September 24, 2003

The Iliad, by Homer

It has been my custom to try to learn something new every fall. One year I took a drawing class. Another year I learned to spin wool. This year for no particular reason except curiosity I decided to read Homer. I went out and got copies of the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey and just for good measure tossed a copy of the Richard Lattimore edition of The Odyssey and a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses on the pile. I faintly remember reading excerpt of the last one in a college Classical Mythology course many, many years ago. My battered copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology has a nice little plot precis of both of Homer's stories so I read that first as a way of prepping myself. And then I started in.

First, I have to say, I don't usually read poetry. I like action and plot and characters in my reading and while poetry can be fascinating, it doesn't normally fulfill my desires for reading. However, if you completely forget that Homer or whoever the storyteller was that put together this story was doing it in meter and feet, it reads pretty much like an action novel. Actually, it reads like a really bloody action novel. There's a lot of hack and slash in this book. Eyes falling out, blood dripping down, brains splashing out the back of helmets etc etc. Not for the faint hearted. I skipped my way thru the long lists of guys being cut down in battle when one of the hero's went on a rampage after figuring out that most of those named don't play much of a part in the action except to die in some gruesome manner involving spears or swords.

What intrigued me were the similes included. Homer describes something that's happening on the battle field or over the campfire, and then, for the audience's visual sense, gives them a homey picture that looks something like it. So the Achaeans leaving the ships are likened to bees swarming out of hives and a hero slashing his way thru a line of men are likened to the reaper scything a field of grain only in much more detail and vivid language. He does this over and over in the text and the only reason I could come up with was to create a visual for his audience who may not have seen anything like it.

The second thing that intrigued me are the Homeric epithets. Not so much which ones but how they were used. This I got from reading Bernard Fox intro to this edition. There are usually several epithets assigned to each character or place. The ships of Troy are black, hollow, beaked etc. Hector is the breaker of horses, the great runner etc. And apparently this is so the storyteller has several choices of descriptive words that will scan into the line depending on where they are placed. And entire sections are repeated word for word, especially if a message is sent and given to someone. Apparently that was to give the storyteller mental time to think about what comes next. Fascinating.

I found I didn't much like Achilles. He was much too full of himself sitting there pouting because Agamemnon took away his girl. I thought Hector was the real hero of the story especially since he's out there sweating away in battle while Paris the wimp who started this all is hanging around inside the walls of Troy. And the parting scene between Andromache and Hector where he is going off and she stands there holding her infant son knowing Hector will never come back was incredibly moving. I did come away from it a little confused about the role of divine intervention vs. free will in the fate of men. It seemed like men had free will and then something would happen and the gods would come down and intervene, changing the course of events. I have to think about that a little more. I am curious to see if it comes thru again in The Odyssey.

Posted by Deb English at September 24, 2003 07:11 PM

Phil said:

Deb,
I just read The Odyssey myself, the Penguin Classics edition. It was chock-full of goodness, but several times I wanted to edited the verbosity. The characters, especially Odysseus, couldn't ask a simple question without throwing out several possible answers and may another few questions.

The feeling I got from the gods in this story was capriciousness. Zeus was constantly praised for defended the traveler and the stranger, for upholding justice in various situations; but I couldn't see any good reason to trust the god with anything, least of all justice. Athena was admirable, wise, and seemingly just; Zeus was Archie Bunker or maybe Onslow.

Deb said:

Phil,
Interesting. I will keep that in mind. I never quite figured out what Zeus was doing in The Iliad. He seems to have all the power and is able to control the other gods, tho Hera gives him a run for his money, yet at defining moments he uses the scales of Fate to decide what to do.

Odyesseus is a supporting actor in The Iliad--his epithets are crafty, the tactician and cunning. I'm lookin forward to the Odyssey. I got used to the "windiness" of the text after awhile, especially the passages that repeated themselves. And then, this was performance art, not written poetry so I wonder if there isnt some reason for some of the overkill in the language. I dont know enough about the subject to make any good guesses.

What lead you to Homer?

Phil said:

I'm attracted to classical literature and strong writing more than anything else. I put down a few books because I became irritated at the writing style; but I think I'm mellowing or applying different standards to certain books. I'm probably gaining sanity.

You mentioned the gore in the Iliad. I was surprised by it in the Odyssey too, though there was only a little. It seemed a bit sensuous too, the men rising with the Dawn, throwing on some clothes and striding from their rooms, looking like a god. Maybe that's part of the subtle parallels b/w gods and men. That was the lesson I took from the Iliad, what parts I read of it. The gods were like men, the men were like gods--barely a difference. Did you notice parallels b/w Agamemnon and Zeus?

