Eric Masters [ The Crib | 24 April, 2012 | 43:47 ] You’ll become familiar with the two books most commonly believed to be the greatest works of literature in the history of the Western world.
These books are the Iliad and the Odyssey and they were written by the Greek poet Homer sometime around the eighth century BC.
There’s almost no way to assess the enormous impact these two works have had on generations of writers scholars historians philosophers sculptors painters filmmakers and of course readers who for over 25 centuries about inspiration and the exploits of its heroes and in Homer’s observations about fate individuality and the value and purpose of human life.
Through all these years they’ve been the standards by which poets of every language have measured themselves.
The Iliad a story of the Trojan War is our featured work in this session.
The following session features the Odyssey which depicts the later adventures of a hero of that war.
The Iliad is an epic poem that was once told orally in song by travelling poets or minstrels and was later written down by Homer.
Epics are distinct from other poetry for a number of reasons.
They focus on a hero who is larger than life usually stronger braver or more intelligent than other people..
The hero performs some dangerous feat that saves their nation or their tribe.
The setting is vast and grand and often extends into the supernatural.
The action encompasses deeds of Valor.
The hero must overcome tremendous odds and obstacles and the language and style of the poem is grand and elaborate to match the story.
This language remained intact even when poets like Homer transferred the poems from an oral to a written format.
Scholars were able to determine the date of Homer’s writing by tracing the history of oral epics and of written language.
They knew that epic poems were originally recited from memory and they also knew that the ability to compose and recite poems of such length was one that existed only in preliterate society.
So they concluded that the Iliad was recorded soon after writing was introduced into Greece.
From studies of the earliest examples of Greek writing found inscribed on bronze and stone they could set this date at about 750 BC.
Either Homer herself put the story down on papyrus or more likely she dictated it to a scribe.
If this happened in 750 BC then she was writing of events that took place 500 years earlier for the date of the Trojan War is generally believed to be around 1250 BC.
This means that the Iliad provides us with information on two important ages of history: the Trojan War itself and the period of Homeric Greece 500 years later.
To historians and archeologists, Homer’s work offers priceless information about life in the Bronze Age – including burial customs, tribal organization, class distinctions and warfare.
Homer provides us with the first real glimpse into early Greek philosophy religious life and social structure which were already in an advanced stage of development when she wrote.
The time she is writing of during the Trojan War is referred to as the Mycenaean age and it was the first truly Greek world.
She’s the only connecting link between that age and the dark centuries from 1100 to 800 BC of which we have little information.
During those times the Greeks were overrun by the Dorian’s a rather barbaric society that managed to decimate Greek culture and destroy all efforts at early writing.
Homer appeared at the end of that dark time when the culture was really along with written language.
Her destiny was to write of the early Greek ancestors that preceded the dark times and as such she became an interpreter of the Greeks for the Greeks and for modern historians as well.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are each about 350 pages long and it’s remarkable to think that at one time poets were able to memorise this much material and relate it to their audiences.
Yet that’s exactly what they did.
For one thing, in societies where there is no writing, people’s memories are superior to those of people living in literate societies even today.
In some parts of Eastern Europe there are poets who can recite from memory poems of equal length to the Iliad but the Greek poets also had certain techniques for jogging their memories.
For one thing an epic poem consists of lines which are the same in meter and there is certainly rhythm to each line that helps the poet remember her words.
The poet would also create certain phrases and lines to express a thought that was repeated often.
These phrases were worked into a formula.
The phrases and formulas were passed down from poet to poet until over the years it was possible to compose an epic of great length and complexity.
In the case of the Iliad it’s believed that some of the phrases date all the way back to the Trojan War itself and were passed down from generation to generation.
That means parts of this remarkable poem are over 3,000 years old.
As the years passed more and more of these phrases were retained in the collective memory of the minstrels thus increasing the store of formulas by the time the epic reached Homer it was fully developed and ready to be recorded.
This opportunity was one that no person before Homer could have possibly had.
She lived at a time when the Phoenician traders brought with them an alphabet that was being adapted into the Greek language and made writing possible.
As the use of writing spread throughout Greece so did Homer’s poems.
Every child who was taught to read was taught Homer including Alexander the Great who memorized all the passages of the Iliad that referred to her favorite hero Achilles.
Greeks prided themselves on being able to recite long passages of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Greek authors quoted Homer the way scholars today quote the Bible or Shakespeare.
There were of course no printing machines in Homer’s day so every copy of her poems had to be written separately by scribes on papyrus.
Papyrus decomposed after a period of time so new copies were constantly being made.
Since scribes were inevitably been to make mistakes in their lengthy copies so there were many different versions of Homer’s works being circulated.
Finally in the third century BC, a group of scholars gathered in Alexandria and examined copies of Homer’s works.
From these copies they produced a standard text.
Then when parchment was developed her works were transferred to this more durable substance.
They were copied and recapped throughout the Middle Ages.
Homer’s influence then reached through the Classical Age into the Roman Empire into the Renaissance and on into the modern era.
She was a particular favorite of the English romantics who sign Homer a type of noble savage they’d idealized.
She was also popular on the continent.
Goethe taught himself to read Homer in Greek when he was only 21.
Throughout all these ages and lands Homer’s critical reputation remained strong and she was always admired and emulated.
Some scholars believe that Homer didn’t really write her epics or at least that she didn’t write them alone.
They believed that the poems were written jointly by a group of writers who used the name Homer as their collective pseudonym or they believed Homer was a person but that she had help in writing her poems.
