Homer “The Iliad” (1 of 2)

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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52 Responses

  1. North says:

    Great heaving Heavens, I love love the Iliad! I never read anything like a direct translation but the story, Paris and Helen, Priam and Hector, Achilles and Cassandra. So many powerful ideas and narratives. Classic!

    Oh and Rufus, regarding Achilles and Patroclus the word you are looking for is “bromance”.Report

    • Bob Cheeks in reply to North says:

      “bromance,” North you’re killing me! That’s a new word/symbol in these parts of Ohio…why do I get the feeling the coastal regions are familiar with it?Report

      • North in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

        Well I’m in Minnesota Bob so it’s in the midwest too.Report

        • Mark Thompson in reply to North says:

          MTV is killing this country. Killing it. Despite my intense love of the First Amendment and basic principles of constitutional law, I do believe I would enthusiastically support a bill of attainder prohibiting any member of the Jenner/Kardashian axis, or any person who has ever been in contact with a member of that axis, from presenting themselves to an audience of more than 10 people. And even that may be too many.Report

  2. Paul B says:

    Maybe you’ll touch on this in part two, but in my mind one of the greatest aspects of the Iliad is Homer’s treatment of the Trojans. The poem creates a world, and a war, in which there aren’t simply good guys and bad guys, but rather a cast of fully human characters in both camps, both heartbreakingly sympathetic (think of Hector with his wife and son in book 6) and decidedly not so (Agamemnon, as Rufus mentions).

    Then again, the concept of Greek vs. barbarian didn’t quite exist at the time of the poem’s composition, so maybe Homer shouldn’t get quite as much credit as I want to give him. Still, creating Trojan adversaries worthy of respect and glory gives the Iliad much of its emotional power: it makes Achilles desecration of Hector’s corpse especially abhorrent, and his reconciliation with Priam especially touching.Report

    • North in reply to Paul B says:

      Agreed Paul. The interaction between King Priam and Achilles always was one that moved me, especially when contrasted with Achilles’ own arrogant war leader who compared unfavorably in my mind to the couragous and loving Priam. The treatment of Hectors’ son Astyanax especially stands out in my memory as terrible particularily when you consider how very fond his heroic Father was of him.Report

      • Paul B in reply to North says:

        Yes, the ransom of Hector is absolutely devastating, and it wouldn’t work if Priam’s nobility (and Hector’s worthiness, and Achilles’ wrathful loyalty) hadn’t been so firmly established.

        But at the same time, the poetic nitty-gritty of the scene pushes it even further into greatness: Homer uses the epithet “man-slaying” (androphonos), which has throughout the poem been applied exclusively to Hector, to describe Achilles’ hands at the moment Priam kisses them in supplication. It does so much to underscore the terrible gravity of the scene.

        And remember, the poem ends shortly thereafter — not with Achilles’ heel or the Trojan horse or something else we might expect, but with Hector’s funeral. Talk about Homer giving the Trojans their due!Report

        • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

          Thank you Paul! That’s a great point.

          I would like, in the second post, to talk about some of my favorite scenes in the story and, absolutely, one would be the scene in which Hector is leaving Andromache for the last time. It’s absolutely devastating, and what’s so great about it is that here’s the greatest warrior of the enemy side so totally humanized and we sense the impending tragedy that he’s going to die for something unworthy of him.

          I also wanted to talk about the scene with Priam and Achilles which, when I first read it three years ago, brought tears to my eyes. The image of him kissing the hands that killed his son is just devastating.

          What I kept thinking, when I read it this time, is that this is, after all, a story for the Greeks. And yet we comprehend the humanity of the enemy and the tragedy of their loss. I can’t imagine any of the old war movies I love having a scene in which we see a Nazi soldier’s wife begging him not to leave her and their son to go fight in a hopeless war. I think it might be seen as “relativism” if done today, but those scenes, for me, are why this is such a powerful story.Report

          • Paul B in reply to Rufus says:

            Thanks, Rufus. I’m very much looking forward to the second post — I don’t get many chances to geek out and put my classical education to use!

            Do you plan to discuss any aspects of the Iliad’s composition: the Homeric question, the oral tradition, epithets and formulas, etc.? It’s fascinating stuff…Report

            • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

              Hmm… a wee bit. It’s probably good to note that I don’t see this as scholarship as much as … well, exploration. I’m endlessly fascinated, but still learning!

