One could argue that a single man created the first creative franchise, which then spawned the first reboots, spin-offs, sequels, and prequels long before the birth of cinema, the novel, or even theater. That man, Homer, has served as inspiration, source material, and aspirational goals for writers, poets, musicians, and dramatists from Aeschylus to James Joyce, Madeline Miller, and heavy metal.
As some of the scholars below have written, one might think the age of these epic poems would have put them far from the minds of most of us (secondary/college students and classicists excluded). One would be wrong. The Illiad and the Odyssey continue to show up in new, eagerly awaited translations, and even the internationally popular children’s show Bluey references the Odyssey on occasion, based on the creator’s affection for an ’80s French-Japanese adaptation, with Ulysses in the thirty-first century traveling through space, trying to get home.
With the recent publication of Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Illiad, readers may be booking their first Homeric encounter (or first in a long time). The amount of scholarship on Homer and his works can be daunting: the field is so broad, rich, and yes, old. The reading list below is a very small selection of what’s available on JSTOR. All of the research included here is free to read and download, and it covers just a few of the “big questions” in the field: Who was Homer? Was there “a Homer”? Hasn’t he joined the “Dead White Men” in the academic graveyard? Did the Trojan War happen, and if so, was it as Homer depicts it? And finally, why read Homer in the twenty-first century?
May your journey be safe, swift, and (not too) straightforward.
History and the Illiad
Bernard Knox, “Achilles,” Grand Street 9, no. 3 (1990): 129–50.
“The Iliad shows us the origin, course and consequences of his wrath, his imprisonment in a godlike, lonely, heroic fury from which all the rest of the world is excluded, and also his return to human stature. The road to this final release is long and grim, strewn with the corpses of many a Greek and Trojan, and it leads finally to his own death.”
Manfred Korfmann, Joachim Latacz, and J.D. Hawkins, “Was There a Trojan War?” Archaeology 57, no. 3 (2004): 36–41.
“Home took for granted that his audience knew a war had been fought for what was alternately called Ilios or Troy. The bard was mainly concerned with describing the wrath of Achilles and its consequences. He used Troy and the war as a poetic setting for a conflict between men and gods. From the archaeologist’s point of view, however, the Iliad can be interpreted as a ‘setting’ in an entirely different sense.”
Kurt A. Raaflaub, “Homer, the Trojan War, and History,” The Classical World 91, no. 5 (1998): 386–403.
“More than a century ago Schliemann went to Greece and Anatolia, with Homer in his head and pocket, to prove that the epics were about historical places and events—and his results were spectacular beyond belief. He found Mycenae and Troy—but were these the Mycenae and Troy described by Homer in his story of the Trojan War? And what was the Trojan War—if there was one?”
Susan Sherratt, “The Trojan War: History or Bricolage?” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 53, no. 2 (2010): 1–18.
“It is easy for us to be amused by the story of the Trojan War as recounted by the wife of the Izmir taxi driver, and to think that we know better. As we are assured by countless television programmes and school text books, the real setting of the Trojan War and the Fall of Troy is over three millennia earlier than the era of trucks and machine guns, and there is archaeological evidence to suggest that it may have been a real war in which Greeks (then called Achaeans) were involved, several centuries before the time of Homer. But do we know this? What actually do we know?”
The Homeric Question(s)
Kostas Myrsiades, “Introduction: Homer; Analysis and Influence,” College Literature 35, no. 4 (2008): xi–xix.
“…Homer’s influence has pervaded all phases of contemporary culture. This is especially evident in film. Of the several versions of Homer’s epics brought to the screen since the silent era…almost half have been produced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (Troy, 2004, Helen of Troy (TV mini series), 2003, The Odyssey (TV mini series), 1997, Helen of Troy, 1955, Ulysses, 1954).”
Gregory Nagy, “Homeric Questions,” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974–2014) 122 (1992): 17–60.
