No other texts in the Western imagination occupy as central a position in the self-definition of Western culture as the two epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. They both concern the great defining moment of Greek culture, the Trojan War. Whether or not this war really occurred, or occurred as the Greeks narrate it, is a relatively unanswerable question. We know that such a war did take place around a city that quite likely was Troy that Troy was destroyed utterly, but beyond that it's all speculation. This war, however, fired the imaginations of the Greeks and became the defining cultural moment in their history. Technically, the war wasn't fought by "Greeks" in the classical sense, it was fought by the Myceneaens; the Greek culture that we call "classical" is actually derived from a different group of Greeks, the Dorians and Ionians. However, the Greeks saw the Trojan War as the first moment in history when the Greeks came together as one people with a common purpose. This unification, whether it was myth or not, gave the later Greeks a sense of national or cultural identity, despite the fact that their governments were small, disunified city-states. Since the Greeks regarded the Trojan War as the defining moment in the establishment of "Greek character," they were obsessed about the events of that great war and told them repeatedly with great variety; as the Greek idea of cultural identity changed, so did their stories about the Trojan War.
If the Greeks regarded the Trojan War as the defining moment of their culture, they did so because of the poetry of Homer. It would not be unfair to regard the Homeric poems as the single most important texts in Greek culture. While the Greeks all gained their collective identity from the Trojan War, that collective identity was concentrated in the values, ethics, and narrative of Homer's epic poems. Just as the Greeks were obsessed about the Trojan War, they were equally obsessed about the Homeric poems, returning to them over and over again, particularly in times of cultural crisis. The Greeks didn't believe that the Homeric poems were sacred in any way, or even flawless history. For most of Greek history, Homer comes under fire for his unflattering portrayal of Greek gods. The Greeks understood that the poems were poetry, and in the Hellenistic period came to the understanding that the poems had been deeply corrupted over the ages. So unlike most ancient cultures, which rooted collective identity in religious texts of some
sort, the Greeks turned to literature.
As the Trojan War was the product of Mycenean culture, the Homeric poems were the product of the Greek Dark Ages. Whatever happened at Troy, the events were probably so captivating, that the Greeks continued to narrate the stories long after they had abandoned their cities and abandoned writing. The history of the war was preserved from mouth to mouth, from person to person; it may be that the stories of the Trojan War were the dominant cultural artifact of the Greek Dark Ages. These stories probably began as short tales of isolated events and heroes; eventually a profession of story telling was established—classical scholars call this new professional a "bard." This new professional began combining the stories into larger narratives; as the narratives grew, the technique of story-telling changed as well. Whereas early bards probably memorized their stories with great exactitude, the later bards, telling much longer stories, probably improvised much of their lines following sophisticated rules. Maybe. We have evidence from the
Classical age in Greece of people memorizing the complete poetry of Homer word
for word (over 25,000 lines of poetry); it may be possible that the Homeric poems
were memorized with more exactitude than scholars believe. No matter what the case, by the end of the Greek Dark Ages, these bards or story-tellers were probably the cultural center of Greek society; their status improved greatly as Greeks began to slowly urbanize.
On an average night in the late Greek Dark Ages, a community, probably the wealthiest people, would settle in for an evening's entertainment. The professional storyteller would sing the stories of the Trojan War and its Greek heroes; these songs would be the Greek equivalent of a mini-series, for the stories were so long that they would take days to complete. The Greeks believed that the greatest of these story-tellers was a blind man named Homer, and that he sung ten epic poems about the Trojan War, of which only two survived (although the Greeks seem to have known them). As a group these poems told the entire history of the Trojan War; each poem, however, only covered a small part of that history. Many classicists believe that the two surviving Homeric epics (probably the only Homeric epics) were in fact composed by several individuals; in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, most classicists accept the overall Greek idea of a single author. Whatever the compositional history of the poems, they were set down into writing within a few decades of their composition; the growing urbanization of Greek society led to the rediscovery of writing (learned from the Phoenicians this time), and the Homeric poems were committed to writing very quickly. Time and transmission added much extraneous material to the poems, but in their basic character and outline they seem to be the original compositions.