              I guess this brings up a question I’ve been trying to work through. I’m a product of the American school system. Which is to say that I studied some Spanish in High School; took Spanish and French in university; do graduate work in French; and am about halfway through learning Latin. I used the word pisher to describe myself earlier.

              So, my own classical education is “a work in progress” to put it kindly. I’ve learned the Greek alphabet and that’s about it, and can read Latin without taking too terribly long to do so.

              But I’ve had a few people now tell me (some outside of here) that there’s little to no point in reading the Greek classics if you’re not reading them in Greek. Since I’ve read most of the classic French works in English and later in French, I suspect this argument is mostly crap. Actually, it’s the same with the few Latin texts I’ve worked through- my understanding was definitely better when I read them in Latin, but I certainly got quite a lot out of them in English.

              But, since you’re likely able to geek out more fully than I can, and you must have a stronger classical education, I ask: isn’t it possible for pishers to get quite a lot out of Homer?

              This question is open to everyone, incidentally.Report

        • Mr. Prosser in reply to Paul B says:

          Don’t you think Homer must give the Trojans their nobility? As you say, the Greek tradition demands the warriors be heroic. If the enemy were simply a band of barbarian kidnappers there would be no glory in face to face combat; it would be a police action against lower class criminals. That would be a task more fitting for mercenaries.Report

          • Rufus in reply to Mr. Prosser says:

            That’s a good point. I’m clearly comparing apples and oranges by relating the Iliad to stuff like The Thin Red Line. I do wonder why so few modern war stories make the enemies heroic. Certainly, though, Homer’s in a much different oral tradition.Report

          • Paul B in reply to Mr. Prosser says:

            That’s very true — and I also want to emphasize again that the Trojans aren’t barbarians at all in the context of the poem (they have the same language, gods, code of honor, etc.).

            But still I think Homer goes farther than he needs to in humanizing the Trojans. If Hector is a great and fearsome warrior, he’s a worthy adversary to Achilles whether or not we also know that he’s a loving husband and father. The fact that we get to see those intimate moments really is special.

            But amid all the emphasize on honor and glory, it’s pretty fun to see the mighty heroes deal so mockingly with those beneath them in class (Thersites in Book 2) or prowess (Cebriones in Book 16).Report

            • Mr. Prosser in reply to Paul B says:

              Very true. Why would a misshapen man like Therisites even be among the troops? Is he comic relief like a dwarf court jester? Is that why he can insult the leaders so often with impunity until Odysseus finally hits him?Report

  3. Francis says:

    “But the gods offer nothing like a correct form of existence or religious precepts. The idea of men making a covenant with these gods is ridiculous. And there is nothing like a transcendent divine realm in the sense we find in the religions of Abraham.”

    Easy there. There’s plenty of evidence that modern Christians’ view of their own god bears striking similarity to the ancient Greeks’ views of their own pantheon. Prosperity Gospel? The ongoing debates over the nature and existence of hell? The claim in just about every forum, from sports to politics to war, that god is on own side? Sounds to me like people have changed a lot less in 5000+ years than we might have hoped.Report

    • North in reply to Francis says:

      I don’t know about that Francis. I’m no lover of the brutish cruelty of modern fundamentalism but I don’t think the parallels you’re drawing hold.

      The Greek gods were portrayed as strongly present and mercurial beings that, despite their awesome power, were very much like humans. They suffered jealousies and petty grievances; Zeus would cheat on his wife and would go use almost Homer Simpsonesque crackpot schemes to conceal his infidelity. Even the noble Athena or Apollo wasn’t above pouring out her share of vindictiveness on impertinent mortals. These were super powered humans and they had no hesitation to upend the natural laws of the world in a fit of pique if it so suited them and the world that they ruled was a chaotic and wild place.

      I’ve read, and think it sensible, that the advent of monotheism and especially the concepts of an aloof, remote single deity allowed for humanity to view the world as a more predictable and approachable place. Once every spasm of nature was not automatically assigned to Hera having PMS or Zeus trying to hide away his latest fling this left room for the concept of the world being ordered by a single generally consistent set of laws and led the way to the kind of thinking that brought about science and the enlightenment. We’ve come a long way from Greek Polytheism though I agree that the baser elements of religion, or perhaps human, nature remain.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Francis says:

      Well, I’d agree that people certainly do fall back into the old patterns!

      I guess I’m making these comparisons because, if I don’t, Bob Cheeks will! Actually, it’s also because I’m also reading the Old Testament right now, so it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the burnt offerings and hectacombs and then the development of the first covenant.

