Essays and Criticism
Extra-Literary Concerns of the Iliad
In one sense, it is unjust to give Homer all the credit for the Iliad, since it is all but certain that he had at least some "help" in composing it. Whether he merely cobbled together shorter poems into one epic work, or whether he improvised the majority of the Iliad from a pre-existing repertoire of themes, epithets, and episodes, Homer had the benefit of several centuries' worth of material to draw upon in composing his own poem.
Looked at from another perspective, however, it is no less unjust to refuse Homer the credit for his work. Surely there were other artists, now lost in the distant past, on whom Homer drew for inspiration, technique, or source material. Yet it is his artistry that made the poem "sing," if you will. If we compare Homer to Ella Fitzgerald, for example (a metaphor which I owe to Michael Silk's commentary on the Iliad), no one would deny that some credit is due to the original author of the piece being "interpreted" or improvised upon, and some as well to the inventors and refiners of the art itself: yet it is indisputably Fitzgerald's artistry (or Homer's) that makes the piece something more than an exercise in musical theory or poetic technique.
While the Greeks would certainly have considered the poem an artistic creation, they saw more in it than merely great literature. For them, it contained elements of both history and religion as well....
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The Iliad is not about the Trojan War; that war lasted ten years and the central actions of the poem occupy only a few weeks. War brutalizes men and women, wounds their bodies and minds, enslaves and kills them. This is Homer's message as he focuses on one hero, Achilleus, to demonstrate wrath's destruction of self and others. Achilleus' moral journey in the Iliad brings him face to face with his own humanity, leading him to a startling and essentially unheroic act of generosity toward his enemy. When he gives Priam the dead and mutilated body of Hektor, Achilleus stands for a few moments on the threshold of a different civilization, as Homer shows wrath dissolved through compassion, and human feeling overcoming the stringent heroic code of conformity.
A hero is one who willingly and eagerly confronts death, and three Greek words embody the heroic code: áristos, areté, and aristeía. Áristos is being the best at whatever is called for by the situation: in wartime, killing; in peacetime, husbandry; in seamanship, steering. To be known as the best requires aristeía―exploits which gain for the warrior the prestige of having comrades consider him possessed of areté, merit. Areté can only be bestowed by others, not by self. In the world of the Iliad what the world thinks of you is far more important than what you think of...
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Death and the God-Like Hero
With small exceptions, the serious poetry of Greece is concerned with the myths; and the subject of Greek mythology is the heroes. These are two obvious facts. Epic dealt with die "deeds of gods and men," and so did the choral lyric, while even the personal lyric is full of mythical narratives and excursions. Tragedy too, tended to restrict itself to the mythical period, although the Capture of Miletus, by Phrynichus, and the Persians, by Aeschylus, show that this was not actually a rule. The mythical period was quite a short one, two or three generations about the time of the Theban and Trojan wars; the rest of the past, however vivid or striking in the memory, was felt to be different, and inappropriate for serious poetic treatment. Hence no tragedies about Pisistratus or Periander, the colonizing period, or the Lelantine War.
There was something special about that time. Heroes, we read, were bigger and stronger than we are—a hero of Homer could pick up and throw a rock which "nowadays two of the best men in a city could barely hoist on to a waggon"—but that is not the important thing. In that time gods intervened openly in human affairs, and it is their passionate concern and personal participation which marks heroic events as possessing significance. Aeschylus, brooding upon the...
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