Reviews: The Iliad and the Odyssey

Ok, so for my minor in Classical Civilization (aka Greek and Roman studies), I’m taking a class in Greek and Roman Literary Genres, and naturally, I had to read the big three: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. Now, I feel strange as hell writing reviews of the classics – their impact on society is already so established that it almost feels redundant to write a review – that’s why I’m not assigning stars to these books. So what I’d like to do is write a quick little piece on my opinions while reading the book, and then post the essay I wrote for that class, examining the themes of death and honour in Greek society.

The translations assigned were both Richmond Lattimore (who was apparently my prof’s prof). I already owned translations by Robert Fagles, but couldn’t read them for obvious reasons. Now, in my under-educated and surely plebeian opinion (in other words, DON’T JUDGE ME, I think what I think), Lattimore’s translation reads like Shakespeare in that the English verses are convoluted and a bit difficult to follow. I also find that his translation was very stilted and clinical, and managed to make both books (including the incredibly gory Iliad) a struggle to get through, especially when compared to the vivid imagery and immediacy of Fagles’ translations (which I haven’t finished reading, and will therefore get its own post later). I understand his text was chosen because it corresponds more closely to the original Greek, but I wonder if it does a bit of a disservice to the vitality (and epicness) of these epics to be introduced to them in such a passionless manner.

Anyway, I expected to enjoy the more other-worldy and character-driven Odyssey more than the Iliad, but I think you can sense from this sentence structure where I’m going. I kind of loved the Iliad, and its ridiculous descriptions of the various tears, holes, and other damage done spear points and arrows. Even though I spent most of the epic wanting to slap Achilleus and murder Agamemnon (SPOILERS there was no need, his wife got to him before I could), Patroklos, Hektor, and a portrayal of war that was surprisingly even-handed made the play worth it. Although if I never hear the phrase “and his armour clattered upon him” again, it will be too soon.

(Side note: Lindsay! Remember Cartman as Achilleus – “But mooooooooom”? Liane as Thetis! We need to get this idea to Trey Parker stat, I swear.)

Essay time!

Honourable Death in the Homeric Epics: Murder, Revenge, and Duty

Myths are important to any society. They help answer those questions without answers, and give meaning and shape to an often incomprehensible life. In ancient civilizations, the purpose of the philosophy expressed in mythology was to make sense of the world, to answer questions that had no answers; what is the purpose of life? the meaning of death? Ancient myths from around the world have a lot in common. Their stories explain the creation of man, the formation of civilization, and describe an afterlife. In Greek mythology, much of what we know today comes from the two Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both deal heavily with the theme of death, treating it in similar ways, with the same underlying belief system, but in different contexts.

The Iliad is an epic of war, taking place in the midst of the 10 year battle for Troy. The story as told takes place within a period of a few weeks, with most of the significant events occurring over a few days near the end of the war. At the beginning of the epic, very little time is spent on the battlefield. However, once the talking ends and the killing starts in book 4, it is fairly relentless. Antilochos is credited with the first kill of The Iliad, striking Echepolos with a bronze spear (Iliad 4.457-462).

The poet, a descendent of the Achaian victors of the Trojan War, nevertheless speaks favourably of both the Trojan and the Greek sides, as both sides fight with similar ideals of honour. For example, Hektor is respected as a warrior and a man by the Greeks (Iliad 21.280), and Achilleus is similarly admired by the Trojans. Even Hektor’s wife, Andromache, while warning Hektor of the dangers of fighting Achilleus, allows that he is a great and fair warrior, who treats the dead with respect (Iliad 6.416-420). A heroic code that warriors on both sides of the war appear to follow is outlined by the Trojan Sarpedon, speaking to his companion Glaukos:

Therefore it is our duty in the forefront of the Lykians
to take our stand, and bear our part of the blazing of battle,
[…]      Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost
nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside or escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.

(Iliad 12.310-328)

Although willing to fight and die for the causes of their leaders, the warriors understand that their opponents, too, are fighting for the same glory and honour, and expect nothing less of them. The importance of adhering to customs is also highlighted during the exchange of armour between the Achaian Diomedes and the Trojan Glaukos:

Let us avoid each other’s spears, even in the close fighting.
There are plenty of Trojans and famed companions in battle for me
to kill, whom the god sends me, or those I run down with my swift feet,
many Achaians for you to slaughter, if you can do it.
But let us exchange our armour, so that these others may know
how we claim to be guests and friends from the days of our fathers.’
(Iliad 6.226-231)

So death is treated as an inevitability in battle, and, in abstract, nothing to resent, although the killing of close personal friends does result in the single-minded pursuit of revenge. In response to companion Patroklos’s death at the hands of Hektor, Achilleus kills Hektor and desecrates the corpse, a show of disrespect that is contrary to his previous actions. Indeed, by the end of the poem he has relinquished Hektor’s body to his father Priam. While warriors often “talk big” before launching into the fray, insulting and belittling their opponents, strip victims of their armour and boast over the dead, at the end of the day, there is an understanding that these are the motions of war.

