As I explained in my last post, Homer, the misnamed Homeric hymns, and Hesiod are the oldest major works of Greek literature we have. Homer’s Iliad, a poem of war and warriors, was most likely codified by 750 BCE. The epic tells the story of the Trojan War, which happened in the twelfth or eleventh century BCE; so if the Iliad is based on any real facts about the war, it comes from a long oral tradition.
How was Homer composed? Scholars spent much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century arguing over whether Homeric epics are unitary compositions or cobbled-together collections of folk tales. Essentially, does the Iliad fit together well, or are there the kind of contradictions, clumsy transitions, and awkwardness characteristic of an edited-together collection? Scholars mostly follow the “Lord Parry” synthesis in which Homer is neither a unitarily composed work nor a mere collection of folktales. Millman Perry and Albert Lord argued that Homer composed the work as a unity, but drew from oral traditions of stock scenes, lines, and epithets as he composed on the fly. So when the Iliad was an oral tradition, each telling could be different. Only in written form is it trapped in the same form. We see this in the written version, in which some books are superfluous and could be taken out without disrupting the main story.
And of course, the term “Homer” here is just a shorthand. We don’t know if there was one man who composed the Iliad and/or the Odyssey. It could have been a school of poetic composition. One fringe theory claims that Homer was a woman. There’s no evidence for it, but we can’t disprove it either, only note its improbability.
I read the Iliad in Fagles’ translation, which is very readable though often inaccurate. There’s no way to sum up this amazing epic in one blog post, but a few themes stand out:
- Before I read the Iliad, I thought it uniformly celebrated the glories of war. I was wrong. While the Iliad does relish in descriptions of the heroism and might of heroes such as Diomedes, Achilles, and Hector, it also frequently depicts warfare as a pointless game for status and the spoils of war. My grandpa lived from 1913 to 2012, and after living through World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Iraq-Afghanistan War, he told me that “nobody really wins a war.” Homer injects some of that mentality into the Iliad. Achilles fights to win timē (honor, status) and kleos (fame), but you can’t bring any of this into the afterlife, and even the victors in war return home having lost great men. The Iliad depicts both the glorious and the tragic, chaotic, unfair aspects of war, which is part of what makes it great literature!
- The Iliad underscores just how different humans and gods are. But this is not because the gods are more noble or moral, only more powerful. Fagles writes that
To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. (45)
In other words, honeybadger don’t give a f***, but honeybadger is Zeus. While humans in the Iliad think they can influence the gods by sacrifices and prayers, Homer’s omniscient narration of both humans and gods reveals that the gods typically do things for their own reasons entirely. For example, the Achaeans think that Zeus is making the Trojans win because he wants them to win. But in fact, Zeus is making the Trojans win so the Achaeans will honor Achilles and bring him back into war. Like humans, the gods are petty and fight with one another for stupid reasons; but the gods are immortal, so the results of their petty conflicts are never as drastic as they are for humans.
- The Iliad presents many of the conflicts of running an army that ancient Greeks must have faced. One major question: who do we value more? The greatest warrior (Achilles) or the one who controls the largest faction of the army (Agamemnon)? The Iliad presents many conflicts within armies that illustrate the difficulty of running an army. Frequently in the epic we see warriors looking out for their own geras (spoils of war) more than the war itself. So they stay back on the battlefield collecting armor off dead enemies rather than fighting at the frontlines. Sometimes a warrior’s drive for personal gain (status and spoils) conflicts with the good of their army.
I’m really, really glad I got the chance to study the Iliad in Greek this quarter. Once summer starts and I have some leisure I’ll get to the Odyssey as well, personally my favorite of the two.
Onward and upward!