The author of the Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey was probably a woman, according to an upcoming book by a British historian and linguist.
Andrew Dalby, author of Rediscovering Homer, argues that the attribution of the poems to Homer was founded on a falsehood.
Homer’s link to the poems, Dalby writes, stems from an "ill-informed postclassical text, the anonymous Life of Homer, fraudulently ascribed to Herodotus," a respected Greek historian who lived from around 484-425 B.C.
Herodotus does mention Homer in his work Histories, but by then the legend of the mysterious, blind, male poet had already taken root, Dalby says.
Dalby explained to Discovery News that the earliest references to Homer by writers such as Herodotus and the Greek poet Pindar indicate the poet lived around 800 B.C.
But based on geographical references in the poems, Dalby believes the Iliad was composed in 650 B.C., while the Odyssey was written in 630 B.C., well after Homer’s supposed lifetime.
Aside from the poems themselves, no concrete clues exist to identify their author, but Dalby builds a case that the person probably was a woman.
"In many oral traditions, the best and most reliable creators, the ones who are used by folklore collectors, happen to be women," he said.
Dalby explained that women throughout the ancient world were "often the last and most skillful exponents of an oral tradition."
For example, the world’s first named poet was a Sumerian woman named Enheduanna, who lived from around 2285-2250 B.C. Dalby said women also saved the ancient oral poetry of the northern Japanese, many Irish traditions, and numerous English folk ballads.
Another recent book, Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales, claims the Brothers Grimm gathered most of their famous stories from women. Author Valerie Paradiz told Discovery News that the brothers "only gave credit to one woman by name," but then linked most other tales to male editors who also gathered stories from women.
Dalby thinks both works were composed by the same person, but that the more developed female figures in the Odyssey — particularly the heroic character Penelope — reflect change in the author's life.
"By the time she came to create her second masterpiece, the woman poet understood at last that in consigning her work to writing, she was able to address a whole new audience (including women)," he said.
While no master copy of the poems exists, many different written versions of the poems were circulating in Greece by 300 B.C.
Anthony Snodgrass, emeritus professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge University, agrees that, because of its emphasis on domesticity versus aggression, the Odyssey could have been written by a woman. But he finds it hard to believe a female could have composed the violence-infused Iliad.
If the poet was a woman, Dalby believes her name is probably lost to history.
"I would guess that Sappho (a female Greek poet) and her contemporary, the male poet Alkaios, probably knew the name, but they did not mention it in their own poetry," Dalby said.
Comments on this Post:
Why not attribute it to Helen? book 3, lines 121-28.
Here's Samuel Butler's translation for those of you who don't recall the passage:
Meanwhile Iris went to Helen in the form of her sister-in-law, wife of the son of Antenor, for Helicaon, son of Antenor, had married Laodice, the fairest of Priam's daughters. She found her in her own room, working at a great web of purple linen, on which she was embroidering the battles between Trojans and Achaeans, that Mars had made them fight for her sake. Iris then came close up to her and said, "Come hither, child, and see the strange doings of the Trojans and Achaeans till now they have been warring upon the plain, mad with lust of battle, but now they have left off fighting, and are leaning upon their shields, sitting still with their spears planted beside them. Alexandrus and Menelaus are going to fight about yourself, and you are to the the wife of him who is the victor."