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Review: James I. Porter’s “Homer: The Very Idea”

“But the price of that fame and quasi-divine status took its toll. ‘Immortality had its costs,’ Porter writes, ‘and Homer paid for it dearly.'”

Near the shores of Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey, the ruins of a city lie buried beneath the sands of time. The fabled city of Troy, so long considered a phantom of the ancient imagination, turns out to be real. At least, sort of real. But the ruins of Troy that have so far been excavated do not show the signs of having been burned to ash by a conquering army. In fact, the excavated city shows signs of still having been inhabited long after the supposed demise of the city by invading hordes of Greek soldiers who sailed to recapture Helen from the lusty hands of an eastern prince.

The cultural imagination we have toward Troy and the Trojan War is bound up with the most famous poet we know virtually nothing about: Homer. Despite this, “Homer and his poems” have an “unrivaled…place in the Western cultural imagination.” For more than two and half millennia, the imagination of the Western world has been intoxicated by the idea of Homer. Why?

“Homer’s greatest attraction has to lie not in his greatness, however that comes to be defined, but in his utter mystery and unreachability,” writes James I. Porter. This, though, makes sense. Not only do humans love a good story—which Homer provided in his epics—but they also love mystery. The mysterium tremendum et fascinans captivates us. Whether applied to otherworldly forces, spirits, gods, or, in Homer’s case, a mortal man forever lost to the vicissitudes of history, we have a very real fascination with the mysterious other. The “unreachability” of Homer is also good for everyone who has been involved in the Homeric industry, from ancient luminaries like Plato, Aristotle, and Lucian to Renaissance poets like Dante and Petrarch, to moderns like Anne Dacier, Giambattista Vico, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Friedrich Nietzsche, and now James I. Porter.

Homer: The Very Idea is not so much a biography or work of criticism but “a cultural history, in abbreviated form, of an idea, a point of concern, a fascination, and an obsession that was born and reborn every time Homer was imagined as the presumed poet of the Iliad and Odyssey, and around which entire canons of literature, disciplines, and whole bodies of knowledge came to be built and organized over the millennia, including the study of antiquity itself.” As such, Porter’s book takes us across nearly three millennia of grappling and wrestling with the idea of Homer—who he was, whether he existed, his deification by his admirers, his de-mythologizing by his critics, and his eternal recurrence again and again and again across space and time.

It is commonly said that Homer’s epics were the closest equivalent to the Bible in Hellenic Antiquity. Apocryphal stories of its sacrality abound, none more famous than Alexander the Great sleeping with a copy of the Iliad as he was conquering Persia. But the price of that fame and quasi-divine status took its toll. “Immortality had its costs,” Porter writes, “and Homer paid for it dearly.”

Although Homer occupied pride of place among the Greek and Roman literary figures of antiquity, it was not a place of unreserved and unrestrained adoration. Homer had his admirers, but the general spirit of Homeric criticism in antiquity was decidedly on the side of mockery and skepticism. In sum, the critical defilers of Homer were far more numerous and influential than Homer’s adoring disciples. Handed down to us, for example, is the story of Homer’s ignominious death. A handful of children stump the “wisest of the Greeks” with a riddle about hair lice. Homer, incapable of understanding the riddle, falls into a puddle of mud and dies three days later. This is not exactly the kind of ending story a deified poet wants to be remembered by, notwithstanding the whole story calls into question whether Homer was the “wisest of the Greeks” if he could not answer a riddle by a handful of fishing children.

Many of the great Greek philosophers, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Plato excoriated Homer as a fraud. Plato famously banished Homer and all the poets from his ideal city for teaching falsehoods and immorality to the youth of Greece. The Greek general and historian Thucydides, among the many others ancient luminaries engaged in the “Homeric Question,” believed Homer had no familiarity with Anatolia and Attica but may have been a Greek Sicilian who fantastically conjured up his poetic world from his intimate knowledge of Sicily and not the warm center of the Hellenic world of Mycenae and Anatolia.

But Porter’s book is a healthy antidote to Homeric adoration. It reminds us that even the most revered figure of the past had many critics. And the critics are not just barbarians.

Others, like Stesichorus, a Greek Italian from Magna Grecia, openly called Homer a liar. Stesichorus gave to the world the idea that Helen never sailed to Troy at all. Instead, she went to Egypt and only her phantom appeared on the walls of Troy to deceive both sides into bloody battle. Homer, singing of a thousand ships sailing for Helen, was mistaken—a fool or a liar or both. Only later does Stesichorus get upbraided by a revelation from Helen’s spirit that she was there, and Stesichorus, who has now seen the light that Homer never saw, is subsequently able to tell the world truthfully the story of Helen, which Homer mangled. (More on this story in a moment.)

