Tales of Troy: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
What is the difference between the story
of the siege and Fall of Troy, and the story of Homer's Iliad?
- The material presented: the Iliad covers
only 52 days, concentrating on about 5 days, of the ten year war (though
along the way many aspects of the war outside of these 52 days are introduced)
- The way the material is presented: for example,
Homer jumps intothe middle of things (in medias res), and works out from
there, rather than beginning at the beginning
Who was Homer? Why do we think of Homer's Iliad
as the beginning of the western literary tradition? What is different about
Homer's way of telling a tale and the Epic of Gilgamesh?
- Oral poet of about 750 B.C., working within
a long tradition of oral poetry
- First Greek poet within this tradition to survive
- Exceptional in length and quality
- Sophisticated narrative techniques
- Structure of tale: begins in medias res:
in the middle of the action, rather than at the logical beginning of the
- Lots of dialogue and action: crafted for performance
- Characterization (Zeus & Hera, excerpts pp.
95-98;Thersites, excerpts pp. 106-108; Hector & Andromache, excerpts
- Vivid, transporting description (battle description,
excerpts p. 166)
- Command of rhetoric (Achilles oath, excerpts p.
- Poetry: the music of the words (He obeyed the order,
/ turning, trailing away in silence down the shore / where the roaring
battle lines of breakers crash and drag, -excerpts, p. 78, lines 39-40)
- Similes (Paris & the stallion, excerpts p.
212, lines 601ff.)
Some Questions of Belief
- Legends: Did the Greeks believe in the historicity
of their heroes? (Yes!) Were they right? (Well, thereon hangs a tale...
Let's begin with the question of the Trojan War)
- Homer, myth, and history
- 8th century B.C. poet writing about the Mycenean Age,
about 1200 B.C. (Mycenean age = 1600-1200, Fall of Troy = about 1220, destruction
of Mycene = about 1150; Dark Ages 1200-800)
- Heinrich Schliemann:
20 years of excavations at Hissarlik, 1871 ("Treasure
of Priam", Sophie
- Oral tradition as societal memory
- Many memories go back only to the Dark Ages:
- society of ranked chiefs, rather than the palace monarchy of the
- lack of writing, or of government bureaucracy
- Some memories, however, DO seem to go back to the
- the fact of a Trojan War
- the fact of a Mycenean civilization (sophisticated artwork: cup,
- the location of the Mycenean palace centers (Mycene, Pylos, Tiryns)
- some specific things unique to that period: cup of Nestor, boar's
tusk helmet, earring
- Other memories seem to go back to the Mycenean period
(400 years!), but are more or less confused
- And still other "memories" seem to be deliberate
archaizing, that is, deliberate attempts to give the stories an old feel,
but not in every respect historically accurate, and probably not a real
passing on of information in the oral tradition
- Bronze for weapons, iron for household utensils
- No Greeks in Ionia: Miletus, for example, is described as Carian (=non-Greek),
despite the archaeological record that shows Greeks in Miletus from an
early period; this because of Greek legends that wrongly dated the colonization
of Ionia to the period long after the Trojan War
- Euhemerism revisited
- Gods: Did the Greeks believe in their gods?
- The gods as we see them in Homer: Hera & Zeus,
end of Book 1 (from excerpts)
- Xenophanes, 6th century B.C.: Homer's presentation of the gods is blasphemous
- Our own religion has no "myths": the stories of other cultures
are the myths
- In Homer, the existence of the gods on Olympus is accepted without
question or explanation by all the characters and is assumed by the narrative
- How do the stories relate to the religion, to worship of these
- Disjunctive relationship between stories of the divine and religious
- Homer as bowdlerizer: anthropomorphic, rational Olympian
deities vs. Greek mystery cults (ritual ecstasy, processions of phalloi,
ripping apart of live animals, self-castration)
- Gods as instruments of justice & order (and injustice
and disorder): the poet as the constructor of the meaning of the
- Monsters: Did the Greeks believe in their monsters?
