The Iliad

Homer

The Iliad is said to be the world’s most ancient literature, dated circa 800 B.C. and is one of two epic poems attributed to Homer (The Odyssey, of course, being the other one). Too muh has been written about this tome to add anything noteworthy. The word “Iliad” refers a woman of Ilion or Ilium, which are other names that Homer gives to the possibly mythical city of Troy. Interestingly, the term “Greek” was unknown to Homer, as many other names were then in use. Feudal villages predominated and as “nations” hadn’t been stitched together. The poem deals with the ten-year war between Greeks (mainly from Sparta) against Troy, which was caused the beautiful Greek girl, Helen, who fled her husband, the King of Sparta, with her Trojan lover, Paris (also known as Alexandros). Achilleus (Achilles), “the runner”, is a central character/warrior for the Spartans, who took a spear in his ankle that led to his demise, and the term “Achilles’’ heel”. The Spartans finally prevailed by dint of the Trojan Horse (the large wooden horse that Odysseus designed in which the Spartans hid), which, when carted inside the Trojans walls, led to their undoing, when the Spartans emerged.

What can we say about this classic literature? When reading Thoreau of late, my interest in Homer was rekindled, as Thoreau quoted him so often and beseeched his readers to return to the classics and to Homer, in particular: “All adventurous readers return to the classics,” Thoreau counseled. The Iliad, however, tests our literary stamina. Like the Old Testament, it had to be written on plant leaves, clay tables and latter parchment (animal skins) and re-written endless times by all manner of scribes and editors. As the experts say, “It is attributed to Homer,” implying that it had many authors and revisionists seeking to please the then current monarch or audience. Since virtually no one could then read, such epic poems had to be read aloud, and stories about gods, princes, beautiful women, armies and endless combat were surely no less fascinating than they are today. Of course, the cadence and rhymes, whatever they were when crafted in Ancient Greek, are totally lost in today’s translations. Regardless, it is interesting to see the kind of entertainment that then existed.

Homer was a great poet who lived circa 800 B.C., before Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tsu, and most every well known name in recorded history, except Moses. His Iliad is, above all else, a story of a protracted war, battle by battle, spear by spear, death by death. It has the ring of today’s violent films, cast back almost 3000 years. It praises war, in ways, and speaks of the honor of “dying for one’s country” and similar exhortations that were, no doubt, soothing music to the rulers of his day. The violence made it interesting to his readers, as violence always is to humans. The many Greek and Trojan gods participate in his epic, engaging in dialogue, like ordinary citizens. He notes, “All men have need of gods,” a sentiment often paraphrased by intellects down through the ages. Indeed, Homer is among the most quoted poets in all of literature. Still, this endlessly lauded epic builds no great characters, weaves no spellbinding tales, and provides no timeless morals or messages. Still, it is so often quoted or cited that all adventurous readers need to peruse its pages at least once.