2 Homer’s Iliad
In the last section you discovered how the Trojan War begins and ends in the mythical narratives, and you learned that the Iliad doesn’t deal directly with either: in spite of its length, its story is focused on a handful of days in a 10-year conflict. In this section and the next, you will spend most of your time looking at the opening, or proem, of the poem – more specifically, the first seven lines. Although this is a very short extract of the text, it actually contains a large amount of useful material that you can tease out for thinking about the Iliad as a whole. You might be surprised to see how much you can learn from just these few lines! You’ll start by finding out how the poet signals his version of the narrative for an audience who knew (at least roughly) the basic trajectory of the war and the key characters involved.
The first seven lines of the Iliad function in some ways like the preface to a novel or a trailer for a film in that it gives the audience an insight into what is to come in the rest of the poem. In this version, translated by Anthony Verity, some words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to you have been glossed underneath the text. Read this text now.
Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus’ son,
the accursed anger which brought the Achaeans countless
agonies and hurled many mighty shades of heroes into Hades,
causing them to become the prey of dogs and
all kinds of birds; and the plan of Zeus was fulfilled.
Sing from the time the two men were first divided in strife—
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and glorious Achilles.
Achaeans: one of the words used by Homer to describe the Greeks.
Hades: the Underworld; also used of the god of the Underworld.
Atreus’ son: Agamemnon, leader of the Achaeans.
What information can you identify that relates to the story of the Trojan War outlined in my synopsis in the previous section? What is the audience not told? Does it seem like the poet is assuming anything of his audience?
Homer mentions four characters: an unnamed goddess, Achilles, Zeus, and ‘Atreus’ son’. But he doesn’t introduce them as characters: or, at any rate, he only provides the most minimal of details. Agamemnon isn’t even named: he’s ‘Atreus’ son’ and ‘lord of men’ (Iliad 1.7). (You probably found that you needed to use the glossary in order to understand that these phrases referred to Agamemnon.) Note, we’re also not told that Achilles and Agamemnon are Greeks (or Achaeans) or that they’re at Troy. Homer seems to assume that his audience will know who and where these characters are and what they’re doing there already.
You’ll come back to the unnamed goddess, Zeus, and ‘Atreus’ son’ shortly. Before doing so, read the passage again, focusing on Achilles, the central character of the epic. What do we learn about him? Does anything seem surprising?
Rather than saying that his poem will sing of the Trojan War, Homer chooses to focus on a specific episode within the Trojan War: the anger of Achilles. Given this background information about Achilles being an Achaean, did you notice something striking about his anger? Homer tells us that Achilles’ anger ‘brought the Achaeans countless / agonies’ (Iliad1.2–3). This Achaean hero causes death and destruction for his own side. Moreover, it comes about because he was ‘divided in strife’ (Iliad1.6) with the ‘lord of men’ (Iliad1.7). Instead of a promise of war between the Achaeans and Trojans, Homer trails a conflict between two of the Achaeans’ primary heroes – the leader of the expedition and their best warrior. This should make us sit up and take notice, even if we are a seasoned audience of epic song.
Please note: Homer uses three names for the Greek army: they are Achaeans, Danaans or Argives. Although the term ‘Greeks’ is used in this course, he never uses the term in this collective sense. (In Homer ‘Hellas’ (Greece) denotes a northern region in the Greek mainland.)
From this opening, then, you have seen how Homer positions his particular poem about the Trojan War in and against the story tradition relating to this conflict. Why do we talk about ‘Homer’ though, when, as you have seen, no mention of an author is given in the opening lines? The simple truth is that we don’t know anything about Homer. The Iliad and Odyssey are oral poems that were composed in performance, meaning that they were crafted in the process of being sung, rather than being created in advance and recited or rehearsed as we might expect from a poetic recital. Because of this ‘composition in performance’ element, whoever the poet (poetēs comes from the Greek meaning the ‘one who makes’) was would have been clear for all members of that audience to see. By the same token, since there is no eye-witness account of the Iliad or Odyssey being composed, we have no information about their poet or whether indeed the same poet composed both epics. It was when these two poems came to be written down and re-performed at an Athenian festival held every four years in honour of Athena called the Great Panatheneia, around 550 BCE or so, that the name of ‘Homer’ appeared in conjunction with them. Indeed, at this early point, Homer’s name was also attached to other poems about the Trojan War, as if the name was shorthand to describe the genre of these poems, heroic epic. However, by the time of Aristotle (384–322 BCE), to talk of Homer’s poems meant the Iliad and Odyssey. Only these two orally composed heroic epics have survived the test of time (apparently) complete.
Please note: heroic epic is a genre of poetry that focuses on the stories of heroes (as in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) to be distinguished from the epic poetry of Hesiod (in the same hexameter verse) that focuses on gods (Theogony) or men (the Works and Days).