The Iliad – Homer

I am reading the Penguin Classic edition translated by E.V. Rieu and revised by Peter Jones, first published in 2003. References in the style (n.nn) are to (book.page) number.

The story of The Iliad is set in the tenth year of the Trojan War. This war, between the Trojans and the Greeks, started when a Trojan called Paris abducted Helen, the wife of Menelaus. The Greeks have laid siege to the city of Troy to recover Helen, known to history as Helen of Troy, the woman whose face launched a thousand ships. No credible explanation for what happened in the first nine years of this war has emerged and everything we know of it is found in three epic poems; The Iliad and The Odyssey are both attributed to a man known as Homer, and a later poem, The Aeneid, is attributed to Virgil.

Not very much is known for certain about Homer. He is believed to have lived in the seventh or eight century BC. This was about the time that the Greek alphabet was created so he would have been among the first generation of Greek poets to write down their works. There is good evidence that both of the poems attributed to him derive from an aural tradition, but whether their originator was the same man who wrote them down cannot be known.

It is important, I think, to acknowledge at this point that The Iliad is, like The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem; an epic poem that tells a highly complex story, but still a poem. This emphasises the fact that although The Iliad was written down two thousand years after Gilgamesh, there was still no such thing in Western literature as story telling in narrative prose. There was drama, singing, and poetry, each of which was an entertainment presented for an audience, but the idea of a person sitting down on her own to read a story had not yet taken off. Part of the reason for that will be that the technology to reproduce numerous copies of a story did not yet exist. While one copy of a play or a song could be used to entertain an audience of several hundred people, there were no individual texts available for private reading. One conclusion to be drawn from this commonplace observation is that the novel as we currently understand it cannot have existed until the invention of printing.

The Trojan War – Historicity
There was a city called Troy; they had wars. However, the existence of the city of Troy no more validates Homer’s story of the Trojan War than the existence of a country called England validates the stories of King Arthur. There is no record of a war that lasted ten years. There is no evidence that the city was ever destroyed by war. There is in fact no evidence outside of these three poems that the Trojan War as described by Homer and Virgil ever happened. It is probably also worth remembering that although Homer was writing almost three thousand years ago (c. 700 BC) the events he describes are as remote from him as the English Civil War or William Shakespeare is from us, which would make The Iliad, even from Homer’s perspective, a historical novel in a similar vein to, say, Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel. So it is at least possible that some of the story was passed down to the Homeric age as an aural tradition akin to our own stories of King Arthur and Merlin, which would make Homer the scribe of these epics rather than their author.

Some, at least, of the world Homer describes is real, in the sense that c. 1100 BC they did have bronze armour and fight from chariots as Homer describes, but there is also much he does not mention such as writing (Linear B was in use in the bronze age) so either the story has come to him through 400 years of Chinese whispers or he has assembled a few “knowns” to lend verisimilitude to a story of his own composition. Therefore, we can consider the physical world of Achilles, Hector and Helen of Troy, to be as real as, say, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, or Charles Dickens’ London, but that does not mean that the events he describes actually happened where and when he says they did, if at all.

It is also worth acknowledging the analysis of Herodotus (Histories 2.119) who says that Menelaus had Helen returned to him by the Egyptians who, “…looked after him magnificently, returned Helen to him completely unhurt, and gave him back all his property as well….” Herodotus then goes on to explain (Histories 2.120) why he accepts this Egyptian version of the story claiming that, “If Helen had been in Ilium [Troy], she would have been returned to the Greeks with or without Alexander’s [Paris’] consent.” It would, Herodotus says, have been insane for Priam to have risked his family, his city and all of his people so that his son could sleep with Helen. Even had they chosen at first to defend the city, after a few battles they would have been glad to give her back to end the war.

