Homer is a tradition, not a person, British historian says


The ancient Greek poet Homer was not a single person but actually an entire culture of storytelling, a historian has claimed.

Homer is a tradition, not a person, British historian says
Portrait of Homer, known as Homer Caetani. Pentelic marble, Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after a Greek 
original of the 2nd century BC. From the Palazzo Caetani in Rome [Credit: WikiCommons]

Adam Nicolson, an author and historian who has studied Homer, believes the epic poems of The Iliad and The Odyssey have their origins around 2,000 BC – 1,000 years earlier than the man who wrote them is said to have lived.

Instead, he claims the stories evolved as a tradition that were shared and refined as spoken poems for hundreds of years.

Speaking in an interview with National Geographic, Mr Nicolson, who is the Fifth Baron Carnock, said that the idea of Homer as a single author has emerged due to an ‘author obsession’.

He said: ‘I think it’s a mistake to think of Homer as a person. Homer is an “it” – a tradition.

‘An entire culture coming up with ever more refined and ever more understanding ways of telling stories that are important to it.’

There is very little known about exactly who or what Homer was, but is believed by the ancient Greeks to have been the first great epic poet.

Some accounts claim he was a blind poet who lived between 1,102BC to 850BC.

A guild of singing story tellers, or rhapsodes, later emerged known as the Homeridae and has led some to argue that Homer was actually a mythical figure whose name was derived from the guild.

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Some of the earliest written works attributed to Homer were found with the mummified remains of Green Egyptians from around 150-200 BC.

The oldest complete Iliad manuscript is found in the doge’s library in Venice and is thought to date from 900AD.

Mr Nicolson, who lives in Kent, said that notes in the margins of this manuscript, which was created in the Constantinople-Byzantium, provide some clues to what the origin of the Iliad may have been.

He said: ‘One of the exciting things that emerge from that is that in the early days it seems there was no such thing as a single Iliad, no one fixed text, but this wild and variable tradition of the stories, with many different versions in different parts of the Mediterranean, endlessly interacting with itself, like a braided stream in the mountains.’

Mr Nicolson said he first became interested in Homer around ten years ago when he began reading The Odyssey while waiting for his yacht to be repaired after it was damaged in a storm while sailing up the west coast of Britain.

He describes reading The Odyssey as being like somebody ‘telling me what it was like to be alive on Earth’.

Mr Nicolson, who has presented several TV programmes, including one about the history of whaling, has now written a book called The Mighty Dead, or Why Homer Matters in the US, to explore what influence Homer’s stories have today.

He said that he believes many of the poems attributed to Homer have their beginnings around 2,000 BC.

He said that large elements of the stories from The Iliad, for example, are shared with stories found in India, Germany and Iceland.

He also said that the Iliad also paints the Greeks as lawless violent warriors rather than the civilised society they later became.

He said: ‘That picture of the Greeks doesn’t make sense any later than about 1,800 to 1,700 BC. After that, the Greeks had arrived in the Mediterranean and started to create a civil society.

‘Before that, they were essentially tribes from the steppes between the Black Sea and the Caspian – nomadic, male-dominated, violent.’

Author: Richard Gray | Source: MailOnline [January 05, 2015]


  1. I think the best thing for the Brits to do is to shut up as far as Greece and Greek History is concerned. Greece has had enough with them, and their "know it all" arrogance. Enough is enough with them.