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The Iliad
Homer


THE POEM

A COMPARISON OF TRANSLATIONS

Over the centuries there have been many translations of Homer's two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. While the translations of course differ, none is more accurate than another. Each translator's understanding of Homer is influenced by his own personality and the time in which he lived. Some translations are in verse, others in prose. The quotations in this guide are from Richmond Lattimore's prose version of the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). This translation is easy for modern readers to understand and comes close to what Homer was saying.

It is interesting to compare the various translations. Here are four versions of some lines from Book II.

Say, Virgins, seated round the Throne Divine,
All-knowing Goddesses! Immortal Nine!
Since Earth's wide Regions, Heav'n's unmeasur'd Height,
And Hell's Abyss hide nothing from your sight,
(We, wretched Mortals! lost in Doubts below,
But guess by Rumour, and but boast we know)
Oh say what Heroes, fir'd by Thirst of Fame,
Or urg'd by Wrongs, to Troy's Destruction Came?
To count them all, demands a thousand Tongues,
A Throat of Brass, and Adamantine Lungs.
Daughters of Jove assist! inspir'd by You
The mighty labour dauntless I pursue:
What crowded Armies, from what Climes they bring,
Their Names, their Numbers, and their Chiefs I sing.

Alexander Pope

Tell me now, ye Muses that dwell in the mansions of Olympus- seeing that ye are goddesses and are at hand and know all things, but we hear only a rumour and know not anything- who were the captains of the Danaans and their lords. But the common sort could I not number nor name, nay, not if ten tongues were mine and ten mouths, and a voice unwearied, and my heart of bronze within me, did not the Muses of Olympus, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, put into my mind all that came to Ilios. So will I tell the captains of the ships and all the ships in order.

Lang, Leaf, and Myers

Tell me now, Muses, dwelling on Olympos, as you are heavenly, and are everywhere, and everything is known to you- while we can only hear the tales and never know- who were the Danaan lords and officers? The rank and file I shall not name; I could not, if I were gifted with ten tongues and voices unfaltering, and a brazen heart within me, unless the Muses, daughters of Olympian Zeus beyond the stormcloud, could recall all those who sailed for the campaign at Troy. Let me name only the captains of contingents and number all the ships.

Robert Fitzgerald

Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos. For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things, and we have heard only the rumour of it and know nothing. Who then of those were the chief men and the lords of the Danaans? I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them, not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had a voice never to be broken and a heart of bronze within me, not unless the Muses of Olympia, daughters of Zeus of the aegis, remembered all those who came beneath Ilion. I will tell the lords of the ships, and the ships numbers.

Richard Lattimore

THE PLOT

For nine years the Achaians have besieged Troy. During one of their raids on a nearby town they take as captives two women: Chryseis, daughter of Chryses, priest of Apollo, and Briseis. Chryseis is given to King Agamemnon as a war prize; Briseis is allotted to Achilleus. When Chryses the priest comes to the Argive camp seeking to ransom his daughter, Agamemnon refuses. At Chryses' behest Apollo sends a plague on the Achaians.

Achilleus calls an assembly of the army, and the soothsayer Kalchas explains the anger of the god. He says that to appease Apollo, Agamemnon must return Chryseis to her father. A violent quarrel ensues, and Agamemnon says if he is forced to give up his prize he will take someone else's to replace her. When Achilleus expresses outrage at this demand, Agamemnon takes Briseis from him.

Furious at the public insult, Achilleus vows to refrain from fighting until he feels he is once again properly valued. To effect this, he prays to his mother, Thetis, to plead his case before Zeus so that the Trojans will have victories, showing how sorely Achilleus is missed. Zeus assents to the plan.

All the Achaian army is marshaled before us in its splendor, but to little avail. Things go badly for them in battle. A long day of fighting seesaws between the Trojans and the Argives. Hektor returns briefly to Troy and speaks to Helen and Paris, to his mother Hekabe, and to his wife Andromache, who brings along their child, Astyanax.

After more inconclusive fighting a truce is proposed, during which time the Achaians build up their defenses with a large ditch and a fortified wall.

The next day the Trojans press the Argives, camping on the plain of Troy within striking distance of the Argive ships. Sensing defeat, Agamemnon admits his mistakes and offers to return Briseis to Achilleus, along with numerous other gifts. An embassy is sent to Achilleus with the proposal, but Achilleus refuses. The depth of his anger and shame forces him to hold out.

