There were many characters in the story of The Iliad and I’m not counting the Olympian gods! The bards in Homer’s time, before and since, had unique mnemonic tricks to remember these legends as well as music to provide cues during the telling. The tale contains over 15,600 lines and though not considered the longest epic it is still quite extraordinary feat of mental acuity. I, for one, cannot remember the first few lines let alone try to memorise the entire story.
Homer had been disparaged, and there a still sceptics, about the validity of his story; how could he narrate such a tale that happened 500 years before his time? I watched a documentary ‘The True Story of Troy’ Ancient Archives series about the Trojan War and proved these storytellers could recall long epic sagas. There was old footage around the 1900s taken by an American anthropologist who recorded an elderly Ukrainian bard singing about a war dating back over 500 years. In the late 1980s, Historian Michael Woods presented ‘In search of the Trojan War’ and met with Scottish professor who was recording old tales passed down through the generations from one bard to another. He was able to prove old oratory stories can be remembered over a long period of time.
This story emerged around the period of Ancient Greece’s Dark Age 1100-750 BC. Not long after the War, circa 1200 BC, and when the Mycenaean empire began to crumble. Agamemnon was murdered on his arrival back home; Menelaos was shipwrecked on the shores of Egypt; Odysseus took ten years to get back home; Akhilleus was killed at Troy; many of the major characters had some disastrous ending. It wasn’t long after mainland Greece was invaded by forces from the Near East and later by the Dorians, Indo-European peoples. This ended what was called the Heroic Age by Hesiod.
The Dark Ages lasted for 300 years and during this time, Linear B, Mycenaean writing was lost, and very little pottery, architecture, painting was created. The knowledge gained until the decline of the Mycenaean period was gone. Large centres such as Mykenai died as people moved and migrated to different parts of Greece and overseas to the west coast of Asia Minor (Turkey) and to southern Italy and Sicily.
Homer was born during the Dark Ages, around 800BC, though sources cannot confirm the exact time as there was no record of his birth. According most sources he came from Asia Minor, one of the Greek settlements—Ionia, Smyrna or possibly the island of Chois. There isn’t a lot of information about Homer, hence speculation as to whether he did exist and whether he was the true author of the Iliad and Odyssey. One lingering myth was he was blind and can be attributed to a character in the Odyssey, a blind Phaeacian bard called Demodokos. In the story, the character was welcomed into the gathering and incited to give a performance. It’s suggested Homer interjected himself into the story to describe his life as a wandering minstrel.
‘The squire now came, leading their favourite bard, whom the Muse loved above all others, though she had mingled good and evil in her gifts, robbing him of his eyes but granting him the gift of sweet song.’ Lines 63-66
‘…the Muse set the bard to sing the famous deeds of heroes, that part of a lay well known by then throughout the world…’ lines 73-74
Homer, The Odyssey, book 8
As you would have guessed, I am a fan of Homer and his works and do believe his story. Of course, as a storyteller you garnish the truth with fiction otherwise it can be dry and tedious. Do you believe in Homer’s story and the fact Homer existed? Drop me a line and let me know what you think.
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As always, Luciana, this was a great post. I love the epics of Homer and believe there was a lot of validity in the tale.
A number of historians have said The Iliad is a collection of events which have been remembered over centuries and Homer collated these memories into a story. They must have been powerful recollections to be remembered for a long time!
Thank you Linnea 😀
Fascinating! I guess with enough discipline and training old stories could be handed down through time. Maybe Homer was the blind poet he wrote of in the Iliad – it’s funny how John Milton was also blind by the time he narrated “Paradise Lost”!
It is extraordinary and yes, with ‘discipline and training’ one could remember the stories. Why not? Didn’t schools teaching the multiplication table and spelling by rote? Repetition and cues. It is possible.
Thank you MC.
Homer certainly sang of true events, and, as you say, garnished them with fiction, especially the stock heroes that oral story tellers use to make memorization easier. Achilles, a 2-dimensional action figure with adolescent emotions, was almost certainly one, along with the two Ajaxes, and probably more. Hector, the only real 3-dimensional male character in the whole thing, seems to me to be authentic. Also, stock tales. Look at the almost identical adventures of Odysseus and Menelaus getting home from Troy. About Homer’s blindness. he was supposedly a stone cutter in his youth. No safety glasses in those days; lots of them went blind from chips flying into their eyes. BTW, I have seen story tellers in the souks of Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, who, for a modest price, will include you in a long narrative adventure, on the spot, extemporaneously. I think these guys are the living artistic descendants of Homer and other oral poets.
That would have been a magical experience to listen to those storytellers. It is fantastic how they have kept the tradition going, one I hope they don’t lose.
Thank you as always Mikels for your contribution. Love reading what you write.
I think it was more feasible to become a bard in a world without mass communication and technology to shorten our attention spans. Whether Homer was a single person or is an amalgam of several, I think there were many individuals who could recite the tales of ancient history. And some were undoubtedly true masters of the craft.
You are right on the money with that! It would be very difficult to be a bard today. You’d need a pile of tricks up your sleeve to keep the attention of the audience instead of cheap catch phrases and puns!
Thank you JM 😀
[…] For ten long years’ war raged between the Greeks and Trojans with no end in sight. Each side equally matched, both in valour and skilled fighters. It was the era of the golden age, men with a status of demi-gods and many others favoured by the immortals. The war won with a trick, a ruse which duped the Trojans and sealed their fate. Hektor’s funeral marks the conclusion of the Iliad, there’s no mention of how and who wins the conflict. Yet how it was won has become part of the story’s lore. It is also why many people believe Homer is not the author of both the Iliad and Odyssey. Those who have been following my blog know what my thoughts are and new readers may refer back to the post. […]
A very interesting post .
Homer´s blindness is something absolutely new… I have never heard of that before.
How interesting that Homer interjected himself into the story to describe his life through that blind Phaeacian bard (Demodokos).
Blindness was a common feature in greek tragedies. Probably associated with wisdom…
I am thinking in of “Oedipus in Colono” (third part of the trilogy by Sophocles ) and in Teiresias in “Oedipus the King”…
Thanks for sharing
την ειρήνη και τη δόξα /Peace and Glory
Some sources say he was blind others not. Unfortunately not a lot of information on Homer but his blindness was one of those ‘myths’. We’ll never really know.
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