Basics on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey




[Aside: Just saw Wolfgang Petersen's Troy with my students here in Taipei.  A worthwhile film in general.  Although Petersen's plot departed from Homer and the Greek legends, he did a worthy job bringing the spirit of the epic to film.  And Brad Pitt gave us an impressive Achilles.

     Did I say Petersen kept to the spirit of Homer?  I should have qualified a bit: He did so until the last fifteen minutes.  I'm eager to cut the last fifteen minutes, just cut it right off the end of the film.  Achilles running through the burning city crying "Briseis!  Briseis!" was an unfortunate idea.  A sad change of character. 

     Killing off Menelaus was forgivable.  But not killing off Achilles a bit earlier was not quite forgivable.  It clouded the hero's stark meaning: something Pitt had worked so hard to bring forth.  And what's with that donut shop cashier called in to be Aeneas?

     But everything until the Achaeans crawl from the horse was well done. 

     Official film site at:   --E.]




Regarding Homer


"Homer" is the poet of the two great surviving Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Iliad is often compared to tragedy, the Odyssey to comedy.


Scholarly arguments about Homer and his poems started in ancient times and continue to this day.  The main problem is that we know nothing about Homer himself.  He may have lived around 800 B.C. or somewhat earlier or later.  One common legend about him was that he was blind.  Various cities claimed to be his birthplace.  Beyond this, there is no solid information.


Some scholars believe the two epics were not in fact composed by the same poet.  The Iliad is usually dated earlier than the Odyssey.  Other scholars believe the two epics were the work of many poets.  According to this view, different oral poets contributed different parts of the stories to scribes who wrote them down and who then harmonized them into the two epics we have, choosing the best of the various versions.


Regarding the Trojan War


The Trojan War was the most famous war in the ancient Western world.  Scholars debate about how or if the Trojan War really happened, but regardless of the actual history of the war, detailed legends still survive in writing.  It is these legends that ancient Greeks and Romans understood to be the "history" of the Trojan War.


The reason there are legends of the war but little reliable history is very simple.  If the Trojan War happened, it probably happened around 1200 B.C.  But at the time of the war nothing was written down.  The earliest writings we have about the war are Homer's epics, which were written down around four centuries later.  That makes 400 years of storytelling.


According to legend, the war began because of a beautiful woman.  The princess Helen, daughter of Leda and Zeus, was known to be the most beautiful woman in all Greece.  As such, she had many suitors.  Many of the suitors were powerful kings or princes, and they all came to Sparta to win her hand.  Her step-father, King Tyndareus, didn't know which to choose: to choose one would anger the others, and war would result.  Finally one of the suitors, wise Odysseus from Ithaca, offered a solution.  He told King Tyndareus to force all the suitors to make a solemn oath: whoever was chosen by the king to be Helen's husband, the other suitors would support him.  And if anyone tried to break up the new marriage, the other suitors would come to the couple's rescue.  Thus the suitors all took the oath, and King Tyndareus could safely announce his decision.  He would give Helen to Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon.


Meanwhile, across the Aegean Sea, the Trojan prince Paris had just received a promise from the goddess of love, Aphrodite.  The three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite had come to Paris and asked him to judge which of them was the most beautiful (this is the famous story of the Golden Apple).  Aphrodite promised Paris that if he chose her, she would give him the world's most beautiful woman in return.  Paris chose Aphrodite, and the goddess told him he would have to cross the sea and go to Sparta in Greece.  Once he was there, she would help him to get Helen from her husband Menelaus.


Paris stole Helen from Menelaus and took her back to Troy.  When Menelaus realized his wife had left with the foreigner, he and his brother Agamemnon sent out messengers to remind all the Greek suitors of their solemn oath to defend the marriage.  Since it would be shameful to break a solemn oath, most of the Greeks agreed to go to Troy.


The war lasted ten years, much longer than the Greeks had expected.  It finally ended when the clever Odysseus, the same man who had suggested the oath, came up with the idea of the wooden horse (known afterwards as the Trojan Horse).  The city of Troy was destroyed, nearly all the Trojan men were killed and the women taken as slaves, and Helen was taken back to Sparta by her husband Menelaus.


Homer's Iliad


The Iliad holds a unique place in Western literature: it is commonly recognized as the greatest work of Greek literature, and it is also believed to be the first work of Greek literature that was written down.  Though Greek literature continued for centuries after the Iliad was written, no writer could ever achieve something greater than that very first work.


The Iliad does not cover the whole story of the Trojan War.  Instead it presents just one episode of the war: the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon that occurred in the war's ninth year.


Agamemnon was the commander of the Greek armies that went to Troy.  As a commander, he was arrogant and selfish, and often let his pride cloud his judgment.  Achilles was the greatest warrior of all the Greeks.  He was hot-tempered and also very proud.


During the war, when girls were captured from the enemy they were kept as slaves.  Girls were considered part of the war booty.  Agamemnon had one such slave girl named Chryseis.  Achilles had a girl named Briseis.


The father of Agamemnon's slave girl was a priest of Apollo.  When the priest came to ransom back his daughter from Agamemnon, the Greek commander insulted him and told him if he came back again he would be killed.  As the priest left the Greek camp, he prayed to Apollo to get revenge on the Greeks.