Despite the glory of battle, The Iliad is full of a longing for peace. Both sides pray for an end to the war (Iliad 3.319-323), and there are numerous attempts at a truce. The Trojans themselves resent Paris for bringing about the war; his own brother Hektor suggests they would be better off if Paris had died, even by the hand of his own people (Iliad 3.38-45, 56-57). In this poem, domestic life outside of war is referred to only in passing, as prizes for after victory, or depicted as pastoral ekphrases on the warriors’ shields (Iliad 18.490-607). The metaphorical references to calm, pastoral life stand out in stark contrast during the grisly battle scenes.

While The Iliad brought the reality of the Trojan War home to his audiences by focusing on a few key characters, The Odyssey focuses on the personal journey and struggle of Odysseus, and uses his family members and fellow warriors to widen the scope and importance of the story. The warrior Odysseus’s long and arduous voyage home to Ithaka after 10 years of fighting in Troy gives The Odyssey a more personal perspective than The Iliad, as it follows the plight of the family Odysseus, his son, and his wife, rather than the diverse group of characters who are the warriors of the Trojan War.

Odysseus and his men who are with him on his journey, and the suitors surrounding his wife in Ithaka, are the characters at risk of death in this story, a context far removed from that of battle. Odysseus, his son Telemachos, and his wife Penelope follow the customs of their culture and are ultimately rewarded with a happy reunion. However, unlike the fighters in the Trojan War, the suitors do not follow the prescribed customs of their culture. As Odysseus has been gone for 20 years and is presumed dead, it is expected for the eligible Penelope to choose a new husband. By courting her, the suitors are not breaking custom. However, they impinge on Penelope and Telemachos, taking advantage of Odysseus’s absence and the Greek laws of xenia (guest hospitality) by wasting food, treating the house and its contents as their own, and plotting the death of Telemachos. Lead suitors Antinoos and Eurymachos embody the loathsomeness of the suitors, with the former acting as the imprudent spokesperson for the group, and the latter exhibiting a more low-key form of hypocritical wickedness. He feeds Penelope platitudes and calls Telemachos “dearest” to him, “but himself was planning the murder” (Odyssey 16.435-447; 448-449), and after the slaughter begins in book 22, attempts to pin the entirety of the blame on the already dead Antinoos, taking no responsibility himself (Odyssey 22.48-59). The suitors therefore have no honour, and are not respected by anyone. The poet himself judges the suitors unfavourably, calling them “arrogant young men” (Odyssey 4.769), and placing blame, “For they had begun the wrongdoing.” (Odyssey 20.394)

In fact, the eventual slaughter of the suitors is continuously justified throughout the book: The gods (especially goddess Athene) condone the death of the suitors, and Odysseus is aware of this (Odyssey 22.413-417); the suitors themselves admit that their actions were wrong and deserve retribution (Odyssey 22.45-59); they are warned to cease their unsavoury behaviour by the prophets Halitherses (Odyssey 2.160-169) and Theoklymenos (Odyssey 20.363-370); and during the Telemachy, Telemachos is told by Nestor about Orestes’s revenge on Aigisthos, who together with his lover Klytaimnestra, Orestes’ mother, killed Orestes’ father Agamemnon when he returned home from the war. In fact, Telemachos is told explicitly to use this as an example for his own future actions. “Be brave too,” Nestor says after relating this grisly tale, “so that men unborn may speak well of you.” (Odyssey 3.200). And at the end of the epic, the goddess Athene ensures that no revenge is taken on behalf of the suitors, that the cycle of violence ends with their death: “And pledges for the days to come, sworn to by both sides, were settled by Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus of the aegis…” (Odyssey 24.545-547). Like Paris of Troy, in stealing the wife of his host Menelaos, violated the rules of hospitality, so too did the suitors of Penelope, and the consequences for the offenders are brutal.

