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The Recovery of Writing and Homer

The Greeks had relearned the technology of writing as a result of contact with the literate civilizations of the Near East and the alphabet developed there long before. Sometime between about 950 and 750 the Greeks modified a Phoenician alphabet1 to represent the sounds of their own language, and the Greek version of the alphabet eventually formed the base of the alphabet used for English today. Greeks of the Archaic Age2 (roughly, the period from 750 to 500 B.C.) swiftly applied their newly acquired skill to write down oral literature, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greeks believed that Homer3, a blind poet from the Greek region called Ionia4 (today the western coast of Turkey), had composed the Iliad and Odyssey. Modern scholarship has often disputed this attribution on the grounds that no single author could have been responsible for these lengthy and complex poems if, as is commonly assumed, they were originally composed and transmitted orally, without the aid of writing. If, on the other hand, Homeric poetry as we have it was composed by writing, the authorship question is on a different footing. Whatever the truth of this much disputed question, Homeric poetry, even if it was put into final form by a single author, grew out of centuries of oral performance by countless Greek poets singing of the deeds and values of legendary aristocrats. Stories from Near Eastern poetic tales influenced this oral poetry, which for centuries helped to transmit cultural values from one generations of Greeks to the next.

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