Diomedes and Odysseus carry out a nighttime spying expedition, during which the unfortunate Trojan Dolon is captured and made to talk. The two warriors then raid the outskirts of the Trojan camp.

Though Agamemnon in particular fights bravely, he and all the other major Achaians except Aias are wounded and forced to retire temporarily from battle. They are vulnerable to attack, and Hektor leads the Trojans crashing through the wall to reach the ships and burn them. But Achilleus is watching as the ships are torched. Neither he nor his comrade Patroklos can endure the defeat. Patroklos dons Achilleus' armor to fight against the Trojans, hoping they will mistake him for Achilleus and be demoralized. Patroklos rouses the Achaian army, and the Trojans are swept back to their city walls. Finally Hektor meets Patroklos face to face. Unarmed and shaken by Apollo, Patroklos is an easy victim for Hektor's spear.

A furious battle over the body of the dead Patroklos follows. The fierce fighting swings back and forth. Though Hektor seizes the armor, the Achaians are able to rescue the body. Pressed hard by Hektor and his forces, the Achaians retreat to their ships. By then Achilleus has been brought the terrible news of the death of his friend. Enraged and brokenhearted, Achilleus turns his anger from Agamemnon to Hektor. Though Achilleus has no armor, his mere appearance on the battlefield sends the Trojans fleeing in terror. Hephaistos crafts a stupendous set of armor for him, and after calling an assembly in which he and Agamemnon make their peace, Achilleus dons his new armor and rages into battle. Virtually all the Trojans are slaughtered. Achilleus brings Hektor down, ties him to his chariot, and drags him through the dust back to the ships.

The Achaians solemnly and elaborately bury Patroklos, while Achilleus laments and continues to brutalize the corpse of Hektor. The gods decide it is time to end this situation, and through Zeus' efforts Priam is sent to the Achaian camp to ransom the body of his son. Achilleus and Priam weep together over their mutual losses; then Priam returns to Troy with the body of Hektor.

Within the city walls the Trojans formally mourn their slain hero. Andromache, Hekabe, and Helen lament his passing. Hektor is buried.

[The Iliad Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

THE ACHAIANS

  • ACHILLEUS (ACHILLES)

    Achilleus, the son of Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, is the leader of the Myrmidon contingent in the Trojan War. He is clearly the greatest of the Achaian warriors, in the judgment of both friend and enemy. The very sight of him on the battlefield is enough to send the Trojans fleeing in terror. Part of this power comes from his divine connections (his mother, Thetis, is a goddess), part from divine favor (at crucial points Hera and Athene look out for him and help him). This may also be a way of telling us of the enormous personal resources Achilleus has at his command.

    Achilleus' vast emotional and physical powers are not always at the service of clearheadedness. Though his initial anger at Agamemnon is based on a sense of moral justice, his rage transcends his sense of morality. His emotions motivate him more than his thoughts, for he holds onto his fury even after Agamemnon offers to return Briseis with an apology. At that point he is no longer operating for a principle of fairness but is playing out his anger and punishing his enemies. Unfortunately, his comrades must pay the price of his passions. Not until his friend Patroklos has been sacrificed does Achilleus realize he has held his position too long.

    Yet he is a complex, vital man. There is little doubt that he is right in taking a stand against Agamemnon's arbitrary decisions. He is one of those people who will fight to the death for what they believe in. Though his anger is fierce and relentless, there is nevertheless something noble in it. His sheer intensity demands respect. Because he is the one character actually to undergo change, the Iliad is really his poem. He loses much along the way but finally tempers his anger and reaches out in a gesture of compassion and peace toward Priam. Achilleus is first in the line of great Greek tragic heroes: his power makes him a hero, and his human blindness makes him tragic.

  • AGAMEMNON

    Although many of the Greek commanders are kings in their own right, Agamemnon as commander- in-chief is king of them all, the "lord of men." We don't know whether he was given this position by virtue of the size or wealth of his home city, Mykenai, or because he is the powerful brother of the wronged Menelaos, or if he was voted as leader by all the other Achaians. Agamemnon's position, however, is the key to his character. Behind his actions in his quarrel with Achilleus lies a need to protect the trappings of his office, his rank. Quite simply, the king cannot have less than his subjects; respect must be shown. Yet Agamemnon, too, is rash, and there is pride in his actions as much as in Achilleus'. Though in battle he proves himself a strong fighter, he seems to be less sure as a leader. Several times he suggests that the Achaians give up their struggle, and an uncertainty about his position may make him too quick to jump at Achilleus. He is fast to recognize his wrong and make an apology (within the limits of his sense of rank), and shows a tender care for his brother, Menelaos. He seems to have genuine concern for his army; yet his judgment is none too sharp and he waffles. For all his kingliness, he is somewhat more bureaucratic than noble. His arbitrariness with Achilleus brings the heroic code into question.

