Iliad eText - Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

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General Information

The Iliad is an epic poem that dates back to approximately the 8th century B.C. Although no one knows for certain who originally composed the poem, it is attributed to a blind poet named Homer, who is believed to have lived during that time period. It is theorized that The Iliad was probably composed by many different poets over a long period of time, Homer being the most well known. Additionally, the poem dates to a time when writing had just begun for the Greeks. Up until that time, stories were told and handed down through an oral tradition. The Iliad is most likely the culmination of many different stories linked together orally and later put into writing by numerous poets and scribes.

Genre

The epic poem usually contains many of the following characteristics, among others:

Themes

To better appreciate The Iliad, it is necessary to understand some of the major concepts that the poem discusses. These devices are part of what has allowed many epic poems, including The Iliad, to survive and remain universal throughout the centuries since they were first recited.

  • the foolish and destructive nature of pride

  • the arrogance of power

  • the humanlike qualities, especially the negative ones, of gods and goddesses

  • the glory, as well as the horror, of war

  • the idea that patriotic duty is more important than family life

  • the importance of individual glory and honor

  • the inescapability of fate

  • the fleeting and impermanent nature of human lives and works

  • the rallying power of speech

  • the unimportance of gifts and material possessions

Motifs

The following motifs are repeated frequently in The Iliad. They add a flow and continuity to the poem.

  • armor offering both protection and vulnerability, but also striking fear into an enemy

  • blood, both human and that of animals, that is sacrificed

  • fire and its destructive nature

  • darkness, which can be equated with the human inability to change the future

  • the necessity of a proper burial

  • repetition of action, words, and phrases to help the speaker remember the poem

  • oracles, whose predictions are generally ignored until it's too late

  • predestination and the inability to alter fate, despite knowing one's destiny

  • lineage/ancestry of the gods, heroes, and their families

  • the number nine

Historical Context

The Iliad is believed to have been composed in mainland Greece around the 8th century B.C. However, the poem is set approximately 400 years earlier in the 12th century B.C., which was known as the Bronze Age. It is believed that people in Homer's time looked back on the Bronze Age as a more glorious time period than their own.

The backdrop of the poem is the Trojan War, an epic battle between the Greeks (ancient tribes inhabiting the area of present-day Greece) and the Trojans (an ancient culture living in present-day northwest Turkey). No one knows for certain whether the Trojan War actually took place and until quite recently, it was believed to have been only a legend. However, excavations off the coast of northwest Turkey that have continued into the 21st century show evidence of an ancient city that had apparently been sacked around the time period when the Trojan War supposedly took place. This city may have been the Troy of The Iliad. In any case, the poem is probably a mixture of historical truth and fictional embellishment. Many tribes in and around the area described inThe Iliad were constantly waging war with one another, and many cities were destroyed.

The Events Before and After The Iliad

In order to appreciate The Iliad better, it is important to understand several key stories which are not fully discussed in the poem, but which are integral to the story. These myths and legends serve to describe the events which led up to the Trojan War, as well as its aftermath.

The Judgment of Paris

According to ancient Greek mythology, a wedding feast was held for the goddess Thetis (the mother of Achilles) and her mortal husband Peleus. Since the goddess Eris (also called Discord or Strife) was not invited to the feast, she became angry and decided to create problems. She left a golden apple among the wedding guests, inscribed with the words “for the fairest.” This inscription started a competition between Juno, Minerva, and Venus, each of whom believed herself to be the “fairest” of all the goddesses. A prince/shepherd named Paris (who had been sent away by his father Priam, King of Troy, because it had been foretold that Paris would cause the city's downfall) was chosen to judge the contest. Each of the goddesses bribed Paris into choosing her as the most beautiful. Juno promised him power and wealth, Minerva promised him wisdom and success as a great warrior, and Venus promised him the love of Helen of Sparta. Paris took the bribe offered by Venus; this decision is called “the Judgment of Paris.” He then took Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda and considered the most beautiful woman in the world, away from her husband, King Menelaus, and brought her back to Troy. This was the event which set off the Trojan War.

During the war, the residents of Mount Olympus took sides and even entered the battle at times. The outcome was inevitable, however, and Troy was doomed to fall.

Achilles' Heel and the Death of Achilles

According to mythology, Achilles' mother dipped him in the river Styx as an infant to make him immortal. Unfortunately, she held him by the heel as she dipped him, and therefore, the water never touched his heel. As a warrior, Achilles was invulnerable, but his weakness was never exploited. The death of Achilles occurs after The Iliad ends, as Paris, aided by the god Apollo, shoots Achilles in the heel with an arrow.

The Trojan Horse

The fall of Troy, which occurs after The Iliad ends, is accomplished by means of a clever trick which the Achaeans play on the Trojans. The Achaeans build a giant wooden horse and fill it with soldiers. The rest of the army hides the Achaean ships, making it look like a Trojan victory is at hand. One Achaean soldier is designated to bring the wooden horse to the Trojan gates, with the story that the horse is an offering to the goddess Minerva. Afraid of her wrath, the Trojans decide to bring in the wooden horse and celebrate their victory over the Greeks. The Achaean soldiers then wait for nightfall, when they creep out and open the gates, letting the rest of their army in. The Trojans are then massacred, and the city is sacked and burned.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey, also attributed to Homer, is considered something of a continuation to The Iliad. It follows the adventures of the character of Ulysses (Odysseus), a minor character in The Iliad, as he tries to return home after the end of the war. This journey takes twenty years.