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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 1 - Epic Poetry  


Historical Backgrounds

The People and the Languages of Early Greece

The first human beings to settle in the area we now call Greece were of Mediterranean origins. During the second millennium B.C., a rich and brilliant civilization, known today by the name of its most powerful king Minos, was established on the island of Crete around Knossos. At approximately the same time, another empire emerged on the Greek mainland. Its center was a large group of edifices at Mycenae, a city situated favorably in the fertile valley called the Argolis (an important geographical location because so much of Greece is mountainous, arid land). The Mycenaeans are the people known later in Homer's epic as Achaians. Unlike the Minoans, the inhabitants of Mycenae spoke Greek. They descended from a population that lived in the Caucasus; when they moved away, they brought with them a language considered an ancestor to most European dialects from India through Europe (named later Indo-European).

Archaeological finds show the extensive activity of the Myceneans in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, where they came into contact with the Minoans. The relationship between the two kingdoms remains unclear, but it seems that for a while neither civilization dominated the other and that considerable interaction existed. Around 1400 B.C. Crete was captured, although by whom we cannot be sure. Probably economic and commercial competition led Mycenae finally to subjugate the Minoans. Since the Minoans were not Greek speaking and evidence of Greek language has been found around the Knossos palace, we suspect that Mycenaean overseers began to run the Knossos administration.

Mycenae's last military incursion took place during the thirteenth century B.C. in a war against a trading partner, Troy, a city strategically positioned on the coast of Asia Minor, along the sea route between Europe and the Near East. Although the Myceneans won the war, as Homer's epics show, within a short period their supremacy declined in favor of Dorian Greeks, ancestors of the inhabitants of Sparta. While the Mycenaean Kingdom as a political entity disappeared, its population intermingled with the newcomers, as did the dialects of these various Greek tribes.

The story of the war between the Trojans and Myceneans is the subject of the Iliad. "Ilion" is another name for the city of Troy, supposedly founded by one Ilus, the grandfather of King Priam of Troy. For centuries, the Iliad was regarded as a pure fiction, until an amateur German archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, set out to prove the historical basis of the events described in Homer's poem. Between 1870 and 1894, Schliemann organized excavation teams that succeeded in uncovering the remains of both Troy and Mycenae. In Troy, Schliemann found traces of thirteen different settlements, each new town built on the ruins of the last. The seventh layer excavated showed a city completely destroyed by fire in approximately the thirteenth century B. C., which appears to validate the basic outlines of Homer's story of the fall of a great city.

The Story of Troy and the Oral Tradition

That human beings often reflect on the past and compare the present with it unfavorably explains why the story of the siege of Troy by the Greeks loomed so large in the imagination that bards sang of Troy for century after century. From roughly 1200 B. C. to around 700 B. C.--close to five hundred years--the same stories were retold, exaggerated, and magnified, so that Homer's audience, living in the Iron Age, listened with wonder to tales of the Bronze Age, the "olden days" when, the poet said, one man could lift a stone that no two men would be capable of moving in their diminished world. This long tradition of story telling accounts for inconsistencies that scholars note such as impossible combinations of anachronistic customs, and a language containing idioms of different eras combined to form a special epic diction that no living Greek would ever have spoken.

Homer and the Beginning of Writing in Greece

Little is known about Homer, who seems to have lived in Ionia (modern Turkey), at the latest in the middle of the eighth century B. C., except that many believe Western literature started with him. No extant European literature predates Homer, but as we have seen, the oral narratives upon which he drew in composing his epics had a long history. Homer's two epics were recited frequently, but probably were not transcribed until well after his death. Reputed to have been a minstrel, traveling from palace to palace reciting the glories of past kings and heroes, Homer nevertheless remains a puzzle to scholars and historians: was he an actual human being, or is "Homer" simply a name for a community of oral poets who sang the stories of Achilles and Odysseus in bits and pieces that were later combined in two 24-book poems? (1) Although a definite answer to this question seems unlikely, critics believe in Homer's existence, because the epics that survive show so many signs of careful artistic control.

