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The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer – Introduction

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Homer


The current series on the epics of Homer is in six parts. The series contains a brief synopsis of the stories, analysis of the main characters and events, figures of speech and a discussion on the Greek epic structure. A talk on this topic was delivered by the author on 20th June 2016 in a seminar on Mahakavyas organized by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bangalore

The current article adopts anglicized versions of proper nouns and the English translations provided in [1] and [2]

Introduction – Homer

Homer - Picture courtesy - Google Image Search Homer The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer – Introduction Homer_British_Museum-238x300

Homer  ( Picture courtesy – Google Image Search)

Homer, the first known epic poet of the West, composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. Historians estimate that he lived sometime between the years 1100 and 800 BCE. This was the time when a large part of the human civilization in the rest of Europe was yet to develop a meaningful language and the Greek civilization had seen its peak in classical literature. The culture, the language, and the creative genius of the Greeks were advanced enough by then to artistically contribute to architecture, sculpture, painting, theater, and literature, the influence of which is even to this day felt in the respective fields. Nearly two thousand years earlier, its sister civilization in India had produced the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, which are the oldest literary works having  epic dimension. It is hard to ascertain if any literary work existed before the Indian epics in Greece or the rest of the world. The Hellenistic, i.e. the classical Greek civilization, had been eradicated by the early years of the Common Era, even before India saw its golden age and the peak in Sanskrit literature during Kālidāsa’s time. If the Greeks had got another thousand years, they would have possibly continued to produce great works of art. Homer is thus to be placed in the ranks of Vālmīki and Vyāsa, rather than in that of Kālidāsa, for the influence that Homer had on an entire culture and the period of his lifetime matches the former poets more closely. Further, his works are drawn from the community consciousness of the civilization.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Homer’s works are both the foundations and the pinnacles of Western literature in general and classical Greek literature in particular. As foundations, they have provided raw material for several future poets and playwrights, starting from Aeschylus to Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and for many contemporary writers. It is the pinnacle because, it is hard to name Western literary works which match Homer’s, barring a handful.

Legend has it that Homer was blind, but was not born one. He had an arduous life and seems to have withstood hardships by finding solace in his works of art. His works are the products of an oral art, composed for and directed to listeners who mainly heard and read less [3]. It is hard to if Homer wrote down his epics and even if he did, the script he might have used is hard to determine. Homeric language is a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic dialects, but also has large traces of folk variations and non-Greek languages. Homer’s Greek (and those of the later poets too) carries pitch accent, which is reminiscent of the traisvarya of the Vedic Sanskrit. In size, both the epics span 24 books each, the Iliad being the bigger of the two with 15,693 lines and the Odyssey with 12,110 lines. The two epics are poetic interpolations of real historical events, as is the case with the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. Archeological excavations by H. Schliemann establish the existence of the grand city of Troy and a great war before or during the time of Homer. [3].

The Iliad

 

Background

Homer The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer – Introduction Horsemen-300x178

Horsemen, probably Achilles and Hector chasing each other  (Picture courtesy – Google Image Search)

Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta, is abducted by the Trojan prince Paris, who, in the guise of a diplomatic mission visited Sparta to seduce her. Ilios, more popularly known as Troy, was then ruled by Priam, the grand old man and his queen Hecabe. The children of the couple include the mighty hero, Hector, who is also the eldest, Cassandra, the sorceress, Deiphobus, and Paris (also known as Alexander). Aeneas is the son-in-law of Priam (the hero of the epic Aeneid by Virgil). The city of Troy had mighty walls, which served as fortification, and were built by the Great God of Sea, Poseidon (in some versions, Apollo too is said to have helped in building the wall). The Spartans, enraged by the abduction of their queen gather forces of different rulers all over Greece and lay siege on Troy. Prominent among them are the commander-in-chief Agamemnon, the king of Mycaene and the brother of Meneleaus, Nestor, the grand old king of Pylos, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, Diomedes, the king of Argos and Achilles, the son of the water goddess Thetis and the ruler of Myrmidons. This combined army, collectively known as ‘Achaeans’, ‘Argives,’ or ‘Danaans’ lays siege on Troy. The war goes on for nine years without victory on either side.

Synopsis

The Iliad starts in medias res (‘in the middle of things’) in the tenth year of the war. The Achaeans are camped on the shores of Troy, outside its fortress. Achilles, in his dispute with Agamemnon over a certain girl, Briseis, refuses to help the Achaeans any longer in the war and retires to his camp. On the following day during the war, the timid prince, Paris challenges Menelaus for a duel and is rescued just in time by the goddess Aphrodite. This conspiracy of Aphrodite enrages the other Gods and they take sides in the war – Hera and Athena on the side of the Achaeans and Aphrodite, Apollo, and Ares on the side of the Trojans. The war rages and both sides suffer loses. At nightfall, the Achaeans build fortifications as protection for their camps and their ships. Agamemnon realizes that having an annoyed and a non-cooperative Achilles will do no good for the Achaeans and making truce with him is the only option. Achilles, however, turns down Agamemnon’s apologies and is adamant. The battle continues at sunrise and the Trojans, led by their prince Hector defeat a large part of the Achaean army and attack their encampments and fortifications. The goddess Hera, fearing the defeat of the Achaeans, puts her husband Zeus, the chief among Gods to sleep and requests Poseidon’s help. Although the Achaeans are momentarily relived by this, with Apollo working against them, they fall prey to the attack of the Trojans on the following day too. Patroclus, the dear comrade of Achilles cannot stand the defeat of the Achaeans. Although Achilles relents his participation, he gives him his own armor. Thus, Patroclus, in the guise of Achilles, leads the Myrmidons and brings hope to the Achaeans. He is killed by Hector, who takes away the armor of Achilles from his body. There is a fight over the body of Patroclus and is finally given to the custody of his comrade, Achilles. Achilles, enraged by the death of his dear friend, enters the battle slaying many a Trojan men. He has a duel with Hector, chases him thrice on foot around the city of Troy and finally kills him. He carries the body of the dead Hector to his camp, as a tribute to his dead friend Patroclus. Many funeral games are held in the honor of Patroclus. The epic ends with Priam, the king of Troy, coming down to the Achaean camp at night and requesting Achilles to return the body of his dead son, Hector, to which Achilles kindly concedes.

