1. Lemex

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Oct 2, 2007
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    Northeast England

    Getting started with homer

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by Lemex, Jul 23, 2015.

    While talking with another member here via PM I wrote a short essay that hopefully helps ease the pain of getting started with Homer.

    The Homeric poems can at first seem very intimidating, and I know back in school my Classics teacher dedicated a near full lesson to a lecture/rant explaining Homer's importance. Without Homer and his two epic poems you wouldn't have western culture as we understand it today. At all. They are the beating heart of the 'glory that was Greece' and it made a deep impression on me. I remember starting with the Rieu translations and a very definite sense of 'Oh - my - god, this is HOMER'. It seemed really intimidating given their reputation, which is only really rivalled for importance by The Bible. So, hopefully, this will help get around that, and ease the pain of starting with Homer's truly great epic poems. And hopefully those of you who have read at least one, or both of them can learn something new here too.

    The poems, because of their titanic reputation, might make them feel terribly difficult and literary - but really, they aren't really that complicated once you get going. Mostly, you will just need to understand that there are two prevailing interpretations of both of Homer's poems, and both of these interpretations are formed along similar lines. And the two interpretations themselves do not necessarily cancel each other out.

    The first thing to understand are the formal conventions of epic poetry, the major thing that usually throws people before they is the calling of the muses that usually starts them. Like the opening of The Iliad:

    Sing, muse, sing the rage of Pelus's son, Achillies
    Whose fury and rage cost the Acheaon's countless losses
    of so many brave souls, thrown to the underworld to be
    carrion for dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was
    moving to it's conclusion.
    Begin, muse, when the two first broke with one another
    the lord of men, Agamemnon, and brilliant Achillies.

    And the opening of The Odyssey:

    Sing of the man, Muse, the man of cleverness and cunning,
    The wanderer, lost at sea for years on end
    after he plundered the proud heights of Troy.
    Many lands he saw and learned the ways of many distant people,
    and weathered many bitter nights and days
    alone at sea, while he fought
    to save his life, to bring his friends home.
    But he could not save them with valour alone
    for their own recklessness destroyed them all —
    the childish fools, for they killed and feasted on
    the cattle of Lord Hêlios, the Sun,
    and he who moves all day through the sky
    took the day of their return from them.

    This can seem very artificial, and it is, but this is a formal convention you need to be aware of. This is the poet preparing himself for the task, and calling on help from the gods themselves to complete the task of reciting these great poems. You have to remember, these poems were first composed orally, or were stories communities would hear at the end of the working day as a form of entertainment when no one could read or write, so this calling on the muses is a left over from when singers would literally feel the need to ask the gods for help in remembering them - like a prayer for success.

    Also, because these poems were composed orally you'll see a lot of repetition. Odysseus always has cunning, or Metis, Agamemnon is always 'The lord of men', Hector is always 'Breaker of horses' for example. That's just something you have to allow for in reading it, things like that in oral poetry give the poet (or rhapsode) breathing space to think of the next line and part. Oh, and before we go any further, the Acheaon (many spellings of this I'm afriad) and Argives refers to the coalition of Greek armies massed against Troy. The Homeric scholar, Milman Parry found this was still part of the conventions of other oral poems in the Balkan regions, especially among the shepherds and swineherds, which also links Homeric poetry to the Pastoral poetry of Theocritus that exists today in the work of poets like Robert Frost and Seamus Heaney. It also seems to be a part of other oral traditions, like the Norse poetic tradition that gave us the Elder Edda.

    The stories are the most important part of Homer, and Homer's audiences would have known the stories before Homer, and later the Rhapsodes who were a school of singers trained specifically to recite Epic Poetry, especially Homer's, for the people of Greece. This is also true of the great examples of Greek Drama, leading to an almost horrifically ironic comment from Oedipus 'I have known the story before you have told it' in Sophocles's fantastic Oedipus Tyrannus.