The oral narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey probably were written down in the seventh century B. C., during the period when the Greeks were beginning to use the alphabet. The Hebrew documents that became the Bible were recorded in an alphabet similar to the alphabet brought to the Greeks by Phoenicians, the great traders who sailed the Mediterranean from the coasts of modern Lebanon and Syria. This transference of information may have begun as early as the twelfth century B. C., if modern analysis of inscriptions on stone is accurate. However, in Greece, writing as a method of saving information did not become routine until the era in which the Homeric poems were committed to papyrus.

Homer and the Greek Love of Narrative

Greece borrowed much more than the alphabet from the cultures of the Middle East. Greek architects learned how to build in stone from the Egyptians and Greek potters were heavily influenced by the floral and animal patterns that the artisans of Mesopotamia fired onto clay vessels. By the time of Homer, however, an identifiably Greek sense of the world appeared in a variety of art forms, including epic poetry and pottery as well. Both forms demonstrate a distinctive Greek preference for presenting narratives about human actions in a carefully patterned frame.

So many ancient vases have been recovered from Greek soil and dated by archeologists that art historians can demonstrate precisely how styles in Greek pottery changed over the years. The ninth- and eighth-century vases are decorated in hard-edged geometric patterns that gradually begin to reflect the Mesopotamian themes mentioned above. In the Homeric era, this Greek love of pattern increasingly allies to an instinct for story-telling. Vessels that guarded and were buried in Grecian tombs of the seventh century B. C. exhibit complicated narrative illustrations, often of Homeric subjects. Depictions of crucial moments from the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, are set within symmetrically patterned shapes that function in the same way as the symmetrical shapes that Homer gives to his narratives. From these different creative spheres, then, emerges a characteristically Hellenic emphasis on fixing human activities in an orderly aesthetic relation.

Patterns of Narrative in Homer's Poems

Despite differences in tone and subject matter, the Iliad and the Odyssey share a common approach to narrative. Both epics focus on a few weeks out of a period extending for more than ten years and both stories begin, as the Roman critics who studied Homer noticed, in medias res (a Latin phrase meaning "in the middle of things"), for Homer assumes his audience is familiar with the traditional narrative. The works repeat significant motifs that reflect their own individual emphasis: the Iliad, a poem about war and death, is punctuated by extended descriptions of mourning rites and funerals; the Odyssey, a poem about survival and renewal, is punctuated by frequent short scenes of awakening.

As you read, notice the way repetition accentuates the action in the poems, not only in formulaic devices and recurring motifs, but also in the reverberation of whole episodes. Although studying the poems in excerpts inevitably obscures the symmetry of their structure, virtually every anthology offering selections from the Iliad includes both Book 1 and Book 24, the beginning and the ending, and an excellent example of the organization of a Homeric narrative. Book 1 depicts a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae; Book 24 shows a reconciliation between Achilles and Priam, the king of Troy. The ending of the poem, one might say, provides a mirror image of its beginning.

The following outlines of the poems should help you link the episodes you will read and give some sense of Homer's artful balancing of episodes and characters.

An Outline of the Iliad

In the Bronze Age, at the end of the thirteenth century, a loose confederation of Greek kingdoms besieged the walled city of Troy. The legendary reason for this attack was to avenge the abduction of Helen, the wife of Menelaus, one of the Greek kings, by a Trojan prince, Alexandros (Paris). To recover Helen, the King of Mycenae, Agamemnon, sailed with the leaders of various Greek cities and their warriors to the plains of Troy. For nine years, the Achaians and their allies were frustrated in their efforts to conquer the Trojans, who remained in their fortified city except for brief military clashes. From time to time, the Greek troops raided neighboring cities, taking prisoners for ransom. The events narrated in the Iliad occur in the course of fifty-two days, most of them spent in waiting. The real action of the poem takes only nine days.

