The Odyssey


We know very little about the author of the Odyssey and its companion tale, the Iliad. Most scholars agree that Homer was Greek, most probably from Smyrna, now the Turkish city known as Izmir, or from Chios, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea. According to legend, Homer was blind, and we have no scholarly evidence that suggests otherwise.

The ongoing debate about who Homer was and when, and even if, he wrote the Odyssey and the Iliad is known as the “Homeric question.” Classicists do agree that these tales of the fall of the city of Troy (Ileum) in the Trojan War (the Iliad) and the aftermath of that ten-year battle (the Odyssey) coincide with the ending of the Mycenaean period (also known as the Bronze Age), around 1200 B.C. The Mycenaeans were a society of warriors and traders; beginning around 1600 B.C., they became a major power in the Mediterranean. Brilliant potters and architects, they also developed a system of writing known as Linear B, based on a syllabary, writing in which each symbol stands for a syllable.

Scholars do not agree on when Homer lived or when he might have written the Odyssey. Some place Homer in the late-Mycenaean period, which means he would have written about the Trojan War as recent history. Close study of the texts reveals aspects of political, material, religious, and military life of the Bronze Age and of the so-called Dark Age, as the period of domination by the less-advanced Dorian invaders who usurped the Mycenaeans is known. But how, other scholars argue, could Homer have created works of such magnitude in the Dark Age, when there was no system of writing? Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, placed Homer sometime around the ninth century B.C., at the beginning of the Archaic period, in which the Greeks adopted a system of writing from the Phoenicians and widely colonized the Mediterranean. And modern scholarship shows that the most recent details in the poems are datable to the period between 750 and 700 B.C.

No one, however, disputes the fact that the Odyssey, and the Iliad as well, arose from oral tradition. Stock phrases, types of episodes, and repeated phrases—such as “early, rose-fingered dawn”—bear the mark of epic storytelling. Scholars agree, too, that this tale of the Greek hero Odysseus’s journey and adventures as he returned home from Troy to Ithaca is a work of the greatest historical significance and, indeed, one of the foundations of Western literature.



The World of Homer and the Odyssey

B.C. (approximate dates)

1650-1400 The Mycenaean period, also known as the Bronze Age because bronze is widely used in weaponry, comes into flower. Pylos and Mycenae, city-states mentioned by Homer in his writings about this pe riod of Greek history, are powerful and wealthy cen ters of Aegean trade.

1200-1100 The fall of Troy ends the Trojan War, which Homer describes so vividly. Dorians invade, the Myce naean culture declines, and the so-called Dark Age ensues. Linear B, the Mycenaeans’ system of writing, is lost. The Homeric epics survive as oral legends.

1100-700 Troy is uninhabited, suggesting that Homer’s observations of life in the city predate the twelfth century B.C.

800-750 The Greeks adopt the Phoenician alphabet and set down the Iliad and the Odyssey in writing for the first time.

500-400 Threatened with a Persian invasion, the Greek city-states turn to Homer as a guide to banding together in the face of a common enemy.

30-19 The Roman poet Virgil writes the Aeneid, borrowing heavily from Homer.


450 With the decline of the Roman Empire, interest in Greek texts and in Homer becomes dormant in the West until learning resurges in the Middle Ages.

600-700 Homeric figures begin to appear in the Arabic tales of Sindbad.

1870 Heinrich Schliemann, a retired German businessman with a passion for the Homeric epics, begins excava tions at Troy.

1876 Schliemann excavates a grave circle at Mycenae and proves that the Mycenaean civilization of which Ho mer wrote indeed existed, inspiring other archaeolo gists to excavate in the region.

1900-1950 Sir Arthur Evans excavates ancient Knossos, on the island of Crete. Among discoveries relating to the My cenaean culture are clay tablets with Linear B script. The findings help prove that Homer’s works record historical events in the Mycenaean period.

1920s Based on observations of contemporary verse compo sition in the Balkans, American scholar Milman Parry determines that the Homeric legends survived for many generations as oral stories.


The Many Worlds of the Odyssey

The only other book to which the Western imagination owes so much of its stock of heroes,