“I choose Homeric Questions as my title both because I am convinced that the reality of the Homeric poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, cannot possibly be comprehended through any one Question and also because a plurality of questions can better recover the spirit of the Greek word zêtêma, meaning the kind of intellectual ‘question’ that engages opposing viewpoints.”
Martin West, “The Homeric Question Today,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 155, no. 4 (2011): 383–93.
“There are good reasons why these questions bother us especially in relation to the Homeric poems. In the case of an author such as Aeschylus…we know something about the man’s life; we know, that he produced his tragedy Persians in 472 BCE and the Oresteia fourteen years later, and there’s no mystery about who wrote these plays or whether parts of them were written by somebody else. For the Homeric poems we don’t have any such definite information. We have a traditional author’s name, Homer, but we know that even was dispute about when he lived and where he came from.”
W. H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles,” Poetry 81, no. 1 (1952): 3–5.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same,
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help, and no help came;
What their foes liked to do was done; their shame
Was all the worst could wish: they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
John Miles Foley, “‘Reading’ Homer through Oral Tradition,” College Literature 34, no. 2 (2007): 1–28.
“Such sound bytes may be useful, many scholars have observed, but they behave more like lock-step fillers than elevated poetic expression. Just how many times can Homer say ‘swift-footed Achilles’ or ‘green fear’ before these combinations descend into clichés?”
Lorna P. Hardwick, “Classical Texts in Post-Colonial Literatures: Consolation, Redress and New Beginnings in the Work of Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 9, no. 2 (2002): 236–56.
“Classical referents, therefore, help both to recreate and to communicate the pain of history. In so doing they can also cauterize the wound, thus enabling regeneration and the growth of a new creativity. A powerful feature of Omeros and one which shapes the transformation of consciousness which the poem generates is Walcott’s use of a plurality of classical figures, texts and conventions to formulate and then displace dominant messages in the poem.”
Heidi Morse, “Black Classical Ruins and American Memory in the Poetry of H. Cordelia Ray,” Legacy 34, no. 1 (2017): 53–81.
“The mystery of vanished artists of antiquity, as much as the lingering traces that remain, inspires Ray’s reflections in this octave. Material and cultural remnants of ancient Greece, from Homer’s writings to the rediscovered Venus de Milo, function as conduits for memorializing and imagining afresh the ancient past and its sources of artistic inspiration.”
Christopher Schliephake, “‘Black Classicism’: The African American Reception of the Classical Tradition in the Writings of Reginald Shepherd,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 61, no. 1 (2016): 53–68.
“Black Classicism has also underlined how modes of cultural contact or hybridization are automatically implied when the classics are taken up in contemporary discourses or cultural works. They have become recognized in their own alterity and strangeness, as the practice of dealing with the classical tradition is itself seen as a kind of training ground for handling socio-political issues of ‘otherness’ in a globalized age.”
Audience and Reception
Jonathan Burgess, “Recent Reception of Homer: a Review Article,” Phoenix 62, no. 1/2 (2008): 184–95.
“This leads to the question of what role a Homerist should play in Homeric reception. Merely correcting ‘mistaken’ interpretations of the Homeric poems clearly will no longer suffice, nor will simply observing with satisfaction the influential legacy of Homer. Current focus is more on how new audiences reconceive of the Iliad and the Odyssey, not on how Homer is canonically respected.”
Andrew Dalby, “The Iliad, the Odyssey and Their Audiences,” The Classical Quarterly 45, no. 2 (1995): 269–79.
“There is a need to redefine the boundaries within which the poets of the Iliad and Odyssey and their first audiences must be sought. Direct evidence for the enquiry can come only from the text of the two epics. But in re-examining some features of the social life that they depict, we approach them not altogether without clues. We can point to an instructive pattern in some of the problems that have puzzled ancient and modern commentators; for these have indeed found one or two details in Homer’s depiction of reality difficult to reconcile with the reality in which they imagined him living.”
Hanna M. Roisman, “Helen and the Power of Erotic Love: From Homeric Contemplation to Hollywood Fantasy,” College Literature 35, no. 4 (2008): 127–50.
