HOMER could have been a woman, according to a forthcoming book by a specialist in oral literature.
Historian and linguist Andrew Dalby is challenging the accepted gender of one of the most influential writers of all time -- the poet who created the Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey in the seventh century BC.
Dr Dalby said: "There is no direct evidence of the poet's identity and therefore no justification for the customary assumption that the two epics were composed by a man."
Women have a long tradition worldwide as makers of oral literature, he said, citing Sappho, the best-known female poet of ancient Greece, and Enheduanna, the woman mentioned on a Sumerian tablet who thus became the first named poet in the world.
Dr Dalby, whose study Rediscovering Homer will be published in September, said: "It is possible, even probable, that this poet was a woman. As a working hypothesis, this helps to explain certain features in which these epics are better -- more subtle, more complex, more universal -- than most others."
The Iliad, set during the Trojan War, tells the story of the wrath of Achilles, while The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus as he travels home from the war. They are among the most significant poems of the European tradition.
Dr Dalby anticipates objections to his hypothesis, particularly as no early author claimed that the poems' creator was a woman. He said: "This objection fails completely, however, because no early author describes or names the singer who saw these two poems written down. We are given no sex and no name -- certainly not Homer, who is seen as a singer of the distant past."
He said the idea that Homer was the author was first proposed in "one ill-informed post-classical text -- the anonymous Life of Homer, fraudulently ascribed to Herodotus".
Challenging the theory that early Greek singers and poets were almost always men, he said: "The fact that women did not usually perform for a public audience that included men explains why no ancient source exists to tell us how Sappho's poems were performed."
Acknowledging that other scholars have said the Iliad feels like the work of a man, he said: "The Iliad is largely about male heroics in war and the great majority of its characters are men whose aim is to kill one another ... Women, though telling the same stories, are capable of telling them from a different angle and with an added depth, dealing sympathetically with the feelings and motives of women characters. No one will deny that the poet of The Iliad does this."
Anthony Snodgrass, emeritus professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge University, said The Odyssey could have been written by a woman because it is about "a world at peace in general terms, with domesticity, fidelity ... endurance and determination rather than aggression".
But he added: "The idea of a woman writing The Iliad and not being bored out of her mind by the endless fighting and killings is a bit more far-fetched."
The issue, he said, lay in whether the same person wrote both poems. "Most of us now believe the same person did."
What is "direct evidence"?