Pieter Bruegel’s "Hunters in the Snow" is one of the masterpieces of western art.
Confronting the Cult of Homer
There is a large rock facing the ocean on the coast of the Grecian island of Chios. Local legends claim that this rock once played home to a blind bard who composed a great work of poetry upon it, preaching his ideas to the masses who lauded him as a great poet. Upon observing the rock though, some may have doubts. The rock is awkwardly shaped and unideal for writing, especially for a blind man. Yet this innocent legend persists, and thousands of tourists flock to Chios each year to sit on the rock where Homer sat.
There are many such unreliable legends about the legendary poet of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and just as many academic theories to back them up. It is said Homer came from the island of Ios, but other accounts claim he may have been born on Samos, or Colophon, or Ithaca, or Smyrna, or Cyme. His supposed tomb is marked on Ios, but there is no guarantee he is buried beneath it. Legends say he was blind, but no proof survives. We ultimately don’t know anything about Homer, his birthplace, his lineage, or even his true name. We don’t know if he wrote other poems or if both of the poems ascribed to his name were truly his. We don’t even know if he really existed. All we have is a tradition that says there was once a man named Homer who wrote two great works of poetry. Yet posterity has chosen to hold up this faceless man as a demigod, who later poets like Dante would describe as “the sovereign poet.”
These questions make up what is called “The Homeric Question,” the question of who Homer was. This cultural fascination with the idea of Homer makes up the subject of Professor James I. Porter’s study, Homer: The Very Idea. Porter, who is the Irving Stone Professor in Literature at UC Berkeley, has little affection for Homeric mythology. Three millennia of Homer commentary has only, in his view, made the real man harder to understand. He cuts right to the bone of the subject, and systematically dismisses most of the literary theories of antiquity and modernity.
Featureless and faceless, and so too empty of meaning, Homer is only a momentary stopgap for an act of imagining that vacillates uncertainly between the two poles of personhood and idea whenever Homer is on the table for discussion. But no sooner is Homer named than the pendular swing of indecision begins all over again. Problematic to the core, Homer disintegrates on contact. He is the ongoing problem of his own identity.
Porter understands that this is not a contemporary problem. Attempts to grapple with the identity of Homer stretch back possibly as far as the eighth century BC. The Greeks struggled deeply with the problem of Homer’s identity, crafting apocryphal legends and biographical stories around the poet to fill the void. Narratives like Contest of Homer and Hesiod and The Lives of Homer fictionalized legends of the poet’s life to find the humanity of the poet.
“The lore that accumulated around Homer was prolific,” said Porter.
No other poet had so many lives, or Lives. Some ten or so of these have survived, depending on how they are counted. Many more must have existed. Homer was born of a river god and a nymph. He had up to six different fathers, one of whom was Odysseus’s son, Telemachus… He had as many mothers as he had fathers, one candidate being Polycaste, the daughter of Nester. He was born in at least seven places and was imagined to have lived either at the time of the Trojan War or as many as four centuries afterward.
Later contemporary artists took up this tradition of deification. The 19th-century French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicted the poet in his 1827 The Apotheosis of Homer, which depicted the poet being crowned by the gods. His works of epic poetry had made him eternal. As an inscription on the painting says, “If Homer is a god let him be revered as one of the immortals; but if he is not a god, let him be believed to be one.” Ingres was merely continuing a tradition nearly as old as Homer himself though, creating a fictional face to glorify the poet.
Even as the “Cult of Homer” arose in antiquity and modernity, his critics remain legion. Porter notes that the ancient Greeks, who adored his poems for their moralism, beauty, and nationalistic implications, were wary of the implicit realities of the poems. Many knew full well that Homer likely was speaking falsely when he invoked the Muses to speak the truth of the Trojan War, a war that likely did not actually occur. Troy may well have existed, as its ruins were discovered by Homeric scholars like Heinrich Schliemann, but Porter notes that the layers of foundation built over and over on the Trojan battleground don’t leave clear evidence that it was destroyed by Mycenae in the correct time period. There may have been a Bronze Age war between Troy and the ancestors of the Greeks, but the poems and real-life ruins neither confirm nor deny its existence.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes excoriated Homer for being “blasphemous, morally flawed, and full of scandalous fictions.” Heraclitus and Plato similarly build off of these criticisms of the Cult of Homer. “Heraclitus is personifying and vilifying the idea of Homer that had taken root in the minds of others and evidently in his own mind as well,” says Porter. “Or at least they find it convenient to make it seem so, in order to launch their own critiques on the foundations of Greek culture and knowledge. Homer is little more than a convenient scapegoat.”
Despite these sixth-century attempts to bury the deceased scribe, Homer remains one of the most enduring and popular poets in modernity. His works are studied in schools and remain contentious topics in the ongoing culture war. He is, as ever, a scapegoat for teachers and activists who seek a symbol of dead white patriarchal authority, and who lobby for the removal of his works from course curricula. Nevertheless, his works remain immortal, untouchable by his critics both ancient and modern.
“The best measure of Homer’s standing in culture is neither his excellence as a poet nor his unequaled canonical status,” Porter says. “Nor is it his persistence available as an object of cultural consumption. Rather it is his capacity to continuously produce culture in his wake. This is the truest mark of his staying power over time.”
