First Homer encyclopedia brings epic poetry and ancient Greece to life

Tel Aviv University researcher sheds light on Homer's reception in the Western, Jewish and Arabic worlds.

Homer, one of the most famous poets of all time, is firmly entrenched in the Western canon as a master of classical literature. His two most renowned works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are core texts for students and scholars alike. Now, Prof. Margalit Finkelberg of Tel Aviv University's Department of Classics has created an illuminating new tool, the world's first Homer Encyclopedia.

Published in three volumes by Wiley-Blackwell last year and more recently in electronic form, the encyclopedia is an invaluable window into Homer's life and work, elucidating the characters and settings of his work from primary characters to the smallest village mentioned in passing. The volumes also examine the pre-history of Homer and the period in which he lived and wrote, and how the text has been received and transmitted by various cultures and societies throughout history to the present day. One of its groundbreaking areas of research is the reception of Homer in the Jewish and Arabic traditions, a subject that has rarely been explored.

With contributions from 132 scholars worldwide, this three volume work is a universal exploration of all things Homer. "Through this encyclopedia, you can enter Homer's world and get lost in it," says Prof. Finkelberg, who was recently awarded the 2012 Rothschild Prize in the Humanities. "It is unique for its comprehensive view -- the entire field is seen as vibrant, alive and contemporary. Homer's work is put in a modern living context, rather than approached as an impenetrable classic monument."


An avatar of Greek culture

One section of the encyclopedia examines "textual reception" over 2,000 years of history. Its purpose is to examine how Homeric texts were received from the view of different societies and cultures, e.g. Victorian England. Studying the history of the reception of a major text is an emerging field of study, Prof. Finkelberg explains -- and profoundly important to the progress of the humanities.

One of the most original features of this work is an in-depth study of Homer in the context of Jewish and Arabic traditions, conducted by leading specialists. Though Homer's work is foundational to the Western tradition, it has never been central to these Eastern traditions, which put more of an emphasis on "useful" texts, such as those regarding science, medicine, and philosophy.

The findings, she says, are surprising. Because the Hellenic world is little-known in these cultures, Homer is seen as a symbol of Greek culture in its entirety. "Poetry was not translated in these cultures, and because of this, very little was known about the art of the Greeks beyond philosophers like Aristotle. For them, Homer represented everything to do with Greek culture, including paganism," explains Prof. Finkelberg. Anything "Greek" was essentially "Homeric" and vice versa.


Homeric archaeology

Prof. Finkelberg believes that the publication is a crucial addition to encyclopedias on the work of other poets such as Dante and Virgil. After all, Homer is not just any writer. In the absence of the sacred religious texts that are central to other traditions, such as the Bible to Judeo-Christian traditions, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the formative texts of Greek culture.

Because of this, the fields of Homeric archaeology and Biblical archaeology rest on the same historical axis, suggests Prof. Finkelberg. Homer's use of history reflects real historical events and has inspired actual archaeological discovery. It was through Homer, for example, that German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was to search for the ruins of Troy, the site of the Trojan War in Homer's works. Previously, the city was believed to be a mere literary invention.

Though Homer cannot be used as a historical text in the modern sense, Prof. Finkelberg says that his literary works are themselves not unlike an archaeological site, where different levels of history can be pieced together to reveal intriguing tale of a world long past.


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