  • AIAS (AJAX)

    Son of Telamon (hence called Telemonian Aias), he is, after Achilleus, the most imposing of the Argive warriors. He is frequently compared to a wall, and, in fact, as the last hero on the field after all the others have been wounded, he practically single-handedly defends the ships, roaming the fortified wall and then fighting from the prow of a boat. In a way, he is the Achaian defensive wall personified. He rarely speaks in council. What he does is defend his comrades to the end by sheer bulk and human will, and he does not give up until, the last man left, his very spear is hacked from his hands.

  • DIOMEDES

    Diomedes is one of the great fighters for the Achaians. A true warrior, he supports Agamemnon when he feels the commander-in-chief is right and criticizes him when he is wrong. He is aided by Athene and is also responsible for wounding both Aphrodite and Ares- a remarkable feat for a mortal (although it is accomplished with the aid of Athene). He does not have Odysseus' spark of insight, but he speaks seriously, if haltingly. This may be because he is the youngest of the Achaian commanders. At times he seems too eager for battle, and his killing of Dolon has a touch of ruthlessness about it.

  • MENELAOS (MENELAUS)

    The original husband of Helen, brother of Agamemnon, and king of Sparta, Menelaos has the unlucky distinction of being the person on whose behalf the war is being fought. He is dogged but not quite illustrious. He fights hard, though not particularly skillfully, and seems at times to be protected by Agamemnon. He is willing to bear the burden of responsibility but is not quite up to the challenge.

  • NESTOR

    Nestor, the aged king of Pylos, is one of the most elaborately conceived characters in the Iliad. He has not only a consistent set of ideas, but a consistent way of talking. He is forever long-winded and rambling. His characterization is due largely to his age: he is the oldest of the warriors at Troy. His wayward speeches are the product of a mind not quite as quick as it used to be, and also filled with a bit of blustery memory to pad the way. Yet he always has a point to make, and his age is not ridiculed. His experience gives him the justification to draw forth moral examples. That these examples come mostly from his own life shows a kind of fond respect for him on the part of Homer. Though no longer able to fight the way he used to, he is eager to aid the cause in whatever way he can.

  • ODYSSEUS

    Odysseus, king of Ithaca, is seen in many ways as the counterpart to Achilleus. He is the hero of the other epic by Homer, the Odyssey. Where Achilleus is passionate, Odysseus is resourceful. Achilleus is often seen as archaic man, the idealist, while Odysseus is viewed as modern man, the pragmatic survivor. In the Iliad he seems to have the quickest mind of all and is able to interrupt arguments with just the right measure of understanding and criticism. He always tries to keep things in order so that the matter at hand- the battle for Troy- can move forward. He is a great fighter and can be ruthless as well as tricky. He is also a true friend, the kind that does not mince words but tells you honestly (but with tact) what is the matter.

  • PATROKLOS (PATROCLUS)

    Companion to Achilleus and son of Menoitios, Patroklos is the most sympathetic character in the Iliad. He is shown more often in friendship than in battle, and he is spoken of in the kindest terms by Achilleus and Briseis, both of whom he befriended. Though faithful to Achilleus, he can't endure the sight of his comrades being slaughtered, and if he can't rouse Achilleus to fight, he begs to be able to fight in Achilleus' place. The enormity of Achilleus' affection for him and the funeral rites held for his sake make him seem particularly noble.

THE TROJANS

  • ANDROMACHE

    Andromache, wife of Hektor, is the most emotionally up-front character in the Iliad. Her speeches to Hektor are filled with passion and intensity. She is a devoted wife and mother and also shows her knowledge of the pleasure of emotional intimacy. Her grief is so directly communicated that she seems to stand for all Trojan women who have lost husbands and sons in the war. Her devotion and immediacy make us feel how much is wasted by the conflict at Troy, and add to our appreciation of Hektor.