- Some examples:
- Fairyland of the Cyclops (Polyphemus), Scylla and Charybdis, Laestrygonians
(cannibals), Circe (witch)
- Again, Homer suppresses darker side of Greek religion
and mythic tales:
- Example of the rape of Cybele (the great mother goddess) by Zeus: Cybele
asleep on a rock: Zeus: ejaculation onto the rock: rock pregnant: son-of-rock:
son rapes men and women indiscriminately: Dionysus intervenes: son-of-rock
drunk: grape vine around genitals: rope: castration: blood into pomegranate
tree: young girl, pomegranate in dress: pregnant: and so on!
- All these tales of fairyland are told NOT in the poet's
voice, but in the voice of Odysseus, speaking to the Phaeacians:
- "I am Laertes' son, Odysseus: men hold me formidable for guile
in peace and war". Laestrygonians, Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis,
Circe. Alcinous finally interrupts: "We take you for no swindler--
though the dark earth be patient of so many, scattered everywhere, baiting
their traps with lies of old times and of places no one knows. You speak
with art, but your intent is honest. The Argive troubles, and your own
troubles, you told as a poet would...." Odysseus' Cretan tales.
- Focus on the story of the Cyclops
Polyphemus: why does Homer construct this tale the way he does?
- Brutish vs. Civilized existence: Cyclops is interestingly
similar to, and interestingly different from, Enkidu in the Epic of
- relation to beasts:
- "Sweet cousin (!) ram, why lag behind the rest in the night cave?
You never linger so, but graze before them all, and go afar to crop sweet
grass, and take your stately way leading along the streams, until at evening
you run to be the first on the in the hold. Why,
now, so far behind? Can you be grieving over your Master's eye?"
- Cyclops as anti-civilized:
- When Od. and his men first see Polyphemus, the huge brute "seemed
no man at all of those who eat good wheaten bread; but he seemed rather
a shaggy mountain reared in solitude"
- ll. 106ff.: no law, agriculture, no assembly, no social meetings. ll.
247ff.: no religion, no hospitality
- He eats "like a wildcat (mountain lion)"; later, after he
drinks the wine, we are told that "he reeled and tumbling backward....
Drunk, hiccuping, he dribbled streams of liquor and bits of men."
- Not really nature vs. culture, but a portrait of what man would be
like if he did not adopt the central tenets of civilized life - a choice
he could have made! - and choose instead to live alone with his flocks.
Central importance of society, feasts, song, dancing, tales told through
the endless nights.
- Use of monsters by Homer to construct a "truth",
a meaning, central to his poetic, mythmaking enterprise
- How does this relate to folktale versions of the stories
surrounding the Cyclops? What essential distinction is there, if any, between
"tale crafted by the poet" and "folktale"? What consequence
might this distinction have for strategies of interpretation?
Images relating to Homer's Iliad and the story of
and Achilles playing a game of dice, with Athena standing in between.
Black figure vase of ca. 520-515 B.C.
of Paris. Red figure vase of ca. 485 B.C.
(Paris) abducting Helen, with Eros in between. Red figure vase of the
early fifth century B.C.
takes away Briseis, the woman of Achilles. Red figure vase of ca. 480
of Hektor for the battle, with Priam and Hecube to the side. Red figure
vase of ca. 450 B.C.
Funeral Games for Patroclus.
Black figure vase of ca. 565 B.C.
and Hektor fight over the body of Troilos. Black figure vase of ca.
begs for the body of Hektor from Achilles. Red figure vase of ca. 510
The Trojan Horse. Relief-decorated
Amphora from Mykonos of ca. 670 B.C.
Images relating to Homer's Odyssey and the travels
(more to come)
Blinding of Polyphemus.
Amphora from Eleusis of ca. 670 B.C.
escapes the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus. Black figure vase of ca.
relating to Homer's Iliad
relating to Homer's Odyssey