Contrast this with the The Iliad, where the gods cannot go against fate and change the ultimate outcome of the Trojan War. Zeus cannot even save his son Sarpedon from death at the hands of Patroklos (Iliad 16.433-436; 459-461). In this sense, then, it would seem that the suitors are fated to die. Indeed, characters throughout The Odyssey routinely talk about the death of the suitors as a matter of the gods and fate, excusing the physical murders of those men by Odysseus, Telemachos, and their allies as acts willed by the gods. “These were destroyed by the doom of the gods and their own hard actions,” says Odysseus to his old nurse Eurykleia, “[…] So by their own recklessness they have found a shameful death.” (Odyssey 22.413-417). The swineherd Eumaios says to a disguised Odysseus, “The blessed gods have no love for a pitiless action, but rather they reward justice and what men do that is lawful,” subsequently referring to the suitors as “hateful and lawless” (Odyssey 14.83-84, 85).

On the mortal plane, death is an inevitability, but the way that death comes about is usually (but for fate) up for each person to determine by their choices and actions. In both epics, death by sea is decidedly not preferable; both feature the major character explicitly stating their desire to die in any other fashion. In The Iliad, Achilleus pleads to Zeus while fighting the river Xanthos that he may die gloriously in battle rather than drown in the river (Iliad 21.273-238), in particular, “I wish now Hektor had killed me, the greatest man grown in this place. A brave man would have been the slayer, and the slain a brave man. But now this is a dismal death I am doomed to be caught in[…].” In The Odyssey, Odysseus, too, wishes he had died gloriously at Troy, rather than in the storm that seems destined to take his life in book 5 (Odyssey 5.305-312), in particular, “Three times and four times happy those Danaans who died then in wide Troy land […] as I wish I too had died at that time and met my destiny. […] Now it is by a dismal death that I must be taken.” The use of word “dismal” in both instances is telling, as is the implication that those who die at war, fighting worthy opponents, are happy. When lamenting the presumed death of his master, even his swineherd, Eumaios, says of Odysseus, “But now ingloriously the stormwinds have caught and carried him.” (Odyssey 14.371; emphasis mine).

Finally (and fittingly), both poems feature the Underworld, where the souls of the dead are sent down to Hades. In The Iliad, the reader is not taken to the Underworld through the eyes of any character; it is rather mentioned only by name by various characters, and alluded to as the end destination of a gust of wind that brushes past the battlefield, or through dreams such as that in which the shade of Patroklos visits Achilleus. In The Odyssey, however, the poet describes Odysseus’s journey to a specific place, although the directions are vague, where the rivers Pyriphlegethon and Koytos flow into Acheron, and he alone travels to meet with the soul of the blind prophet Teiresias. Odysseus draws the dead out to him through rituals and sacrifices (Odyssey 11.23-50). Here, he interacts with the souls of his departed comrades, and the importance of adherence to rituals and customs is highlighted when the wandering shade of the unburied Elpenor begs Odysseus to give him his rights so he may finally enter the land of the dead and be at peace (Odyssey 11.51-76). This episode is similar to several in The Iliad, where doomed characters and their loved ones beg for a proper burial so their souls may rest in peace. King Priam’s aforementioned supplication of Achilleus for Hektor’s disrespected corpse is an example of this.

The overall theme of each poem is different; The Iliad was a story of war and the effects of Achilleus’s anger, while The Odyssey was a story of one man’s journey home. But the Greek attitude towards death at the time was clearly evident in both, and the treatment of death in both epics shows this. The trips to the Underworld in both epics emphasise the importance of death in the life of Ancient Greeks. Preference is shown for death brought about in certain ways over others (i.e. the glory of death in battle as compared to the dismal, meaningless death of an accidental drowning), and the practice of certain rituals after death must be performed in order for the deceased to complete the journey to the Underworld. Both poems deal with themes of revenge, with the death of the enemy or wrong-doer as the ultimate revenge. The gods’ preferences and the poet’s own tone and descriptors help guide the ancient listener and the modern reader towards certain conclusions (for example, that the death of the suitors is deserved). When taken together, these epics paint a clear picture of the way honour and death were viewed in Ancient Greek society, and the complexities of conduct inherent both in war and in everyday life.

Cannonball Read III: 19-20/52

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Posted on January 27, 2012, in 100 things in 1000 days, Book Reviews, Books, Cannonball Read 3 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wow, it has been a long time since I’ve read Homer.

  2. Hey from overseas! This is just what I was looking for, and you wrote it well. Thanks

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