Homer in Print: The Transmission and Reception of Homer's Works

For nearly 3,000 years, the Homeric epics have been among the best-known and most widely studied texts of Western civilization. Generations of students have read the Iliad and the Odyssey to learn Greek, to study Greek history, culture, and mythology, or for the sheer enjoyment of the stories and characters. Concepts such as heroism, nationalism, friendship, and loyalty have been shaped by Homer's works. Countless editions, translations, abridgements, and adaptations have appeared since the invention of printing, making Homer accessible to students, scholars, children, and general readers.

Many readers delight in the stories and the people who inhabit them. The Iliad and the Odyssey are filled with the momentum of action, emotions, relationships, violence, and tragedy. Complex and memorable characters—humans and gods—can be subjected to unending scrutiny. Some wonder about the author: Who was Homer? Did such a person really exist and if so, when? What was his role in compiling the works we read today? Others analyze language, narrative techniques, pictorial elements, and a host of other features.

Non-specialist readers rarely pay attention to the specific version of their texts or how they came into being. And when reading a translation, we often ignore the fact that we are not experiencing the text in its original language, let alone consider the role of the translator in shaping the form and content of the experience.

Homer in Print puts the spotlight on the text itself, not as an object of literary, linguistic, historical, or cultural inquiry but rather as the product of a particular time, place, editor, printer, publisher, or translator. Beginning with the very first printed edition of Homer, every editor of a Greek edition must decide what sources should be consulted and whether notes are needed to achieve the goal of the edition. Translators face a host of additional choices: Will they produce a verse or prose translation, if verse then in what poetic form, and will they aim at fidelity to the words and syntax or to the spirit of the "original" (however that is defined)? The way each translator answers these questions reflects available sources, prevailing literary theories, and individual preferences.

The editions and translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey in this exhibition illustrate what we can learn when we look beyond the epics themselves. Great literature may be impossible to define, and of the making of Homers there may be no end. But focusing on the actual texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey and how they have come down to us—the physical shape and form, as well as the words—reminds us that there could be no study of Homer if his works had not survived and were not always "in print."

A related exhibition of adaptations of the Iliad and the Odyssey is on view on the fourth floor of the Regenstein Library until March 1, 2014.

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