Principal Characters on the Achaian Side

Achilles, son of Peleus, king of Phthia, whose people are called Myrmidons, and of the sea-goddess Thetis; the greatest warrior in the poem.
, sometimes called Atreides, the son of Atreus; king of Mycenae.
, a woman captured by Achilles in a raid.
, son of Tydeus; the ideal Greek warrior hero.
, Agamemnon's brother, the king of Sparta and the husband deserted by Helen.
, son of Laertes, king of Ithaca, and the craftiest of the Greeks.
, the intimate friend of Achilles.

Principal Characters on the Trojan Side

Hector, son of Priam and the defender of the Trojans.
, wife of Hector.
, infant son of Hector and Andromache.
, aged king of Troy.
, wife of Priam.
(Alexandros), another son of Priam, the abductor of Helen.
, a Trojan ally from Lycia.
, son of Zeus and a Trojan ally from Lycia.
, the cause of the war; daughter of Leda and Zeus; wife of Paris and former wife of Menelaus.

Synopsis of Action

Homer did not divide his poems into 24 books, since he would not have thought in terms of the needs of readers, but descriptions of the different units of action within the poem follow.

Book 1: A quarrel leads Achilles to withdraw from fighting.
Book 2:
Agamemnon tries to test his troops' resolve to continue fighting without Achilles by suggesting that they all go home. This tactic backfires when the Greeks start to rush to their ships, and only Odysseus's powers of persuasion convince them to stay.
Book 3
: Menelaus and Paris, the two husbands of Helen, join in a duel; when Menelaus is about to win, Aphrodite whisks Paris back to Troy in a cloud.
Book 4:
The gods argue on Olympus; the Greeks and the Trojans begin to fight in earnest.
Books 5-8:
With the exception of a brief interlude in Book 6, when Hector is seen with his wife and child in Troy, these books relate battle scenes. The Greeks are doing very well until Zeus contrives to give unusual success to the Trojans.
Book 9:
One of the turning points in the poem occurs when Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax go to the tent of Achilles to plead with him to return to battle; despite the promise of treasure from Agamemnon, Achilles refuses.
Books 10-15:
Fighting resumes, with the gods taking their favorites' sides, and the Trojans achieve their greatest triumphs. Emboldened for the first time, they leave the safety of their walled city and attack the Greek camp.
Books 16-18:
The next major turning point in the poem occurs when Patroclus, Achilles' closest friend and alter ego, receives permission from Achilles to borrow his armor and fight against the Trojans in his place. Hector kills Patroclus and drags his body in the dirt, preventing burial. Achilles, in despair, prepares to take revenge and returns to battle, armed with a new shield made for him by Hephaestus.
Books 19-21:
Knowing he is to die soon after he kills Hector, Achilles sets out to kill Hector and punish the Trojans. He is superhuman in his bravery and cruelty.
Book 22:
Achilles kills Hector.
Book 23:
The body of Patroclus is buried in an elaborate funeral.
24: Achilles returns the body of Hector to his father, Priam, and Hector is buried in an elaborate funeral.

The Odyssey

The story begins after Troy has been destroyed and the Greeks have returned to their homes. Only Odysseus, whose name gives the poem its title, fails to reach his destination. He has been punished by Athena for violating her temple and, worse, by Poseidon, the god of the sea who in retribution makes Odysseus's sea journey as difficult as possible. Having left Troy with a full complement of ships and men, Odysseus alone survives the various accidents and dangers that keep him from Ithaca for almost ten years. One of those years is spent on the island of the witch Circe; seven are spent with the goddess Kalypso. When he finally arrives after a twenty-year absence, Odysseus discovers that his palace has been virtually invaded by 108 men paying court to his faithful wife Penelope, who has steadfastly delayed the choice of a new husband.

