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Homer Circa Eighth Century B.C.

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Greek poet. See also Iliad Criticism.

Homer's two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have greatly influenced the style and content of Western literature and are considered two of the greatest literary artifacts of Western civilization. Taken together, the Iliad and the Odyssey display comic as well as tragic elements, and cover a broad range of themes that are still relevant today: war, religion, honor, betrayal, vengeance, and humanity's quest for immortality. Over the centuries, the poems have left an indelible imprint on the fields of literature, art, philosophy, and ethics. Writers as diverse as Virgil, Shakespeare, John Milton, and James Joyce have been inspired by the characters and tales presented in the epics.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about Homer, but scholars hypothesize that he was an Ionian Greek (probably from the coast of Asia Minor or one of the adjacent islands), that he was born sometime before 700 B.C., and that he lived in approximately the latter half of the eighth century B.C. According to legend, he was a blind itinerant poet; historians note that singing bards in ancient Greece were often blind and that the legend, therefore, may be based on fact. It is also possible that Homer may have lost his sight only late in life or that his purported blindness was meant to mask his illiteracy. Biographies of Homer exist in the form of six early "lives" and assorted commentaries by ancient and Byzantine scholars, but the information they contain is considered unreliable and mostly mythical. Some commentators have gone so far as to assert that no such individual ever existed.

The paucity of information regarding Homer and his relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey has incited much scholarly inquiry and has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archeology, linguistics, art, and comparative literature. As a result of their research, three main theories regarding the composition of the poems have emerged: the analytic, the Unitarian, and the oral folkepic. Until the publication of the Friedrich Adolph Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, the notion that Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey was largely undisputed. However, citing certain inconsistencies and errors in the texts, Wolf asserted that the two works were not the compositions of one poet, but the products of many different authors at work on various traditional poems and stories. Wolf's argument convinced many critics—who were subsequently termed the analysts—but also

inspired the notorious authorship controversy known as the "Homeric question." Although Wolf's view prevailed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was ultimately challenged by an opposing group of critics, the Unitarians, whose primary spokesman was Andrew Lang. The Unitarians insisted that a single individual of genius composed the Homeric epics, and they supported that claim by citing a unified sensibility, original style, and consistent use of themes and imagery in the poems.

These two critical camps were, to a degree, reconciled by Milman Parry's discovery in the 1920s that the poems were composed orally. Parry established that Homeric verse is formulaic by nature, relying on generic epithets (such as "wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn"), repetition of stock lines and half-lines, and scenes and themes typical of traditional folk poetry. Comparing Homer's poetry with ancient oral epics from other cultures, Parry deduced that Homer was most likely a rhapsode, or itinerant professional reciter, who improvised stories to be sung at Greek festivals. As a public performer, Homer probably learned to weave together standard epic story threads and descriptions in order to sustain his narrative, and relied on mnemonic devices and phrases to fill the natural metrical units of poetic lines. Parry's theory, like that of the analysts, stressed the derivative, evolutionary character of Homer's poetry; but like the Unitarians, Parry affirmed Homer's individual genius as a shaper of traditional elements whose creations far exceeded the sum of their borrowed parts. Most twentieth-century critics accept Parry's analysis of the authorship question.

Major Works

Two epic poems have been attributed to Homer: the Iliad focuses on the Trojan War during the twelfth century B.C., in particular the actions of the Greek or Achaean hero Achilles—a warrior who is both brave and headstrong; the Odyssey is set after the Greek victory in the Trojan War and recounts the adventures and long-delayed homecoming of the clever Greek hero Odysseus. Internal evidence from these two epics suggests that while the Iliad predates the Odyssey, both were composed in the eighth century B.C. in a dialect that was a mixture of Ionic and Aeolic Greek.

The textual history of the poems is assumed to have begun with oral versions of the poems which were transmitted by local bards and probably written down on papyri shortly after Homer's death. Once set down in writing, the poems most likely became the exclusive property of the Homeridae, or sons of Homer, a bardic guild whose members performed and preserved the poems. Scholars believe that in the second half of the sixth century B.C., they established a Commission of Editors of Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations that had accumulated in the process of transmission—thereby establishing a Canon of Homer. The first printed edition of Homer's poetry appeared in Europe in 1488 and remained in use until the seventeenth century. Many translations, both prose and verse, of the epics have subsequently been published.

Critical Reception

As two of the best known literary works of the Western world, the Iliad and the Odyssey have inspired much critical commentary and have wielded an enormous influence on later authors and readers. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in explicating his rules for dramatic poetry, found in Homer the most exemplary combination of high seriousness, unity of action, dramatic vividness, and authorial reserve. In classical times, Homer's works formed the basis of any educational curriculum and therefore left an indelible imprint on the fields of literature, art, philosophy, and ethics. Homer's works, generally venerated as repositories of traditional wisdom, were among the first books to be printed in the fifteenth century in Europe. The vogue for restraint and correctness that characterized the critical thought of the sixteenth century led many scholars to reject Homer's works in favor of those of Virgil. However, Homer's preeminence as an epic poet was reestablished in the eighteenth century by the translations of Chapman and Pope and the essays in praise of Homer by Joseph Addison.

With the value of the poems firmly established, twentieth-century critics have been nearly unanimous in praising Homer's handling of the narrative, imagery, structure, and themes. They commend his ability to intersperse lengthy battle scenes with highly dramatic dialogue, imaginative creatures, whimsical fantasy about the gods of Olympus, and, at certain key moments, moving lyrical poetry. Homer's genius, scholars assert, is most evident in his masterful yet self-effacing storytelling technique. In a perfectly plain and direct manner, the narrator carries the action forward, examining the events in great detail and occasionally digressing from the main narrative, but always in such a manner that the tales seem completely natural. Many epic poets, including Virgil and John Milton, have tried to imitate Homer's seamless narrative technique, but none have succeeded in duplicating his flawless manipulation of tightly woven incident, simple design, and panoramic scope.

Principal Works

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The Iliads of Homer (translated by George Chapman) 1611

The Odyssey (translated by George Chapman) 1615

The Iliad of Homer (translated by Alexander Pope) 1715-20

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Alexander Pope) 1726

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (translated by William Cowper) 1791

The Iliad of Homer (translated by William Cullen Bryant) 1870

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by William Cullen Bryant) 1871

The Iliad of Homer (translated by Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers) 1893

The Anger of Achilles (translated by Robert Graves) 1959

The Odyssey of Homer (translated by Richard Lattimore) 1967

The Odyssey (translated by Albert Cook) 1974

The Iliad (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) 1992

The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) 1992

John A. Scott (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: "The Iliad" in Homer and His Influence, Cooper Square Publishers, 1963, pp. 41-53.

[In the following essay, Scott describes the Iliad as a poem about wrath and warfare and focuses on quotations from the poem that display Homer's skill at evoking emotions and profound ideas.]

The first word of the Iliad is "Wrath" which reveals at once the kernel of the poem, since the Iliad does not depend on the fate of Achilles, but solely on his wrath. There are no unanswered questions concerning this wrath, its origin, its course, or its results; but the death of Achilles, the return of Helen, the end of the war seem hardly nearer than when the poem began. The historical element in the Iliad is thus but slight, even if it does concern an actual war.

The speeches of the quarrel scene and of the embassy, the pleadings of Thetis with Zeus, the parting of Hector from Andromache, the making of the shield, the games, the father begging for the delivery of the corpse of his son are all poetic creations, unhampered by time or place.