  • HEKABE (HECABE)

    Wife of Priam and mother of Hektor, Hekabe incorporates the wisdom of women who understand intuitively the value of life. In urging Hektor not to go back into battle she reminds us of all the positive social aspects of existence. Her response to Priam's mission of recondition is similarly a primal concern: she has seen too much loveliness destroyed to trust anymore in the vicious war and its participants. She has a mother's instinctual protectiveness and rage, and says she would devour the liver of the hated Achilleus if she could- but her fury is born of grief and desperation.

  • HEKTOR (HECTOR)

    Son of Priam and Hekabe, and husband to Andromache, Hektor is the most beloved and greatest fighter for the Trojans. Because the war is being fought at Troy, and Homer presents a picture of life within the city walls, we have a sense of Hektor as a domestic man as well as a fighter, which is unique in the Iliad. Though at times his fame as a fighter seems to outstrip his actual combat ability, he often single-handedly inspires the Trojan successes. By the time he crashes through the Achaian defensive wall, you could say he stands for the Trojan army. He can be impetuous and almost deluded in his fighting frenzy; he misreads omens and doesn't follow the advice of his comrades even when it's eminently worthwhile. Like Achilleus, he pursues his destiny with a single-minded force.

    We sense that Hektor is not fighting a war he particularly believes in. He is quick to criticize Paris but is staking his life on defending Paris' actions. Hektor is the upholder of the heroic code par excellence. He understands that his city must stand or fall as one man. He defends its interests to the end for honor.

    In his family relations Hektor exhibits sensitivity and sanity, a sharp contrast to his furious warring. He is courteous to Helen and devoted to Andromache. Though he tells his wife he must fight for the honor of the city, he also admits to her that her safety is his greatest worry- he would rather die than endure the sight of her made captive. He is tender and playful with his son, Astyanax, kissing him and actually laughing out loud- a rare occurrence in the Iliad!

    While Achilleus seems somehow to stand above the Achaian cause and infuses the poem with his own tragic dimension, Hektor's tragedy is the tragedy of Troy. Though the gods admit he has always dutifully made his sacrifices to them, he gets embroiled in a web of fate that goes beyond his personal life. He is the "defender," and when he falls Troy falls. The burial of Hektor is the final act of the poem.

  • HELEN

    Even more so than Paris, Helen is the unwitting agent of Aphrodite. In her one important scene with the goddess she is literally forced to go to Paris against her wishes. Helen has a mysterious quality throughout the poem- as she will throughout Greek history- and her descent from Zeus (and Leda) may give her a special divine aura. Renowned for her beauty, she appears in the poem in flowing, sheer robes that only intensify her spectral quality. She frequently regrets her abduction by Paris and sometimes longingly thinks of her past with Menelaos. She furiously rebukes Paris for his cowardice, even expressing a wish that he die in battle so that she won't have to be with him any longer. By recognizing that Aphrodite has misled and used her, she also recognizes her own mistake. In the Iliad, Helen is a love goddess against her will.

  • PARIS (ALEXANDROS)

    Pampered, beautiful, and slightly scandalous, Paris is the actual cause of the Trojan War- he stole Helen from his host, Menelaos. He is chided by Hektor for his womanizing and his prettiness, and even Helen seems to be fed up with his shamelessness and lack of modesty. He is an adequate fighter, but clearly his heart is somewhere else. While others are busying themselves with the gruesome realities of war, Paris is making love to Helen. Helen expresses regret but Paris never apologizes for bringing war down on his people and making them defend his rather indefensible actions. It is important to note that he achieves what he does through the aid and insistence of Aphrodite. He both benefits from and is used by her power.

  • POULYDAMAS (POLYDAMAS)

    Poulydamas, comrade of Hektor, embodies some of the spirit of both Patroklos and Odysseus, and fulfills a similar role as they do to Achilleus. He is the confidant of Hektor, and they seem to have had a long-standing relationship, but he is also clear-sighted when Hektor is impetuous, and the advice he gives- though not always followed- is careful and cleverly reasoned.

  • PRIAM

    Priam is the Trojan counterpart to Nestor, the elder statesman and ruler with a dynasty. He is gentle and wise with his people, and is a fond (and prolific) father. Though his temper flares momentarily after the death of his son, Hektor, he treats even Helen respectfully. In his nighttime voyage to the Achaian camp he shows extreme courage. He is a man who cherishes his family and is able to reach out to Achilleus on this basis of human connections.