    Basically the story of The Iliad is that Agamemnon steals Achillies concubine, who then is made so mad he sits out much of the last 10 days of the war brooding. This gives the Trojans a hand, and they begin to win, after about 14 books of really blood-thirsty combat when the Trojans push the Greeks back until they are raiding the Greek camp, Achillies' friend Patrocholus asks to don Achillies' armour and fight as Achillies in Achilles's place to help inspire the Greeks. Achillies agrees, and Patrocholus goes out into the battle, where he is directly confronted by the Trojan prince Hector and killed, and then a blood thirsty battle erupts over Patrocholus's corpse that the Greeks just manage to win. Hearing of his friend's death sends Achillies into an uncontrollable rage, and he then gets the gods themselves to forge his new armour, and they make the most beautiful armour that has ever been seen on earth. And then he's ready, and single-handedly routs the entire Trojan army - sending them fleeing behind the high walls of Troy, all besides Hector, who Achillies then brutally kills in a duel - and dragging his nearly-torn-in-half corpse behind his chariot for all Hector's friends, family and subjects to see. Achillies then holds funeral games for Patrochulus, and that night the king of Troy, king Priam sneaks into the Argive camp and politely asks Achillies for his son's body back (imagine the balls it must have taken to do that!). Achillies is so touched, he agrees, they have dinner together, and agrees on behalf of Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks to a truce so the Trojans can bury Hector, which they do, and that's where the epic ends, 'So the Trojans buried Hector, breaker of horses'.

    The Odyssey is Odysseus's return home from Troy, and all the dangers he faced. Books 1-4 concern Telemachus going around the royal palaces of Greece asking for help finding his father, Odysseus. Books 5-15 concern Odysseus's many adventures and why he hasn't reached home in 10 years, while the other kings got home in a few years, many great adventures are told of along the way, and books 15-24 concern what he does when he returns home, kills all 108 suitors to Penelope, his wife. These suitors have been sleeping in his bed, annoying his wife, eating his food, and plotting to murder his son. After killing, Athene the god of Justice comes to earth to settle some scores, and then Odysseus and Penelope reunite, and in the closing scene of the epic, Odyssesus visits his father to tell him he is finally home.

    Now, the interpretations: I'll put in bold the first part of the first sentences of the traditional interpretation and the poetic interpretation to separate them out a bit.

    The traditional interpretations of The Iliad and Odyssey are the same, they are both poems that explore the concept of Arate, which means essentially 'fine or noble qualities' - it's where the word 'Aristocracy' comes from. In The Iliad it's obviously around the Arate of warfare, and in this reading the Greeks are the good guys, the Trojans are the bad guys - and it was, the whole war, a war for honour, or Arate since Helen was stolen by Paris the Trojan prince from Menelaus, the prince of Sparta, and brother of Agamemnon - Agamemnon is the one who calls the kings of Greece together to launch the attack on Troy, so he is 'Lord of men' in the part I quoted. The Trojans have honour, it's the greatest war ever fought in the Greek's eyes, and so both sides need to be sort of noble or the Arate is either incomplete or doesn't make sense - if that makes sense. The reason why Achillies breaks with Agamemnon and the rest of the Argive forces is all a question of Arate, he feels he has been wronged.

    In Odyssey the Arate is expressed in the return home and what Odysseus does when he returns. It's an extension in peace time of the laws of Arate first seen in The Iliad in war time, which is why books 1 - 4 of Odyssey concern Odysseus's son Telemachus wandering Greece looking for help from the good kings. Then when Odysseus finally enters the story, his part explores people (none-Greeks) who serve as bad examples of Arate. In the end, with killing the suitors, Odysseus returns to his place with Arate, but there is the problem of human vengeance that will come because of his actions of killing all 108 suitors to his wife Penelope, at which point Athena steps in to settle it creating justice. So everything in the traditional interpretation of the Epic Cycle is that they are studies in honour and cultural Arate.

