A new mathematical analysis of the Iliad and the Odyssey suggests that the Greek epics may actually be the work of different poets, not just the famous Homer. What's more, the Odyssey may be a patchwork poem, composed by several storytellers.
The debate over the "Homeric question" has raged since 1795, when the German scholar Friedrich August Wolf first suggested that the poems had been pieced together, and that Homer never existed. To attack the question, mathematician Ricardo Mansilla and linguist Edward Bush, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, decided to analyze the poems with a statistical tool previously used to study patterns in DNA. The technique measures the amount of disorder, or entropy, in long sequences of information.
The pair encoded the rhythmic structures of the two epics into strings of numbers by using zeros and ones to represent short and long syllables, and twos to represent the pauses that were marked into early versions of the poems. They found that the patterns in the Iliad were surprisingly similar throughout. "We didn't expect to see such clear patterns in the poetry," Mansilla says. By contrast, the Odyssey 's structure was much less regular. That suggests, but doesn't prove, that different people composed them, Mansilla says. The 24 books of the Odyssey had varied rhythmic patterns, suggesting that the work may have been composed by many authors. Mansilla and Bush have yet to publish their findings, although they have posted a paper describing some of the work on the Los Alamos preprint server.
The idea of using statistics to help illuminate the Homeric question is interesting, says Barry Powell, a classicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But he says there is strong evidence that the two works were written by the same person: For instance, no story in the Iliad is ever repeated in the Odyssey, even though the two epics deal with the same war. "Human speech is so complex and elusive that the question of who wrote the poems will probably always remain a matter of faith," he says.