Apollo listened to the priest's prayer.  The Greeks began to die from a disease sent to them by the god.   Finally Agamemnon realized he would have to give the girl back.  But he decided that he, as commander, could not be left without a girl.  It would be a dishonor.  So he told Achillles he would take his girl, Briseis, to replace Chryseis.


Achilles was enraged by this decision.  He announced that he would no longer help Agamemnon in his war against the Trojans.  After Agamemnon took Briseis, Achilles refused to fight.


This was good news for the Trojans.  Achilles was the greatest Greek warrior.  With Achilles out of the battle, the Trojan side began to dominate. 


Hector was the greatest of the Trojan warriors.  Although not as great a warrior as Achilles, with Achilles refusing to fight there was no Greek warrior who could stand up to Hector.  The Trojans fought their way closer and closer to the Greek camp.  If they could manage to burn the Greek ships, the Greeks would have no hope: they would not be able to get back to Greece; their morale would be broken and their cause would be lost. . . .


The Iliad is a story about many things.  For one, it is about the power of fate, and how one cannot avoid one's fate.  Achilles knows that if he stays to fight at Troy he is fated to die there.  He is told by his mother that he has a choice: If he stays at Troy, he is fated to die, but his fame will live forever.  If he returns home, if he leaves the war, he will live a long life, but he will lose his fame. 


The Iliad is also about the horrors of war: how men are broken under the kill-or-be-killed mechanics of wartime.  (One of the best essays ever written on the Iliad focuses on this aspect of the poem.  See Simone Weil: "The Iliad: Poem of Might.")  The Iliad is a very interesting war story in that it is sympathetic to both sides.  Although a work of "Greek" literature, the Iliad does not present the Trojans as being morally worse than the Greeks.  They may be the enemy, but they are presented with the same sympathy and dignity as the Greeks.  (How many modern war stories, or war movies, can reach this level of humanism?)


Perhaps most obviously, the Iliad is a poem about the struggle of two characters, Agamemnon and Achilles.  Though both on the same side, the two men come to hate each other, and their conflict nearly leads to Greek defeat. 


The Iliad begins with the poet's famous evocation of the Muse:


Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Achilles' anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,

leaving so many dead men--carrion

for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

. . . .



Regarding the Odyssey


Around the 9th c. B.C. Greeks from Euboea established the first Greek colonies in Italy.  According to some scholars (cf. especially  Barry Powell), the Odyssey was most likely composed on Euboea between 800 and 750.  Its audience was one of men who often listened to seamen who had traveled to the far West. 


In fact Odysseus' adventures were from early times identified with geographic features around Italy: Calypso's Ogygia with Malta, Polyphemus' island with Sicily, Scylla and Charybdis with the Straits of Messina, etc.


Homer ("Homer") must have heard many sailors' tales or perhaps even traveled west himself.


In Homer's Odyssey the adventures of the hero Odysseus are arranged around a vision of moral purpose and national identity.  At times Odysseus nearly forgets his goal--to return to Ithaca and his family.  At other times he is shown as the lonely Greek who stands against the alien and barbaric customs of the foreign places in which he wanders.


Like the Iliad, the Odyssey begins with an evocation of the Muse:


Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story

of that man skilled in all ways of contending,

the wanderer, harried for years on end,

after he plundered the stronghold

of the proud height of Troy.

. . . .


Odysseus' Adventures


Odysseus is away from home twenty years: ten at Troy, three lost at sea, and seven on Calypso's island.  (Calypso: "concealer".)  The following is a basic chronological plan of the events narrated in the Odyssey:


The Cicones in Ismarus;

The Lotus Eaters;



The Laestrygonians;

Circe on Aeaea;

Cross the river Ocean to the land of the dead to meet Tiresias;

The Sirens;

Scylla and Charybdis;

The Cattle of Helius;

Calypso on Ogygia ("the navel of the Sea");

Near Scheria, island of the Phaeacians, his boat is wrecked by Poseidon;

Saved by Ino/Leukothea;

Arrives on Scheria;


Narration to the Phaeacians;

Return home;


Reveals himself to Telemachus;

Recognized by Argus;

Meets the suitors, led by Antinous;

Meeting with Penelope;

Euryclea washes his feet;

Penelope arranges for the Contest of the Bow;

Massacre of the suitors;

Penelope's ruse of the bed.


Though this is a chronological list of the events as they occurred, note that it does not represent the order of narration in the Odyssey.  In his epic, Homer begins the story in the middle, allowing Odysseus to narrate to the Phaeacians the adventures he's undergone up to that point.  For a poet (or poets) working in the 8th century B.C., this represents a very sophisticated plot device.


Odysseus in Western Literature


In Western literature the character Odysseus is always cast in one of two ways: either he is glorified as a restless and clever seeker after the truth of the world; or he is damned as a treacherous deceiver, a denier of the heart.  Among the ancients, Homer casts him in the first mode; Sophocles (in Philoctetes), Euripides and Vergil all cast him in the second mode. 

     In the Middle Ages, the great Italian poet Dante sides with his Roman model Vergil and casts Odysseus in the negative way.  (cf. Inferno, canto 26)

     In the modern period, Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" puts the hero and his restlessness in a mainly positive light.  Joyce's Leopold Bloom, the 20th century's most famous evocation of Odysseus, is a merely likable Dublin salesman.


Eric Mader

Taipei, 2004








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