Recent excavations made at Troy and geographical surveys in the Troad are of great value and prove that the poet chose a real city and an actual landscape for his setting, also that he was describing a civilization that had once existed, but, even granting all this, Homer has none the less given to "airy nothing a local habitation and a name."

A real Mt. Ida there must have been, but the scene thereon between Zeus and Hera is still mythical; genuine is the wall of Troy, but Helen's appearance at its summit and Hector's parting from Andromache are merely the creation of the poet's fancy.

Into the story of Achilles' anger the poet has woven most of the great human emotions and has endowed all his actors with an individuality that has never been surpassed. It is easier to enter into familiar companionship with the great Homeric creations than with Miltiades, Themistocles, Thucydides, or with most of the historical characters of Greece. We know Nestor better than we know even so famous a man as Pericles, in spite of Thucydides, Plutarch, and the comic poets.

The Iliad introduced to literature such outstanding figures as Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector, Paris, Priam, Diomede, Nestor, Odysseus, Helen, Hecuba, and Andromache. Each appears as a distinct personality and has ever since preserved the Homeric features.

A discussion of the plot and the great scenes of the Iliad would far transgress the limits set for this book, yet the poet's ability to set forth striking ideas in a few words may be illustrated by a series of brief quotations and running comments.

Nestor, a speaker whose talking pleased others and himself, is described as "a speaker from whose lips speech sweeter than honey flows." The conservative Odysseus put into a single sentence the slogan of autocracy: "A government by the many is not a good thing. Let there be one ruler, one king to whom Zeus has given dominion," and Helen's description of Agamemnon as "both a good king and a mighty warrior" has been the ideal of aspiring princes.

When Agamemnon saw that Menelaus had been shot, in violation of the truce, he exclaimed: "Not in vain are the sacred oaths, the blood of lambs, and solemn compacts, for if Zeus does not show his power at first, he will in the end punish mightily the guilty with utter destruction."

Strife is described as "small at first but at last it strides with its feet on earth and head in heaven," an image which Virgil repeats but applies to Rumor (Fama). Nestor grieved that although he had years and experience he was without youth and vigor, then comforts himself by saying: "The gods have never yet given all things at the same time to any man." This has been repeated by Virgil in his famous phrase:

Non omnia possumus omnes.

Axylus is described as "a man who lived in a house by the side of the road and gave hospitality to all." This evidence of a sense for social service has been the subject of many an address or essay.

The words of Glaucus, "As is the race of leaves, so is the generation of men, the wind casts some leaves to the ground, others the flourishing forest brings forth when spring has come, so is the generation of men, one is born and another passes away." This has the honor of being the first quotation made by any ancient writer where the nativity of the poet of the Iliad was given. Simonides quotes it as by the man of Chios. Shelley was much impressed by these lines and incorporated them in one of his youthful poems.

This same Glaucus, in his enthusiasm at finding an ancestral friend in Diomede, exchanged his own armor of gold for Diomede's armor of bronze, the proverbial example of those who in a moment of excitement throw away on trifles their most precious possessions; and this is the Greek equivalent of "selling one's birthright for a mess of pottage."

Zeus boasted that he was so strong that he could draw up earth and sea, then suspend them in air, bound with a golden chain to a spur of Olympus. This "golden chain" or aurea catena was a prominent element in later philosophical theories of the universe.

Odysseus tried to arouse Achilles by saying: "There is no means for finding a cure when once the evil is done," but Achilles replied: "Cattle and sheep may be won back, tripods and horses be seized, but you cannot recover the human life that has once departed from the body."

Hector's reply to Polydamas, who had tried to check him in his victorious career because the omens of birds were unfavorable, is absolutely modern and is often regarded as the finest expression of patriotism ever spoken. "You bid me put my trust in broad-winged birds, but I refuse to follow them, I care not whether they move to left or right. One omen alone is best, to fight for native land." Professor Gildersleeve pronounced this last verse "the world's greatest verse of poetry." It is translated by Pope with a superb couplet:

Without a sign his sword the brave man draws,
And asks no omen but his country's cause.

This however misses the simple dignity of the original, since Homer used but six words. It seems to me that Chapman missed the tone absolutely in his: "One augury is given to order all men best of all: Fight for thy countrie's right." The Earl of Derby's rendering is nearly perfect:

The best of omens is our country's cause.

On another occasion Hector inspired his men with the words: "It is glorious to die fighting for one's native land," and this has been repeated by Horace in the verse:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,

a motto which has been a favorite inscription on military monuments.

During the struggle for the body of Patroclus deep night spread over the field, when Ajax in anguish prayed that Zeus might slay him, if he only gave him light. This has been adapted by Longfellow:

When the warriors were preparing for battle down in the plain, the old men too feeble to fight sat on the walls "chirping like grasshoppers," as they discussed the merits of the different chieftains, or sat in silence while Helen pointed out and named for them Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, and Idomeneus. Longfellow with wonderful aptness drew on this scene for his poem, Morituri Salutamus, delivered on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation from college:

As ancient Priam at the Scaean gate
Sat on the walls of Troy in regal state
With the old men, too old or weak to fight,
Chirping like grasshoppers in their delight
To see the embattled hosts, with spear and shield,
Of Trojans and Achaians in the field;
So from the snowy summits of our years
We see you in the plain, as each appears,
And question of you; asking, 'Who is he
That towers above the others? Which may be
Atreides, Menelaus, Odysseus,
Ajax the great, or bold Idomeneus? '

When the corpse of Patroclus came back to his tent Briseis uttered a dirge of bitter sorrow, grieving in his death, and all the women joined therein: "apparently weeping for Patroclus, but in truth each wept for her own sorrows."

When a laugh was forced from the angry Hera it is said that "She laughed with her lips but there was no joy in her face."

Andromache described the cup of charity which is doled out to orphans, as: "a drink which moistens the lips but does not reach to the palate."

When Hector challenged the best of the Greeks to meet him in single combat: "They all remained silent, ashamed to refuse but afraid to accept."

The aim of education was to make one "a speaker of words and a doer of deeds."

When Achilles mourned for Patroclus he said: "I shall never forget him, so long as I share the lot of the living, and if they forget the dead in Hades, even there will I remember my beloved companion."

Bellerophon carried to Lycia a secret order for his own death, a thing which suggested to Young in his Night Thoughts:

He whose blind thought futurity denies,
Unconscious bears, Bellerophon! like thee
His own indictment: he condemns himself.

Zeus uttered the amazingly frank statement: "There is nothing more wretched than man, nothing of all the things which breathe and move on the face of the earth." This sentiment is very like the words of Achilles: "The gods have decreed that wretched mortals should live in sorrow, while they themselves are free from cares."

The following verses are much quoted and self-explanatory:

Potent is the combined strength even of frail men.
Sleep which is the brother of death.
The purposes of great men are subject to change.
Whoever obeys the gods, him they especially hear.
When two go together, one thinks before the other.
Good is the advice of a companion.
War is impartial and slays the slayer.
Zeus does not bring to pass all the purposes of men.
Even a wood-chopper accomplishes more by skill than by strength.
A fool can understand, when the thing is done.
Whatever word you utter, just such a word you will be obliged to hear.

The actors of the Iliad, excepting gods and priests, are all warriors or their dependents and the poem is drawn with a military setting, but the real greatness of that poem is in the portrayal of powerful human emotions rather than in military exploits.

No blood is shed in the first three books of the Iliad and there is no fighting in the last two. Strange as it may seem only a minor part of the poem is given to actual warfare, while most of the great scenes are without fighting.