THE IMMORTALS

Just who or what the gods and goddesses are is one of the Iliad's most intriguing questions. Sometimes they are religious figures, sometimes allegorical, sometimes psychological. Their relation to humans is extremely complex.

One way of looking at the gods is as a way of explaining how or why an event took place. Thus, if a warrior throws a spear at another warrior and misses, Homer might say that Athene caused the spear to overshoot its target. Similar to this approach is a psychological reading of the gods. When Helen is arguing with Aphrodite about going to Paris in Book III, we could say that's another way of Helen talking to herself and trying to figure out her true desire.

Sometimes the immortals in the Iliad can be seen as abstracted powers. Ares, for instance, is sometimes conceived of as war itself, not as a character. When the ground springs into bloom beneath Hera and Zeus in Book XIV, we could say that these two immortals themselves are possessed of the abstracted power of Aphrodite or, simply, love and fertility.

It is also clear that the gods and goddesses are characters in the Iliad, and as such display individuality and will in their actions. They are used as comic relief from the war, mimicking and mocking mortals. They are even parodies of humanity, and since they are supposedly so powerful (they're quite literally "above it all" on Olympos), their squabbles and tricks seem foolish in comparison. As characters, Homer uses the immortals skillfully to further his plot. They can intervene, favor one side or another, and force mortals to do things against their will. Though they can manipulate human lives, it is not at all clear that they can change human destiny. Thus, all their machinations may just be another way of saying this or that event took place. Comic or terrifying, they have this distinction in the poem- they are entirely creatures of the imagination. Unless, of course, they are real!...

  • APHRODITE

    Goddess of love, Aphrodite fights in support of the Trojans, backing Paris in his judgment among the goddesses. She is not particularly successful in the battle and is wounded by Diomedes. She is not, however, all free and easy. She ruthlessly threatens Helen to do her bidding, and in a way the Trojan War is due to her manipulation. The power of love she governs is able to bring men to battle.

  • APOLLO

    The far-shooting god who causes the initial plague against the Achaians, Apollo is a defender of Troy and supporter of Hektor in battle.

  • ARES

    Ares is the cold-blooded and bloodthirsty god of war. He aids the Trojan side and is sometimes pictured, allegorically, as war itself. Those who fight well are said to be "dear to Ares."

  • ATHENE (ATHENA)

    Athene, in league with Hera against the Trojans- and for the same reason- is nevertheless more closely allied to Achilleus. Their relationship seems to be one of mutually powerful warriors. Athene, with her aegis that she shares with Zeus, is the most powerful war force of all. She is unflinching in combat, but her warrior stance is mediated by wisdom. She is the fiercest possible ally and is there for Achilleus at his most crucial moments.

  • HEPHAISTOS (HEPHAESTUS)

    The lame god of the blacksmith's art (and its fire), Hephaistos fashions in his smithy a stupendous set of armor for Achilleus. Hephaistos can make himself a jester to amuse the other immortals but can also bring a fiercer power to bear. He sends a raging firestorm against the river Xanthos to aid Achilleus.

  • HERA

    Hera, wife of Zeus, is one of the great troublemakers in the Iliad. Her anger and trickery keep things moving any time they threaten to go slack. She resents Zeus and his power as much as she may love him, but she has found ways of circumventing his will. She supports Achilleus chiefly because she loathes the Trojans- evidently because Paris insulted her by choosing Aphrodite as the loveliest of the immortals. She lies to both Zeus and Aphrodite to get her way, and her eye is that of a relentless housewife who does not miss a thing.

  • POSEIDON

    Poseidon is the god of the sea and is also known as the shaker-of-the-earth. He sides with the Achaians and bristles under the authority of his older brother, Zeus. He is extremely powerful, and when he commits himself to battle it feels as if the earth were coming apart.

  • THETIS

    Divine mother of Achilleus, Thetis is emotional and devoted to her son. She pleads his case before Zeus and is ever-watchful from her domain in the sea. She knows of Achilleus' fated death and mourns him before he has actually died. As fiercely protective of her son as Hekabe is of Hektor, she arranges for Hephaistos to craft divine armor for Achilleus. In her sea caves she is surrounded by the company of the Nereids, the sporting sea nymphs.