Furthermore, Herodotus says, Paris was not even the heir to the throne so Hector, the elder brother, would not have allowed Paris to get away with his crimes. Herodotus concludes that if the Greeks laid siege to Troy for the return of Helen, she was not there to be returned. Herodotus gives it as his opinion that the Gods were arranging things, “…so that, in their annihilation of the Trojans might make it completely clear to others that the severity of a crime is matched by the severity of the ensuing punishment at the gods’ hands.”

An interesting option not considered by Herodotus is that both stories can be simultaneously true; that Menelaus went to Egypt and had Helen returned to him but the suitors at Troy were not aware of this and pursued their war for her return. This seems superficially credible but it seems unlikely that no word would have come from home for ten years to advise them that Helen was safe. Or, maybe they did know she had been returned and it was not the gods who were, “arranging things,” but the Greeks. History does not permit us to know; all we can do is treat with the story we have, complete with the obvious plot holes and dubious morality that Homer provides.

Of interest at this point is that Herodotus also says, (Histories 1.4), “Although the Persians regard the abduction of women as a criminal act, they also claim that it is stupid to get worked up about it and to seek revenge for the women once they have been abducted; the sensible course, they say, is to pay no attention to it, because it is obvious that the women must have been willing participants in their own abduction, or else it could never have happened.” With that thought in mind it is interesting to note that in the story, Helen does not seem, initially at least, to have minded the attentions of her abductor, so maybe the Persians were on to something.

Greek Mythology
The cause of the Trojan War was ultimately a spiteful woman who wanted revenge for not being invited to a wedding. The goddess Eris (the personification of discord) was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who later became the parents of Achilles, so in revenge she threw a golden apple inscribed “for the fairest” into the banquet hall, knowing full well that it would cause trouble. All the goddesses present claimed it for themselves, but the choice came down to three — Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. They asked Zeus to make the final decision, but he wisely refused.

Instead, Zeus sent them to Mount Ida, where the handsome youth Paris was tending his father’s flocks. Priam had sent the prince away from Troy because of a prophecy that Paris would one day bring doom to the city. Each of the three goddesses offered Paris a bribe if he would name her the fairest: Hera promised to make him lord of Europe and Asia; Athena promised to make him a great military leader and let him rampage all over Greece; and Aphrodite promised that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife. In an event known as the Judgement of Paris, which appears frequently in art from the seventh century on, Paris picked Aphrodite. From then on both Hera and Athena were dead-set against him, and against the Trojans in general and this antipathy has consequences for Homer’s story.

The most beautiful woman in the world at the time was Helen, a daughter of Zeus and Leda. Helen was already married – to Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Helen’s earthly father, Tyndareus, had required all the men who wanted to marry her swear a solemn oath that they would all come to the assistance of Helen’s eventual husband should he ever need their help.

Paris visited Menelaus in Sparta and abducted Helen, taking her back to Troy with him, seemingly with her active cooperation. Paris also took with him a large part of Menelaus’ fortune. This was considered to be a serious breach of the laws of hospitality which held that guests and hosts owed very specific obligations to each other. In particular, the male guest was obligated to respect the property and wife of his host as he would his own. We can view these, “obligations,” as the Greek version of our personal morality. Whereas we might consider that our morality is a subjective matter we each decide for ourselves, in the Homeric universe morality seems to be attributed to instructions from the gods that humans are expected to obey.

Menelaus, his brother Agamemnon, and all the rest of Helen’s original suitors, invited others to join them on an expedition to Troy to recover Helen. An armada of some 1,200 ships eventually sailed to Troy, where the Greeks fought for ten years to take the city, and engaged in skirmishes and plundering raids on nearby regions. The story of The Iliad opens in the tenth year of this war and a subsequent story, The Odyssey, details the homeward journey of the Greek hero Odysseus after the war ends. The well known episode concerning the end of the war and the Wooden Horse of Troy is not due to Homer but appears in a later poem called The Aeneid, by Virgil.