      Now, I certainly would imagine that your average culture Christian with the “Angel on board” bumper sticker isn’t thinking of immanence and transcendence and worrying about these questions, but they’re on my mind.Report

      • Bob Cheeks in reply to Rufus says:

        Rufus, dude, you’re good.
        The analysis you provide reaches to the level of the noetic differentiation, that process describing the movement of compact consciousness (the mythic) to the more differentiated, inclusive of the “inquiring consciousness” and aware of the reflective distance and its relationship to the transcendent pole of the tension of the inquiry.
        Homer’s genius is sensed in his need to create a new symbolism of the human and divine relationship.
        Homer is abandoning the cosmological myth.
        He is searching , questing for the truth of things.
        Is this not the ground of philosophy?
        And, in his mytho-speculation, that sublime combination of myth-making and noesis, Homer has contrived the gods not as “self-contained entities” but rather “manifestations” of the order of existence in which man is integral.
        Voegelin gives as his example the blind seer, the man who is not capable of seeing in the immanent-world reality but is intimately aware of existence in the non-existent reality.

        Re: your language achievements, congratulations. Voegelin, a gentleman whose IQ was off the charts would not read a philosopher, poet, writer unless he read him in his native language. I can’t conceive of such intelligence. I read Voegelin in search of the order of the cosmos, and he has not failed me.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

          Yeah, Voegelin is pretty impressive. I considered discussing political gnosticism in my dissertation, having read his book on the topic, and my profs basically told me not to touch it with a ten foot pole- not out of any “academic liberal bias”, but because the topic is so totally complicated that it would take years to complete even a brief gloss on it. Meanwhile, Voegelin just tossed that book off and moved on to other topics with no difficulty whatsoever.

          “Homer’s genius is sensed in his need to create a new symbolism of the human and divine relationship.”
          I’ve read some books on Homer by Greek scholars that say basically the same thing; that Homer creates a distinct order of divinities who behave much like men and this poses many of the questions that troubled his later readers, leading to Socrates- who quotes Homer constantly.

          But I’ve always wondered how Greek historians know so much about the earlier proto-religions, given that Homer’s epics are transcribed not long after the development of the alphabet. They seem to agree though. An interesting work on the topic (although not really about Homer) is Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Ellen Harrison. Admittedly, I haven’t read that in about ten years. It might be time to take it off the shelf though.Report

  4. Buce says:

    Rufus, can the Lattimore. “[U]ntil recently, it was assumed that no educated person in the west could have skipped” reading Homer in the original Greek. If he read a translation, it was one that he had written himself.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Buce says:

      William Bradford wrote a post that kinda talked about this sort of thing here:


      Personally, I find it delightful that we are moving ever closer to everybody being able to read everything without having to spend two years in an Irish/Jewish/German/Italian/French ghetto to learn the nuances of the language to read obscure texts.

      We need more babelfish.Report

      • Rufus in reply to Jaybird says:

        I do think you gain a lot by learning the language and reading in it. But it’s not as if reading Diderot or Proust was exactly a worthless exercise before I could read them in French. I’m hoping to get Greek under my belt in the next few years, but waiting until then to read Homer and Plato seems a bit silly.Report

    • Paul B in reply to Buce says:

      This is doubly false.

      First of all, the idea that a knowledge of Greek was some sort of sine qua non of the educated man is really applicable to a fairly narrow slice of post-renaissance, pre–industrial revolution Europe (especially Protestant countries, where the idea was to read New Testament Greek). St. Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, and countless others got by just fine without knowing Greek.

      When I studied classics as an undergrad, I heard about professors and grad students who refused to read the Iliad (or whatever else) in translation, with the result that they hadn’t and never would read the whole thing — just whatever chunks they happened to have studied. This is totally crippling to a full understanding of the work itself, let alone any larger cultural context in which it stands, and surely can’t make up a well-rounded education either.

      But here’s the point: plot, characters, certain kinds of style and form, and the larger themes we’re exploring here are all perfectly accessible via translation. Knowing the language can only shed more light on those aspects, and of course it opens up whole new avenues into the words and nuances and meter (I could go on about Greek meter all day!) of the poetry itself, but to deny reading any version of Homer just because you can’t read the original* just ensures complete ignorance.

