The Iliad and Odyssey: Historical Background
These epic stories are about the Mycenaean or Bronze Age, ancient Greeks, who flourished from about 1600-1100 BC. This is roughly about the time Moses led the Israelites from Egypt through the time David ruled a united Jewish nation; by most accounts, Moses led the Jews out of Egypt and Troy fell somewhere around 1300-1200 BCE. (See our timeline)
These "Greeks" are relative late-comers to the area we now call "Greece" and likely originated to the East of Black Sea, around the area now called the Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian seas, where Russia, Turkey and N. Iran meet). The story of Prometheus -- shackled to mount Caucus -- shows strong connections between their original culture and that of the Sumerians etc. These people also probably invaded India, to the East/South at roughly the same time (discuss Pramantha/Prometheus mythology). So these Mycenaean people were both influenced by and influenced other great civilizations even before there was written history (or, for that matter, writing). SEE MAPS BELOW
Before the Mycenaeans arrived in the region, earlier "Greek" cultures worshipped ancient fertility goddesses probably related to Ishtar, Aphrodite, even Athena and Hera, and appear to have lived a rather peaceable, agricultural lifestyle (we assume this because archeological digs show these pre-Mycenaean people lived without military weapons or fortifications...until they were invaded by the Mycanaeans).
In contrast to "the locals", the Greek legends we read celebrate war; this is the literature of military conquerors, so the Mycenaean people had as much in common with, say, the later Vikings as with the later philosophical, "civilized" Greeks: this is a culture of raiders, of looters and pillagers. From this perspective, The Iliad is a work of military propaganda that justifies Mycenaen control of the most valuable sea passage of age (the Bosporus), and The Odyssey justifies colonizing Italy and Sicily to the West.
So, like the Hebrew scriptures -- or our own "Westerns" (cowboys/us vs. Indians/them) -- these Greek legends justify the invasion and domination of earlier "native" inhabitants.
These Ancient (and even Classical) Greeks are best viewed as a culture rather than as a unified people or "nation". When we speak of "the Ancient Greeks" it's the same way we view “Western Culture” as referring to Europe, Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia. Achilles is a king in his own right, as is Odysseus, Menaleaus, Agamemnon etc., and Achilles goes to great lengths to point out that Agamemnon is not his king; Agamemnon is simply the commander of a federation of independent city states. This distinction is important to understanding the Iliad: Achilles rightfully sees himself as Agamemnon's equal.
Troy is believed to have fallen around 1184 BC and The Iliad and Odyssey were not written down until c.800-700 BC, so although they are based on vaguely real historical events and actual historical characters, they are events that transpired hundreds of years before the author even lived; they are history that has morphed into mythology. We still say they were written by the blind poet Homer, but that’s as much myth as the stories themselves; there’s really no reason to believe that a man named Homer ever wrote any of these stories, or that he was blind. We can assume that this is a compilation of various oral tales and that much of the narration describes what Greek life and warfare was like in 750 BCE, not 1184 BCE.
Iliad, Othering Odyssey:
The Iliad: The Iliad tells the final chapter in the story of two major Bronze Age “Greek” alliances battling each other. It ends when the Achaeans (people mainly from what we now call Greece) sack Troy/Ilium (located in modern day Turkey). It's a long, meandering epic, but it primarily revolves around the "godlike Achilles'" struggle to confront his hubris and become humanized.
Both in scope and type, consider the Trojan war as similar to that between different European factions in WWI and WWII, or between the North and South in the American Civil War: this was a seminal, history-shaping event, and an intra-cultural war: a war fought among people of the same basic culture; although the two sides are protected by different gods, all the gods belong to the same basic pantheon or family of what we now call "Greek gods".
The Odyssey, in contrast, mainly takes place outside of that common culture and describes contact with pre-Mycenaean Mediterranean cultures. The story focuses on Odysseus and his family's struggle to recover from the Trojan war's after effects and, primarily, with Odysseus struggle to make it back home. So The Iliad describes the clash between two equally brilliant and beautiful groups of “Greeks”, and The Odyssey describes contact with the “Other”, represented as monsters and witches.
We’re interested in part in how familiar and "normal" these stories feel, how unexotic they are, because they are the foundation for how Western culture thinks of storytelling, and how this storytelling in turn shaped our conception of what it means to be a human being. While the Jews gave Western culture its religious foundation, the Greeks gave us our culture, the parts of our lives we don't even notice because it is the very air we breath – our sense of heroism, of the individual, of the individuals relationship to others, or our very means of expressing our emotions and the way we tell stories. Jewish stories opened our way of conceptualizing God, but the Greeks gave us our way of thinking about ourselves as human beings. The word for this is "humanism" or Greek Humanism.
National Geographic Maps
Map including West Asia and Black Sea:
General map of region:
An outline of his travels is located here. NOTE however, that scholars really don't know Odysseus' actual route, if there ever was an "actual" Odysseus etc., so take these maps with a grain of salt.