Synopsis of Action

Books 1 through 4: These first four books are known as the Telemachy, named for Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope. As the narrative begins, the Olympian gods begin to act on Odysseus's behalf. In preparation for the return of Odysseus, Athena encourages Telemachus to set off on his own journey to seek news of his father.
Books 5 through 8:
Odysseus moves closer to Ithaca. With considerable difficulty, after bidding Kalypso farewell, he reaches the island Skheria. Assisted by the princess Nausikaa, he enters the court of Alkinoos, king of the Phaiakians.
Books 9 through 12:
At the palace of Alkinoos, Odysseus reveals his identity and becomes the narrator of the central portion of the poem, in which he describes the event-filled journey from Troy that has occupied the last nine years.
Books 13 through 24:
Odysseus arrives home at last, gradually reveals himself to his family and friends and gains their support so that he can take revenge on the suitors who have defiled his home. Reunited with his wife and son at last, he has still not done with traveling. The audience learns that this great sailor will die a peaceful, seaborne death, but only after he has set sail once more, to reach and then return from a land where no one has ever seen the sea.

Mythological Backgrounds

The English word "myth" derives from the Greek mythos, which can mean simply "story." Greek mythology largely comprises stories about gods and goddesses. In contrast to the cultures of Asia and Africa, the Greeks apparently perceived these stories as fictional, as ways of explaining the natural world. Both Homer and Hesiod seem to indicate in their poems, albeit in very different ways, that what the gods are reported to have done is not literally but rather symbolically true.

In the Theogony, Hesiod spells out an account of the creation of the universe and the generations of the gods. According to Hesiod, the universe begins when Chaos ("yawning" undifferentiated matter) brings forth three natural forces: Gaia (2) (Earth); Tartarus (the region beneath Earth and Sea); and Eros (love, or sexual desire). Gaia, the female principle, then bears three children without the participation of a male: Uranus (sky); Oura (mountains); and Pontus (sea). Next Gaia marries her offspring Uranus, and from this union of earth and sky populates the world with various gigantic and malformed creatures, most notably, the Titans (giants). Repelled by his progeny, Uranus imprisons them in a secret place within their mother, the Earth. Enraged at the maltreatment of her children, Gaia makes a huge sickle and urges her sons, the Titans, to punish their father; only Cronos (Saturn) volunteers, and using the sickle, he castrates Uranus. From the blood and semen that fall on the earth as a result of this mutilation spring many new beings, including the female Erinyes (the Furies) and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

The continuation of this mythic history of the sources of life is essentially a story of repressing violent natural impulses, and of shifting power from the matriarchal first-generation Gaia to the patriarchal third-generation Zeus, who is called--not quite accurately--the Father of the Gods.

Homer's Treatment of the Anthropomorphic Gods

The Homeric epics and the subsequent Greek dramas constantly refer to the various Olympian gods, so called because the family of Zeus resides on Mount Olympus, distinguishing them from the earlier generations of gods who dwell in or below the earth and consequently are designated Chthonic. (Chthon, or Earth, is another name for Gaia). By and large, the Chthonic gods personify forces of nature; the Olympian gods, by contrast, who act more like human beings, are thus "anthropomorphic," in the shape of men. Since the means by which the Olympians came to power are frequently alluded to in Greek literature, they are outlined below.

The Titan Cronos, after mutilating Uranus, marries Rhea, his sister. Like father, like son: when he hears that one of his sons will usurp his throne, Cronos tries to thwart this prediction by eating his children. But Rhea bears Zeus on the island of Crete, where Gaea protects him. (3) When Cronos demands the child, intending to swallow it, Rhea gives him a stone wrapped up in swaddling clothes, which Cronos proceeds to eat. Thus Zeus survives to dethrone his father and induces Cronos to regurgitate his various siblings, who become the first Olympian gods:

Zeus (Jupiter), god of the bright sky, who summons thunderbolts to serve as instruments of punishment: called by Homer "the Cloud-Gatherer."
(Juno), goddess of marriage and childbirth, sister and wife of Zeus.
(Ceres), goddess of agriculture.
(Vesta), goddess of the hearth or fireplace, the center of the home.
(Neptune), god of the sea.
(Dis), god of the underworld (the region is also called Hades).

