Nearly three thousand years after they were composed, the Iliad and the Odyssey remain two of the most celebrated and widely read stories ever told, yet next to nothing is known about their author. He was certainly an accomplished Greek bard, and he probably lived in the late eighth and early seventh centuries B.C.E. Authorship is traditionally ascribed to a blind poet named Homer, and it is under this name that the works are still published. Greeks of the third and second centuries B.C.E., however, had already begun to question whether Homer existed and whether the two epics were even written by a single individual.
Most modern scholars believe that even if a single person wrote the epics, his work owed a tremendous debt to a long tradition of unwritten, oral poetry. Stories of a glorious expedition to the East and of its leaders’ fateful journeys home had been circulating in Greece for hundreds of years before the Iliad and Odyssey were composed. Casual storytellers and semi-professional minstrels passed these stories down through generations, with each artist developing and polishing the story as he told it. According to this theory, one poet, multiple poets working in collaboration, or perhaps even a series of poets handing down their work in succession finally turned these stories into written works, again with each adding his own touch and expanding or contracting certain episodes in the overall narrative to fit his taste.
Although historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence suggests that the epics were composed between 750 and 650 B.C.E., they are set in Mycenaean Greece in about the twelfth century B.C.E., during the Bronze Age. This earlier period, the Greeks believed, was a more glorious and sublime age, when gods still frequented the earth and heroic, godlike mortals with superhuman attributes populated Greece. Because the two epics strive to evoke this pristine age, they are written in a high style and generally depict life as it was believed to have been led in the great kingdoms of the Bronze Age. The Greeks are often referred to as “Achaeans,” the name of a large tribe occupying Greece during the Bronze Age.
But Homer’s reconstruction often yields to the realities of eighth- and seventh-century B.C.E. Greece. The feudal social structure apparent in the background of the Odyssey seems more akin to Homer’s Greece than to Odysseus’s, and Homer substitutes the pantheon of deities of his own day for the related but different gods whom Mycenaean Greeks worshipped. Many other minor but obvious anachronisms—such as references to iron tools and to tribes that had not yet migrated to Greece by the Bronze Age—betray the poem’s later, Iron Age origins.
Both the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed primarily in the Ionic dialect of Ancient Greek, which was spoken on the Aegean islands and in the coastal settlements of Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. Some scholars thus conclude that the poet hailed from somewhere in the eastern Greek world. More likely, however, the poet chose the Ionic dialect because he felt it to be more appropriate for the high style and grand scope of his work. Slightly later Greek literature suggests that poets varied the dialects of their poems according to the themes that they were treating and might write in dialects that they didn’t actually speak. Homer’s epics, moreover, are Panhellenic (encompassing all of Greece) in spirit and, in fact, use forms from several other dialects, suggesting that Homer didn’t simply fall back on his native tongue but rather suited his poems to the dialect that would best complement his ideas.