A progressive exploration of the great books
The Great Books of Science
The Iliad, The Odyssey
Homer, Greece.c 450 BCE
Few books hold as central a position in the canon of Western culture as the two epic poems of Homer,The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Ancient Greeks regarded Homer's two epics as their highest cultural achievement of their people and the defining moment in Greek culture. In both Greece and Rome, all works were compared to these two poems. Even the national poem of Rome, The Aeneid, is based on the Odyssey and links the founding of Rome with the fall of Troy.
Both of Homer’s poems concern that great defining moment of Ancient Greek culture -- the Trojan War. It is highly unlikely that the war between the Greeks and Trojans occurred as described by Homer. There is evidence that the Mycenaeans and Illians clashed and the city of Troy was destroyed but everything else -- Achilles, Hector, Paris and Helen, Odysseus, the horse and the great battles are all the figments of the ancient poet’s mind.
But as the disparate states of ancient Greece came together to repel Persian invasions these two poems took on a different sense and were not regarded merely as some historical myth about brave warriors but as the defining embodiment of the Greek ‘Character.’ The story of the Greeks setting side rivalries to take on a great national mission resonated with the Athenians and Spartans who were facing down their Eastern rivals.
But the two extant poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are much more than simple martial myths. The ancient Greeks recognized the great poetry contained within the stories and the important concepts contained within the epics. There was no sense that these were some sacred works but they were recognized for their brilliance.
Professional story-tellers would roam the country and sing the stories of the Trojan War and its Greek heroes; stories they would take many evenings to complete. The Greeks believed that the greatest of these story-tellers was a blind man named Homer, and that he sung ten epic poems about the Trojan War, of which only two have survived. This collection of poems related the entire history of the Trojan War from Helen’s abduction by Paris to the final return of Odysseus; each poem covering each episode. There is evidence from the classical age in Greece that people memorized the complete poetry of Homer word for word, more than 25,000 lines of poetry.
While there are many classicists who believe that the two surviving Homeric epics were composed by several individuals, the absence of any evidence to the contrary means most classicists accept the traditional Greek notion of a single author. Whoever wrote these epics it is an established fact that they were written down within a couple of decades of their composition and have remained largely unchanged since then.
The two epics also contain some very novel ideas. The idea of family is briefly discussed in The Iliad as Hector is filled with angst for the future of his wife and children before he leaves for his last battle. This is so unlike the other warrior epics of the era. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is driven by the idea of returning home – home and place being a novel idea for the individual listener.
The Iliad is the story of a specific event in the ninth year of the ten-year Trojan war. The Greek hero Achilles, offended that the leader of the Greeks (or the Achaeans), Agamemnon, has taken a slave girl that Achilles had been awarded, has withdrawn with his men from the battle. So full of rage, Achilles prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to turn the tide of battle against the Greeks. The gods grant Achilles his wish and the Trojans or Illians, led by their hero Hector begin to push the Greeks back toward their boats. In the battles Hector sweeps many great Greek fighters such as Ajax back until he is challenged by Achilles’ best friend and mentor Patroclus. When Achilles learns that Hector has killed Patroclus in battle he rushes back with his men and throws himself into the battle. Eventually Hector and Achilles meet on the field and Hector is killed. In a shameful gesture of contempt, he drags Hector's lifeless body around the walls of Troy.
The theme of the Iliad, aside from the descriptions of men at war and nature of warrior bonds, is the idea of fame and honour. Achilles is given a choice: either he can be a great and famous hero in war and die or the can live a long, happy life without any lasting fame whatsoever. Achilles initially chooses not to die young, but the death of his friend forces him to make the choice that will make him famous for all time.
As the legend of Troy details in later stories Achilles does indeed die young when Paris, Hector’s brother, shoots Achilles in the heel and he dies from the wound.
The Odyssey is the story of the long perilous homecoming of another of the great Greek heroes at Troy, Odysseus. Odysseus was not famed for his great strength or bravery, but for his ability to deceive and trick. Odysseus is the Greek who comes up with the idea to take Troy by offering the citizens a large wooden horse filled, unbeknownst to the Trojans, with Greek soldiers).
But he quickly angers the gods with his arrogance and his homecoming is delayed for ten years. After the victory at Troy Odysseus and his men leave for home but are stranded on an island where Odysseus is brought under the spell of the goddess Kalypso, who is madly in love with him. Odysseus, like Achilles, has a choice: he may either live on the island with Kalypso and be immortal like the gods, or he may return to his wife Penelope and his homeland of Ithaca and return to mortality. He chooses to return, and rest of the Odyssey is a long exposition on the meaning of mortality. In one episode Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles in Hades. Achilles explains that he would rather be the poorest slave in the land of the living than be the most famous of the dead. If being dead is so awful, what is it about being human that makes up for the infinite suffering that attends our deaths? Finally, Odysseus finally gets home and rescues his wife and children. Much of the second half of the poem book deals with the nature of human civilization and human savagery. And also the radical question of what value can be attached to an un-heroic life that will be forgotten at its conclusion?