The Odyssey

 

Background

Ten years have passed since the Trojan war and the hero Odysseus has still not returned to his homeland, Ithaca. He has left his home for twenty years in all. His mother has died of grief and his father, the king Laertes has retired to his farm house, longing to see his son. His wife Penelope laments for her husband and is courted by several suitors who have infested the house of Odysseus. During this period, under the pretext of weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, she tricks the suitors to keep them at check. She weaves during the day and undoes a part of the shroud at night. She maintains that she would marry one of the suitors only after the shroud is ready. Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who was just a baby when his father left for war, is now twenty years old.

Synopsis

The epic begins with the Gods discussing the fate of Odysseus. Athena decides to aid his homecoming and to prepare Telemachus for the same. She comes to him disguised as Mentor and urges him to travel to the kingdoms of Menelaus and Nestor to seek the tidings of his father. Telemachus learns about the fall of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon from them.

Odysseus, after having spent seven years as a captive on Calypso’s island, is instigated by Hermes to build his own raft and to head on his way home. After a fight with the sea, Odysseus lands on the island of the Phaeacians. There, in the court of the king Alcinous, we learn from the words of the royal bard about the episode of the Trojan horse, a scheme devised by the Achaeans which resulted in the fall of Troy. Odysseus then reveals his identity to the king and recalls the details of his voyage from the time he left Troy until the current point in time. Odysseus and his men raid the island of Cicones, right after their departure from Troy. Later, they visit the Lotus eaters by chance and then land on the island of the Cyclopes. Odysseus tricks the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon and is cursed by the latter to spend ten years at sea. They then land on the kingdom of Aelous, who gifts them a bag, warning them not to open it until they reach home. The curious comrades of Odysseus open it, just as they were nearing their homeland and are thrown back again into the wild sea. They end up on the land of Circe and on her advice, visit the house of Hades. She foretells their future course of journey. After passing through the land of Sirens and encountering the sheep of Helios, Scylla and Carybdis, Odysseus reaches the land of Calypso. By then, he has lost his comrades and the twelve ships. Odysseus later lands in the court of the king Alcinous who aids him by giving ships and sailors to get him back home.

Odysseus reaches the shore of own kingdom, Ithaca and on the advice of Athena, goes in disguise as a beggar to the house of his swineherd, Eumaeus. Meanwhile, Telemachus returns from Sparta and visits Eumaeus too. The father reveals his identity to the son and the two plot an attack on the suitors to win back the palace. With the help of Athena, they win over the suitors and Odysseus reveals his identity to his wife Penelope. Odysseus then visits his father Laertes to tell him of his return. He is attacked by a mob which wishes to avenge the killing of the suitors. With the intervention of Athena, there is peace and the Odyssey ends on a happy note.

References:                             

                                                                                 

[1] ‘Homer-Iliad’ (Greek, English), Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University press, English translation by A.T. Murray and Revised by William. F. Wyatt (1925)

[2] ‘Homer-Odyssey’ (Greek, English), Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University press, English translation by A.T. Murray and Revised by George E. Dimock (1919)

[3] ‘Homer’, C.M. Bowra, Gerald Duckworth & Company Limited (1972)

[4] ‘Alaṅkāras in the Iliad of Homer’, Arjun Bharadwaj (2016)

[5]. ‘Tradition and Design in the Iliad’, C.M. Bowra, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1930)

Appendix:

The earliest translation of Iliad to English was in 1581 by Arthur Hall of London and of Odyssey was in 1615 by George Chapman. Among the currently available translations, the following are dependable ones: ‘The Iliad’, translation in verse by Robert Fitzgerald (1974) and ‘The Odyssey’ translation in verse by George Chapman, edited version published by Wordsworth Classics (2002). The prose translations of the epics published by the Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press are the closet to the original and have been used as the primary references for the current article [1],[2].

Trojan yuddha’(IBH publications, 1978) and ‘Odyssey’ (PRISM books 2011) are reliable adaptations of the epics in the Kannada language by Prof. K.M. Seetharamayya. ‘Greek mithakagaḻu’ by the same author serves as an excellent supplement on Greek Mythology. Works on mythology by Edith Hamilton and Thomas Bulfinch are good references for a concise treatment of the same in English.

 

To be continued …

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Arjun Bharadwaj

Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He is currently studying comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.
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