Homer’s works stand alone. There is little chance they represent a fully realistic account of Bronze Age history, and yet they remain idiosyncratically attentive to detail. His war poetry captures the brutality of war, unflinchingly depicting the casual ways humanity is drained out of a person the moment their life is taken. His descriptions of chariot warfare and ancient weaponry roughly match the historical data that we have. The poet or the progenitor of his tradition clearly saw some conflict of such brutality and destruction that he was able to evoke it and describe it. He was clearly familiar with the landscape of Troy. And it is because of this that his work is so evocative and sweeping. His work may not be true in the sense that it captures the material reality of the conflict, the internal lives of the ancient gods, or the true history of a non-existent war, but it is metaphysically true—true to the human experience. And beyond that initial factual hiccup, Homer’s works do seem to allude to a deeper horror that is based on true events.
The Illiad and The Odyssey were likely works of the late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age, a time when the civilizations of the Mediterranean experienced a civilizational collapse and descended into a dark age. This “systems collapse” occurred around 1200 BC, in the vicinity of when the supposed Trojan War was suggested to have happened.
“Suppose for a moment that Homer is recording not a singular event in history but rather a singular inexplicability—an unaccountable loss with no known but only an imaginable origin,” says Porter. “To anyone living near Troy after 1200 and down to 700, Troy would have presented the ghostly vestige of one remarkable civilization.” The truth of Homer’s work is not merely that it captures the history of a forgotten war but that it may express the trauma of a mysterious moment in human civilization, a dark age, “unfathomable except as a myth about the end of a mythical time itself.”
Homer’s work is not a history, but a “map of the physical and moral universe.” The scars left behind from whatever horrific trauma produced Homer’s poems seem mythical in their depth and emotional impact, as though this particular siege represented an Eden-like prelapsarian collapse, which left all humanity in a fallen world. The gods themselves saw to it that the ruins of Troy burned to the ground and left nothing for future generations to observe, behind hidden graves filled with the indiscriminate ashes of the dead. Homer’s true value to history is not as a cartographer of a war that never happened but as a communicator of a metaphysical truth, passing down a hazy and blurred vision of the world as it was.
It was a truth that could only be conveyed through the generations through lies, through the beautiful words of a blind storyteller who saw nothing.
Porter is right to be skeptical of the “Idea of Homer,” for Homer himself is both a person and an idea. The idea of Homer can be used for good or ill. His books remain a testament to the idea of a man who doesn’t exist, and does well to thread the needle of our society’s affection, jealousy, and distrust of the mysterious bard. Porter has no ultimate revelation to conclude his study. It’s an anti-biography that precludes the possibility of a meaningful retelling of Homer’s life, and the book spends most of its time unpacking examples of Homeric falsehoods. There is no secret history to unearth. He ends merely with a warning, but unpacks what it is about Homer that is good and meaningful.
The appeal to Homer is powerful and can even be used toward nefarious ends. The core contradiction is rooted in a troublesome reality, that Homer was writing poetry about Barbarians. The poems we have are accounts of war and they depict and partially endorse some of the most grotesque acts of antihuman violence imaginable. Homer does not affirm the righteousness of war, but war stories are attractive to those who adore violence. Homer’s work is filled with “Pre-Homeric Barbarism,” murder, pillaging, rape and destruction on a level hardly imaginable. The gods themselves raise the battlefields of Troy in its aftermath and burn away the bodies and carnage until they’re wiped clean. Troy is burned to cinders.
Having relegated most of the biography of Homer to the dustbin, Porter concludes the final chapter of Homer: The Very Idea by contemplating the works themselves. He laments his own modernistic concerns about the poems as flawed and hypocritical works of war that are both beautiful and grotesque. Homer is at once absorbing and engrossing. People believed him when he sang of the Trojan War, as they do today, and Porter sees in it a troubling revelation about humanity.
When Nietzsche asks the question why did the whole world rejoice over the pictures of the battle in the Illiad, he is also asking the question’s corollary, Why does the whole modern world continue to rejoice over their pictures? … Homer’s fairy tale realism defined for an elite audience who was to see the imperturbable stability of their universe mirrored back to them unproblematically, has a particular resonance given the sorts of images of Homer that were popular in Nazi Germany at the time [the world] was wracked by violence.
The answer of course is that Homer’s work is beautiful. The common man does not pick up his poems to fetishize barbaric violence or to seek to recreate it, but reads himself into the tragedy of characters who struggle with the concepts of love, death, and the desire to skirt the realities of the world to return home. Homer’s works are filled with lies, mistruths, ugliness, and acts of violence, rape, hatred and desolation against the human spirit. Yet they capture the humanity and pain of those realities in equal measure to the horrors which it depicts. It finds hope in the midst of terror. Porter ultimately believes they affirm the value of human life, even when they place in our mouths the bitter taste of regret “that violence has killed and will kill again.”
Homer’s poems were so baffling – so inexplicable, so magnificent, and so manifestly flawed – that their genesis could not be coherently imagined, while their earliest fate was shadowed by suspicion … The Illiad is not a poem of death. It is a poem of war. And Homer however we choose to understand the name, never lets us forget the difference.
Though our attempts to create a biography around Homer are fruitless, the idea of Homer is eternal. Attempts to create a fictionalized Homer of whole cloth often come across as hollow and flat, for they are purely fictitious – a quotation of a quotation of the myth of a falsehood that has been given even greater status by the grandeur of his literary accomplishments. Even so, his two surviving works though are masterpieces, and those 27,802 lines of poetry have defined and reshaped countless cultures. The tapestry surrounding Homer, with 2,800 years of commentaries, argumentation, and continuations of his work, is the true legacy of the poet. Homer will forever remain an enigma, and his legacy is the truest Homer we will ever know.