The Story
The story is fairly, but deceptively, simple, by which I mean that it can be told simply, but doing so masks much of the interesting complexity. A simple telling, however, might help the new reader grasp the structure of the story before plunging into more complex analysis. In the tenth year of the war, some of the Greek leaders are disagreeing about how the spoils of war should be divided. To make his point in this dispute, Achilles withdraws from the fight but remains close by monitoring events. The fortunes of war wax and wane, going both for and against the Greeks, but confounded by Zeus the Greeks are gradually forced back into a defensive position. Patroclus, a loyal servant of Achilles, volunteers to re-enter the fray and Achilles agrees. Patroclus is killed and this inspires Achilles to resume hostilities. He kills Hector, the eldest son of Priam the king of Troy, and despoils his body, retaining it at his camp. King Priam walks out to meet Achilles at his camp at night and begs for the return of his son’s body. Achilles realises that his actions have not brought him the revenge or solace he sought and he agrees. Priam takes Hector back to the city. The story ends with the cremation of Hector on a funeral pyre that burns for nine days.

The time frame of these events is only six or seven weeks, but the reader comes away with a feeling of having read about the whole ten years of the Trojan War. This is partly due to the detail that Homer provides; no man is allowed to die without us being told who his parents were and where they worshiped and how many golden bowls were donated to which gods and how many bulls were sacrificed before he left home to join Agamamenon’s army. Just one example, from (11.184), “Agamemnon next attacked Peisander and resolute Hippolochus, sons of warlike Antimachus. He, hoping for splendid bribes of gold from Paris, had dissuaded the Trojans from returning Helen to Menelaus.” Much of this detail is irrelevant to the story but its slow accretion is like watching a coral reef growing; each tiny part is in and of itself pointless but gradually they combine to create something that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.

In that sense The Iliad conforms to Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory. Only one eighth of an iceberg can be seen, the rest of it is hidden below water. According to Hemingway, the story the author tells is the one eighth of the iceberg that can be seen above the surface. But for that one eighth to hold the reader’s attention, the author has to know all about the seven eighths that can’t be seen. He has to know its folds and curves, its ridges, dents and furrows, he has to know where it bulges and where bits have broken off. This agrees with that old creative writing class saw to write about what you know, they both are ways of suggesting that the author should know all about his subject so that his telling of it, the visible one eighth of the iceberg, will hint at and infer the part that remains hidden and out of sight.

Gods and Men
Gods and their actions and interventions into the lives of men figure quite significantly in this story, so there is a sense in which The Iliad can be read as a story about the daily lives of the gods with the actions of the toy soldiers fighting over the lovely Helen being a backdrop against which this story is put into perspective.

In this view, mount Olympus, where the gods reside, is seen as the home of a family of people who are obviously not human but who have several very human traits. They squabble and argue with each other, they form feuds and alliances and have favourites even among themselves, all of which are behaviours found in very human families. But Zeus, for example, is married to his sister, they eat only the never-explained Ambrosia and drink the equally enigmatic Nectar, they can be wounded by humans but can also be magically healed in a moment and their emotions swing from one extreme to the other, from love to hate in the blink of an eye with almost nothing in between. These things make Homer’s gods an interesting and completely absorbing subject for a story, but they also make them less believable as gods.

I can’t imagine why any self-respecting human would worship any of these gods unless it were out of fear of the consequences if they don’t. Obeying the teacher to avoid being caned isn’t a meaningful form of worship but is instead one of the lower levels of human morality. In time we are expected to learn to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, but in the Homeric world characters are never able to attain this level of maturity precisely because of the way their gods behave. In fact, there is a philosophical sense in which a man would be unable, or at least extremely unlikely, to achieve this level of moral maturity in a world in which his actions are influenced by the worship of any god who needs to be appeased. This in turn means that it is extremely difficult for me to see how the actions in the human story, however interesting they are, can be viewed as “heroic”.