Some believe she wrote The Iliad but not the Odyssey and others believe the opposite.
Still others believe she collected a lot of sagas but did no writing of her own.
These issues of authorship have become known in literature as the Homeric question.
The great majority of scholars agree however that Homer was real she was a poet who knew the Iliad and the Odyssey by heart and told it orally and at one point she wrote it or had it written down by a scribe.
In addition, most scholars believe that Homer wrote The Iliad when she was a young woman and wrote the odyssey when she was in middle age.
The poem recounts only one short period of the Trojan War.
The war lasted 10 years and this is the story of the last of those years.
There’s a lot of legend or history that precedes the story and a lot that follows it that also involves the main characters.
The ancient Greek audience would have been familiar with these events but we of course need an update.
The most important event that’s happened before the poem begins is that Paris, a young Trojan, has run off with Helen the wife of Menelaus who is a Greek.
Paris was a guest in Menelaus house when he fell in love with Helen who was said to be the most beautiful woman of her times and so he simply whisked her away to his native city Troy.
The reason that fate led Paris to Helen is also important as it affects later events in the poem.
It seems that one day the goddesses Athena Hera and Aphrodite asked Paris which of them he found most beautiful.
Athena said that if he found her beautiful she would reward him with wisdom and military success.
Hera said that if he found her most beautiful she would reward him with wealth and power.
And Aphrodite said that if she was the fairest of all she would reward him with love and the most beautiful woman in the world.
Paris chose Aphrodite.
As a result he was awarded with Helen and her love but unfortunately as another result she had forever made enemies of the slighted Athena and Hera who vowed to destroy both him and Troy.
This is of critical importance to the story of Iliad because throughout the battles of the Trojan War Athena and Hera will do all they can to thwart Paris’s success while Aphrodite will try to help him.
Menelaus, Helen’s husband, called all his generals to go with him to conquer Troy and bring back Helen.
They reach Troy and surrounded the city placing Achilles their best warrior at one end and the famous Ajax at the other.
For nine years they tried to penetrate the Trojan wall unsuccessfully.
This is the background necessary to understand the story of the Iliad.
The story itself revolves around the hero Achilles the mightiest of the Greek warriors.
His wrath and his pride are central themes in the epic and lead to tragic results.
Achilles withdraws from the battle after he’s insulted by Agamemnon commander-in-chief of the Greek army who takes his booty babe away from him.
In short Achilles is sulking.
While he sulks , his companions face disaster and his best friend since childhood is killed.
This arouses his fury and he returns to battle on a violent rampage of revenge slaughtering all in his path –including the noble Hector who is the chief defender of Troy.
The other hero of the epic– also playing a role in this drama –is Odysseus, who will later be the hero in the Odyssey.
Both Odysseus and Achilles have been told their fates beforehand.
Achilles knew he was to die in Troy and Odysseus knew he wouldn’t be able to return home for 20 years.
Achilles headed for Troy anyway convinced a short honorable life was preferable to a long mediocre life.
Odysseus on his part, tries to avoid going by feigning insanity– a ruse that is quickly discovered.
Achilles does die in Troy when Paris shoots an arrow into her famous vulnerable heel.
But this happens after the end of the Iliad.
Odysseus, for his part, is doomed to 20 years of travel and this of course is what makes up the story of the Odyssey.
There are three basic plots or themes in the Iliad.
First is the individual the story of Achilles – of his uncontrolled anger and his tragic destiny.
Second is the story of the Trojan War –with a focus on this one year.
And third is the relationship between humanity and the gods, or the forces of fate.
So we have a personal theme, a social theme and a universal theme.
All three are tragic although the universal theme of humanity and gods has occasional touches of humor and irony.
The attitudes and ideals portrayed by Homer are uniquely Greek but they also have relevance for us today.
That’s why the Iliad remains a work of universal and seemingly eternal appeal.
Plato called it the Bible of all Hellas – Hellas being the Greek world.
She said this centuries after Homer had written her masterpiece.
For the modern reader it’s sometimes difficult to see at first glance why such an epic is considered so profound because on the surface the Iliad seems to be just a gruesome bloody war story with lots of graphic death scenes and a hero whose sulky proud and stubborn.
That of course is just the surface.
In reality the Iliad is an epic myth –a symbolic attempt to explore humanity’s psychological makeup and our predicament in the universe through poetry.
This particular myth suggests in the long run the helplessness of humanity, in relation to external powers, the power of destiny and the discord and stress the results from humanity’s weaknesses.
The true origins of the Trojan War were as mysterious and shadowy to Homer and her contemporaries as they are to us today.
So Homer had the freedom and opportunity to create a myth around that war that could then explore themes relevant to all wars and to humanity in general.
The days of the Trojan War and of Homer’s Greece are far away from us now yet Homer’s poems easily transport us to those ancient times
Her characters are distinct and lifelike
Her scenes are richly described and the timeless themes of the story settled into the deepest levels of our consciousness
We know very little about the woman who wrote these two remarkable poems and there are many more questions about her than answers
Some people believe that Homer was blind – based on certain references she made in some of her poetry.
Even though the life of a bard might be an ideal profession for a blind woman, there is no indisputable evidence that Homer was indeed blind
There is really only one biographical statement that can be made about Homer with confidence.
She was an Ionian –probably from the island of Chios.
Ionia was the name the Greeks applied to the islands off the west coast of Asia Minor.
Homer was born sometime between 850 and 750 BC.