Biography Homer


photo of Homer
  • Time Periodc 1100 -
  • Place
  • CountryGreece

Poet Biography

Although "Homer" is a Greek name, attested in Aeolic-speaking areas, nothing definite is known of him; yet rich traditions grew up, or were conserved, purporting to give details of his birthplace and background. Many of them were purely fantastical: the satirist Lucian, in his fabulous True History, makes him out to be a Babylonian called Tigranes, who only assumed the name Homer when taken "hostage" (homeros) by the Greeks. When the Emperor Hadrian asked the Oracle at Delphi who Homer really was, the Pythia proclaimed that he was Ithacan, the son of Epikaste and Telemachus, from the Odyssey. These stories proliferated and were incorporated into a number of Lives of Homer compiled from the Alexandrian period onwards. The most common version has Homer born in the Ionian region of Asia Minor, at Smyrna, or on the island of Chios, and dying on the Cycladic island of Ios. A connection with Smyrna seems to be alluded to in a legend that his original name was "Melesigenes" ("born of Meles", a river which flowed by that city), and of the nymph Kretheis. Internal evidence from the poems gives some support to this connection: familiarity with the topography of this area of Asia Minor's littoral obtrudes in place-names and details, and similes evocative of local scenery: the meadow birds at the mouth of the Caystros (Iliad 2.459ff.), a storm in the Icarian sea (Iliad 2.144ff.), and wind-lore (Iliad 2.394ff: 4.422ff: 9.5), or that women of either Maeonia or Caria stain ivory with scarlet (Iliad 4.142).

The association with Chios dates back at least to Semonides of Amorgos who cited a famous line in the Iliad (6.146) as by "the man of Chios". Some kind of eponymous bardic guild, known as the Homeridae (sons of Homer), or Homeristae ('Homerizers') appears to have existed there, variously tracing descent from an imaginary ancestor of that name, or vaunting their special function as rhapsodes or "lay-stitchers" specialising in the recitation of Homeric poetry.

The poet's name is homophonous with "homêros", meaning, generally, "hostage" (or "surety"), long understood as "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow", or, in some dialects, "blind". The assonance itself generated many tales relating the person to the functions of a hostage or of a blind man. In regard to the latter, traditions holding that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word both in Ionic, where the verbal form "hómêreuô" has the specialized meaning of "guide the blind", and in the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where homêros was synonymous with standard Greek tuphlós, meaning 'blind'. The characterization of Homer as a blind bard goes back to some verses in the Delian Hymn to Apollo, the third of the Homeric Hymns, verses later cited to support this notion by Thucydides. The Cumean historian Ephorus held the same view, and the idea gained support in antiquity on the strength of a false etymology deriving his name from ho mê horôn (? µ? ????: "he who does not see"). Critics have long taken a passage in the Odyssey describing a blind bard, Demodocus, in the court of the Phaeacian king, who recounts stories of Troy to the shipwrecked Odysseus, as self-referential.

Many scholars take the name of the poet to be indicative of a generic function. Gregory Nagy takes it to mean "he who fits (the Song) together". "Hómêréô", another related verb, besides signifying "meet", can mean "(sing) in accord/tune". Some argue that "Homer" may have meant "he who puts the voice in tune" with dancing. Marcello Durante links "Homeros" to an epithet of Zeus as "god of the assemblies" and argues that behind the name lies the echo of an archaic word for "reunion", similar to the later Panegyris, denoting a formal assembly of competing minstrels.

The Ancient Lives depict Homer as a wandering minstrel, much like Thamyris or Hesiod, who walked as far as Chalkis to sing at the funeral games of Amphidamas. We are given the image of a "blind, begging singer who hangs around with little people: shoemakers, fisherman, potters, sailors, elderly men in the gathering places of harbour towns". The poems themselves give evidence of singers at the courts of the nobility. Scholars are divided as to which category, if any, the court singer or the wandering minstrel, the historic "Homer" belonged.