Even those books which are most martial, such as the fifth, have long stretches in which no blood is shed.

The world has always been interested in wars and in warriors, so that many of the most famous names of history belong to military heroes. Homer wisely chose this absorbing theme as the background of his poem, but it is little more than the background, the setting. So great was his genius that he drew scenes of battle with such power and painted war with such faithfulness that a Napoleon was convinced that the Iliad was the work of an expert military tactician, but the poet's heart was elsewhere and it was far different qualities which he honored.

Patroclus was much the greatest Greek warrior to be slain in the action of the Iliad. When his body was in danger of falling into the hands of the foe, Menelaus urged the Greeks to the rescue with these words: "Let each one now remember the gentleness of poor Patroclus, for the knew how to be gentle to all." The fact that the companion of this great warrior should recall the gentleness and not the prowess of the fallen leader shows the sentiments of the poet. Homer was able so to stress the kindlier elements in the character of Hector as to win for him the appearance of greatness in spite of his repeated military failures.

Of all the Homeric similes but five are taken from warfare, and of the 665 tropes no more than fifteen are military.

There were other sources of fame than war, since the assembly was called "man-ennobling," and the council is referred to as "the place where men become very conspicuous." In the Odyssey a good speaker is said to be "preeminent among assembled men, and when he moves throughout the city the people gaze at him, as if he were a god." How different all this from the feelings of a real war-poet, Tyrtaeus, who said: "A man who possesses every excellence is nothing, if he be not mighty in war!"

The Homeric warriors were all men of might, but still they were men. Achilles could be wounded and he had no abnormal traits or powers, such as mark the heroes of most sagas. In the Indian epics the heroes uproot mountains and slay their foes by the thousands. The bow of Rama must be carried by five thousand men. In the Irish tales the hero has seven pupils in each eye, and in his anger flames stream from his mouth while a jet of blood higher than the mast of a ship shoots up from the top of his head. In these Irish epics men are slain by thousands through the might of a single arm. The exploits of Achilles, though great, are within the limits of the possible and they seem almost tame in comparison with the thrilling adventures of some of the decorated heroes of The World War.

Albert Cook (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: "The Man of Many Turns," in The Classic Line: A Study in Epic Poetry, Indiana University Press, 1966, pp. 120-37.

[In the following essay, Cook assesses the themes, settings, and tone of the Odyssey, maintaining that the poem is lighter in tone but equally as profound as the Iliad]

The epic poem is all-embracing; it is comprehensive, rather than encyclopedic, in character. It is their focus, more even than their lack of verse form, which deprives Finnegans Wake or La Comédie Humaine of an epic aura, and which almost gives one to War and Peace. The distinction, while elusive, is nicely illustrated by the contrast between the encyclopedic Tesoro of Dante's master Brunetto Latini and the comprehensiveness of the Divina Commedia itself.

The code that is to press the mortality of the hero, the verse style that is to sound the depths of his objectified feeling, though they must derive from tradition, cannot simply be received from it, even if the tradition be that of the man's earlier work.

An epic poem must find its embodiment in a wholly adequate fable. The test of adequacy is not to be found in some generality such as War, the subject of many long poems, or Wandering, the subject of many others. An epic adequacy, moreover, cannot be said to be guaranteed by the resonance of an archetypal plot. Poems with stories, short and long, in all conventions, draw as heavily on the archetypal situation as they do on the rhythmic emphasis of a meter—that is to say all but universally—and perhaps for related reasons. It may be said, in brief, that epic adequacy resides in some myth that can unify all the incidents of a given poem into a view of experience large enough to pose completeness for the life of the protagonist. The poet's great task of invention is finding the myth for his particular poem, a problem that Homer had to solve by centering on Achilles no less than Milton did by centering on Adam. Such adequacy may not be gained by merely choosing a subject which superficially resembles some other adequate myth. Each epic, to possess its own universality, must fully articulate the view it envisions on ground it wins for itself. It is the poet of Beowulf who makes his myth superior to that of the Waltharius. Looking at epic poems after the fact, we can remark on the aptness of the invention: if such aptness were completely bound up with generic laws, we would have more epic poems than we do. Getting the right myth and a "classic line" together at full pitch is one of the rarest of literary acts.

So Homer—if we may conceive of the same man moving on with the same traditional equipment from Iliad to Odyssey—did not repeat himself by selecting some similar myth. He did not go on to the Seven Against Thebes or some other war, as Apollonius superficially chose Jason because Odysseus had been done, as Statius and so many others opted for their own or another national myth of war, aping the Iliad. Nor did he handle his verse in quite the same way.

Homer managed the complexity of the Iliad by coordinating an entire society at war. This achievement was unique, and since it was, it could not serve him for a poem which presents a like complexity in the sequential experience of a single hero.

Achilles stands at the center of the Iliad, but his world measures him. Odysseus, however, measures his world as he moves through it. And it does not alter him; he remains the same from first to last, not only in the actual time span of the poem, but also, essentially, over the twenty years of his wanderings.

In his dominance of the action he resembles Beowulf, Roland, and the Cid. But their experience is also single, while Odysseus goes through varieties of experiences that intimately mirror his complexity while testing his mind and emotions. In its characteristically light and subtle way, the Odyssey exhibits a hero whose experience is internalized; whose psyche is plumbed. So the heroes of the best epic poems after Homer—Aeneas, Dante, Adam—resemble Odysseus more closely than they do Achilles. And Pound has taken Odysseus in The Cantos for the persona most fit to mirror his varieties of experience.

The actual fable (logos) of the Odyssey is short, as Aristotle points out [in the Poetics]. And yet the poem is complexly interwoven (peplegmenon.) This is because we have recognition (anagnorisis) throughout, he says, and this simple term serves as well as any other to describe Homer's mediation between his single hero and the hero's manifold experience.

The poem insists on this singleness, and this complexity, in its very first line:

Tell me, Muse, about the man of many turns, who many…

Man, the first word. Complexity is named twice, in polutropon, "of many turns," and also in polla, "many."

Odysseus' situation deepens in time, and the situation of the poem deepens as it progresses; yet Odysseus' adequacy remains everywhere the same in all its aspects (polutropos.) Only by a kind of alteration of the substance of the poem can we accept Cedric Whitman's reading of a developing self for Odysseus [in his Homer and the Homeric Tradition, 1958]. His wholeness appears from the beginning in the memory of friends and comrades about him, in the persistence of his return, in his adroitness at meeting the enigmas of societies so variable that beside them the forms of Proteus which Menelaus must master seem simple indeed.

Through all the "change" of the poem—the term is Whitman's—Odysseus, by intelligence and striving (as the opening tells us) copes consistently with minds and peoples:

Tell me, Muse, about the man of many turns, who many
Ways wandered when he had sacked Troy's holy citadel;
He saw the cities of many men and he knew their thought.

The variations of scene in the Odyssey involve a progression from the young to the mature (Telemachus to Odysseus), from the old to the new (Ithaca to a Phaeacian present), from the single to the complex (Nestor to Menelaus; Calypso to and through Circe), from the hostile to the hospitable (Ciconians to Phaeacians), from the natural to the fantastic (Ciconians to Hades, to the Oxen of the Sun groaning on the roasting spits), from the known Troy far from home to the remote Phaeacia whence Odysseus may soon sail for Ithaca.

