It’s one of the longest-lasting mysteries in the world. Did the Iliad and the Odyssey have the same author? Was there really a Homer, a single great poet of genius, or were these two epics composed by two people – or three – or hundreds?
There are many faces to the Homeric Question. Turning over one rock just leads to many more mysteries – but that’s precisely what’s so enthralling. We’ll now engage with one part of the riddle – whether the Iliad and the Odyssey share an author, or whether the author of one had no connection to the other.
The Iliad and Odyssey were attributed by the ancients to a single poet they called Homer. It’s unclear where the attribution came from and the idea that he was the exclusive author of just the Iliad and Odyssey didn’t seem to become the consensus until the time of the Alexandrian scholars. For example, the Homeric Hymns were once attributed to this “Homer,” but not anymore.
So why attribute the Iliad and Odyssey to a single “Homer,” then? It’s a good question.
Unity of Theme
From the 18th to the early 20th centuries, the consensus was that both the Iliad and Odyssey weren’t composed by a single author, but were collections of smaller hymns and ballads that accreted over time. This became known as the “Analyst” school. It was a dead end, though, as nobody could agree on what these mysterious separate hymns and ballads were. The two poems also had a cohesive unity of theme and narrative that you wouldn’t expect if they were the mere constructions of separate, smaller works.
The work of Milman Parry pointed in the direction of a single author for both works, as it demonstrated that many of the inconsistencies that the Analysts spent so much time arguing about were the inevitable result of the oral bardic performances that he had been studying. Those performances, and the work Homer was heir to, looked something like this:
With that understanding on top of their other attributes, the consensus formed that the Iliad and Odyssey were both composed with one intelligence – but did they have the same author? That’s where things get trickier.
Neither poem directly references the other. To some, this would suggest that they were composed separately, but this isn’t convincing. Many modern authors do the same thing. In fact, the Odyssey subtly builds on the Iliad, with Odysseus reaffirming that he, and not Achilles, brought Troy down through the trick of the Trojan Horse. Along with the fall of Troy, the Odyssey also ties up most of the loose ends left by the Iliad, informing us of the fates of the Greek heroes that fought there.
Though the Odyssey doesn’t directly reference the Iliad, there is a unity of narrative not just within, but between the two works.
Though it is a point in its favor, the unity of theme doesn’t mean that the Iliad and Odyssey had the same author. After all, the Trojan War mythos wasn’t a copyrighted work as a modern epic series might be. This material was a shared cultural tradition, a classical Creative Commons, so it’s possible that two writers were just using the same material, though if that were to be the case, the Odyssey would have been written by a later author than the one that wrote the Iliad.
The Change in Achilles
While the Iliad and Odyssey have the same overall theme and complement one another well, there are strange differences in the details of the two texts that some believe are contradictory.
One example that many scholars give weight to is the treatment of Achilles. In the Iliad, he’s willing to give up a long life if it meant he could die with glory. But when Odysseus meets him in the underworld during the Odyssey, Achilles is singing a different tune. He says he would rather “slave for a poor dirt farmer than lord it over the dead.”
To some scholars, this glaring discrepancy suggests that the Odyssey had a different author than the Iliad, but truthfully, this is just the kind of character development you would expect in a good narrative. Achilles was changing from his implacable stance as the Iliad ended. The encounter with him in the underworld is the next logical evolution of the character we saw at the end of the first poem, in that magical scene with Priam.
In fact, the differences in how Achilles is treated between the two poems suggests a united intelligence guiding the two works.
While the main characters are consistent between the two poems, there are certain strange inconsistencies in the details of what we today might call world-building.
One difference between the two poems comes in the treatment of the Phoenicians. Some scholars detect an evolution of Greek attitudes toward them (which must have taken decades at least) in the two different poems. In the Iliad, they are mentioned as experts in crafts who create beautiful handiwork. In the Odyssey, they’re seen as devious and greedy for profit. This is cited as evidence that the two poems didn’t have the same author.
Yet, this might underestimate Homer’s narrative technique.
Perhaps this difference in treatment comes because the crafts of experts are part of the spoils of war and well worth having, which is appropriate for warriors on campaign. In the peacetime setting of the Odyssey, though, the Phoenicians’ commercial competition with the Greeks becomes more of a sticking point. Homer never shows us anything that he doesn’t have to, so if the Phoenicians were schemers for profit during the Trojan War, it’s irrelevant to the action at Troy.
The treatment of the Phoenicians in the two poems doesn’t strike me as being fatal to the single author theory. However, there are other inconsistencies.
One of the most glaring is the theological difference between the two poems. In the Iliad, Iris was the messenger of the gods. Only at the very end, when Hermes conveyed Priam through the Greek camp to Achilles’ tent, does he begin to take over something resembling the role traditionally assigned to him. In the Odyssey, Hermes is the messenger and Iris is never mentioned.
The lives of Aphrodite and Hephaestus are also inconsistent between the two poems. In the first, Hephaestus is married to a minor goddess, the Grace Charis. In the latter, he is Aphrodite’s cuckolded husband.
These discrepancies aren’t important when it comes to the overall unity of the plot, but they’re hard to reconcile with a single author. Why wouldn’t Homer have simply squared the circle? Did he suddenly have something of a religious conversion later in life? Or did he simply conform his poetry to the dominant religious thought of the day? Or, like in many other things, did Homer consider it inconsequential to his overall purpose?
Or was it another Homer entirely?
Unfortunately, I can’t read the two poems in their original Greek, so I can only work with what’s been translated. As far as linguistics go, both of the poems came from about the same time period – around the middle of the eighth century B.C. The language in both poems doesn’t appear to be of later centuries, as seen in the linguistic analysis of Richard Janko, so the time frame would fit the possibility of there being a single author who could have composed both in his lifetime.
Even in translation, there are also stylistic similarities that I see in the two poems. Certain of the epithets between the two poems are the same, and while these are certainly stock elements that show Homer as the heir to an oral tradition, not every poet used the same epithets. For example, Odysseus is described as “enduring much” in both epics and Menelaus is “red-haired.”
Certain blocks of lines are also identical. The most famous is the coming of dawn, but there is another chunk of lines that appears once in both poems. This tells of how a certain constellation is “alone denied the chance to plunge in ocean’s baths.” In other words, the sun rises before these stars can be visibly seen dipping below the horizon.
While these kinds epithets may be inherited, it’s a strange similarity that suggests the particular style of one author. Many poets worked with dactylic hexameter, but not all used such similar epithets.
I wish I could go further than this. Let me know if you can read the Homeric Greek and have spotted things of interest.
There is a good amount of evidence that the Iliad and Odyssey had the same author, perhaps more than some scholars will admit. But, as usual, there is a certain roughness that makes us wonder.
The search continues.