Ulysses at the court of Alcinous - Homer

Homer: From Oral Tradition to Canon

The Iliad and the Odyssey, two of the oldest narratives to withstand time. Accredited to Homer, these poetic verses have preserved memories from an era gone by, an age of heroes. Although, it beckons the question, “Through what means?” That is, how did we get the versions we know and enjoy today?

Following the turmoil that ravaged the Eastern Mediterranean world during what academics call the Late Bronze Age (hereafter, LBA) period at approximately 1200 BCE, the known world would bring about a change like no other. In Greece, the Mycenaean palaces and outlying settlements began to be abandoned or destroyed and by 1050 BCE, all recognizable features of the Mycenaean culture vanished. In Anatolia, not only had Troy fallen but the Hittite empire collapsed and left little proof of it ever existing. Egypt was so badly weakened that it never again regained its former glory. The Near East fell into a Dark Age, marking the beginning of a new era, the Iron Age. However, all was not lost. With every passing comes a rebirth. Out of the ashes of the old arose new nations which would eventually define the Western World; nations that included Greece, Phrygia, the Neo-Hittites, Israel, etc.

The Greek Dark Age essentially wiped the Greeks off of the historical record until the 8th century BCE when they were active outside of the Greek mainland; that is in the Aegean / Ionian islands, Anatolia, Italy (Magna Gracia), Ischia, and Sicily. Prior to the disappearance of the Mycenaean Greeks in the LBA, writing was utilized in all of the Aegean to record inventories and transactions. The Mycenaean script is referred to as Linear B; an adaptation of the earlier Minoan Linear A. Linear A and B comprise hundreds of signs that represent syllabic, ideographic, and semantic values. To date, Linear B has been the only deciphered script (translated by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick between 1951 - 1953), providing insight into the more archaic form of Greek spoken by the Mycenaeans (Chadwick, 84).

Clay tablet with Linear B script - Minoan

This clay tablet with Linear B script, dated to 1450-1375 BC is Minoan and was found at Knossos by Arthur Evans. It records quantities of oil apparently offered to various deities. Source: Wikimedia

It would take centuries before the Greeks rediscovered writing. The earliest known and yet fragmentary Greek inscriptions have been dated to the 8th century BCE. It is generally believed that the Greek alphabet was adopted and adapted from the already present Phoenician alphabet, in Euboea (the second largest Greek island in the Aegean Sea) as archaeology seems to showcase that this region of Greece was one of the first to recover from the preceding Greek Dark Age (Burkert, 26). This adaptation of the Semitic script was the first alphabetic writing system that was not abjad (or consonant only); introducing vowels. It is this modified script that spread across the entire Mediterranean, to be used by the Phrygians, Lydians, Lycians, Carians, among other Anatolian nations in the East and by the Etruscans residing in Italy to the West. This modified script would later inspire the Latin character set utilized by the Romans.

Returning to Homer, scholars continue to debate his existence. He has been dated to the Greek Archaic Period in the 8th BCE. Whether he existed or not is not the focus of this article, but one thing is for certain, as is evident by his work, he was a poet; a traveling bard who sang these verses, most likely to the tune of a lyre. It was through poetic verse and the use of repetition that the poet was able to maintain an almost consistent and fluid narrative in every performance. The oral composition of the Iliad and Odyssey would predate Homer as its themes and events would have been passed from generation to generation until we arrive to Homer. Through archaeology, historians are able to discern assorted Mycenaean activities over a span of time during the LBA, in some cases in a clash with the location of Ilium (i.e. Troy) and would eventually inspire the Iliad. These warlike activities are recorded in the Hittite records excavated from the Hittite capital of Hattusa, near the modern town of Boğazkale (formerly, Boğazköy). These records also contain some of the toponyms and names found in the epic (i.e. Achaea, Atreus, Alexandros, etc.). The events would make such an impression in this region that in the southern coastal regions of Anatolia, a Cilician leader (ca. 8th century BCE) of the later Iron Age would trace his lineage to the seer, Mopsus (Payne, 42-44).

Now, how would these many historical events form the single myth we know as the Trojan War and inspire Homer to sing of it in the Iliad and Odyssey? To quote Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy, “In general, we don’t find that historical facts are the kernel of myth but that myth organizes historical facts (Nagy, 27).” Since myth can use history, it would organize these events to form the Iliad (and the Odyssey); thus orally preserving historical details and sung about for generations. With each telling, the bard reciting the Iliad and Odyssey, inspired and guided by the Muses would allow various elements of these epics to evolve, allowing the now gone era to sound that much more fascinating. The role of the bard was to entertain.