Underlying these progressions is the psyche of the hero, broad because we have narrow ones (Nestor, Telemachus) for comparison. And since everyone's experience is appropriate for his character, the experience becomes a figure of the extent and complexity and subtlety of his inner life.

Applying this principle of congruence between a man's self and his destiny to the smaller characters, to the other peoples, we may apply it a fortiori to Odysseus. In this principle lies the canon of unity for the whole poem. Character in the Iliad is a given affirmation of a man's stable situation. In the Odyssey the situation is in flux, which means not that character changes, but that the flux of situation itself is seen to rest obscurely on the predisposition of the person or persons involved, character as fate.

The heroes return from war on voyages that are revelatory to us of their very selves. The simple Nestor had a straight return, the proud Agamemnon a disastrous one. The subtle and elegant Menelaus, a slighter of the gods, finds a return which tests his subtlety. Prompted by a nymph, he must first grapple with Proteus' sleepy noon disguises on lonely Pharos; then sacrifice in Egypt to the gods. Far more various are the wanderings of Odysseus, and consequently far more famous is Odysseus himself. He is outstanding in all virtues (IV, 815: pantoies aretesi kekasmenon). And the fullness of his humanity is mirrored in his wanderings.

Telemachus, too, voyages to learn to become like his father, to overcome his excessive respect (aidos, III, 24). He already has too much of what Achilles had too little. As the disguised goddess of wisdom says to him:

Few are the sons who are equal to their fathers;
Most are worse, but few are better than their fathers.
If you would not be a coward hereafter, and senseless,
If the counsel of Odysseus has not forsaken you wholly,
Your hope in that case is to bring these deeds to pass.
(II, 276-280)

Telemachus passes over into his manhood; it is through him, as he moves into the present of the poem, that the narrative begins, evoking both memory and futurity in the longing for Odysseus, and also the dim sense that the father who has been gone so long may have come to his mortal end.

Telemachus, risking a voyage to learn the facts about his father, learns that no simple facts are forthcoming, because facts undergo the alteration of memory; the glorious Trojan war that Nestor tells about, in which he and Odysseus were equal counsellors, does not seem the exploit that subtle Helen and Menelaus remember, focusing as it does on the deceptions of the wooden horse.

How a man sees things depends on who he is; Intelligence is the presiding goddess. These gods are not objective, standing for the unknown-and-visible, as in the Iliad. They are clear in the Odyssey, and yet they too vary according to the observer, who is then himself objectively presented in the foreground of the poem. To Menelaus they are beings who must be propitiated. Nestor sees them as stubborn, Helen as capable of great favor, the Phaeacians as always benign. At the same time this particular people takes the gods with sophisticated familiarity and humor, laughing at Demodocus' tale about Ares and Aphrodite; adultery occasions mirth for them—the very evil that Penelope has been avoiding for twenty years.

Character is fate: who a man is also determines how far he goes, how widely he is tested, what sort of a home he has made his own. In this sense men get exactly what they deserve, a moral transparently presented at the very outset in Zeus' speech to Athene and the other gods:

Well now, how mortal men do accuse the gods!
They say evils come from us, yet they themselves
By their own recklessness get pains beyond their lot.

The Phaeacians are near to the gods; they dwell far away from other mortals, having been close to the challenging Cyclops. Their location and their way of life are taken altogether for a total character that compasses Odysseus at this stage, but does not absorb him.

Each man is closed in the world of his own perceptions, and so is each people. Each place visited is an episode for the variable Odysseus, as in a lesser way for his searching son. Nestor lives a simple life, his boys doing his work for him. It is a comfortable life, too; there are smooth stones before his palace. Beyond his imagination, overland from his territory, lies the elegant court of Menelaus, come upon characteristically in the midst of a wedding celebration. In that court there is a dominance of ceremoniousness all but total. But neither of Telemachus' hosts exhibits any trait so surprising as the near-supernaturalism of the Phaeacians, who also marry their cousins; or the outand-out incest of the forever dining children of Aeolus.

Pain befalls man, but the gods have taken pain away from the Phaeacians. With pain, the gods have taken away the sort of wholeness exemplified, as always, by Odysseus, who lands naked and hungry on their shore just before finally going home. Nestor can face pain in nostalgia, but Menelaus can stand little pain. His "heart breaks," he tells us, when he learns from Proteus that he must sail the relatively little distance from Pharos to Egypt. And he has small patience for combat, as his words imply:

quick is the glut of cold lamentation
(IV, 103)

Helen passes to her guests a drink with a nepenthe in it, to make the drinker so forget all his pain that:

He would not shed a tear down his cheeks the whole day long,
Not if his mother and his father were both to die,
Not if right in front of him his brother or his dear son
Were slaughtered with bronze, and he saw it with his own eyes.
(IV, 224-7)

Through the formality of Helen and Menelaus there is felt a certain coldness. And to Odysseus the Phaeacians display a childish eagerness, for all their own elegance. Menelaus has the servants bathe Telemachus, a task Nestor assigned to his own daughter. Anxious about their cleanliness, Menelaus orders the bath as soon as they arrive; Nestor has had it done as a send-off. Such coldness, in this poem of heartfelt pain and joy, may evidence cruelty. Menelaus mentions casually that if Odysseus should care to settle nearby, he would gladly sack and depopulate a city for his old friend.

Each character, of place and society, becomes objectified in the comparing eye of the visitor; Telemachus, like his father, can compass the varieties by encountering them. Home is the norm, and Ithaca—unlike Aeaea or Ogygia or Phaeacia or Pylos or Argos—has no special features other than the chaos into which it has fallen.

Odysseus discovers himself on his way home. The wideness of the way, the wideness of the character destined for so much turning, becomes apparent by comparison with the briefer ways of others, and by the more circumscribed societies, each of which objectifies a whole moral attitude and destiny: a character (ethos) of the sort Aristotle asserted this poem to be woven from (peplegmenon).

Ithaca lacks the heightened felicity of Lacedaemon and Phaeacia, their ordered painlessness and easy delight. Subject to pain and chaos, it is the more rooted in the human variety known and sought by its absent overlord, and it stands waiting in memory, changing in reality, for his rearrival. When he does arrive, his reinstitution must be so deliberate as to take nearly half the poem. While Odysseus wanders, Ithaca stands in unseen relation to him, though from the beginning it is portrayed in its changed reality. Perpetually the poem holds his biased and unswaying nostalgia in a comparison, often unexpressed, between home and the place of sojourn. Explicitly he declares that Calypso surpasses Penelope in appearance and form, but such ideal excellence pales before the real rootedness of his mortality. Telemachus, in refusing Menelaus' gift of horses, admits that Ithaca affords poor pasturage; but he persists in his superlative praise of the island:

In Ithaca there are no broad courses or any meadow;
It has pasture for goats and is pleasanter than a horse pasture.
But none of the islands that lie by the sea has good meadows
Or a place for driving horses, and Ithaca surpasses them all.
(IV, 605-8)

So he feels; and so does his father, enough to strain his ingenuity to return there.

This epic hero substitutes supple intelligence for the courage and prowess of the Cid, Beowulf, and Achilles. He follows not a code but the course of his own longing, an inner canon the poem sets out as equally to be trusted. Consistently, then, he does not gather all he knows in order to face the unknown. He acts on hunches (Lestrygonians) or social canniness (Phaeacia) or a surfaced feeling (Calypso) or luck (Circe) or improvised plan (Cyclops). In a sense there is nothing he can rely on as known, because he always copes with a wholly new situation in utter ignorance:

For I have arrived here as a long suffering stranger
From afar, from a distant land; so I know no one
Of the men who conduct this city and its fields.
(VII, 22-25)

He faces not the unknown but the new, not death but transience. Transience, itself a consequence of mortality and a kind of figure for it, replaces death in the imaginative vision of this epic. Longing for permanence drives the resourceful Odysseus round the changing seas and years.