Entering the early modern era, Homer’s critics continued to rise up; one of the most famous was the Italian humanist and polymath Giambattista Vico. Vico charged Homer with poetic barbarity in the themes his poems communicated. Far from the soulful nobility of Aristotle’s Homer or the beautiful but naïve Homer imagined by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vico maintained that Homer was the product of collective Greek culture (so much for an individual poetic genius) and that the culture that gave birth to Homer celebrated licentious capriciousness: adultery, murder, rape. In short, for Vico, Homer was unworthy of celebration as a great poet—for he was not a single poet and his poetic metaphysics and poetic themes were cruel, impious, and immoral.

More recently, when Homer experienced a revival thanks to European philhellenism, his critics were numerous and energetic. None were as impious toward divine Homer than Samuel Butler, the late Victorian English amateur classicist who articulated the thesis that the Homer of the Odyssey was a woman. Butler also argued the Homer of the Iliad was not a Greek but a Trojan or a poet of Asiatic lineage—a view also shared nowadays by many respectable scholars even if a minority view (a view that I also happen to share). So much for the genius of a Greek Homer.

The criticism of Homer as fraudulent and immoral was not the end of the criticism the deified poet received. Today, almost three millennia removed from Homer’s supposed life, we tend to know Homer as a blind poet—not a problem, since “[m]odern scholarship typically assures us that Homer’s knowledge was vouchsafed by the Muses and that ancient audiences needed little more of a guarantee than that.” This was not universally the case in antiquity upon closer inspection. Defenders of Homer sought to protect their beloved poet from criticism—a criticism leveled at the prevailing tradition concerning the poet’s blindness. Muses be damned! The fact Homer may have been blind was something his ancient critics seized on, from Plato and Heraclitus to Stesichorus.

Let us return to Stesichorus. After he was blinded by Helen for suggesting she sat out the war in Egypt, the Greek-Italian poet had his eyesight restored when he promised to retell the events as Helen witnessed them. Poof. Stesichorus’s eyes were healed, and he subsequently offered a corrective sequel to his original claims. This story surrounding Stesichorus temporary blindness humorously critiques Homer’s blindness. The implication is rather devastating: Homer was blind and cannot be trusted. Stesichorus, however, was blinded but healed by an actual eyewitness: Helen. Therefore, it is Stesichorus who can be trusted and not the blind Homer.

Turning now to Heraclitus, in an age when Homer’s allies trumpeted his divinity, “Heraclitus’s critique of Homer for being as prone to deception as the rest of humankind” dethroned the poet’s divinity. Because Homer was blind, the poet’s blindness made him entirely reliant on a dubious muse—or worse, a fraudulent liar claiming to be a muse. How did Homer ever know he was receiving the song of the Trojan War from a muse when he could not see? By stating humanity is prone to deception and linking Homer to humanity and not divinity, Heraclitus implies Homer was a fool duped like the vast lot of humans have always been throughout history.

“As it turns out,” Porter notes, “Homer’s blindness is rarely deemed an asset in the ancient traditions. Equivalent to a confession of ignorance if not of total fabrication and outright lying, Homer’s being blind made him more, not less, vulnerable to criticism.” The blindness of Homer was not accepted as something that testified to his greatness as modern critics and scholars often say. Far from it. Homer’s blindness called into question his truthfulness. 

Furthermore, it must be recalled—as Porter informs us—that some believed Homer was not blind and that his enemies maliciously lied and spread the tales of Homer’s blindness to attack the poet’s genius. The prevalence of the tradition testifying to Homer’s blindness and his revelation coming from the muses were not something ancient audiences took as authoritative. On the contrary, Homer’s blindness and reliance on a possibly unreliable muse was yet another point of contention and criticism as Porter makes clear to us.

Throughout Homer: The Very Idea, James I. Porter tells the other side of the Homeric story: the story of Homer’s vandalizing critics. This book, while highlighting some of the positive receptions of Homer and allegorical readings that critics and scholars down through the ages have provided because of Homer’s poems, is really a work highlighting the contested conceptualizations of Homer across nearly three millennia. Those who hear Homer’s name today with little familiarity outside of him being the attributed author of the Iliad and Odyssey tend to think that the ancient world universally saw him as the greatest of the ancients. This was simply not the case. 

Admittedly, I count myself as one of Homer’s admirers. I have written many essays and articles on Homer’s poems, especially the Iliad and why Homer is such an indispensable poet and artist. But Porter’s book is a healthy antidote to Homeric adoration. It reminds us that even the most revered figure of the past had many critics. And the critics are not just barbarians. Oftentimes, they bring up good criticism. When figures as important as Plato, Xenophon, and Thucydides are critical of Homer, one should at least listen to what they had to say.

Nevertheless, the criticisms of Homer, more than the celebratory adorations of the poet, have ironically ensured that his legacy lived on and continues to live on. Paradoxically, we can thank those who have tried to desecrate Homer’s place in the sacred pantheon of poets for his longevity and continued pride of place within that sacred space. Porter writes, “The lore that accumulated around Homer was prolific.” Homer: The Very Idea, details for us that prolific lore. And, in doing so, we begin to understand why “Homer is here to stay.” Anyone who loves Homer can take comfort in the fact that a man who has been in the crosshairs of “cancel culture” for three thousand years is still with us, stronger than ever before.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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