Homeric Epics

The epics of the Greek writer Homer—the Iliad and the Odyssey—are the earliest and the best known of classics of Greek literature. Both are long epic poems, and several scholars have argued that different people probably wrote the two, with some academics arguing against even the existence of Homer. Certainly, all that is known about Homer is from tradition and evidence gleaned from the epics.

The cities of Argos, Athens, Chios, Colophon, Rhodes, Salamis, and Izmir (Smyrna) all claim that Homer was born in their city. Homer was probably a Greek from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), as his writings used the Ionic and the Aeolic dialects of that region, so the claims of Chios and Izmir are the most plausible.

Many centuries later there was a clan at Chios known as the Homeridae who claimed to be descendants of Homer and, as wandering minstrels, kept alive some of the traditions associated with their famous ancestor. Homer was born the son of Maeon; he lived around 850 b.c.e.

Many people thought the Iliad and the Odyssey had been written in the eighth century b.c.e., with a consensus that the Iliad is earlier than the Odyssey, the former possibly composed in 750 b.c.e., and the latter about 25 years later. This was the period when many Greeks were moving to Asia Minor, and there was an increasing interest in the traditions of contact with the region.


Some have pointed to references in the sixth book of the Odyssey to refer clearly to the establishment of a Greek colony. The term Homeric age refers to the period about which Homer wrote, rather than the period in which he lived.

Countless writers have translated the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Roman writer Lucius Livius Andronicus, from Taranto in southern Italy, translated the Odyssey into Latin verse in the third century b.c.e. The most well-known translation is that of E. V. Rieu, in the Penguin Classics edition, first published in 1950.

Although there have been many more translations, that by Richmond Lattimore in 1951 is regarded as the best. He set out to try to capture the atmosphere of the original text by rendering it into verse, line by line.

Many of the same translators tried their hand at the Odyssey. Rieu’s edition, the first Penguin Classics book, was published in 1945; and Richmond Lattimore managed a translation of the Odyssey in 1965. However, the Odyssey also attracted two men who did not work on the Iliad.

William Morris, the famous designer and poet, had a translation of the Odyssey published in 1887, and T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) also translated the Odyssey into English prose. This was published under the name "T. E. Shaw", Lawrence’s adopted name, in 1932, three years before his death.

The style of both epics was dactylic hexameter with each line ranging from 12 to 17 syllables in length. With many phrases being repeated, the style was put together in such a manner that bards could learn them easily. Aristotle, a great admirer of the Homeric epics, wrote that Homer was "unequalled in diction and thought".

Iliad

The Iliad is the longer of the two poems, about a third longer than the Odyssey. It consists of 15,693 lines of poetry in dactylic hexameters and is now divided into 24 books. The Iliad, taking its name from Ilium, another name for Troy, concerns the last year of the 10-year siege of Troy, with the central figure being Achilles, the son of Peleus, king of the Myrmidones in modern-day Thessaly. The story focused on Achilles as a warrior and a person, more than on the siege.

The first book of the Iliad covers the quarrel between Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greek army, and Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae. The anger of Achilles, the leader of the Myrmidons, is directed against Agamemnon and Hector.

Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, is captured by the Greeks and becomes a prisoner of Achilles. She ends up in the hands of Agamemnon, and Chryseis’s father visits the Greek camp to seek her release. When this does not come about, the god Apollo sends a plague into the Greek camp, and Agamemnon is forced to return her.

In the second book Odysseus has the task of motivating the Greeks, and it includes details on the Greek and the Trojan forces. Fighting begins again in the fourth book and continues in the fifth book. The sixth book introduces Hector, prince of Troy, and adversary of Achilles.

In the seventh book he fights Ajax, and in the eighth book the gods, some of whom are helping the Greeks, and others supporting the Trojans, withdraw from the fighting. In the ninth book Agamemnon tries, and fails, to get Achilles to return to the fight, and the 10th book involves Diomedes and Odysseus on a mission to spy on the Trojan positions at night.

The 11th book shows the Trojans scoring a small victory when Paris manages to wound Diomedes, and Achilles decides to use his favorite, Patroclus, in the campaign. The 12th book marks the Trojans driving the Greeks back to their camp, with Poseidon coming to the aid of the Greeks in the 13th book, and Hera helping Poseidon in the 14th book.

At this point Zeus, the king of the gods, stops Poseidon from interfering, and in the 16th book, Patroclus, worried about a possible Greek defeat, borrows the armor of Achilles and leads the Greeks against the Trojans. The Trojans retreat, but Hector manages to kill Patroclus.

