I Finally Read The Iliad

If The Iliad is any indication, the Trojan War was a complex and messy affair. Even on a fundamental level, it featured the lopping off of so many heads and arms and legs and the impaling of so many torsos and throats and bellies that navigating the battlefield must have been a nightmare. Just think of all the bodies and parts of bodies strewn across the beach, the rivulets of blood running to the sea, the fallen horses and upended chariots. Hector of Troy is rumoured to have killed 31,000 Greeks all on his own. If he fought seven days a week until Akhilleus (Achilles) brought him down, he must singlehandedly have done in an average of at least ten Greeks per day. And that’s just the body count for one warrior (albeit a fairly accomplished one) on one side of the hostilities: there were thousands upon thousands of warriors.

The combatants did get a few breaks from battle: hostilities were paused to allow the retrieval of bodies and armour, to accommodate the funerals and games of athletic prowess that marked the deaths of particularly notable heroes and – before the surviving warriors took up arms again – to attend to inspired speeches by the commanding officers. Between skirmishes, temporary housing had to be constructed – the Greeks couldn’t spend the entire war sleeping on their ships – and the troops needed to be fed. There was the inevitable drinking and carousing.

Just to add to the excitement for those on both sides of the conflict, every initiative they undertook was subject to interference by a host of manipulating, petty, quarrelsome and impulsive gods and goddesses. Just when you thought you were getting somewhere, a deity would send in a plague or deliver a thick bank of fog so you couldn’t see who you were fighting, This led to a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of war.

No wonder it dragged on for so long.

Why I Finally Read The Iliad

My friend John Aragon has been so keen for me to read The Iliad, and I have been neglectful of his recommendation for so long, that he finally made the desperate move of mailing me his own copy (1974, Doubleday, Robert Fitzgerald translation), along with another book as a companion: Helen of Troy by Margaret George. I have just finished reading both of them.

I have always assumed that The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid would be very difficult to read: primarily because the few people I know who have actually read them have generally had several more degrees than I do (n=1) and (I assume, therefore) divert themselves by reading books like Finnegan’s Wake, The Canterbury Tales and the complete works of Franz Kafka.

I am pleased to report that, despite being an epic poem composed in dactylic hexameter, a characterization that might needlessly frighten off a few of the literature-phobes among us, The Iliad is not difficult to read at all. It is, in fact, not only action-packed and bloody, but beautifully written: worth reading for the pure wonder of the language. I was not expecting that. Since I didn’t read it in the Ancient Greek, I don’t know whether to credit the author or the translator for the marvellous turns of phrase, but you can’t make silk purses out of pigs’ ears, and common knowledge suggests that things get “lost” in translation rather than “found,” so I am inclined to give a lot of the credit to Homer himself.

I could cite almost any passage in the book as an example of the fine detail and surprisingly light touch of Homer, not to mention his vivid imagination.

At one point, Zeus (who was helping out the Trojans at the request of Akhilleus at the time) turned his attention away from the war, believing that for the moment, “No other god would come.” Big mistake, for Poseidon (“the strong god who makes the mainland shake”) had been watching the battle and noticed that Zeus had looked away. (Notes on this passage: Ida is a mountain. Priam was the king of Troy, so Troy was “Priam’s town.” The “Akhaíans” are the Greeks, who are also sometimes referred to in The Iliad as “Danáäns.” Samos is an island.)

And here is a section that again reveals Homer’s poetic turn of phrase as well as his compassion – which not only encompasses the fighting mortals but also imbues his depictions of the gods with depth and realism. In this segment, the Greek soldiers fight on despite their devastation at the death of Patróklus, the best friend of Akhilleus, whose body still lies on the battlefield.

“… folded in a ragged cloud of stormlight….” How wonderful is that?

The Plot

Most of us know the story of the Trojan War, which was precipitated when Helen – the beautiful wife of Meneláos, king of Sparta – ran off with Paris Alexander, the young Trojan who was one of King Priam’s many sons. By the time the Greeks finally arrived to rescue (or recapture) her, Helen had been living in Troy for many years: she’d been there so long, according to Margaret George’s telling of it, that she felt more allegiance to Troy than to Sparta. But finally, Meneláos and his older brother Agamémnon managed to call in enough promises and debts from the rulers of surrounding states to amass hundreds upon hundreds of ships (a thousand, according to Christopher Marlowe), all jammed full of warriors eager to help avenge the insult to Sparta and to Meneláos brought on by Helen’s “abduction.” (Note: even though she left her nine-year-old daughter behind, there is every indication that Helen went with Paris willingly.) (If there even was a Helen.) Despite the fact that Sparta was no more than a week’s voyage from Troy, the war – which took place primarily on the beach between the Aegean Sea and the high walls of the Trojan City – would last eight years, by which time the Spartans and their supporters became well entrenched in their own quarters near the walled city.

How I envision the beach on which the Trojan War was fought. There would have been many more large boats and one fewer small one, I expect.