While many scholars place the written composition of both the Iliad and Odyssey to the time of Homer, it is this author’s opinion that it is very unlikely. The earliest known evidence of these two poems being written and canonized, trace back to the Pisistratid era. Statements made by the 1st century BCE Roman philosopher, Cicero, claim that Pisistratus, an Athenian tyrant who ruled between 546 and 527 BCE, established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the “existing” texts of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations, thus canonizing the text specifically for recitation at Athens’ annual Panathenaic festival.  Socrates allegedly stated that Pisistratus, son of Hipparchus, was the first to bring the Homeric poems into Athens (Bryce, 14-16, 195-196). Whatever these sources tell us, they seem to indicate that the Iliad and Odyssey, in their written form existed in the Pisistratid period. In response to Cicero’s assertion in that written copies existed before that, it should be noted that he did live over four centuries after this commissioned event. It is difficult to prove or disprove the comment made.

In the late 19th century CE, archaeologists discovered an ancient deposit (intended for garbage) of tens of thousands of papyri fragments located at the ancient Greek colony of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Among the manuscripts found were the Iliad and Odyssey. These copies date to as early as the 3rd century BCE and are consistent (with the exception of orthography) with the 10th century CE Venetus A (oldest fully extant manuscript of the Iliad) and the Laurentianus (oldest fully extant manuscript of the Odyssey); which provide the translations we read today. The Oxyrhynchus fragments are the oldest surviving copy.

Iliad - Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 21

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 21: The Iliad II:745-764. Author’s image. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. ]

So, what about the gap between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE? It is this author’s opinion that these stories were preserved in art and manufactured goods (see below) instead of being written down and the multiple traditions or variations were sung by one or more bards trained in the Homeric tradition until the mid-to-late 6th century BCE canonization. Evidence for these variants stem from the black and red figure art painted and preserved on Greek vases. For instance, one such varied scene can be found on the so-called François Vase, which is an elaborate Athenian basin painted by Kleitias about 575 BCE and it shows the funeral games of Patroclus. Of the five charioteers named, only Diomedes coincides with the Iliad’s competitors in the race (Finley, 28). This confirms Cicero’s initial claim that variations of the epics did exist.

François Vase

François Vase (c 570 BC). Source: Wikimedia

As mentioned above, it is highly unlikely that the Iliad and Odyssey, in their completed and continuously evolving and varied forms, would be written down as soon as the Greek alphabet is adopted and used. Although, it wouldn’t be too unrealistic for individuals to be inspired enough to manufacturer products that contains references to these epics, as is the case with the Cup of Nestor, found on the Greek colonized site of Pithekoussai on the Italian island of Ischia. The major events of these epics would be preserved in the figure art of Greek vases as they are orally retold by the traveling bards until one day, when it is commissioned to consolidate and write these epics down.

Featured image: Ulysses at the court of Alcinous. Artist: Francesco Hayez (1791-1882). Source: Wikimedia

By Petros Koutoupis


Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. [Print]

Bryce, Trevor. The Trojans and Their Neighbors. New York: Routledge, 2006. [Print]

Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. New York: Cambridge UP, 1958. [Print]

Finley, M.I. The World of Odysseus. New York: New York Review, 2002. [Print]

Nagy, Gregory. "Is Homer Historical? An Archaeology Odyssey Interview." Interview by Jack Meinhardt. Archaeology Odyssey May/Jun. 2004: 26+. [Print]

Payne, Annick. Iron Age Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. [Print]

Wikipedia, 2014. The Cup of Nestor . [Online]

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[Accessed 4 May 2014]


Its an interesting assertion to view myth as an organizer of historical facts. I never really thought of it that way but I would agree with that idea. Its amazing that we have a mythological record that extends as far back into the past as the Iliad and Odyssey. Great post!
Check out my blog for more ancient history (specifically Rome and Italy):

pkoutoupis's picture


Thank you for your supporting words and comments. Also thank you for sharing a link to your blog. Lately I have been getting more into Etruscan history: their unknown origins, establishment in the Western Mediterranean, and peace/conflicts with both the Greeks of the southern peninsula/Sicily (Magna Graecia) and Carthage.

BTW, I just subscribed to your RSS feed and I look forward to seeing updates.


Petros Koutoupis


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