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Literature

Examining the Greek Epic Poet Homer as an Idea

February 14, 2022

Very little is known about the Greek epic poet Homer, except that he is the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Over the centuries, Homer continues to be read and revered, and his works, whether or not he actually wrote them himself, capture the imagination and inspire authors and artists to the present day.

Homer: The Very Idea by James I. Porter, published by the University of Chicago Press, examines the story of our ongoing fascination with Homer, the man and the myth.

The great poet is revered as a cultural icon of antiquity and a figure of lasting influence, but his identity is shrouded in questions about who he was, when he lived, and whether he was an actual person, a myth, or merely a shared idea. Rather than attempting to solve the mystery of this character, Porter explores the sources of Homer’s mystique and their impact since the first recorded mentions of Homer in ancient Greece.

The book considers Homer not as a man, but as a cultural invention nearly as distinctive and important as the poems attributed to him, following the cultural history of an idea and of the obsession that is reborn every time Homer is imagined. Offering novel readings of texts and objects, the book follows the very idea of Homer from his earliest mentions to his most recent imaginings in literature, criticism, philosophy, visual art, and classical archaeology.

This compelling book is well-written and clear, featuring examples of how Homer has been continually reinvented over time. The fact that Homer is still relevant today and still sparking discussion is a testament to the power of the idea and the power of the epic poems to transcend time and speak to us through the various translations and retellings in novels, films, and other art forms.

Porter is the Irving Stone Professor of Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, including Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future, The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, and The Sublime in Antiquity. He has also edited several books and is a coauthor of Postclassicisms, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

In the opening chapter of Homer: The Very Idea, Porter writes: “The Iliad and the Odyssey have been required reading in Western culture from its beginnings, despite the mystery surrounding their date and authorship and despite their obvious blemishes— the inconsistencies, repetitions, and anomalies— which have led to their impeachment as products of a single mind. We might as well ask with Gilbert Murray, the future Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford writing in 1907, ‘Now why is it that the Iliad is a good poem when it has so many of the characteristics of a bad one?’”

Porter continues: “All the uncertainties about Homer and his poems notwithstanding, their place in the Western cultural imagination has been unrivaled. Indeed, as secular texts with no pretensions to revealed truth, and yet conferred with nearly biblical stature already in antiquity, the Homeric poems have enjoyed a status in world literature that is absolutely unique. Not even Vergil, the great poet of the Romans and of later Latin readers, could escape the long shadow cast by his Greek predecessor. Though it was Vergil, the most Christian-friendly of the pagan poets, who escorted Dante most of the way to Paradise, it was Homer, not Vergil, whom Dante called ‘the sovereign poet’ (Omero poeta sovrano) without ever having read a word of him.”

Homer: The Very Idea by James I. Porter is available online and in bookstores.

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