Homer's Iliad

The Iliad is a story of the Trojan War, specifically the Greek Hero Achilles and King Agammemnon, and how their conflict over a concubine delays them winning the war. The story takes place around 1260 BC - 1180 BC. The story was originally passed down through the generations orally as a poem, which explains some of the repetitive aspects of the written version. It was written down by Homer around 760 BC - 710 BC.

What is striking is how long this story existed without being written down. Taking the midpoints of the above intervals, that is 485 years before being written down. That is like a half-millenium-long game of telephone! Then, it was written down and translated multiple times. The version I read was translated by Samuel Butler in 1898, and even after a century, his english sounds weird to me. I imagine there is a lot of the original character of the story that is lost in translation through the many languages it was expressed in, and through the shift in medium from oral to written. The essence of the story is not that complex. There are the gods, which are immortal, the people of Achaea (Greeks), and the people of Troy (Trojans).

The whole reason there is a war going on between the Achaeans and the Trojans is that King Meneleus’ wife Helen, a goddess, somehow becomes eloped to Prince Alexandrus of Troy. This is never explained, and historians don’t know if it was some sort of abudction or something consensual. I suspect the common knowledge of the ancient Greeks that sang this epic poem probably contained an answer to this question, but it’s lost now.

iliad map

The story begins during the final weeks of the (9 year long) Trojan war. King Agammemnon had captured a woman named Chryseis, and her father Chryses travels to Agammemnon and tries to pay him a ransom to give his daughter back. All the other Achaeans agree he should take the ransom and return her, but Agammemnon is a dick and says no. So Chryses, who happens to be a priest of the god Apollo, prays to Apollo, who then rages down from Mount Olympus and shoots flaming arrows down at Agammemnon’s people. Achilles is even angrier with Agammemnon for all this, and tells him to return Chryseis, but Agammemnon is still a dick and says that he is going to take Achilles’ concubine Briseis after returning Chryseis.

When reading this I was struck by how absurdly different our modern civilized world is from this Bronze age nightmare of a place. It was apparently totally normal to kidnap women and keep them as property, and to start a war over a marital dispute. I am glad I live in this century, although I suspect people in the year 5017 AD are going to find many of the things we think are normal as totally barbaric. Among those things I think eating meat, driving cars manually, and dying of heart attacks and cancer are all going to be things that will seem ridiculously backwards to people 3000 years from now.

Back to the story, I tried hard to read from the perspective of someone living in that time, just taking certain elements of the context and story for granted.

The battles between the Trojans and Achaeans are almost always influenced by the Olympian gods and goddesses. Also the warriors are mostly aware of this. There is a single book in the Iliad where the gods are not supposed to intervene, but Neptune does anyway, and gets the goddess Juno to trick Jove into falling asleep by having sex with him. What’s gross is that Jove and Juno are siblings, and step-siblings. And married. And they momentarily hate each other, so Juno works around it by getting all dressed up and seducing Jove. She then tries to convince Sleep, the god of sleep, to make Jove fall asleep with his eyes closed. She has to find Sleep a wife, and has them married in front of the Titans as witnesses. Finally, once Jove is asleep, Neptune comes out of hiding and tries to help the Achaeans win.

It goes back and forth between the gods helping either side, and at one point near the end, the gods break into two groups and fight with each other along with the mortal warriors. Despite all this, the war isn’t decisively won until Achilles finally joins the Achaeans in battle. And this only happens when is dear friend Patroclus dies.

There is a whole lot more depth to the character development, and subtelty that I’ve deliberately avoided getting into. I will need to read the book several more times, and for now I would like to write a short and enjoyable review.

One more thing that stood out to me is how much of the text centered around the eating and drinking rituals. There were very detailed, repetitive paragraphs dedicated to how to sacrifice a goat or a bull, how to burn it’s thigh bones, how to wrap layers of fat around them and how to roast the meat with spits. One way to get the gods to help you out is to cook some food, and eat it, then drink wine and dance. This was enough to win favors from the gods.

I am moving on to the sequel, the Odyssey, I’ll have more to say about it after I finish that. Along with these stories, Hesiod was writing in the same century as Homer, and Hesiod covers the origin story that the Greeks of that time believed. I plan on reading that as well to get more context around these old tales.