For an example of this we need look no farther than the very first verse of the poem (1.1),

Which of the gods was it that made them quarrel? It was Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, who started the feud because he was furious with Agamemnon for not respecting his priest Chryses. So Apollo inflicted a deadly plague on Agamemnon’s army and destroyed his men.”

Apollo is not just upset or annoyed, he is furious that Agamemnon did not respect his priest, and so sent a torrent of arrows down on the camp for nine days. Nine days of arrows and hundreds of men killed because they did not respect his priest? Are you serious? I’m sorry, but that is not the act of a wise god, an omnipotent immortal, it is the act of a petulant playground bully and any, “worship,” of such a creature is just cowering down in fear.

Another example appears at (4.72), Odysseus has just killed Democoon with his spear, the Trojan front ranks fell back while the Greeks, “gave a great shout… and pushed forward.” So Apollo (a god) roused the Trojans, “never give Greeks best in your will to fight!” and reminded them that Achilles (a mortal) was not fighting. Meanwhile, Pallas Athene (a goddess) roused the Greeks, “who went through the ranks herself spurring on any Greek she saw holding back.” In this context, it is difficult to interpret the humans as anything other than playthings of the gods and their actions are not heroic or brave but blind obedience to divine authority.

However, some of the humans do behave well without divine intervention. For example, in (3.47), when Paris offers to fight a duel with Menelaus to end the war and equally when Menelaus accepts, they do this of their own accord. The gods do, ultimately, intercede to affect the result of this duel, but neither of them knew that when the offer was made and accepted. So independent action is allowed, but only when it accords with the wishes of the gods. A later duel offered by Hector, for example (7.116) is at the behest of Apollo and Athene.

Women in Homer
Although the story is set not only during a war but almost exclusively on the field of battle, women and their actions do figure quite prominently in the plot. The ultimate cause of the war was a spiteful woman, the turning point of the story, or at least a turning point in the story, occurs when a woman distracts her husband by having him make love to her, and the denouement is influenced by the affiliation of a goddess to one of the main proponents.

Initially I thought this feminine influence might be a statement about the role of women in Greek society, but on reflection I think it more likely represents Homer’s attempt to make his story more closely resemble real life. He isn’t commenting judgmentally on the fact that women are excluded from the roles of warriors, priests, politicians and rulers, he is simply reporting how they fulfill the roles they are assigned. This is largely a function of the way Homer has chosen to tell the story. There is no omniscient narrator telling us what to think or how to interpret what goes on, he merely reports what happened and leaves the reader to form her own opinion concerning the motivations and goals of the various characters. Overall, I don’t think Homer is making judgements or has a deeper point to make, he is just telling a great story in a fairly straightforward way.

The Iliad is a great step up from the previous text in this series, The Epic of Gilgamesh, in that it has many more characters, a more convoluted plot with sub-plots and references to events outside the time frame of the story. It has a narrator telling the story in third person, but this narrator has no insight into the thoughts of the various characters and has no motive in telling the story, in the sense that Jane Austen, for example, had a motive in telling us the story in Pride and Prejudice. Austen wanted to contrast the actions of people motivated by her two chosen qualities but Homer is not commenting on the futility of war or the ridiculous things men will do for a beautiful woman, he is simply telling a magnificent and very human story, and it is in that sense that The Iliad is a terrific read but is still very much a plot driven story and not yet what we would call a novel.

Having said that, relationships, in their various forms, do form an important part of understanding The Iliad. The relationship between duty and honour, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, the relationship between men and their gods and the relationship between Achilles and Priam. All of these relationships inform the action of the main narrative arc, that of Achilles from the almost super-human hero he is at the beginning of the poem through various stages to becoming the completely human Greek warrior he is at the end. I will deal with these relationships in detail in a subsequent post.

You might also be interested in:

Achilles in The Iliad

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One Response to The Iliad – Homer

  1. Lonnie says:

    A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    There’s no doubt that that you should publish more on this
    issue, it might not be a taboo subject but typically people do not discuss these subjects.
    To the next! Cheers!!

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