How Homer Matters

“The core of what is valuable about those epics is that they are intensely human. … It is an absolutely down-the-barrel look at the realities of who we are.”

In his lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, author Adam Nicholson argues the importance of Homer thousands of years after he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. He examines the uncertain origins of Homer, the oral tradition of epic poetry, and the contrasting cultures of the Trojans and the Greeks. His talk is set against a background of archaeology and art history.

Here’s a quick synopsis of some key points throughout the lecture:

  • Homer’s origins are unknown, but that hasn’t stopped scholars from speculating. Some believe there are multiple Homers or that he was actually a woman or a group of women.
  • Homer’s epics are built on the foundations of oral tradition. Indeed, Nicholson says, the final versions of the Iliad or the Odyssey–that is, the written versions– is “the last Homer” of many who came before him.
  • Interestingly, oral tradition does not mean memorization of thousands of lines word-for-word, but instead involves a general idea of the plot and specific phrases and stanzas combined with on-the-spot composition.
  • Nicholson holds the controversial belief that Homer’s origins are much farther back than previously thought. Instead of a poet from 800 BC writing about a war that took place in 1200 BC, Nicholson claims that archaeological findings prove that Troy was an impoverished state at that time, but far wealthier a thousand years prior.
  • In the Iliad, Troy is defined by cloth, whereas the Greeks are defined by bronze, particularly in the form of weaponry. Each is a metaphor for their communities; the Trojans are marked by integrity in a closely woven urban setting, while the Greeks are marked by honor and individuality in what Nicholson calls a “blade” culture. Both have their pros and cons. The climax of the clashing of these two cultures comes from the meeting of Achilles and Priam after the death of Hector. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is, in a sense, the child of this meeting, combining the qualities of both cultures.

So what makes Homer important after all these years? “Homer is beautiful because he doesn’t submit to all the pains of existence,” Nicholson says. He depicts the complex beauty of life, complete in its delights and violence, joys and sorrows.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *