Like Homer, Valmiki is little more than a name. Unlike Homer, though, Valmiki has a rich legendary history that survives in both written texts and oral tradition.
The Traditional Valmiki. According to tradition he lived in the Treta Yuga (the Silver Age, which began some two billion years ago and lasted well over a billion years, according to one method of calculating time; cf. Circularity and Linearity) and was a contemporary of Rama. His given name was Ratnakara. As a child he become lost and was adopted by a hunter and his wife. As an adult he, too, was a hunter. He married and had a large family. To support his family he took to highway robbery. One day he attempted to rob a sage, who brought him to realize that he could not blame his wicked acts on the needs of his family, but had to accept personal responsibility. The sage taught him to meditate on the sacred name of Rama.
Ratnakara became lost in meditation for several years, during which time a colony of ants built an anthill around him. When the same sage passed by again, he realized that Ratnakara was inside the anthill and carefully dug him out. He brought Ratnakara back to consciousness by speaking the name of Rama in his ear, and then renamed the man Valmiki (from Sanskrit valmika, "ant-hill").
Later, the sage visited Valmiki yet again and told him the story of Rama. One day Valmiki watched as a hunter killed a bird and its mate cried out in grief (Sanskrit śoka). He was moved to express himself in a new form of poetry, epic couplets called śloka. Inspired by Brahma, Valmiki meditated and learned all the details of Rama's life, then used these epic couplets to tell the story of Rama; the Ramayana was created. For this reason, Valmiki is also known as Adikavi, "The First Poet." He taught the poem to Rama's twin sons, who eventually performed the poem for their father.
This traditional story of Valmiki, a man of low social caste and no education who achieved greatness by the grace of Brahma, is widely known. There are temples devoted to him, and festivals celebrate his traditional birthday.
The Historical Valmiki. The extant Sanskrit epic most likely was composed some time around 200 BCE. Is it the first work composed using the śloka? No. Is it the work of a single poet? No. The seventh book, and probably most of the first book, are not by the same poet as the rest of the work. However, the main body of the poem does appear to be the work of one individual. Also, the poem bears few of the marks of oral-formulaic composition, as do the poems of Homer. The extant poem appears to be a literary creation, largely by a single individual, although multiple transmissions (both literary and oral) have left their mark. The poem ascribed to Valmiki stands as one of the great works of Sanskrit literature, even as it stands beside other distinctive renditions of the story of Rama (cf. Stories and Contexts).