Home itself changes, in the relentless metamorphosis of a third of a life-time. Permanence and change, satisfaction and longing, joy and pain, foresight and happenstance—these never get fixed in hard opposition because Odysseus moves too fast and copes too variously. His fable allows him to embody all these complexities without setting one stiffly against another; without overembroiling himself in any, and also without slighting the real difficulty or allure of a single one.

It is not death he must face. From the present time of the poem on, that risk is slight. In this epic, a life rounds itself out by return to an original mature circumstance that the very course of life has altered.

Change brings pain, and yet the joy of changelessness among the lotus eaters or the Phaeacians lacks the fullness of changeful life. Death may be taken as a fearful circumstance and at the same time as bland fact. The death of his mother Anticleia is spoken of matter-of-factly in a salutation wishing joy.

In the seeming universality of transience, arrival seems forever debarred, and Odysseus comes back a second time to Aeolus, who will not help him; to Circe, who greets him with a warning. Back again he comes, also, to Scylla and Charybdis. Death lies as a test in the future. Though the hero's own death is vague and remote, he must risk it and pass its country in order to return. Odysseus can get back only by visiting the dead, all the way past the eternally shrouded Cimmerians. Even then it takes the escort of the Phaeacians, who are near to gods, to get him back. The Phaeacian vessel, moving like a star, unerringly and effortlessly swift, bears Odysseus in a sleep "most like to death" (XIII, 879-92) to the home he has not been able to sight for twenty years.

Odysseus has changed so much himself, and Ithaca has become so remote to him, that he does not know where he is when he wakes up there. Of the disguised Athene he asks a question at once obvious and profound: are the inhabitants hospitable or wild?

All is old, and all is new. If Odysseus did not recognize old elements in any new situation, he could not exercise his many wiles. If he did not have to confront the new, there would be less need for any wiles at all.

The need dwindles at the end, but it has not disappeared. At the end of his life he must undertake another journey across the sea and set up a tomb to Poseidon among men who do not know the sea.

Odysseus stands midway between the easier returners, achievers of a simpler permanence, Menelaus and Nestor, and those who have died on the return, the victims to change, Agamemnon and Ajax, not to mention all his own followers.

Permanence brings joy, transcience pain. The living sustain a subtle balance between permanence and transience, and so between joy and pain. The sea is sparkling but treacherous; to the solitary Odysseus Ogygia is joyful for its unearthly beauty but painful for its not being home. Pain coalesces with joy, or else a life is shown to lack the epic wholeness: if pain becomes total, one is to die; if joy fully dominates, one enters the lifeless permanence of the Lotus Eaters and the Phaeacians, whom Odysseus' long tale of suffering fills not with tears like his own but with a feeling of charm, the poem twice says (kelethmos: XI, 334; XIII, 2).

To return brings joy but causes pain. It is of the joy of return that Agamemnon speaks—he who least of all would have cause to remember that joy. Yet the pain of becoming reinstated in a changed home offsets, precedes, and intensifies, the joy of restitution.

In his coping, Odysseus works his way through contrarieties; pain and suffering he names at once when he is asked what his wanderings have brought. Joy can be as much a trial as pain; heartbroken with longing on Calypso's isle, he refuses her blissful immortality but enjoys her in the cave. He lives a year with Circe. The Lotus Eaters, the Phaeacians, and the Sirens all promise—the first could even fulfill—a painless existence wherein the pain might be obviated and even the longing be gone. But the fullness of life demands the wholeness of longing; and Odysseus, delighted and also pained, pushes on to his return. All the sufferings of wandering are told, after the tears of a delightful song, to the banqueting, hedonistic court of an Alcinoos who has already promised escort home. The habit of Ithaca counters the novelty of the strange delights, and yet habit too is the enemy of the remembered home: Odysseus stays seven years on Calypso's island.

Within its scheme of variety, this broad poem can vary the key of an alteration between joy and pain without changing its tone. Each episode has a different flavor of joy or pain. As Odysseus sails away from Cyclops, he gets exulting delight in exchange for teeth-gnashing despair. Aeolus occasions first impulsive gladness and then a resigned, fearful despondency. An ocean of moods for the longing hero is held in the single vision of the poem.

The poem sustains a sense of the hero's fine equanimity in transience and permanence, in sorrow and joy, by having placed him in a flexible situation where he transcends every person and every people he meets. The equanimity of the hero also enters the verse, for example in its descriptions of the visible world through which Odysseus moves.

A fine veil of poetry, simple and delectating, limns the changing landscapes, none so fully described as Ithaca, and all consequently more immediately redolent of an almost lyric singleness, a seemingly mythic signification. But the significance merely impresses in passing, and does not construct allegories. What are the Cimmerians at the bounds of the deep-flowing ocean, shrouded in darkness and cloud, who never see the beams of the sun or the starry heaven? They are far (Ithaca is nearness) and shrouded (the mists part often in the clarity of the Adriatic sun; Ithaca sees sun and starry heavens). They stand before the underworld, sharing some of its obscurity.

As Stella points out [in Il Poema d'ulysse, 1955], the fruits and trees of this landscape are described more realistically than the fabulous vegetation found not only in the jewelled forests of Gilgamesh, but in such Greek legends as the Golden Apples of Hesperides. Yet as Max Treu says [in Von Homer Zur Lyrik, 1955], we cannot distinguish between fairytale and real in the landscape descriptions of the Odyssey. Its epithets are at once evocative and descriptive, far looser than those in the Iliad:

The sun arose, leaving the lovely lake,
Into the much-bronze heaven, where for immortals it shone,
And for mortal men upon the life-giving earth.
(III, 1-3)

All the grandeur of the Iliad, as Longinus says, but less intensity. Polychalchon, much-bronze, sets off no contrasts between "lovely" and "life-giving." The attributions are not faceted situationally, as they are in the Iliad. They merely rise to their seemingly haphazard descriptiveness, and their Tightness seems to reside somewhat in a mythic resonance. The real and the fairy-tale are mingled in the memory of the recounting Odysseus and the perceptions of the poem's hearer. Against the joy of a given place stands the hero's own pain; against the beauty of life the hard risk of death, and the difficult, losing battle against time. At the end of all the easy hospitalities of Phaeacia, of the checked Circe, of Calypso, lies the difficult restitution in Ithaca. The transience of an arriver's longing, of the guest's contingency, clings to the poetry, for Odysseus' longing son as for himself:

And they came to hollow Lacedaemon full of ravines.
(IV, 1)

This is a new sight to Telemachus, a temporary one; his enjoyment of the visual loveliness, the presence of this poetic line in the narrative, is tinged with his fearful search for light about his father. Helen's nepenthe does not last for him, though it may for the Lacedaemonian court.

But the sun goes down, the moon rises, and by day or night there is toil. Lacedaemon for the son, like Phaeacia or Ogygia for the father, is a delightful interlude, something unreal in the reality of life. A man who has a full life on his hands can see the loveliness, along with some of the unreality. His eyes enjoy the glitter, but his heart is in his mouth; the words catch the glitter, the rhythm moves wave on nostalgic wave in the total feeling of the poem.