The other Olympian gods include some of Zeus' numerous offspring by Hera and by female Titans. With mortal women, Zeus fathers countless children, almost none of whom attains divine status, because they are subject to death.

Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love, and beauty; springs simply from ocean foam in the Theogony; is a daughter of Zeus and the Titan Dione in the Iliad.
(Phoebus), god of the sun; son of Zeus and the Titan Leto, brother of Artemis; possessor of special gifts of prophecy, especially as practiced in his name at the Oracle of Delphi (hence his frequent epithet "Loxias," meaning "the interpreter"); inventor of the lute and leader of the muses; primary guardian of art and order; bearer of a great bow whose plague-bearing arrows punish violations of order.
(Diana), virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt, daughter of Zeus and Leto.
(Pallas Athena), goddess of wisdom and battle; sprung from the head of Zeus, in full armor; she embodies reason and purity and is the protector of civilized life.
(Mercury), herald and fast-moving messenger of the gods and thus the patron of travelers (a "herma" is a pile of rocks set up as a directional marker); son of Zeus and the nymph Maia.
(Mars), the god of war; son of Zeus and Hera, lover of Aphrodite.
(Vulcan), the god of fire and the blacksmith of the gods; husband of Aphrodite. As variously explained in the Iliad, Hephaestus is lame; in a warrior culture, even those physically incapable of fighting could serve the war effort, like Hephaestus who fashions armor for those who can do battle.
, the goddess of youth; daughter of Zeus and Hera.

Greek literature depicts a number of seers and prophets charged with explaining the wishes of these gods to their fellow human beings. Gifted with an intense and often unsettling insight into divine purposes, they read omens and portents. Those who fail to heed their advice inevitably suffer.

Although the mediation of seers may be necessary to keep society at large alert to the will of the gods, the Olympians frequently intervene directly in human affairs when they have a particular interest in a person or an event. As the poet attributes his inspiration to the Muse, characters in the poem attribute their actions to the gods. Nowhere in Homer's epics, however, does a god have power to coerce characters to act in ways foreign to their temperaments. Athena and Aphrodite, for example, who regularly involve themselves in the action of the Iliad and the Odyssey, seem to reinforce rather than initiate decisions taken by the characters they assist. When Athena tugs at Achilles' hair or improves Odysseus' complexion, she is not forcing them to actions they do not themselves intend. To a certain degree, the gods may be seen in modern terms as psychological projections of the heroes' inner drives.

Homer's Relation to Greek Myth

One consequence of Homer's probable position as the last in a long line of oral poets who sung of the fall of Troy is the casual way he dispenses with narrative material outside the focus of his poems. Both allude (that is, refer indirectly) to a number of events that are never fully explained. Part of the original contribution that any traditional artist makes is to shape an inherited story in just this way, by emphasizing some elements at the expense of others that may simply be omitted. These omissions are in themselves significant. Indeed, one reason for studying the backgrounds of creative work is to learn what artists select from the traditional options in offering their versions of well-known material. What they include and equally what they exclude reveal much about their priorities, their vision of the world.

Events Preceding the Action Described in the Homeric Epics

The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus

Thetis, the leader of the Nereids or sea-nymphs, plays a much more important role in the Iliad than her relatively minor status would seem to warrant. She can exercise a degree of leverage over Zeus, whom she reputedly saved from a plot by his siblings. Her beauty was so great that Zeus wanted to marry her, but with the prediction that the son of Thetis would outshine his father, the Olympian gods hastily arranged for her to marry a mortal.

That mortal was the hero Peleus, the son of the king of the Myrmidons, Aeacus, who was himself a son of Zeus, and the brother of Telamon. All of the gods, except for Eris (Discord), were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In retaliation for this slight, Eris threw a golden apple marked "For the fairest" into the midst of the partygoers. Paris, prince of Troy and well known as a connoisseur of feminine charms, was asked to choose "the fairest." The contest pitted the three most powerful Olympian goddesses against each other: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris awarded the golden apple to the latter, who promised him in return the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. Paris subsequently abducted Helen while he was a guest in the palace of Menelaus.