The Iliad is the story of a brief event in the ninth year of the war (which the Greeks claim lasted ten years); the great hero Achilles is offended when the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, takes a slave girl Achilles has been awarded. Achilles withdraws from the battle and prays to his mother, Thetis, a goddess, to turn the tide of battle against the Greeks. The gods grant Achilles his prayer, and he does not return to battle until his best friend is killed by the great Trojan hero, Hector. Achilles throws himself into the battle, fights Hector, and kills him; in a final gesture of contempt, he drags Hectors lifeless body around the walls of Troy. If there is a "theme" to the epic (and one should resist simplifying large and complex literature), it is "Achilles choice." Achilles has been offered a choice: either he can be a great and famous hero in war and die young (Achilles does die in Troy when a poison arrow strikes him in the ankle), or the can live a long, happy life without any lasting fame whatsoever. Although Achilles initially chooses not to die young, the death of his friend forces him to make the choice that will make him famous for all time, but tragically dead at a young age.
The Odyssey is the story of the homecoming of another of the great Greek heroes at Troy, Odysseus. Unlike Achilles, Odysseus is not famous for his great strength or bravery, but for his ability to deceive and trick (it is Odysseus's idea to take Troy by offering the citizens a large wooden horse filled, unbeknownst to the Trojans, with Greek soldiers). He is the anthropos polytropos , the "man of many ways," or the "man of many tricks." His homecoming has been delayed for ten years because of the anger of the gods; finally, in the tenth year, he is allowed to go home. He hasn't been misspending his time, though; for most of the ten years he has been living on an island with the goddess Kalypso, who is madly in love with him. Odysseus, like Achilles, is offered a choice: he may either live on the island with Kalypso and be immortal like the gods, or he may return to his wife and his country and be mortal like the rest of us. He chooses to return, and much of the rest of the work is a long exposition on what it means to be "mortal." If the Odyssey has a discernible theme, it is the nature of mortal life, why any human being would, if offered the chance to be a god, still choose to be mortal. This choice becomes
particularly problematic when Odysseus, in Book XI, meets the ghost of Achilles in the Underworld; Odysseus remarks to Achilles how all the shades of the dead must worship and serve Achilles, but Achilles replies that he would rather be the meanest and most obscure slave of the poorest landholder than be the most famous of the dead. If being dead is so awful, what is it about being human that makes up for the infinite suffering that attends our deaths? As part of this question concerning the nature of human life, much of the book deals with the nature of human civilization and human savagery. The question also deepens in the latter half of the poem; while the first half of the epic deals with the question of the value of a mortal life, the last half of the epic introduces the question of the value of an anonymous human life. What value can be attached to a life that will be
forgotten at its conclusion?
The Greeks in general regard Homer's two epics as the highest cultural achievement of their people, the defining moment in Greek culture which set the basic Greek character in stone. Throughout antiquity, both in Greece and Rome, everything tended to be compared to these two works; events in history made sense when put in the light of the events narrated in these two works. As a result, then, these two epics are the focal point of Greek values and the Greek world view despite all its evolution and permutations through the centuries following their composition.
There are two very important words repeatedly used throughout the Homeric epics: honor (timé ) and virtue or greatness (areté ). The latter term is perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in Ancient Greece and means something like achieving, morally and otherwise, your greatest potential as a human being. The reward for great honor and virtue is fame (kleos ), which is what guarantees meaning and value to one's life. Dying without fame (akleos ) is generally considered a disaster, and the warriors of the Homeric epics commit the most outrageous deeds to avoid dying in obscurity or infamy (witness Odysseus's absurd insistence on telling Polyphemos his name even though this will bring
disaster on him and his men in the Polyphemos episode). The passage from Odyssey XI discussed above presents Achilles's final judgement on kleos and its value when he tells Odysseus that he would rather be alive and the most obscure human on earth than dead and famous.