The hexameter—lightly!—bears the burden of sadness, reiterating in its "disappointed" last foot the sorrow of the total fable. Poetry makes people weep in the Odyssey, even finally in the Phaeacian court. Odysseus himself weeps to hear of Troy, though he weeps behind his veil. "The accents of the Homeric hexameter are the soft rustle of a leaf in the midday sun, the rhythm of matter"—Spengler's fine ear [in his The Decline of the West, 1928] has picked up the characteristic rhythm of the Odyssey. Not, I feel, of the Iliad. In both poems, of course, quantity determines the main rhythm, and not accent. Where Vergil patterns the subordinate accents, Homer lets them fall where they may. This randomness in the Iliad produces a surging afflatus, rather the way the free meter of the ballad does. In the Odyssey, I do not hear these free syllables as surging. The unaccounted accents play, as it were, over the surface of the statement, as the words themselves seem to do. In the Iliad the unaccounted accents do a more strenuous work, and yet are closer to prose in their lack of emphasis; in the Odyssey they twitch the veil of the poetry, rhythmically carrying a sense of the variety of life.

The poetry reveals its lightness in the very particularity of its designations; it touches lightly on literalness, and quite haphazardly. All is known, but the known is a mystery. Home remains the same, but time changes it. Take the line about the constellation Bear, "which they also call by the name Wagon":

And it alone has no share in the washings of Ocean.
(V, 275)

The statement conveys a literal piece of astronomical fact, but with a light resonance that lies in each word. "Oie," alone, echoes the aloneness of Odysseus. "Has no share," or "unfated" (ammoros): in the very negation lies a whole sense of fate, at once specific and general. The "washings" (loetroi) are carrying Odysseus too; he is caught in the wash of the ocean stream above which gleams the Bear. In its suggesting of analogy, though, the line is not metaphoric. It merely speaks of the natural world, the stars and the sea, in words that usually apply to man, and so it hints at a participation in a total situation which is not patterned but merely moves ahead in its predictable but incalculable alterations. This hint is absent from the line when it occurs in the Iliad merely to describe a point of Achilles' shield.

And the tone of the poem, the fine veil of what, for lack of à more delicate term, we may call irony—that tone veils all the actions and the landscapes. The hexameter carries that tone, forbidding, as it were, even the most dire incident from carrying a tragic cast. The elegiac becomes a delectated likeness. At the height of the grisly Cyclops episode, a joke: Odysseus is "no man." Homer may have got this joke from a folk-tale or not; it has the same effect in the poem, the consonant presentation of an exultant joy within a crushing sadness.

Through its tone of equanimity, the verse conveys pain and joy without setting one paradoxically off against the other, as the Iliad somewhat schematically sets the actuality of pain against the memory of joy. The veil of mystery covers everything in the Odyssey; yet everything also shows through the tonal veil. Deception comes up again and again, the host of disguises and feints and subtle unmentioned calculations and adjustments which every character makes, and preeminently the resourceful Odysseus. Even gods deceive; right at the start in Book I they quickly hold their committee meeting about Odysseus, while his enemy Poseidon, the opposition, is conveniently far away among the Ethiopians.

For all the deceptions, clarity. For all the caprice, justice. For all the wanderings, return. Here the world is utterly clear and whole, and utterly mysterious. Its clarity is its mystery, the poetry is declaring. The same blue Aegean washes real and miraculous shores, and the real and the miraculous differ only in incidental, equally perceptible details, which the poetry proffers:

On the hearth a big fire was burning, and the smell from afar
Of cedar and easy-split pulp was exhaled to the island
As it blazed. She within, singing in a lovely voice,
Going to and fro at the loom, wove with a golden distaff.
Wood was growing around the cave in abundance,
Alder and black poplar and well-scented cypress,
Where the birds with their long wings went to sleep,
Horned owls and hawks and, with their long tongues,
Salt water crows, who are busy with the things of the sea.
(V, 59-67)

A superlative place, but with a quality finely perceptible as of itself; distinct from the superlative of Lacedaemon or Phaeacia or Aeaea. The cave, the trees, the birds, and later the springs and meadows, characterize the physical world of Calypso, which is at the same time her world of spirit, just as the deepness of Ithaca resides for the poetry, as for the naming Telemachus, in the very physical homeliness and roughness of the place.

Often we are given designations for the sea, wine-faced or grey, Protean as the numberless lands are different. Yet each is clear and whole unto itself, each capable of receiving at times the enumerative detail Auerbach claims is typical of the Odyssey generally.

Homer, however, is not so enumerative in his verse as Auerbach claims. The poet does tend to linger over detail of the narrative, as Auerbach follows Schiller in asserting; but not utterly for the sake of the detail. If we cannot read some other significance into the detail—the ritual use of Calypso's trees, for example—we cannot obliterate significance either. Certainly to assert that Homer tells "everything" would be to make him inarticulate. He must select, though more abundantly than the inspired author of Genesis.

Nor can it be said, with Auerbach [in his Mimesis, 1957], that the Odyssey has no "background," no hidden depths of motive. It is all foreground, to be sure, but a light irony holds all the detail. That light irony constitutes the background, the delicate and profound sense of success in transience, of unfinality in any terror, which renders the epic sense of life to the Odyssey, lightening the poetry and unifying the fable; so that the poem stands as something at once close to what we expect from a novel in its incident, and yet utterly different from a novel in its final bearing.

In all the alterings of circumstance, in all the pains, the hero's self remains wholly adequate in its adaptability (polutropos)—and without being defined. To take Odysseus' wanderings as deepening him, the way Cedric Whitman does, involves reading the significance of the places he visits as allegory or symbol. They do have the ring of archetype, and they do figure a total spiritual condition, each of them, mysteriously. Yet to read their significance as symbol or allegory is to pierce the veil of mystery. The depth is all on the surface, a sunlit mystery. No totality glides like a Moby Dick in the darkness beneath these waters. To interpret the surface of this poem metaphorically is to translate the surface as gaining significance from some depth; but the significances are all there on the surface, embodied simply in landscape and lightness of gesture.

Achilles develops and realizes his manhood. Odysseus moves ahead with his into time, changing only as he ages, while events at once tax and fortify him. He simply exists. No coordinated social world can deepen him; there is only the series of unpredictable surfaces, each complete and partial in itself, which he shows himself capable by meeting, and whole by transcending. Intelligence attends him from first to last, and the manifestation of Athene at his landing on Ithaca attests no special consideration, no final success, but only a momentary embodiment, as the world of his striving has actualized itself under his feet without his being aware of it.

When Odysseus speaks to himself, as he does after having set out from Ogygia, the soliloquy explores no motive but merely develops and estimates the incidence of misfortune. Once again, it is all on the surface: the depth inheres in the irony with which it is presented, an irony so slight as to seem transparent, vanishing at a breath.

The irony may at numerous moments emerge into event. Odysseus slights Calypso in his account to Arete, falsifies his contact with Nausicaa, and delicately implies a refusal of Alcinous' marriage offer by mentioning in the course of his narrative how he has often refused such offers elsewhere. Menelaus, who had to wander years because he had slighted the gods, gives Telemachus a libation bowl! So, the poem hints, he has learned his lesson. Athene sacrifices to her enemy Poseidon. But the events need not be ironic; they may be deadly serious, and irony is still conveyed in the uniform tone of the verse.