      (And really, if someone’s truly serious about that, shouldn’t he collate manuscripts and fragments himself instead of relying on the critical editions of long-dead philologists?)Report

  5. Rufus says:

    Right and I’m certainly aiming at that in the future. So far, I can read old and modern French, Spanish, and English, and am just about able to read Latin without taking forever to do so. Greek is next on the list and I’ve at least got the alphabet down. But there’s nothing to be gotten from a good translation? I certainly feel my education is minute compared to an educated man of just a century ago. But, I’m not dead yet and I’m studying all the time. So I’d rather not wait to read Homer, even if I’m not ready to read him in Greek.Report

  6. Buce says:

    Hy’ where’s the beef? I’m willing to acknowledge you as educated. But Prime Minister Gladstone would not have.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Buce says:

      Sure, but I haven’t claimed to be educated. I think the terms I used for myself have been, “pisher”, “poseur”, and “not an expert” so far. No doubt the reason I’m still enrolling in classes at my age is to keep plugging the holes of an American education. I’d imagine I’ll be “educated” by the time I’m 50.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    First thoughts:

    In one of the great scenes in the epic, the old men of Troy, when first seeing this woman who will launch one of the great wars of history against their city, agree that she was worth it.

    Am I being too cynical to wonder what the alternative the old men had? Was saying “eh, she’s a solid 7” really an option? (disclaimer: Women are human beings just like the rest of us and ought not be ranked on a 10-scale)

    It seems to me that after a war in which thousands (tens of thousands?) died, you would have to say “oh, yeah, we not only had the right to do what we did but, more importantly, the treasure we got was more than worth the blood and treasure we spilled to get it.”

    Of course, that may be a little post-. (Aside, in my yute, I saw a version of Antigone that had Creon give a speech about how he couldn’t tell which brother was which and so he just shrugged and said that “THIS ONE IS ETEOCLES” and “THIS ONE IS POLYNICES” and ran with that… and, for the life of me, I was certain that that was in the original play… sadly, it appears not to be… if it were, I would be able to easily argue that they totally had this sort of thing going on. Now? Yeah, I guess we ought to take the text at face value.)

    In the Iliad, men can be trusted in a way women cannot. I’m not sure that we still have the right words for this relationship. In the Odyssey, Homer will write the story of a great love between a man and a woman; but here the story is of the great love between men.

    There are several (Freud would say that there are no) jokes about this. “Bros before hos” is, I understand, a phrase used by the kids today.
    While not concrete proof that we have the right words for this relationship, I think that the gist of the underlying dynamic is there.
    Indeed, my first inclination was to post In the Iliad, men can be trusted in a way women cannot. and say “Fixed that for you”. (disclaimer: Honeybear, I was just kidding and anyway I certainly didn’t mean you.)

    I look forward to part II!!!Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      In the Iliad, men can be trusted in a way women cannot.

      (I can’t believe I screwed that up)Report

    • Bob Cheeks in reply to Jaybird says:

      “Honeybear, I was just kidding and anyway I certainly didn’t mean you.)”

    • Rufus in reply to Jaybird says:

      Well, the old men are talking amongst themselves, and they basically agree, “yeah, we should probably get rid of her, but it’s perfectly understandable that he brought her here because she’s so beautiful”. Actually, I found it a bit strange that they didn’t just kick Paris and Helen out in the first place. Certainly someone must have talked to Priam and said, “Hey, your kid’ll get over her”. It is a myth though. Herodotus, rather charmingly, asked around and he heard that what really happened was Paris and Helen got waylaid in Egypt, and the Greeks just didn’t know that they weren’t in the city. His belief was that there was no way they would have kept her there willingly.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rufus says:

        Hrm… so there is an author saying “here’s what *REALLY* happened” and, instead, giving us “poetic truth”.

        The interesting thing is that the “poetic truth” is intended to be more instructive than what really happened. Why *THAT* poetic truth?Report

        • Rufus in reply to Jaybird says:

          Herodotus is very entertaining to read because he writes history mostly by writing down whatever different stories he hears from people and trying to figure out what seems most plausible to him. So, there’s a lot of stuff that sounds like gossip and legends. (Admittedly, we often joke that historians are really gossips with footnotes) I looked up the Paris and Helen section, and Herodotus basically says, well, the priests in Egypt told him they had heard that Paris and Helen showed up there and were detained, and that really makes sense to him because why wouldn’t the Trojans have handed her over to the Greeks? They weren’t dummies! Homer must have changed the story around because he was an epic poet and it worked better artistically. But, now, the Egyptians have set him straight.Report

  8. Mike Crahart says:

    “Reading the Iliad, it finally became clear to me that, in Homer, the Greek gods are present in the world. They are often invisible, communicating through dreams, portents, and speaking directly to chosen men. But this is not akin to grace; these gods are not radically separated from the mundane world; they’re primarily immanent. They’re more powerful than us, so the soldiers often make burnt offerings and perform rituals to please the gods. They walk among us and often toy with us; Agamemnon will rush back to battle because of a lying dream Zeus sends him. But the gods offer nothing like a correct form of existence or religious precepts. The idea of men making a covenant with these gods is ridiculous. And there is nothing like a transcendent divine realm in the sense we find in the religions of Abraham.”