    The more modern, Poetic interpretations are quite different. For Iliad: Achillies is seen as the example of the perfect killing machine, enraged too much by the slight of Agamemnon because of his god-like opinion of himself (he is the son of a god) that he cannot function properly. Hector is seen as the example of the perfect citizen, and he has some beautiful lines, like this taken from book 6 when Hector returns to Troy, and looks out over the city at night, all the touches twinkling, illuminating the city, and the distant torches of the Greek camp - Hector knows the gods have doomed Troy, has just had a vision of his wife raped and killed, and his son thrown from Troy's high walls but he still asks them:

    Gods, let my son grow to become a good man.
    Let him be brave, and strong, and a good leader of men,
    and let men say 'He was a better man than his
    father ever was.'

    One of the most moving lines in the entire poem I think. So when Achillies at the end of the epic rejoins the fight, and basically forces the entire Trojan army to retreat into the walls of Troy beside Hector, the duel becomes not between two honourable men, but between the perfect man and the perfect soldier. After the funeral games for Patrochulus, and king Priam asks Achillies for Hector's body back - Achillies is so moved he finds his own humanity, they sit down to dinner as equals in morality, and The Iliad becomes a grand critique of the folly of war, and a great example the common humanity among all men.

    The entire poem of The Odyssey has been interpreted as what happens after a war, when soldiers return home and have trouble just living with themselves and their own deeply troubling memories. Every time Odysseus lands somewhere civilized there is a council in which stories are heard, and all the stories are either about the Trojan war, or Agamemnon whose return home was ... let's just say a bit shit. Odysseus at one point, hearing a story of his own part in the Trojan war starts crying, he can't handle his own past. Every stop and adventure Odysseus makes - from the Lotus eaters who eat a drug to forget the world and live among beauty to the Underworld and meeting old comrades like Achillies who hates the fact he is now dead - everything is an alternative to reaching home and returning to normal. Either by want or by external forces like Calypso who keeps him trapped on the island of Ogiga as a sex slave - during the day he cries, longing for home on the beach, in night he's having sex with a goddess. When Odysseus returns to Ithaka, he doesn't need to kill all the suitors, doesn't need to kill anyone, but by now it's pretty much all he knows and seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, until Athene steps in and puts everything right.

    There are some beautiful scenes in the Ithaka part. Like when Odysseus and Penelope finally see each other face to face, knowing each other after 20 years apart. It's wonderful to see their minds coming together again as Penelope challanges Odysseus to reveal the secret that made their marriage bed, literally and figeratively, before they 'finally return to their rituals of old', as Homer quite modestly puts their sexual union. Or the scene focusing on Odysseus's dog is also profoundly moving, who has been loyally awaiting the return of his master sees Odysseus, and almost like a puppy raises his head, almost wags his tail, and then dies - the dog is at least 20 years old by now, and has been waiting for his master's return home for 20 years, he still remembers after all this time. It's wonderful stuff.

    And almost like that episode of Futurama too, right?

    There is more to these poems than just the above, like how The Odyssey shows colonial desires and thoughts, especially for the island of Polythemus the Cyclops, how The Odyssey could be read as a dramatization of the stages of our lives. But this short thing I've wrote here shouldn't be a bad start in getting to know these wonderful epics. When you read them yourself attention attention to the story and characters, and be patient with them - they are 3,000 years old, but they are still read for a reason: they are fantastic.

    There is a moment in The Iliad at night. when soldiers are waiting for battle the next day, and Homer describes how the hills have never seemed so large, the stars have never seemed so bright; this is exactly how people in the army describe the world before they go into battle. Reality, in waiting for action and glory, has never seemed to real for them, and this is what Homer gives us in a way. The Iliad, then, is a book about war, and shows perfectly the old Roman sentiment homis homini lupis or 'Man is a wolf to man'. The Odyssey is, however, a stark portrayal of mankind enduring the unendurable, and being renewed by the experience.

    After all, we don't come out of life alive.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2015
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  2. Lewdog

    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

    Dec 9, 2012
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    Williamsburg, KY
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