Last week I blogged about how I was planning to work my way through the reading list from Adler’s and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. I just finished the first work on the list, Homer’s Iliad, and I thought I would share some of my reactions.
Before talking about Homer, we must place him in history. Scholars think that the Iliad and Odyssey were probably composed around 750 BCE. No one knows for sure if Homer was a single poet, a group of poets, or the name of a literary style–nor does it really matter. Personally, I have a feeling that there was an original single author, though his work has obviously been edited and transmitted by many others.
The eight century was the middle of Hellenic society’s Dark Age. The warlike but relatively stable Mycenaean society of the Late Greek Bronze Age had collapsed in flaming ruin around 1200 BCE, brought down by some combination of outside invasion, internal wars, or cultural stagnation. The triumphs and learning of classical Greece were hundreds of years in the future. Even the ancient Olympic Games, held in 776 BCE, were a relatively recent phenomenon.
As in every Dark Age in history, I’m sure that normal people spend most of their time keeping their heads down and trying to make a living while staying out of the way of whatever local boss-man was nominally in charge.
Some of the greatest literature comes out of dark ages, when authors try to channel the supposed glories of a past Golden Age. The Homeric works remind me the Arthurian legends and similar epics which came out of our own civilization’s Dark Age. They are just as focused on the deeds of heroes. They convey the same sense of a time when men where greater and more noble, and war was more stylized, yet somehow more meaningful. Likewise, you see the same historical inaccuracies. To a Dark Age poet it is inconceivable that the technology of the Golden Age was inferior to his own. Ironically, military technology in particular advances very rapidly in times of uncertainty. But still we read about the Knights of the Round Table using (who, if they existed, would have lived in the 6th century) wearing 12th century armor as they sat their heavy war horses in stirrups. Homer’s Bronze Age heroes wield iron arms, fight in phalanx formations, and conduct rituals that did not become widespread until centuries later.
At the same time, an incredible level of simple barbarity comes through in the Iliad, reflecting the sort of war Homer would have heard about in his own time. His heroes are happy enough to throw rocks at each other when they run out of spears. Every death is described in gruesome, explicit detail. They also spend an inordinate amount of their time fighting over who gets to loot which bodies and who gets to rape which women. It isn’t surprising that it took Agamemnon ten years to take the city, considering how woefully undisciplined his troops were. The Iliad is a peculiar mash-up–thuggish brigands from Greece’s dark ages playing out a story from a heroic age that never really was.
And yet, a nobler moral message shines through. The characters of the Iliad are human. They have flaws, quirks, and failings. Above all else, they are conscious of their own mortality. Even the two greatest warriors, Achilles and Hector, accept from the start that they will not survive the war. We are reminded repeatedly, usually in the scenes of dialogue between the gods, how fleeting human life is. The few characters of mature years, such as Nestor and Priam, dwell repeatedly on how weak old age has made them. Death and mortality run through the poem. For an epic hero, the only possible response is courage. Courage to stand and fight, to keep their loyalty and honor their oaths, even though they know it will result in hideous death. Only through courage can a hero achieve lasting fame (κλέος), which is the only true immortality.
Sometimes, their courage fails. Paris, for instance, finds excuses to avoid combat and, when he does fight, tends to lurk on the sidelines with a bow. He is universally hated and derided by both sides. Occasionally men are taken captive and shamefully beg for their lives, causing their captors to slaughter them out of hand. Even brave Hector’s resolve fails him at one point. He stands in front of the walls, knowing Achilles is coming for him for the final showdown, and his nerve breaks. Achilles literally chases him three times around the walls of Troy. But Hector is redeemed when he gets hold of himself and stands to fight and die, thus proving that he is a true epic hero.
A Note on Translations
Few of us read Homeric Greek, so we must read the Iliad and Odyssey in translation. Dozens of English translations exist, many of which are available to download from Project Gutenberg. I personally like Alexander Pope’s version, which is one of the finest examples of epic poetry in English literature. Even in his own time, Pope was criticized for paraphrasing too much, and many other translations are truer to the Greek original. Personally, though, I see Pope as a link in the continuity of the tradition which is Homer and his interpretations and additions as no less valid than say, they person who first committed the oral original to paper, or Zenodotus and Aristarchus, librarians of Alexandria, who first collected and edited the various versions. In the same way that no discussion of the Bible is complete without mentioning the King James Version, no discussion of the Homeric tradition is complete without mentioning Pope.