Saturday, June 6, 2009

Iliad and Odyssey: A Brief Glimpse

by Ioanes Rakhmat

The works I
liad and Odyssey were composed by Homer sometime between 800 and 680 BCE, with Iliad preceding Odyssey in time of composition.[1] Iliad is a tragedy and Odyssey is a novel;[2] both were designed to be heard and recited in public performance, before a live audience, and not to be read in private.[3] Both had their origins in oral performances.[4] The central theme of both works is the suffering of pious and innocent people during the Trojan War (Iliad) and its aftermath (Odyssey). The mythological hero Heracles plays a non-active role in both works (Iliad, books XVIII and XIX; Odyssey, book XI). According to Aune, Heracles was “the single most popular” mythological hero in ancient Greek and Roman folklore, being honored as a god or a son of the god Zeus. Heracles was never understood to have been “an actual historical individual”; but, from antiquity to the present, his figure has appeared in diverse folktales, myths, local cults and literary adaptations, as well as in artistic representations which were made as early as the eighth century BCE.[5]

A cumulative oral tradition and a mass of legendary and mythical material of very ancient date were worked up by Homer into seemingly historical tales;[6] the result was a new genre called epic poetry[7] and marked by fictitious character.[8] Historical interest sometimes motivates one to treat Iliad and Odyssey as historical sources to be employed in excavating and reconstructing ancient Greek life and culture which are seen as interwoven or embedded in the layers of the mythical texts. This effort is based on the unwarranted assumption that mythical literary works always contain some historical material.[9] This assumption becomes questionable when scholars advance conclusions such as the following: “[S]trictly speaking there is no such thing as ‘Homeric society’; there is the society of the Iliad and that of the Odyssey.”[10] This does not mean that there is nothing historical at all in Iliad and Odyssey; the city of Troy, e.g., was once a fact in the history of this world. Nevertheless, as a whole, the central concern of both these works is not history.

In Thomas Finan’s view, Iliad has a mythic, universalising, paradigmatic or representative character; it represents a human revolt against the human condition “at its most ultimately tragic, faced not just with innocent suffering but with the final unredeemed futility of death.”[11] Homer opens Iliad by telling that all events therein related are “in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.”[12] Thus, all the events connected with the war between the Achaeans (or Grecians) and the Trojans, including occurrences such as the grisly death of Hector, the Trojan leader, together with the mal-treatment of his corpse by Achilles, the Grecian leader, are presented as having been divinely foreordained. Indeed, Homer paints Zeus, the supreme Olympian deity, as neutral; but he is said to have ordered all the other gods to join either the Achaeans or the Trojans and to assist, as their sympathies dictate, the side chosen (Iliad, Book XX).[13]

In Odyssey, the protagonist is the innocent sufferer Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, who, with others of the Greek chieftains, is returning home after the war. Odysseus is depicted as being very eager to be reunited with his virtuous and single-hearted wife, Queen Penelope. Odysseus stands out as a heroic, suffering figure who is, in the words of G. S. Kirk, “long-suffering, patient, wise, humane, resigned, philosophical, hard-headed, practical, brutal when circumstances demand it, boastful at times.”[14] Sometimes, however, Odysseus can feel disquieted and doubtful of his own strength. In preparing for the struggle to remove the suitors who had been disturbing his wife while he was away in Troy, Odysseus was very anxious. At that moment, his patroness, the goddess of the gleaming eyes, Athene, the daughter of Zeus, descended from heaven and drew near to him, encouraging him by saying to him: “Unbelieving one, most men are ready to trust a comrade, a mortal man without my strength and without my cunning; yet I am a goddess, one who through all your trials has guarded you continually....”[15] The divine vindication of the suffering innocent Odysseus is announced when Zeus, replying to Athene, utters these words, “…Was it not you who framed this plan, so that Odysseus at his homecoming should be revenged upon the suitors? You may work in any way you please, but I will tell you what way is best. Now that the king has taken his vengeance on the suitors, let both sides make a solemn covenant; let Odysseus reign there all his days, while we ourselves bring about forgetfulness of the slaughtering of sons and brothers. Let them all be friends as they were of old, and let there be wealth and peace in plenty” (Odyssey Book XXIV 442-525).[16]


[1] Walter Shewring (trans.), Homer, The Odyssey. Introduction by G. S. Kirk (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982 [1980 (first ed.)]) xvi; Rieu, Homer, The Odyssey, 11 n.†; M.M. Austin and P. Vidal-Naquet, Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction. ET by M.M. Austin (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973 [1972]) 37-38.