  • ZEUS

    Zeus, the most powerful god of all- and quick to let everyone know it- is, in a way, the author of the poem. His plan to bring about the redemption of Achilleus really creates the plot structure. Zeus is the great sky god, one of the powerful second generation of Greek deities who took over the world from its primal forces. His father was Kronos, and his brothers are Poseidon and Hades. Among the immortals, his will is absolute; not absolute enough, however, to prevent him from being tricked by his wife Hera when she sets her mind to it. He has a fierce and merciless vengeance, and his will is crossed only at great peril. The face he shows to mortals is usually one of thunder and lightning, though he can also communicate via bird omens, usually in the form of an eagle. He tolerates the squabbles and feuds of the other gods and goddesses as if they were all his children. He demands- and rewards- absolute respect. He may or may not be able to influence fate, but he certainly has the scales in his possession.

[The Iliad Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

When the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site of Mykenai in the late 19th century, he found amid an extraordinary series of royal graves a magnificent gold mask of a man. Schliemann announced to the world that he had gazed upon the face of Agamemnon, the "lord of men." Later scientific analyses proved that the mask predated Agamemnon by several generations, but nevertheless Schliemann's discoveries brought Homer's Iliad squarely into the real world. The historical reality of the Trojan War was established.

The thing that led Schliemann- as well as readers for several thousand years- to believe that Mykenai really existed was the vividness of Homer's descriptions. The world of the Iliad is filled with minute details of life in the Bronze Age. Even though most of Homer's information must have been handed down through centuries of memorized refrains, the pictures he presents often have the accuracy of documentary film. His descriptions of the bronze-armored Achaians, with their horse-plumed helmets, long spears, and figure-eight shields, give a picture of ancient Greek battle gear, which has since been proven accurate by archaeologists' discoveries. The detailed catalog of ships in Book II is practically a geography lesson, ranging over the entire Greek world. Today we still can walk around the foundations of the walled cities of Troy and Mykenai and see the remnants of the great-halled megarons and their battlements that Homer described. We can learn of weaving, hunting, and shipbuilding from Homer; of plowing and shepherding and how to make offerings to appease the gods. His battle scenes show a startling knowledge of human anatomy, and though they occur again and again- often in the same words- the episodes throw us right into the crunch of combat.

Greek tradition says that the Trojan War took place in the 12th century B.C., and archaeological and linguistic evidence supports the claim. The Greeks- Homer refers to them at different times as Argives or Achaians or Danaans- were an alliance of small kingdoms, each with its own rulers, powerful clans, and legends. In the Trojan War, a federation of these Greek kingdoms mounted a great political expedition across the Aegean Sea. They sailed to Troy, on the west coast of Asia Minor, also known as Ilios (that's where the name Iliad comes from).

Why did these Greeks undertake such a complicated and faraway venture? If we are interested only in history, we might suggest that they wanted to capture the lucrative merchant trade monopolized by Troy, which was strategically located on the edge of the Black Sea, between Asia and the West. If we are intrigued by poetry- and the Iliad, for all its historical accuracies, is above all a work of poetry- we must take into account the legend of Helen of Troy and move into the world of myth that surrounds the Argive warriors.

MYTHOLOGICAL BACKGROUND

The Iliad focuses on one small part of the Trojan War, nine years into the siege. (Homer's audience would already have known the details of how the war started and how it ended. Each poem in the Epic Cycle dealt with a particular part of the story, and even if the other poems were written later than the Iliad, the whole story most likely was common knowledge.) There are really two wars narrated in the Iliad: one between the Greeks and Trojans, and one among the gods themselves. And two legends explain the beginnings of the Trojan War.

The first concerns Helen, the daughter of Tyndareus and Leda (though she is also said to have been sired by Zeus, who took the form of a swan to ravish Leda). Helen was the most beautiful woman in Achaea. When she was of marrying age, suitors flocked from all over Greece to offer her gifts and marriage. Her father Tyndareus was afraid to antagonize any of these powerful kings and princes by choosing one of them. Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, suggested that they all swear to support whoever among them was chosen. The lucky winner was the very rich Menelaos of Sparta, brother to King Agamemnon of Mykenai, which was the most powerful of the Greek kingdoms.

The second legend concerns Paris, one of the sons of King Priam of Troy. Handsome young Paris was placed in a predicament by Zeus. At the wedding of Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, Eris (whose name means "strife") threw down a golden apple, with the inscription "for the fairest" written on it. Unwilling to decide whether the apple should go to Aphrodite, Athene, or Hera, his wife, Zeus turned the sticky question over to Paris, who happened to be wandering on Mount Ida near Troy. Each goddess tried to bribe Paris to choose her, but Aphrodite offered him the love of Spartan Helen which, backed up with the goddess's own undeniable beauty, swayed Paris to her cause. From that point, Hera and Athene vowed revenge on Paris' home town, Troy.

