LITERATURE Essay 1: Homer, Hesiod, Homeric Hymns
Part 1: Introduction, Homer’s Iliad; What We Are
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε
Here begins our literature, and all that came thereafter:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses
Fagles, Robert. The Iliad. New York: Viking/Penguin, 1990
FOR several hundred years, these lines were recited in great palace halls and at communal gatherings throughout the Greek world. They tell of a prodigious war for cultural supremacy, an actual battle in Asia Minor during which Hittite-allied Troy was utterly destroyed by fearsome Greeks, Greeks, who exhausted by war and internal conflict descended into a dark, illiterate age. We have found the site of this war exactly where Homer describes, and here, south of the Hellespont, in AD 1871 Schliemann uncovered, despite the yammering censures of pot-bellied professors, the burnt and broken layer of Priam’s “sturdy-built” Troy (Troy VIIa, c. 1190 BC).
The day shall come, that great avenging day,
Which Troy's proud glories in the dust shall lay,
When Priam's powers and Priam's self shall fall,
And one prodigious ruin swallow all.
Some have wondered that 27,803 lines concerning a pantheon of Gods and two armies of men could be memorized and taught generation into generation; yet, in our own time, John Basinger memorized the 60,000 words of Paradise Lost, for amusement. We understand the Epic Cycle (Iliad, Odyssey, et cetera) and other Dark Age verses to have been transcribed into our inherited, written form under the inspired patronage of the Peisistratid tyrants, Athens, VI BC.
HOMER was born at some uncertain place in the Greek world at some time before the invention of calendars; Herodotus suggests 850 BC (in the Christian reckoning). Our portrait of Homer is derived from a description in Odyssey of Demodokos, a bard whose sight was stolen by the Muse, yet to whom she granted the gift of “sweet-song”. Artists of antiquity assumed the description to be Homer’s hint of self-portrait, and so shall we, the poet curly haired, thickly bearded, and glassy blind. Academic controversies of he-she/they-them authorship have little merit, the debate seeming typical of academic quarrelling, alike where next to convene the faculty meeting and which sandwiches are to be menued, a debate which drags along from one droning meeting into the next. Here, we might remember the absurd debate of Shakespeare identity and authorship, and here rests the academic vanity. Who was Homer: Our literary founder, the Father of Western Civilization.
Technique: Verse, dactylic hexameter
Six dactylic feet
— u u | — u u | — u u | — u u | — u u | — uu
dum-de-de / dum-de-de / dum-de-de / dum-de-de / dum-de-de / dum-de-de
…with the occasional spondaic or trochaic substitution, as in this famous English line from Longfellow’s Evangeline,
This is the / forest pri / meval. The / murmuring / pines and the / hemlocks
— u u | — u u | — u u | — u u | — u u | — u
ILIAD (referring to Ilium, ancient Troy) is the first and greatest epic in all of literature. The poem is composed in dactylic hexameter’s hard marching rhythm, a rhythm well-suited to theatrical performance. When reading Iliad, forget the computer, electric bulb and printing press; imagine moon or firelight, the chanting of full-throated song, hard eyes, swarthy men, the terrible rage of Achilles, and the inexorable will of Zeus. Here, as in all great art, the artist Homer chose not to slavishly reiterate the whole story, but to describe that most telling moment, those 52 days of a 10-years war by which Achilles comes to sympathy.
In brief: Achilles is the son of a man, Peleus, and a goddess, Thetis; he is god-like, yet he must die, he must choose the form of his life and of his death; long, slow and uneventful, if peaceful; brief, glorious and god-like, if heroic. Achilles chooses glory in battle—a glory so terrible that great heaps of entrails spoil the land, that a river chokes upon murdered men—and after glory, by turns, in sympathy, Achilles becomes humane. Homer grants to us in the portrait of Achilles, in each composed person of the epic, in each diverse situation, the thing, its opposite, the compelling action and the necessary consequence. A synopsis of characters will illustrate.
Helen: wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus, concubine to the Trojan prince Paris; most beautiful female in all the world … conceit and self-loathing … after Troy is burned, its people slaughtered, she returns to her husband.