    I think your parallel is a little unfair, the Bible is a library of some sixty books. The Greek equivalent isn’t the Iliad alone but the entire collection of ancient classics, including some of the philosophers.
    The Jehovah of the Old Testament is certainly no more than a solitary Zeus and it’s only with the insights of the philosophers that the Greek understanding of the divine is fully elaborated.

    Ancient Hellenic religion was based on the concept of reciprocity, the idea that friends help each other out and give gifts to each other, much of Christian prosperity theology has been directly traced to this.

    As far as an ethical system is concerned Hellenic ethics; Eusebeia, Arete, Sophrosune, Nomos, Genia & etc are as good, if not better, than those offered by any other religion.

    Kind regards


  9. Chic says:

    “Our conflation of love and sex (and that to sexual identity) likely confuses us; Achilles and Patroclus probably did not ‘get it on’.”

    I think this love between Achilles and Patroclus is no different than the love a modern soldier has for his fellow soldiers in his platoon. You cover each others back and probably more than once have been saved by this cooperation. We can consider this part of the Iliad as an early description, if not the first, of a tight knit group fighting together and the strong attachment emotions that come out of this.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Chic says:

      Yeah, this could be true. The other thing to remember is that these men were out fighting for a decade. It’s clear from the writing that they were essentially farmers back home and now were hacking away at each other for years and years. It definitely must have been a bonding experience.Report

  10. G. Franklin says:

    “But I’ve had a few people now tell me (some outside of here) that there’s little to no point in reading the Greek classics if you’re not reading them in Greek.”
    I’ve always been struck by this polemic as a form of elitism. By the same argument, I suppose, one cannot and should not read the Bible in translation; no point at all…Report

    • Rufus in reply to G. Franklin says:

      Yeah, it does get to be a bit of a dick swinging contest I think.

      Actually, for me, part of the fun of doing this is that I get to escape my academic training, where you don’t write on any topic without getting the proper papers in order! Professionally, I’d not have the guts to write on Homer without the training. But I sometimes wonder if my own scholarly writing (in a much different area of history) doesn’t get to be too technical, specialized, and frankly boring for just this reason.Report

  11. Buce says:

    “as a form of elitism.” But that’s precisely the point, not so? One purpose of advanced education is to erect barriers to entry as a form of exclusion, so as to create a treehouse for an elite. That’s precisely why you learned Greek and Latin in the 19C–and yes, Hebrew also.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Buce says:

      It’s not the only point though. I agree though. My sense of that era is that a declining elite was fighting a rearguard action in the realm of culture; and, certainly, their culture and education were a form of exclusion. But I think they were fighting a losing battle against an ongoing democratization of culture: libraries, museums, and finally universities gave way to the unwashed.

      With tuition rates becoming unconscionable, higher education is getting to be a status symbol once again. But the culture is still accessible, no? Hopefully the Libraries, Museums, and Internet will allow us to learn whatever we want to, even if we can’t get into the treehouse. It seems like the universities only have a monopoly on degrees now, which certainly makes them gatekeepers to the class structure. But, if you want to learn just about anything, just for the fun of it, it’s possible to do so for a lot less money than it takes to go to Harvard; you just don’t get into the clubhouse. But, certainly, there are other benefits to learning these things.Report

  12. Kaleberg says:

    One thing to consider is that Achilles spent his puberty disguised as a girl in a girls’ school. (Those girls’ schools in ancient Greece always seemed underwritten, what with guys living in drag and Sappho singing her love songs. You could have made a hilarious 1980s exploitation movie out of Achilles’ school days.) In the version of the story I read, Ulysses outed Achilles as a guy by presenting him with his choice of goodies. Achilles didn’t go for he makeup compact or the Bratz dolls, he went for the swords and Halo II for his X-Box. Consumer goods definitely played a role in the story, at least up to this point.

    It was definitely an alien culture.

    It is less useful to note that it was actually a post-literate culture. There was Greek writing before the Greek dark ages. It just took a while to redevelop.Report

  13. nikki says:

    wow its like i needed some help not!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Report