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Homers Iliad

Scope: This lecture deals with the Iliad, beginning with an account of the origins of the Trojan War as recounted by Homer. We then treat the elements of an epic poem, whose conventions were established for the Western world by Homers two poems, including heroic characters, the participation of gods and goddesses, the grand style (including epic similes), beginning the poem in medias res, and the invocation. After a description of a shame culture, the way it functions in Book 1, and a brief recounting of the events of the rest of the poem, we present two ways in which this work influenced all subsequent Western literature: its individualistic notion of heroism and the hero, using both Achilles and Hector as examples, and its treatment of the enemy as equal in dignity and worth to the protagonists, giving to literature an impersonal order which has enhanced its authority ever since.

I. According to Harold Bloom, the Hebrew Bible and Homers epics compete for the consciousness of Western nations as the most important literary works in history. A. According to the Greeks themselves, the Trojan War was a 10-year siege of the city by a consolidated force of mainland and island kings and their armies. 1. The traditional date for the fall of Troy is 1184 B.C.E., about the same time the Hebrews were moving into Canaan. 2. It occurred during the Mycenaean Age (c. 15001150 B.C.E.), named after Mycenae: the largest, wealthiest city on the mainland, ruled by Agamemnon. 3. It was fought because Paris (or Alexandros), son of King Priam of Troy, abducted Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. 4. King Agamemnon, Menelauss brother, led an armada of a thousand black ships to Troy to avenge the insult and to retrieve Helen. 5. Homers Iliad does not tell the entire story; rather, it deals only with about 52 days during the 10th year of the siege. B. Stories about the Trojan War survived orally for about 400 years until Homerwhoever he wassomewhere around 700 B.C.E. wove some of them into an epic poem. The distance shows up in the poem sometimes in such details as Homers unawareness of how chariots were used in battle. II. An epica long narrative poem dealing with large and important characters and eventswas defined for the Western world by Homers two poems. A. Homers techniques became the conventions of succeeding epic poems in imitation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. 1. Characters are larger and stronger than men and women are in contemporary life and are able to achieve great feats of physical strength and courage. 2. Gods and goddesses are more directly involved in human life as well, making lifes meanings more transparent than they are now. The gods and goddesses are characters in the poems and will later be called the supernatural machinery of the epic. 3. The epics style is lofty and avoids vulgarities and colloquialisms. 4. Even its rhetorical devices are on the grand scale, like its epic similes, comparisons introduced by like or as which continue on for many lines (e.g., the comparison in Book 8 between fires on the plain before Troy and stars in the sky). 5. The poem begins with an invocation to the Muse, who sings through the poet, helping him tell a story he was not there to see for himself.

6. The epic begins in medias res, in the middle of things (i.e., in the middle of the story), and fills in the necessary background in flashbacks. B. Homers subjectwarfarewas likewise crucial, so that most future epics will be about heroes on the battlefield and the honor they win there. III. The poem begins with a dispute between Agamemnon, the great king, and Achilles, the greatest fighter, over a slave girl, leading to the anger of Achilles, the announced theme of the poem. A. The Greeks lived in what is sometimes called a shame culture, an other-directed culture in which ones worth is based on how ones peers value him. 1. A warriors worth is based on the prizes awarded him by the army. 2. When Agamemnon strips Achilles of one of his prizesthe slave girlAchilles loses face. 3. Agamemnon would lose face by backing down to Achilles before the whole army, which he commands, and so they reach an impasse. 4. Achilles withdraws from the fight and stays in his tent until his best friend, Patroclus, wearing Achilles armor, is killed in battle by Hector, the greatest Trojan fighter. 5. Then Achilles, who has been angry with Agamemnon, directs his anger at the Trojans and Hector until he meets Hector in battle, kills him, and then dishonors the body, refusing to allow it burial. B. The anger of Achilles ends when Priam, Hectors aged father and the King of Troy, travels alone to Achilles tent to beg the return of his sons body. 1. Achilles and Priam weep together, and Achilles returns Hectors body. 2. When the anger of Achilles ends, so does the poem; its final event is the funeral of Hector in Troy. IV. Among the Iliads myriad legacies, two are especially important for the history of literature. A. The first enduring legacy is that heroism is defined in the poem as fighting hand-to-hand in battlelike the gunfights on Main Street in later Westerns. 1. Considerations for family and community come after that for ones own reputation. 2. Hector, who is a very good man, nevertheless chooses his own dignity and integrity over that of his community and his wife and child. 3. As Moses Hadas reminds us, heroism for the ancient Greeks was an individualistic quest, and the heros ultimate loyalty is always to himself, not to his family, nation, or even his gods. B. The second enduring legacy is Homers treatment of the enemythe Trojansas equal in dignity and humanity to the army of Agamemnon and Achilles. 1. Both armies speak the same language, worship the same gods, and live by the same codes. 2. The Trojans can be seen as more sympathetic, since we see them with their families, while the Achaeans are an army on the prowl. 3. Northrop Frye says that the demonstration in the poem that the fall of an enemy is as tragic as that of a friend or leader gives a disinterested quality to this literature which is part of its authority, moving it beyond entertainment, propaganda, or devotion toward the vision of nature as an impersonal order. Essential Reading: Homer, the Iliad. Supplementary Reading: Harold Bloom, ed. Homer (Blooms Modern Critical Views). Jasper Griffin, Homer (Past Masters).

Moses Hadas, Humanism: The Greek Ideal and Its Survival.