The two legends then came together.

Paris went to Sparta as a guest of Menelaos. While Menelaos was away on a mission, Helen ran off to Troy with her handsome guest, becoming Helen of Troy. The Greeks, having sworn to defend whoever married Helen, gathered together a massive naval force to sail for Troy. Some say raising the army took ten years. According to the figures in Book II of the Iliad, the force assembled had more than 1100 ships and between 50,000 and 100,000 men. The Achaians camped on the beachhead near the plain of Troy and besieged the city unsuccessfully for nine years, making occasional forays into neighboring towns, looting gold and carrying off women for their pleasure. This is where the Iliad begins- occupying a few weeks in the siege of Troy and centered around the great Argive warrior Achilleus and his battle with the Trojan prince, Hektor.

The Iliad never shows us the fall of Troy, though it foreshadows it. According to legend, the Greeks later persuaded the Trojans to accept an offering of a giant wooden horse. Once the horse was inside the gates, the Greeks jumped out from their hiding place within it, opened the gates of the city, and sacked Troy. Helen was taken back by Menelaos, and the Achaians sailed for home. Of course, another poem- the Odyssey- tells us about that journey home, focusing on Odysseus' voyage back to Ithaca.

[Mythological Background of Homer's Iliad]

THEMES

  1. WAR AND PEACE

    The Iliad takes place during a fierce war between the Trojans and Achaians. Almost the entire poem is devoted to the fighting, from an initial overview of the forces to minute descriptions of combat. The descriptions of battle wounds and death are shockingly accurate; reading them, we cannot help but feel the bitterness of war. Since the two major characters- Hektor and Achilleus- either die or have their death foreshadowed, a sense of futility is also built into Homer's chronicle. And yet, posed against the viciousness is a sense of heroism and glory that adds a glamor to the fighting. Homer both abhors war and glorifies it.

    Against the conflicts taking place on the plain of Troy, the domestic scenes within the city walls have a sweetness and sorrow. Along with the similes that tell of peacetime efforts back home in Greece, these scenes serve as contrast to the war, reminding us of what human values are destroyed by fighting, as well as what is worth fighting for.

  2. THE HEROIC CODE

    The concept of heroism and the honor that results from it is one of the major currents running through the poem. Achilleus' struggle revolves around his belief in an honor system opposed to Agamemnon's royal privilege. In a way, his struggle is one of faith: can he continue to believe in the ideals for which he has fought so valiantly and relentlessly? If not, what values can he hold onto? His conflict is not just with Agamemnon. War itself threatens the very code it supports. We see fighter after fighter enter the fray in search of honor; fighter after fighter is slain before our eyes. These men are certainly heroes: they are strong and courageous and larger than life. But posed against the backdrop of war, is their struggle worth the sacrifice?

  3. ANGER AND RESPONSIBILITY

    In the original Greek, "anger" is the word that opens the Iliad- Achilleus' anger and the destruction it brought to the Achaians. One of the major themes of the poem is thus Achilleus' coming to terms with his anger. In a broader sense, we can read this as man's need to take responsibility for his actions and emotions. Viewed this way, the Iliad is a poem of psychological and emotional growth. Achilleus must learn to civilize his rage. The tragic stake for this lesson is the death of his closest friend, Patroklos. Similar to Achilleus' anger is Agamemnon's ate, the moral blindness that descends on him and causes him impulsively to mistreat Achilleus. He, too, must learn responsibility for his actions and apologize.

  4. MORTALS AND IMMORTALS

    The gods and goddesses on Olympos, all-powerful and often ridiculous, are contrasted to the mortals, so seriously engaged on earth. The immortals are gigantic; they live forever and have nothing to fear. Beside them, humanity seems small, yet at the same time it gains tragic stature. Though the mortals are puny in comparison, there is something ennobling about their struggle to find value and moral meaning in their lives, and something heroic in the wholehearted way they engage in their pursuit. These men, whose lives are so clearly bounded by time and the fates, play out their destiny with fervor and depth of feeling. It is the gods, in fact, who often seem casual and small-minded. The Iliad shows us a human world filled with struggle and brutality, a world nevertheless in which mortals exercise will in the face of divine intervention- to create their lives according to their own terms of value, to suffer existence and discover its possible meaning.