Without the poetry, the flexible Odyssean hexameter, the humor would be episodic, and so would the nostalgia. The variety of incident would then merely add up to a superficial romance of the picaresque with some fine detail and occasional lyric moments, rather like the Lusiads. But in the Odyssey nostalgia comments on humor. Humor and nostalgia blend but do not fuse in the epic unity of this poem, lighter than the Iliad, but no less profound.

Suffering, even the dark terror of Cyclops or Odysseus' wholesale slaughter of the suitors, is kept serenely in vision, as it is not in even so equanimous a comedy as the Tempest. Only loosely can the Odyssey be called a comedy, or even a comic epic. It is an epic whose lightness compasses comic events, and also tragic; that allows of both tragic and comic events without inventing a whole philosophic relation for them (or a Dantesque justification) beyond the unitary tonal feeling of myth and verse.

C. M. Bowra (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9134

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Action," in Homer, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 141-64.

[In the following essay, Bowra explores the dramatic quality of the Homeric epics, maintaining that although it "arises from action, it often goes beyond it and touches on the character of the actors, their thoughts and their feelings as their words reveal them. "]

The Iliad and the Odyssey are preeminently poems of action. Their first purpose is to engage the hearers in what happens, to involve them imaginatively in it. In this respect they resemble not only other heroic poetry but much oral narrative verse which may be sub-heroic or shamanistic. Their main objective can be paralleled in ancient poems like Gilgamesh and in modern ones like the Kirghiz Manas. In such poems the thrill of action comes first but is attended by much else, notably by a concern for what human beings do and suffer and the many ways in which they face their challenges. In heroic poetry this is all important because without it the mere account of violent behaviour would pall even for the most assiduous addict and lose much of its significance by its neglect of human feelings and considerations. In the Homeric poems the action is wonderfully varied, and though we know in general what is going to come next, we seldom know exactly how it will come. Surprise is never lacking and sharpens an endless range of effects.

Though the strong dramatic quality of the Homeric poems arises from action, it often goes beyond it and touches on the character of the actors, their thoughts and their feelings as their words reveal them. Speeches, even soliloquies, abound and add an element of drama, which is woven closely into the narrative and wins attention by its advance beyond mere action to the motives that prompt it. In this respect, there emerges what may be called a lyrical spirit, partly in dealing with nature whether directly in descriptions or indirectly in similes, and partly in presenting powerful emotions such as affection or grief. Both of these classes would, if expressed in the first person, inspire lyrical poems, but in Homer they are indispensable to the narrative and to its human rise and fall. Even contemplative poetry, which assumed an unashamedly didactic form with Hesoid and made possible the first outbreaks into philosophy, occurs in both poems in general considerations advanced by the characters. Odysseus' comments on the shameless demands of an empty belly have their counterpart at a much higher level in what Achilles says to Priam about the way in which the gods apportion good and bad to men. Such generalizations help the audience to understand what is happening, but through the mouths of the characters and not of the poet. They do not break the general objectivity of heroic narrative, but make the characters more real by giving their underlying views on human life. These thoughts arise from the action, and are less a comment on it than an actual part of it.

The heroic poet does not normally assert his own opinions or pass judgments on what happens. Perhaps he is not of sufficient social standing to lay down the law to an audience which may include the local rulers; perhaps the effort of heroic poetry to attain a self-contained life of its own excludes personal intrusions which interfere with the story. In either case the rule is generally followed. Homer reveals himself in the nature and quality of his creation; he does not attempt to guide our reactions to them. His independence from his work may be illustrated by a small point in which he allows himself a small comment on what happens. He often uses the word nepios, which means, in colloquial English, 'poor', with often some slight suggestion of 'silly'. It is applied to Patroclus when he asks Achilles to send him to battle, and there Homer explains that his request is really for death. Telemachus uses it of himself, with special reference to his boyhood when he did not know how to deal with the Suitors. In these cases we may discern understanding and compassion, and also perhaps in the use of the word for the companions of Odysseus when they court doom by eating the cattle of the Sun or linger disastrously in the land of the Ciconians. The word suggests that men sometimes act as children and pay for it. It is a small indication of what Homer feels for his characters, of his tenderness for them in their mistakes, but it is not a judgment, still less a condemnation. His characters stand in their own right and do what they do without Homer's comments.

This is not to say that he has not his preferences and distastes among them, but this emerges indirectly from his presentation of them. An obvious case is that of Thersites, who is introduced with no pretence of approval:

Thersites alone railed at them, with uncontrolled speech; he knew in his mind many disorderly words, to speak at random and not in decency, to quarrel with the kings.

(ii 212-14)

Something of the same contemptuous spirit appears in the account of the beggar Irus:

Then came the public beggar, who went begging through the town of Ithaca; he excelled in his gluttonous belly, to eat and drink without ceasing. He had no strength or force, but in appearance he was very big to look at.


We naturally assume that such cases illustrate the poet's personal dislike, but we must not rule out the possibility that in them he reflects the views of his noble patrons, who think poorly of such ill-born specimens. It is easy for the poet to agree with them, but at least the characters stand out clearly, even if it is with the clarity of contempt.

A similar objectivity is shown in the presentation of the background against which the actions take place. This must be real and convincing, especially when nature is in question. The Greeks never gave to nature that exclusive attention which later ages have given, nor did they find so much in her. They were not town-dwellers and did not seek a refuge in her, but took her for granted as the setting and the background of their busy lives. In the Homeric poems nature is treated handsomely in the similes and incidentally in the narrative. Twice in the Odyssey Homer indulges in what looks like description for description's sake. First there is the cave of Calypso, surrounded by trees of many kinds, mantled with a vine and haunted by sea-birds. Outside it are meadows watered by four streams, and the poet does not conceal his pleasure in it:

There at that time even an immortal would wonder at seeing it and be delighted in his heart.


The second case is the garden of Alcinous. It is foursquare, surrounded by a wall, and rich in fruit-trees and vines. But it has a touch of the miraculous, since the trees and the vines bear fruit all the year round, and one crop follows another in unfailing succession. Each of these scenes serves a purpose. Calypso's cave sets the note for Odysseus' remote exile with a goddess on a lonely island. This is how an immortal nymph lives, but Odysseus does not find it enough and pines to escape and go home. The garden of Alcinous is part of his half-mythical existence. Though he and his Phaeacians are distinguishably human, he lives on the edge of the known world and is entitled to some alleviation of its restrictions.

Such full descriptions are rare and special, but the poems incidentally touch on landscape when it affects the narrative, and give it character and solidity. This is very much the case with the plain of Troy, which presents features that affect the action. Homer appeals to the visual imagination, and the desire for reality creates something clear and clean. This is especially true when something in the landscape has a special significance for the action. More care is taken, and striking results follow. When Achilles fights the river-god Scamander, he calls the fire-god Hephaestus to his succour, and the effects of devastating fire are aptly related:

Elms, willows and tamarisks caught fire; and the lotus and rushes and galingale that grew in plenty about the beautiful banks of the river were burned. Troubled too were the eels and fishes that tumbled in the eddies, this way and that, in the beautiful streams, worn out by the breath of cunning Hephaestus.

(xxi 350-5)

This is factual and true to reality. The unusual character of the action needs the precise details which give verisimilitude to it. This manner is not too different from the less dramatic and more unassuming account of Ithaca as Odysseus first sees it after being set ashore in his sleep by the Phaeacians. The harbour itself is like the modern Vathy, but the description would fit many Greek anchorages, and some of its phrases are used for the harbour of the Laestrygonians. What follows is more individual. At the head of the harbour is an olive-tree and the Cave of the Nymphs, which is carefully described, with its stone formations inside, its water-supply and its two entrances, one on the north for men, one on the south for the gods. This serves a real purpose. The treasures of Odysseus must be got out of the way while he deals with the Suitors, and there is much to be said for this unusual hiding-place.

