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According to Bernard M. W. Knox, "Greek history begins, not with a king, a battle, or the founding of a city, but with an epic poem." Of course, it is impossible to pinpoint when any history began, but since we have to start somewhere in our collecting of information, those scholars who define our Western canon usually start with Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey. And of course, we know Eastern culture began with poetry as well in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. So one is quite well supported in claiming that all world culture began with poetry.
Although there is much debate about whether an actual poet named Homer lived, The Iliad and The Odyssey reveal a unity that implies that the same person set them down in written form. Both epics were oral, intended for recitation not just silent reading.
Homer is believed to have been blind, because the poet Demodokos in the Odyssey was blind. But Homer's description of the Eastern coast of Greece is accurate, leading some to believe that he lived in the area the Greeks called Ionia. Any discussion of Homer immediately reverts to a discussion of the epics, because nothing is known about him, even whether such a poet actually existed cannot be substantiated.
The Iliad and The Odyssey, however, do stand at the beginning of the study of Western literature. In order to understand and appreciate the important works of the Western canon, it is necessary to have a fundamental grounding in Homer's epics, because many subsequent poems allude to these ancient epics.
Visit any library and you will find a rich and varied array of books and other resources about Homer's epics. And the World Wide Web is not far behind. Already a wide variety of sources are available from the fan to the scholar. You can read Samuel Butler's translation of The Iliad; the entire text is online. For information about various aspects of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, including an explanation of the gods and goddesses, you'll want to visit this fan site. The Origins of Greek Mythology offers useful discussion that will help you understand more about the nature of the Olympian gods. For a short summary of each of the twenty-four books of The Iliad, visit Summary of Homer's Iliad.
To read The Odyssey online, visit the Perseus Project for A. T. Murray's translation. If you have read Butler's translation of The Iliad, you might want to continue with his translation of The Odyssey. Or read and compare William Cowper's translation of The Odyssey to the others. For an informative essay about how The Odyssey has influenced the making of history, study John Marincola's "Odysseus and the Historians."
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