Deb said:

Hmmmm. No I didnt notice the parallels tho now that you mention it I can see how it could be set up--both leaders, both "in charge." I was struck by how often the gods were called the "deathless" gods. And by how they almost never appeared to anyone as themselves. They come disguised as someone familiar and it's only when they suddenly disappear that it occurs to whomever they are visiting that it was really a god they were talking to.

The little hiatus in the book where Thetis goes to Hephaestus and has him build new armor for Achilles is wonderful. The description of the shield and all it's embellishements in brass goes on for several pages.

David R. said:

May I humbly recommmend some secondary literature for those who want to delve more deeply into the Iliad? Start with Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death, and (a little more advanced) then try Oliver Taplin, Homeric Soundings. Eventually, of course, you'll want to learn Greek. Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek is an introductory text which takes the student through the first few hundred lines of the Iliad and prepares her to read more widely in Homer, who is quite easy compared to other Greek authors.

Would you like to experience the Iliad as its first audience did? According to Taplin, you should spend the day sacrificing to the gods and witnessing athletic contests in their honor. Then have a feast, and as the sun sets the bard should sing from book 1 to book 9 until morning. After a similar next day, the bard will sing from book 11 to book 18 overnight (book 10 is not by Homer). The third night of performance is a bit shorter, from 19 to the end. If you haven't got the time, the least you can do is read it all night while drinking wine!

Deb said:

David, Arrgghh--more books to read and so little time. The two you suggested do sound interesting!
However, should I start drinking wine in the evening AND attempt to read Homer at the same time, I fear I would end up either asleep on the couch or unintentionally pouring libations to the gods all over my living room floor. Possibly both.

How was this sung? Was it chanted or tonal? Was it accompanied by an instument? I know it's basically performance art and that reading loses much of what it was about--like Shakespeare. I didnt worry too much about the meter since it's a translation and I supposed most of the original would be lost in the conversion.

As for learning Greek, I actually thought about it and opted to start with Latin first. Latin uses the same alphabet and has similar pronunciations to English, not that any native speakers are around to care much. My middle aged brain is not used to disciplined study anymore and I have a friend who knows Latin so I bought a high school Latin text with answers.

However, I will keep your suggestion in mind. My next exploration is The Odyssey.

Will Duquette said:

"Zeus was Archie Bunker or maybe Onslow."

Onslow from "Keeping Up Appearances", or are you thinking of someone else?

I rather like Onslow. He's a slob, but I like him.

Phil said:

I admit the comparison of Zeus to Onslow of "Keeping Up Appearances" may be an insult to Onslow. I was trying to get at the idea of a big man whose at his best with a beer and tv. You dont want to disturb him by pressing whatever hot buttons he has because his anger is never righteous. (I want to describe the end of the Odyessey as it relates to this, but I won't for Deb's sake. It's enough to say that Zeus is an ox.)

In other news, I've thought about comparing an Odyssey scene involving the Sun god's cattle and Odysseus' men with an event at Mt. Sinai in the Old Testament where the Israelites make an idol for themselves while Moses is on the mountain. Lots of similarities. You may see this comparison on Brandywine Books eventually. Hopefully, it will be worth reading.

Deb said:

Dont hold back on plot spoilers to shield me--It's close to 3000 years old. Not exactly on the bestseller shelf in the bookstores anymore.

David R. said:

Epic poetry was sung/chanted to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. In Odyssey book 8, you'll see Odysseus himself sing as a bard--books 9 through 12 are actually the song of Odysseus himself telling his story (which makes you wonder just how much to believe...)

One thing we don't know, which I've always wondered, is whether the bard "did the voices", i.e. sung high-pitched when he was doing Helen and so on.

Enjoy the Odyssey--isn't it odd that the greatest books of the western tradition are also the first books?

Jason S. said:

When reading the Iliad, you must always take into consideration the role that each character was meant to play. The gods show many human-like characteristics, many of which are flawed. They favor specific characters and take sides in the war, and Homer tries to show the difference between the mortals and immortals, by the consequences of the war. What may kill thousands of Greek or Trojan warriors (and plays significant roles in these mortals lives), has minor, if any, consequence to any god. For example, this is shown when Homer beautiful describes the scene in which Apollo leads the Trojans into Greek camp, to rampage and end the lives of many Greek warriors. In a scene where many soldiers die, Homer relates Apollo to a child, innocently kicking over a sandcastle. In the case of Achilles, he is a virtuous character. His personality may not specifically be credible when considering him as a human. But, as a hero, he is a very credible character, and the overall evolution of his character throughout the epic concludes a newly matured, knowledgeable man. His heroic wrath, his arrogance, and probably any other flaw you could place on Achilles, are inevitable as he is a hero.