The 17th book has the two armies fighting over the body of Patroclus, and the next book covers the grief of Achilles as he hears about the death of Patroclus. In the 19th book Achilles decides to join the fighting again, if only to avenge the death of his friend, and in the 20th book Achilles goes into the thick of the fighting, encountering Hector in the 21st book.

In the next book the death of Patroclus is avenged when Achilles kills Hector and then ties the body to his chariot and drags it back to the Greek camp. The penultimate book describes the funeral games for Patroclus, and the final book involves Achilles agreeing, in the end, to hand back Hector’s body to his father, King Priam of Troy.


Odyssey

The Odyssey is more of a romance than a heroic tragedy. It concerns the attempts that Odysseus (or Ulysses, in Latin) makes to return to his home on the island of Ithaca and to his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus.

Although the term odyssey describes, in English, a long journey, less than half the text is actually concerned with the travels of Odysseus. The Odyssey runs to 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter. The first book begins with Odysseus already on his way home from Troy, anxious to get back to Ithaca and see his son.

The second book describes the suitors who want to marry Penelope. They all maintain that her husband is dead and threaten Telemachus, who sets sail for Pylos. In the fourth book King Menelaus tells the boy that Odysseus was stranded in Egypt on his way back from Troy after the war.

In the ninth book Odysseus visits the land of the Lotus Eaters and, in perhaps the second-most famous incident in the book, ends up on the island controlled by the Cyclops, who have only one eye. Odysseus and his men hide in the cave of one of the Cyclops, but he eats two of the Greek sailors when they try to escape.

Eventually Odysseus and the rest of the sailors blind the Cyclops and escape, hanging on the underside of his sheep. In the 11th book Odysseus tries to make his peace with Poseidon, the god of the sea, who had supported the Trojans in the war.

The 12th book of the Odyssey covers the most famous incident, when Odysseus sails his ship past the land of the Sirens, women whose beautiful songs encourage sailors to sail too close to land so that their ships are dashed on the rocks.

Odysseus has his men fill their ears with beeswax and has himself tied to the mast of the ship so that he alone can hear their singing but can do nothing about it. The next book has Odysseus trying to reach Ithaca, arriving there bedraggled and alone. In the remaining books Telemachus returns home, escaping an ambush laid by the suitors of Penelope.

He manages to meet up with his father, and with the promised help of two gods, Zeus and Athena, they decide to attack the suitors at the end of the 16th book. By the 19th book Odysseus has met his wife but does not reveal his identity, although he is recognized by Eurycleia, a maid who had nursed the young Odysseus.

At the start of the 21st book Penelope offers to marry any man who can string the bow of Odysseus and fire it through 12 ax heads. The suitors try, one by one, and fail, and Odysseus, still in disguise, asks to try as well.

Penelope says that if Odysseus, dressed as a poor man, does so, she will not marry him but will reward him. He eventually does try, and succeeds, and Telemachus arrives on the scene.

In the 22nd book Odysseus, Telemachus, and others chase out the suitors, killing some of them. Odysseus finally announces to his wife who he really is, tells of his adventures, and they are reunited. The final book relates what happens when King Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War. Instead of being welcomed by his wife Clytemnestra, she murders him.

Critical Discussion

Some scholars have pointed to similarities with the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. Elements of the Odyssey were possibly adapted to form some of the Arabian stories concerning the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor and One Thousand and One Nights.

The epics have been used by scholars to understand much about the life of the Greeks of the period and about methods of fighting. Homer’s epics have inspired many people. One of those was Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.e.) who traced his ancestry, through his mother, to Achilles.

He read the Iliad and the Odyssey when he was young, although he favored the former. He must have remembered this when he arrived in Asia Minor and made a sacrifice at the tomb of Protesilaus who was killed in the Trojan War and who was the first Greek warrior to set foot on Asian soil.

There have been a number of novels based on the stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greek playwright Euripides wrote Cyclops based on the travels of Odysseus.

Geoffrey Chaucer set his poem Troilus and Creside at Homer’s Troy, and William Shakespeare used it for his play Troilus and Cressida. George E. Baker’s Paris of Troy and Richard Powell’s When the Gods Would Destroy all feature most of the characters from the Iliad.

Nikos Kazantzakis, in his The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel, continues the story of Odysseus after his return to Ithaca, and Odysseus (as Ulysses) has been important in the work of Dante and James Joyce.