Homer’s poem covers only a few weeks near the end of the conflict. He concludes the tale before what is probably the most famous scene of the War, that being the acceptance by the citizens of Troy of a giant wooden horse which they allowed to be admitted through the gates because they believed it was a gift from the departing, defeated Greeks. A brainchild of Odysseus, the gigantic horse was, instead, filled with Greek warriors who, in the middle of the night, climbed out of it and ran to the gates to let their fellow warriors in. Troy was sacked – the city destroyed, the Trojan men all killed, and the women killed or captured. Apparently Virgil deals with this confrontation in The Aeneid, and Homer refers to it in The Odyssey, and through time many others have written about it, painted it, and depicted it in other ways, but it is not mentioned in The Iliad, which ends after Akhilleus’s death.

The focus of Homer’s story is the conflict between the brilliant warrior Akhilleus and Agamémnon: commander of the Greeks, Meneláos’s older brother, and a fearsome warrior himself. When Agamémnon decides to take possession of Briseis, a young woman who is the daughter-in-law of a king who Akhilleus has received as one of the spoils of war and grown fond of, Akhilleus becomes furious and refuses to help fight the Trojans. It is not until Hektor, another of Priam’s sons and the greatest of Troy’s warriors, kills Akhilleus best friend Patróklus that Akhilleus is moved to action. Patróklus has been wearing Akhilleus’s armour when he dies, which sets up the story’s climax.

The Begats: A Warning to Fellow Readers

If you have decided that you, too, might like to read The Iliad, I don’t want you to give up at Book Two. For that reason, this is a warning to you that Book Two is an outlier, the latter half of it (about 12 pages in the version I read) being actually quite boring. It consists of a list of all the “lords and officers” of the ships, identifies their family histories, mentions the states they came from, and includes such (unnecessary, to my mind) details as what kind of work they did when they were not at war, the terrains of their home country, even what they were wearing when they arrived at Troy for battle. Homer says, “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,” and for that we can be grateful. In the meantime, even with just the lords and captains, he does go on and on. (Note: “Aías” is pronounced “Ajax,” a name you will probably recognize. There are two Aíases in The Iliad, one big and one small.)

Well, you get the idea.

When I came across this lengthy list, which reminded me of passages of Genesis, I was tempted to quit reading. But then somewhere online I came across an explanation of why Homer had included all of this apparently useless information: it would have been a high honour for the families and countrymen of those who had turned out in support of Agamémnon to be mentioned in Homer’s book, so it was almost compulsory for him to create this list. It would be a historical record that that would be pulled out and read with pride at family brunches for untold generations. Still, if Homer had been in my writing class, I’d have told him to spread this information out a bit – scatter it between other scenes – to avoid turning off his readers so early in the story.

Anyway, don’t let Book Two deter you. You can always skim that part. And after that is over, you’ll be off and running.

Of Gods and Men

One of the accepted principles of The Iliad is that the gods were active participants in the the Trojan War. In fact, they started it, Aphrodite having caused Helen to fall in love with Paris in fulfilment of an earlier prophecy. Some of the gods were on the side of the Trojans, some were on the side of the Greeks, and some switched from one side to the other. Their hearts were not in the battle the way those of the mortals were: for the most part, they treated the whole thing as though the combatants were mere pawns in a game they were playing with one another – as gods are wont to do.

The mortals, on the other hand, were fully engaged in the combat, passionate about their fellow combatants, and driven to acts of heroism. Dying courageously could bring honour to their states and families; whether they lived or died, if they fought valiantly enough, songs and stories would be sung and written about them until the end of time.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo (National Gallery, London). Public domain.

When one of the mortals died, it was cause for deep mourning, and the deaths of significant players called for rituals and ceremonies. These included retrieving the bodies and the armour of the fallen from the battlefield, collecting wood for the huge pyres on which those bodies would be burned, and organizing “funeral games” (like mini-Olympics, appropriately) to honour the fallen hero. The gods, on the other hand, sat atop Mount Olympus or in other places that offered them better views of the action, arguing amongst themselves over who was more worthy of success in skirmishes, and settling bets and disputes by dropping down to interfere in the activities of the humans. They did have their favourites, particularly those to whom they were related: Thetis, mother of Akhilleus, was a sea nymph, and Helen herself was the issue of a coupling between the mighty Zeus – who took on the form of a swan for the occasion — and her human mother, Leda.

In all cases, Homer is careful to make sure that the activities of the gods can be interpreted in two ways: he lets us know exactly what the deities are up to, but their manipulations can also be viewed as benign natural events – as in the memorable scene when an eagle flies over the battlefield and drops a serpent into a crowd of soldiers, or the time when Athena disguises herself as a male beggar to give guidance to a captain.

