My re-reading of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad have prompted some reflections on my part. They are tremendous epics, full of variety of incident but also pathos. They have influenced numerous subsequent works by great poets, eg Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, directly and indirectly; but incidents and characters are changed. There are many translations: I have mainly relied upon the old Penguin ones by E V Rieu (but see below for an even older take).
1 The fighting at Troy is savage and brutal. It is characterised by hand-to-hand combat with spears and swords, backed up by charioteers and bowmen. Prisoners are not taken – no mercy is shown to the defeated. Mercy is replaced by revenge. Men of flesh and blood are reduced to inanimate objects – in great numbers. The warriors can be accused of what we call the sins of wrath and pride. Achilles abuses the corpse of Hector. Similarly, Odysseus wreaks merciless revenge upon all the suitors of his faithful wife, Penelope, at the end of the Odyssey.
2 Who is the real hero of the Iliad? Achilles or Hector? Or is there little to choose between them?
3 The first book is in itself a great story – psychologically acute, worth reading even on its own. Agamemnon, as commander-in-chief of a disparate army, has to try to keep them together. Achilles (who quarrels with him) has a right to his point of view. This strain – between the need for unity to accomplish a task and (on the other hand) the rights of individuals and minorities to express a dissenting view – applies to movements and political parties, to this day.
4 The warriors are subject to their destiny and cannot avoid it – or at least, unless a god intervenes to save them. (There are some examples of this in the Iliad; and Odysseus, too, is rescued on numerous occasions in the Odyssey.) But Zeus (chief of the gods) is himself subject to destiny at times: he is unable to rescue his son Sarpedon from Patroclus (Book XVI), nor Hector from Achilles (Book XXII). Their deaths are pre-ordained.
5 So many great men are killed in the episode of the Trojan War covered by the Iliad that it would be tedious to name them all. But, notably: the Trojan Hector kills Patroclus (the close friend of Achilles), while the latter is “sulking in his tent”; Achilles kills Hector in his rage. Even this bald summary points to the cycle of revenge that reduces a series of men to inanimate objects.
6 The Trojan War episode that Homer recounts in the Iliad does not extend to the death of Achilles (still young), nor to the eventual fall of Troy. (Virgil picks up Troy’s fall in his Aeneid.) But Achilles’ death is frequently foretold – even by Achilles himself, and by Thetis, his mother.
7 Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles, in Book XI of the Odyssey. The dead hero has nothing good to say about the glory (if any) that survives death in battle.
But sure the eye of Time beholds no name
So bless’d as thine in all the rolls of fame;
Alive we hail’d thee with our guardian gods,
And dead thou rulest a king in these abodes.
Achilles replies, bluntly:
Talk not of ruling in this dolorous gloom,
Nor think vain words (he cried) can ease my doom.
Rather I’d choose laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,
Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead.
[Translated by Alexander Pope]
8 Finally, I should add that women are marginalised in these epics, as it is a patriarchal and martial society that is portrayed. But I’ll name a few (other than goddesses) that stand out:
- Briseis (Iliad): she is the slave who Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over in Book I. (She has no say in the argument.) However, when she is returned to Achilles (in Book XIX) she expresses pleasure at the outcome
- Helen (Marlowe’s “face that launched a thousand ships”): her abduction by Paris to Troy is the proximate cause of the Trojan War; she expresses self-reproach and regret about her role in the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans.* Once she is back with her first husband, Menelaus, in Sparta, she appears to be content with the outcome (see Book IV of the Odyssey)
- Andromache, wife and widow of Hector, in the Iliad
- Hecabe, mother of Hector, in the Iliad
- Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinous, who aids Odysseus when he is cast upon the shore of Phaeacia, after his ship has been wrecked (in the Odyssey, Book VI)
- Penelope, who outwits her suitors and remains faithful to her missing husband, while living with the hope that he will one day return (in the Odyssey).
The lamentations of Andromache, Hecabe and Helen over the corpse of hector, in the final book of the Iliad, movingly convey pathos.
Finally, a strong case can be made out for the view that Homer is not praising war or the wreaking of vengeance, nor the pride, anger and irrationality that lead up to it. Read and learn.
*Appendix re Helen
Here is part of Helen’s speech to her now brother-in-law Hector (in Book VI):
Oh, generous brother! (if the guilty dame
That caused these woes deserve a sister’s name!)
Would heaven, ere all these dreadful deeds were done,
The day that show’d me to the golden sun
Had seen my death! why did not whirlwinds bear
The fatal infant to the fowls of air?
Why sunk I not beneath the whelming tide,
And midst the roarings of the waters died?
Heaven fill’d up all my ills, and I accursed
Bore all, and Paris of those ills the worst.
Helen at least a braver spouse might claim,
Warm’d with some virtue, some regard of fame!
[Alexander Pope’s version]