“Homer’s Helen is endowed with a rich and full personality. In all but her first appearance, she talks at some length and engages actively with her hearers. In her first appearance, Helen is silent but expresses herself vividly through her weaving, through which she tells others about the events in which she has taken part and assumes responsibility and conveys her remorse for the suffering she caused. In each of the other scenes, she reveals through her speech a different aspect of her situation and personality.”
Translations & Transformations
Richard Ellmann, “Joyce and Homer,” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (1977): 567–82.
“…some readers, including Ezra Pound, have discounted parallels with the Odyssey as mere scaffolding. Joyce ventured to disagree. It is of course true that he is not on his knees before Homer. […] them.” But if Joyce did not abase himself, he deferred. When he began to serialize Ulysses in The Little Review, he insisted that Homeric titles be prefixed to the episodes. Later he expunged these, but they remained in his mind if not on the paper.”
Richard Hughes Gibson, “On Women Englishing Homer,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 26, no. 3 (2019): 35–68.
“For more than four centuries, Homer’s English audience listened to a boys’ choir. That tune has only just begun to change thanks to the efforts of three women: the classicist and nonfiction writer Caroline Alexander, who became the first woman to publish a complete English Iliad in 2015; Emily Wilson, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who published the first English Odyssey by a female translator in 2017; and the poet Alice Oswald, whose selective translation of the Iliad, Memorial, appeared in 2011.”
Mihoko Suzuki, “Rewriting the Odyssey in the Twenty-First Century: Mary Zimmerman’s Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad,” College Literature 34, no. 2 (2007): 263–78.
“Zimmerman adapts the Odyssey to the stage for a contemporary audience by referring to dramatic traditions ranging from Shakespeare to Caryl Churchill. Her intention to read the epic through a woman’s perspective is accomplished through her focus on female characters such as Penelope, Nausicaa, Circe, and Calypso—but not the problematic Helen—together with the dramatic choices she makes in telescoping the epic: in omitting the Iliadic heroes from the spirits Odysseus meets in the underworld, for example, but prominently featuring his interview with the spirit of his mother.”
Why Read Homer Now?
Pura Nieto Hernández, “Reading Homer in the 21st Century,” College Literature 34, no. 2, (2007): 29–54.
“As a reader who has spent much time with the Homeric texts in their Greek original, I have often wondered about the power they exert on Greekless readers, which I experience every year with diverse groups of students who read the poems in English. How is it possible to capture fully the joy of Homer when read in translation? Why do people without a background in classical culture or languages enjoy reading these works? What do these poems have that make them so universal, and so appealing even when rendered in another language? What do their stories have that can be transmitted and which touches readers beyond the language itself?”
Seth L. Schein, “Reading Homer in Dark Times: Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 26, no. 1 (2018): 17–36.
“On the Iliad…is best understood in light of Bespaloff’s writings in the 1930s, especially on ethical and existentialist topics; it also reflects her personal circumstances as a Jewish refugee from occupied France, first in Marseilles and then in New York City and at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. It is impossible, too, to neglect the broader historical circumstances in which On the Iliad was written, before and after the fall of France in May–June, 1940, to Nazi Germany, which had been subjecting its victims to brutal violence since the mid-1930s—most conspicuously in the Spanish Civil War, the campaign of hatred and aggression against Jews (especially after Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938), and the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, that touched off World War II. ”
Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, “Why Do We Still Read Homer?” The American Scholar 71, no. 1 (2002): 95–105.
“We find a social system based on small groups, led by a warrior elite, the heroes, who control the best lands and possess the most impressive luxury goods. Beneath them are multiple levels of kin and retainers, whose positions are defined by their relations to the leader and reinforced by an elaborate social protocol. Among the heroes, there exists as well a complicated set of competitive and cooperative practices, ranging from warfare and athletic contests to intermarriage to gift giving and the ritual extension and acceptance of hospitality (xenia).”