There are one or two exceptions to the curtain of invisibility Homer generally draws to conceal the gods. When Akhilleus decides he must avenge the death of Patróklus by killing Hector, he needs new armour, so Zeus sends Akhilleus’s mother (“silvery-footed Thetis”) to get the “bandy-legged god” Hêphaistos to create it for him. The work Hêphaistos carries out in his forge – designing a shield, a cuirass, a helmet and greaves, and decorating the shield with detailed scenes taken from across the heavens and the earth – is described in what are some of the most beautiful passages in the book.

Or maybe it looked like this. I mostly got my mental image from the film called Troy, starring Brad Pitt, which I watched a few months ago.

Literary Devices

After reading about half of The Iliad, I began to recognize several mechanisms that Homer deploys regularly in his storytelling. One is his use of appositives to describe both gods and men. For the major players, he repeats these often, as though they were part of the individuals’ names. Some are fairly straightforward – “Nestor, charioteer,” “Apollo, lord of archery,” and “Hektor of the shining helmet,” for example – while others are wonderfully lyrical: “Diomedes, lord of the war cry,” “Meneláos, deep-lunged man of battle,” and “Aphrodité, lover of smiling eyes.” With Zeus — king of the Olympian gods – Homer pulls out the all appositive stops, describing him by turns as “Zeus, whose joy is lightning,” “Zeus, the storm king,” “Lord Zeus who drives the clouds of heaven,” and “Zeus who bears the stormcloud.” The various turns of phrase both reinforce and heighten the image of this powerful deity.

Another of Homer’s favoured devices is his use of metaphor. On almost every page, he takes the opportunity to compare the scene he is describing to one from a different context. His metaphors are often extended, complex and (of course) poetic: “As when a river in flood / from mountain snowfields reaches the flat land / whipped by a storm of rain, it sweeps away / hundreds of withered oaks, hundreds of pines, / and casts black tons of driftwood in the sea, / so Aías in his glory swept the field, / wrecking both chariots and men.”

Even without metaphor, Homer is a master of description. He shines particularly when it comes to finding new and interesting ways to describe how men are gored and decapitated and dis-armed (literally). My eldest grandson, already obsessed with Greeks and Romans, is going to love the battle scenes when I give this book to him. (They’re a bit graphic for an eight-year old, so I’m holding off for a few years.)

Homer is often unexpectedly funny -– capturing the petty arguments between the gods and goddesses and between the warriors on the ground so well that it sounds almost contemporary. (“Sack of wine,” Akhilleus says to Agamémnon, “you with your cur’s eyes and your antelope heart! You’ve never had the kidney to buckle on armour among the troops, or make a sortie with picked men [….] Leech! Commander of trash!”)

A replica of the Trojan Horse, located on the waterfront at Canakkale, Turkey, which is near where Troy once stood. Photo: Adam Jones 

There are innumerable variations on the tale of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War, depending on whether you are watching movies, cartoons or plays, viewing art, or reading books. (Wikipedia offers an extensive list of some of the writers and artists who have treated the subject in the past two thousand years.) For a long time there was dispute over whether the Trojan War ever actually happened, but it seems that it is now accepted that Troy endured a war that lasted for a decade and ended in the city’s destruction. There is, of course, no evidence that specific gods or mortals played roles in that destruction.

But in these times of fake news and half truths, maybe it doesn’t matter whether some or all of it is fiction. There are so many references to the Trojan War in subsequent culture of all kinds – and to the gods and heroes of ancient Greece in general – that the story might as well be true. The fact that The Iliad is a riveting narrative told by a master poet (and then conveyed to us by a variety of translators) is a bonus.

I could have read The Iliad from the perspective of the times we live in now, through the lens of political correctness, bemoaning war and the objectification of females, but I see no point in doing that. Instead I consider my approach to be in line with those cute teenage twins who are busy over on YouTube listening to “our” music (Phil Collins, Prince, and Janis Joplin, to name a few) for the first time. I take it as I find it, and when it’s great stuff, it works for future generations.

The Iliad is great stuff. I am looking forward to The Odyssey.

9 responses

    • Oh, Connie. Thank you so much. I have just been wondering why the hell I spent half a week writing a blog post about a book everyone already knows about (aside from as a thank-you to John, of course). You have restored my soul today and I am truly grateful.

  1. Mary, now that you’ve slogged through The Iliad, I highly recommend Emily Wilson’s brilliant translation of The Odyssey. It is fresh, accessible, and poetic.

    jd

    >

  2. Beautifully done! The Iliad stays with you forever, doesn’t it, once you have read and discover that it probably was never written down by Homer–hard to believe, I know. Long ago a wrote a piece on the oral tradition and will now search for it in my files–if they ever get to Los Angeles where we have moved. Thank you for writing this, Mary, bringing it back to my heart..

  3. I admire your perseverance. I know the stories too well, so have no desire to repeat what we did in prep school – in Spanish! I don’t think I’m going to learn classical Greek at this point.

    I’m in Davis, California now – from New Jersey.

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