STYLE AND STRUCTURE

The Iliad is composed in a traditional epic measure known as dactylic hexameters. This means each line is made up of six metrical feet. The first five feet in the line can be either a dactyl (one long and two shorts, - ' ') or a spondee (two longs, - - ); the last foot is always a spondee. Thus the poem has a formal rhythm that is consistent throughout and yet varied from line to line. This regularity made it easier to memorize, while the variety prevented it from being monotonous (imagine hearing the same beat over and over again for 15,000 lines!).

Though the version we have is divided into 24 books, this was probably the work of later editors of the poem, or perhaps the books marked natural breaks in the work where the reciting poets took a rest or the reciters were changed.

You will notice many phrases- sometimes whole passages- repeated verbatim throughout the Iliad. These formulaic sequences are probably part of a whole fund of stock phrases that the oral poets had at their disposal. It has been shown recently that many of these formulas are based on metrics; they occur mostly at the ends of lines so they can fulfill the demands of the meter. In the same way, many of the descriptive phrases that are linked with a certain character happen to match the number of syllables in a hero's name.

The epithets are one of the most famous stylistic elements of Homer's verse. Such phrases as "swift-footed Achilleus," "Diomedes of the great war cry," "Hektor of the shining helm," or "Agamemnon the lord of men" are repeated again and again. Sometimes they seem to become part of the characters' names themselves. They define the characters by putting them in their social roles- such as "the lord of men"- or by showing how their heroic stature is due to a particular skill or virtue. Even if the epithets were added simply to fill out the metrical line, each time we hear them we feel their force. The warriors grow to legendary dimension from having their qualities as well as their names repeated.

It has been estimated that one third of the Iliad is repeated phrases, and perhaps much more than that is part of a formulaic oral tradition. Yet Homer's use of these handed-down words becomes his own virtue. He has been compared to an artist working in mosaic: the brilliant blue, red, and gold glass pieces are his stock phrases; the final design and its execution are his alone.

The epithets show Homer working with his traditional material, but the extended similes bring vivid, firsthand experience into the poem. A simile compares one thing to another, in the Iliad, the comparisons take us out of the battle and into other areas of human experience, where events are equally tense and crucial.

Often, the similes depict scenes of domestic life, cultural and agricultural settings that take us back to daily life in Achaia. They inform us of the Homeric world in its larger context and make the poem almost a social encyclopedia.

Other similes are about animals. Creatures of the hunt, especially lions and boars, call to our attention savage, instinctive qualities, making the battlefield seem at times like a jungle. We realize how war tears at the thin fabric of human culture, exposing the beast beneath.

Sometimes the similes are about natural catastrophes, extremes of weather that topple fragile trees and flood the land. Just as natural destruction is inevitable, so is the fate of the armies as they clash in battle. The longer these similes grow, the more details Homer works in.

Two other stylistic elements are worth noting here. Homer often introduces a character and then offers a capsule history either of his noble genealogy or of his heroic deeds. Sometimes the characters tell their own histories. Nestor, for example, will recite his accomplishments the first chance he gets. These stories may seem like digressions, but they generally heighten the social nature of the poem. They place these characters within the context of their homelands and their families. More than that, these telescopic stories must have given Homer's listeners a sense of their own past, of their ongoing social order and values. One of the functions of a poet in a traditional oral society was to give this historical dimension, to connect his listeners with their past and project a future for them. In a culture like theirs, where few people, if any, could read, history itself was passed on by word of mouth. In the Iliad, if the warriors feel that their deeds are worthy of history, they imagine themselves being sung of by the bards of future generations. In Book VI, Helen even goes so far as to suggest that Zeus had wrapped her and Paris in his web of destiny "so that hereafter/we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future."

It is also good to keep in mind that the Iliad is composed in large part of long speeches, either in dramatic monologues or informal dialogues. This format may have offered opportunities for dramatics during recital of the poems. It's certainly easier to follow a long poem like the Iliad when the voices do not just alternate back and forth, but take time to express their characters in depth. This also gives the poem an immediate presence. We hear of people doing things, but if they have something to say they say it to each other right before us. Similarly, there is almost no interior dialogue in the poem. These are characters who speak, rather than just think. Even Homer communicates with his muse in direct speech: "Sing, goddess," he implores in the first line of the Iliad, and the poet sings.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [The Iliad Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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