Andromache: wife to the Trojan prince, Hector, ideal wife and mother; fortitude and honor—the loss of which is heighted in Hector’s death and her sexual slavery.
Paris: in form noble, heroic; in character, sensual and cowardly; his seduction of willing Helen causes the war; his judging of a divine beauty contest causes toxic female envy, spite, and revenge.
Hector: heroic in form and in deed, a family man yet reckless, a recklessness which destroys his friends, his family, his country.
Achilles: Myrmidon prince, a hero, pitiless and god-like, yet human, mortal and variable, being variable, he can change, and learn, and grow.
Agamemnon: Mycenean king, an absolute sovereign yet little-minded, a boastful, inferior general who wins a war by the heroic sacrifice, schemes and feats of others—returning home he is murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover.
*Characters of historical fiction (who we can know better than our friends or family because we see into their hearts through our own minds) become people as-real-as those who breathe or once breathed in life. Truly, all we know of historical persons we know and understand of fictive persons. Those who breathe, those who breathed, and those who breathe for us through an author in story are, in fact, fictional, persons alive in words.
A few details, described above, were common coin in Homer’s time, needing not a recital; later, in classical Athens, hymns and other stories reviewed and expanded Iliad; here, a few episodes to keep in mind.
The high-king, Agamemnon, steals from Achilles the Trojan princess, Briseis, awarded to him for deeds on the field of battle. Enraged, Achilles withdraws from fighting.
While Achilles sulks, the Trojans, led by prince Hector, drive the Greeks to the sea, burn the ships and nearly destroy the fleet. Patroclus, Achilles’ second, borrows Achilles armor and in disguise drives-back the Trojans and kills many, including a son of Zeus, until stopped in offensive advance by Hector who with a spear thrust to the gut kills Patroclus and strips Patroclus of Achilles’ armor. Achilles stops sulking—his wolf-like war-rage returns.
The god, Hephaestus, creates for Achilles new armor which Achilles wears when leading Greeks against the bloodied Trojans who retreat into the high-walled citadel. In deafening howl, Achilles calls Hector to single combat, Hector answers, is mercilessly killed, his corpse, behind Achilles chariot, is defiled, is dragged through rock and dirt and dust.
Later, Hector’s father, King Priam, visits Achilles, kisses the hand that killed his son; Achilles in sympathy weeps, is humanized, cleanses and returns Hector’s body to Priam for funeral honors.
The episodes of the Trojan Horse and arrow to Achilles’ Heel occur after the episodes sung in the poem.
In brief, in Iliad, the poet teaches that Desire is irresistible, that inappropriate desire manifests destruction: destruction in conceit, in sensuality, in recklessness, in pride, and in anger, that rage of Achilles which releases havoc upon, well, everyone. Here, we might remember the rage of Hitler, that lone survivor of his WWI combat troop when in battle against the French and her allies, England and America, how in passionate revenge he destroyed all of the world, including his beloved Germany.
c. 7250 Earliest known Greek burials, Franchthi Cave, Argolid
c. 2000 First Minoan palaces (Knossos Palace, c. 1900)
c. 1601 Eruption of Thera volcano
c. 1450 Linear B writing (to 1180)
c. 1250 Raids and invasions by an unidentified “Sea Peoples” begin
c. 1190 destruction of Troy (VIIa)
c. 1180 Collapse of Mycenean Culture
776 First Olympics
c. 750 Homer composes Iliad & Odyssey
c. 700 Hesiod composes Works & Days, and Theogony
Lysimachus, Alexander the Great’s tutor, nicknamed his pupil, “Achilles”.
Aristotle helped prepare for Alexander a special copy of Iliad, a highly prized gift kept by Alexander at all times, even at night, below his pillow, next to his dagger.
Wystan Hugh (W. H.) Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”
BBC One/Netflix, Troy: Fall of a City, miniseries premiered in 2018
* Part One of the first essay or the 280-plus essays of “Quæ Sumus: What We Are”.