[2] Rieu, Homer, The Odyssey, 10; Homer, The Iliad (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960 [19501]) vii.

[3] Elizabeth Minchin, “The Performance of Lists and Catalogues in the Homeric Epics” in Ian Worthington, ed., Voice into Text: Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece (Mnemosyne: Supp. 157; Leiden, etc.: Brill, 1996) 4 [3-20]; Walter Shewring, Homer, The Odyssey, viii.

[4] In modern scholarship, the theory that Homeric epic poems Iliad and Odyssey originated in oral public performances is first contended by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. For a historical and methodological study of this theory, see John Miles Foley, The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988). In his work, Against Apion 1.11-12, Flavius Josephus (born 37/38 CE) writes: “....Throughout the whole range of Greek literature no undisputed work is found more ancient than the poetry of Homer. His date, however, is clearly later than the Trojan war; and even he, they say, did not leave his poems in writing....”

[5] The mythological figure Heracles himself goes back at least to the Mycenaean period (1400-1000 BCE), if not earlier. See David E. Aune, “Heracles and Christ. Heracles Imagery in the Christology of Early Christianity” in David L. Balch, Everett Ferguson, Wayne A. Meeks (eds.), Greeks, Roman, and Christians (Essays in honor of Abraham J. Malherbe) (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) 4f. [3-19]; see also Roman Garrison, Why Are You Silent, Lord? (The Biblical Seminar 68. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) 37-44.

[6] Walter Shewring, Homer, The Odyssey, xiii-xvi; Rieu, Homer, The Odyssey, 11.

[7] W. Merrit Sale, “Homer and Avdo: Investigating Orality Through External Consistency” in Ian Worthington, ed., Voice into Text, 21-42. “Epic poetry” is a genre, either oral or imitative of oral in origins, which is composed throughout by a technique indistinguishable from the oral; in this regard, “an oral technique amount[s] to oral composition” (p. 24). On the “oral-formulaic theory” of Homer’s works, see also Mary Sale, “The Oral-formulaic Theory Today” in Janet Watson, ed., Speaking Volumes: Orality and Literacy in the Greek and Roman World (Mnemosyne: Supp. 218; Leiden, etc.: Brill, 2001) 53-80.

[8] See, e.g., W.B. Stanford, “Homer” in T. James Luce, ed. in chief, Ancient Writers Greece and Rome, vol. 1: Homer to Caesar (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982) 2, 25 [1-41]; D.C. Feeney, “Toward an Account of the Ancient World’s Concepts of Fictive Belief” in Christopher Gill and T.P. Wiseman, eds., Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1993) 232-233 [230-244].

[9] However, according to Feeney (“Fictive Belief”, pp. 242, 233), we should also pay serious attention to “the various margins between fictive and other narratives, especially the margin between the belief accorded to fictions and the belief accorded to other modes of speech or representation” (for instance history and science), and to the “difference between history and epic” which has nothing to do with what we might label “historicity” (whether something had happened or not), but was rather a question of the mode of treatment, the degree of “fictiveness” which is applied in the narrating. See also Feeney, The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford, 1991) 44-45, 253-56, 261-264.

[10] Austin and Vidal-Naquet, Economic and Social History, 39.

[11] Thomas Finan, “The Myth of the Innocent Sufferer: Some Greek Paradigms” in Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 9:121-135 (Dublin: Irish Biblical Association Publications, 1985) 125f.

[12] Rieu, trans., Homer, The Iliad, 23; Frans van Oldenburg Ermke, trans., Homeros, Ilias en Odyssea (Retie: Kempische Boekhandel, 1959) 7.

[13] Rieu, The Iliad, 366.

[14] “Introduction” to Walter Shewring, Homer, The Odyssey, xix.

[15] Walter Shewring, Homer, the Odyssey, 243ff. (Book XX).

[16] Walter Shewring, Homer, the Odyssey, 296-297.