After so inauspicious a beginning to married life, Thetis did not remain in Peleus' palace for very long after their marriage. Wishing her child Achilles to be immortal, she tried to temper the infant's body by holding him in fire. (4) Appalled, Peleus intervened, and Thetis left him. As a consequence, Achilles was brought up by a succession of surrogate parents. Yet Thetis continued to be concerned about her husband and especially her son, emerging from her father's house in the depths of the sea to help Achilles whenever she could.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia and Its Consequences

Agamemenon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus, belong to one of the most troubled families in all of Greek mythology. From one generation to the next, the members of the House of Atreus, their father, inflict atrocities on one another so that long-held grudges fester. Agamemnon in particular is doomed by this disastrous inheritance. Without some understanding of this history, neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey can fully be appreciated.

The brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus marry sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen. While Menelaus and Helen not only survive the Trojan War, but also (according to the Odyssey) resume an apparently stable marriage when it is over, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra do not. Too much bitterness lies buried in their past for Clytemnestra to excuse the faults of Agamemnon as Menelaus excuses Helen's.

Before the Achaians embark on their expedition to Troy to recover Helen, Agamemnon summons the allies to the port of Aulis, from which the ships are to debark. Dependent upon the winds to fill their sails, the ships sit stalled in calm weather while the allied troops become restless. Agamemnon consults the seer Kalchas, who informs him that the goddess Artemis demands a human sacrifice before she will permit the winds to blow. The crafty Odysseus goes to Clytemnestra in Mycenae to say that Agamemnon intends to give their daughter Iphigenia to Achilles in marriage. When Iphigenia arrives, she is sacrificed to the goddess rather than wed to the hero, and the winds rise. But Clytemnestra never forgives her husband.

Also unforgiving is Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus, whose father Thyestes had long feuded with Atreus. Atreus invited Thyestes to a banquet at which two murdered children of Thyestes were served to their father in a pie. During the Trojan War, Aegisthus becomes the lover of Clytemnestra; after the war, the two conspire to kill Agamemnon when he returns in triumph to Mycenae. In the Odyssey, Odysseus hears often about the brutal murder of Agamemnon, a fate which makes him cautious as he prepares to return to a wife whom he has not seen for almost twenty years.

The story of the golden apples explains why Aphrodite favors the Trojans in the war (though she has another motive as well, since she is the mother of Aeneas, a Trojan hero), and why Hera and Athena bitterly oppose them. The sacrifice of Iphigenia explains why Kalchas asks Achilles for protection before he will advise Agamemnon during the plague. Homer, however, does not dwell on this pre-history.

In general, the motives of the immortal gods concern Homer much less than do the motives of mortals, and the present interests him more than the past. By contrast, as we shall see, the Greek dramatists probe the roots of their characters' actions in more detail. Although Homeric narrative shares its subject matter with classical Greek tragedy, its viewpoint is unique. What matters in the epics is how one acts now: the sense of immediacy which the oral poet strives to create has been perpetuated in Homer's poems.


1. Homer was supposedly blind; in one of the Greek dialects, the word homerous means blind. That may signify thet "Homer" was not literate, rather than that he could not see.

2. Or Ge (compare "geology," study of the earth).

3. Zeus is one of the male father-gods typical of Indo-European cultures. Significantly, in this story of his youth, Zeus is nurtured by his powerful mother and grandmother, who are identified with Crete, where the mother-goddess was supreme. Evidence for this worship of the feminine has been found in the artwork recovered from Minos' great palace at Knossos. Minoan religion, like its presumed Mesopotamian sources, involved the worship of a fertility goddess. Matriarchal rituals also were practiced in the Cycladic islands surrounding Delos, judging from the sculptures predominantly in female form discovered there.

4. A later Roman story has Thetis protect her infant son by immersing him in one of the four rivers of Hades, the Styx. Since she held him by his heel, that portion of his anatomy (his "Achilles' heel") remained vulnerable to attack.