and the Homeric texts

They are two epics, that is, the genre of epic poetry. An epic is a narrative in verse which tells about the exploits of superhuman characters and these were called Heroes by the Greeks. These Heroes were believed to have existed centuries ago. These poems are hexameters (verses of 6 bars), in a mixture of Ionian and Wind, two dialects to be distinguished from Attic.

The iliad recounts the episodes of the Trojan War, which pitted many Greek cities against each other. Ilion is one of the two names given to the city of Troy. This poem is longer than the Odyssey with 15,000 verses and twenty four songs and was written around 750 BC It takes place during the Trojan War, as already mentioned, but only fifty-six days are told, not the whole of the war.

The Trojan Pâris is asked to arbitrate a competition, that of the most beautiful goddess. He must choose among Athena, Aphrodite and Hera, which of the latter is the most beautiful, each promising him a reward. Paris chooses Aphrodite who had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world: Helena, the wife of King Menelaus. Paris kidnaps Helena, and so begins the Trojan War. A fabulous tale follows which involves Achilles, the formidable fighter, "best of the Achaeans" (we also find the name "danaens", Agamemnon, and other characters from then on famous.

As for the Odyssey, this name comes from the main character Ulysses. In Greek, Odysseus (which is a Latin word) is called Odysseus. This poem is 12,000 lines divided into twenty-four songs. The unity of action is different from that of the Iliad. The Odyssey is divided into three parts: Telemachy (songs 1 to 4), the adventures of Ulysses (songs 5 ​​to 13) and the vengeance of Ulysses (songs 14 to 24).

This is the story of the Greek hero Ulysses, who goes through severe trials in order to be able to return home, to the island of Ithaca of which he is the king and where power threatens to be taken from him by suitors.

The oral tradition of these Homeric poems was probably elaborated in the Geometric period: there are aedes (compared to the bards of Serbia or Croatia, they sing the iliad and the odyssey with a background of musical instruments) and rhapsodes (storytellers of Homeric poems that they improvise with a certain technique in the archaic period) which confirm this oral tradition. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, a scientific work carried out by the Greeks of Alexandria aimed to explain these poems.

The "world of Homer" in the Iliad and the Odyssey

This expression was used by historian Moses Finley, an eminent scholar of Greek antiquity. The society as described by Homer is hierarchical, so it is very aristocratic. There are Basileis: kings, like Ulysses or Agamemnon, and warrior aristocrats around them, at the head of an oikos heritage. Laos and Thetes cultivate the land and the slaves (dmoes) are servants in the palaces of the aristocrats. In political life, we are still witnessing the beginnings of the city, they are still governed by a warrior king and political leader, there is the Council of Elders who help the king to take important decisions). Finally the assembly, the Agora, is brought together by the king who presides over it. Its function is to deliberate with knowledge of the king's decisions and can influence his decisions.

As for religion and economy, there is a religious continuity with the Mycenaean period, because the religious life described by Homer is similar to that of the Mycenaean civilization. The economy, on the other hand, is different from the Mycenaean era and what will be thereafter. There is no currency (exchanges based on barter), an importance of war and agriculture (and breeding) is present, and finally there is the Phoenician trade (strong link with piracy).

Homer's odyssey and the Homeric question

It is the set of scientific problems raised for the first time in the 17th century. Two essential problems arise: Did Homer exist? And what world does he describe? A finding of differences in styles between the Iliad and the Odyssey suggests that three different poems have been artificially glued to form the Odyssey (the transitions are awkward). Frédéric Auguste Wolf (1759-1824) was the first to say that Homer was an invention and that the Iliad and the Odyssey were the work of at least four different poets. This idea forms an idea of ​​interpretation: the analysts, who remained dominant until around 1950. From 1950 the school of Unitarists developed, which comes back to the theory of the Greeks, namely that Homer is one person. .

The world of Homer is an imaginary world for some, for others it describes the world of the 8th century BC. As for the character, he can be considered as the first citizen of the world, a multitude of cities claiming to be his native land.

Heinrich Schliemann, famous archaeologist, excavated Troy and Mycenae to show that Homer was describing a real world. Schliemann was convinced he had discovered that the Trojan War had indeed taken place. Until the middle of the 20th century, Schliemann's ideas were dominant. Around 1950, we realize that there was a big difference between the Mycenaean world and the Homeric world: the Mycenaean economy in no way corresponds to the Homeric economy. In addition, the Mycenaeans waged war with chariots mainly while in Homer the chariot plays a role poorly understood by the poet. There are all the same in Homer memories of the Mycenaean world: armor, helmets made of boar teeth.

Homer essentially described the Greek world around 800-750 BC, a Greek world where the Phoenicians traded, a Greek world where the city was being born. Homer keeps memories of the Mycenaean era which touch the field of armament and the predominance of Mycenae which became irrelevant at the end of the geometric period.


- The Iliad and the Odyssey. Editions Robert Laffont, 1995.

- Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Le monde d'Homère.Tempus, 2002.

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