The same selective objectivity can be applied to the works of men. We form our mental picture of Troy almost entirely from its epithets. The palace of Odysseus reveals its plan, never very clearly, when it matters for the story, notably when Penelope comes down from her quarters upstairs or Eumaeus gets out through a small door and a passage concealed in the wall. Nothing is very clear, but in general the palace seems to resemble the so-called Palace of Nestor at Ano Englianos. The small touch that the palace of Circe is made of polished stone increases its strangeness on a lonely island. On the other hand the splendour of the palace of Menelaus at Sparta impels him to explain that all this wealth was gathered on his travels, and so prepares the way for the story of them. The palace of Alcinous has walls of brass, a cornice of blue enamel, golden doors and a silver lintel, and gold and silver dogs on guard, made by Hephaestus. But this, like other things in Phaeacia, is just outside the familiar world and its very wealth prepares the way for the rich gifts which Odysseus is soon to receive from his hosts. Such descriptions were well calculated to suit their place in the story, but their comparative rarity stresses the way in which Homer gives first priority to actions and uses these subsidiary aids to provide background and perspective.

Artefacts, being essential to the action, provide more than decoration and excite professional attention. Though archers are rare in the Iliad and Odysseus leaves his great bow at home, the bow of Pandarus, which breaks the truce between the armies, is described at length. It is made from the horns of an ibex which he himself shot; they measure sixteen hands, and have been fitted together, polished and given a golden tip at the end. The members of the audience would know about archery and appreciate that this was indeed an unusual bow and that its very strangeness fits it for the dramatic purpose of breaking the truce. Even more unusual is the headgear made of boars' teeth on felt which Odysseus wears on night operations. It is described with care, and it seems to be something of an heirloom. In fact it is exactly like a type of Mycenaean helmet of which we have both models and remains, and is by any calculation a remarkable curiosity. We do not know whether Homer had heard of it or actually seen an example, but in either case he knew that was worthy of mention. The poet is a repository of knowledge of the past, and details like this confirm his authority and the worth of his narrative. Perhaps something of the kind is true of the brooch of Odysseus, to which we have no close archaeological parallel, but the scene depicted on it, of a dog throttling a deer, looks like a Mycenaean subject, while the structure of the pins looks much later. The brooch fails as a means to identify the stranger who tells Penelope about it, but adds another clue to the identification of him. When Hera decks herself in her finest finery to allure Zeus and trick him into sleep, it is right that we should be told all about it, and we cannot but note with interest the robe fastened with golden clasps, the girdle with a hundred tassles, the earrings, each with a cluster of four drops, the headdress bright as the sun. All this has a place in Hera's stratagem and needs to be related.

Conversely, sometimes merely utilitarian objects may call for a detailed description if the audience is to envisage exactly what happens. This is the case with the waggon which is loaded with the ransom for Hector and driven by Priam himself. The account is precise, and special care is given to the way in which the yoke is fastened to the shaft of the waggon. The lead pair are mules, the wheel pair horses, and this may have been an intentional oddity, meant to illustrate how horses trained to chariots in war are less suitable than mules to draw a heavy waggon. We do not know why the fitting of the yoke receives such care. It must have been a fairly familiar action, and the words, being technical, would have no meaning unless they conformed to current usage. The care given may be due to a desire to make the episode absolutely convincing, especially since it is not what is expected in a heroic setting, and its oddity marks it out for special treatment.

Clearly unusual and calling for special care is the raft of Odysseus which he makes with his own hands. It is meant for him alone, and therefore it cannot be large, though it is in fact as wide as a ship of burden, though not necessarily as long. Odysseus makes it from twenty trees, alder, black poplar and fir, because they will float lightly, and this suggests that the craft is of no great size, especially as one tree would be needed for the mast, and part of another for the yard. He works with axe, adze and gimlets, and the timbers are well fastened together. It has a sort of deck, supported by props which protect the voyager from being drenched. It has also a mast and a yard, a rudder or steering oar, and a railing of wicker bulwarks to keep off the spray. Odysseus makes it in three days and even he could not construct a complete ship in that time; it is a raft which he hopes to sail and to steer. In fine weather he can sleep on it on a couch provided with rugs and cloaks by Calypso. This raft not only shows Odysseus' gift for skilled craftsmanship but has a special interest for its unique purpose, which is to carry a crew of one for a voyage of seventeen days. The careful account is worthy of the important occasion when Odysseus, after eight years with Calypso prepares to leave and travel alone over the unknown sea. He works with knowledge and precision, and it is not his technical fault that the raft fails to finish its journey.

Quite different from these solid, workaday descriptions is one notable long passage in which Homer gives a full account of the shield which Hephaestus makes for Achilles to take the place of that seized by Hector from the body of Patroclus. The shield is not something that the poet himself has seen. It is too elaborate, too costly, too accomplished, but we may speculate from what sources he invented it. Its technique of gold, silver, tin and blue enamel is not unlike that of the dagger-blades from the shaft-tombs at Mycenae. Some object, not necessarily on this enormous scale, may have survived into Homer's time and excited his wonder. Equally, even if all such objects had disappeared in the intervening centuries, they may have left memories in formulaic song. In the passage of years the accounts might lose something of accuracy, and of course each new bard could, if he wished, make his own improvements. The shield, with its concentric scenes of nature and human life, could only be a decorative object, quite unfit for use in battle, but that need not trouble Homer who profits from the loss of Achilles' armour to embark on a splendid piece of descriptive poetry. In battle the splendour of the new armour does not matter and is hardly mentioned. For the moment it is a rich flight of imagination and we take it as it comes. The shield is the handiwork of a god, suited to the half-divine hero Achilles, and in the broad range of the subjects depicted on it is a microcosm of life as Homer knew it. It gives him a chance to extend his scope beyond the battlefield and the doings of heroes into other less exalted but not less attractive fields. It is Homer's ideal work of art, what he thinks metal-work could be in the hands of a god, and it is noteworthy that six times he uses adjectives which convey much the same note of admiration, 'beautiful', 'lovely' and 'awaking desires'. These are applied to the scenes made by Hephaestus, not to any possible originals they may have copied in nature or human society. The shield is what art ought to be—a representation of things in a beautiful way. It gives delight, and is to this degree comparable to heroic song. Nor is it reckless to imagine that in conceiving this supreme work of art Homer tried to do for visual art what he himself did for words. Both arts transform reality, and in this their beauty lies.

The strength of the poetical tradition can be seen in the knowledge which the Iliad reveals of Troy and the Trojan plain. We have seen how apt the epithets for these are, but there is more to be considered than epithets. The Iliad has a good general grasp of Troy in its geographical setting, and from the top of Hisarlik we can identify most of the sites which Homer mentions. The Achaean camp could be set to the north, where the coast takes a sharp turn eastwards, and the battlefield is between this and the city. At some distance to the west are the twin peaks of Samothrace, from which Poseidon watches the battle. To the east, and much closer, is Mount Ida, whence Zeus in his turn watches the battle, and from which wood is brought to make a pyre for Patroclus. Nearer home, to the east of Achaean camp and still identifiable, in the village of Keren Koi, is the high ground Callicolone, where the gods who favour Troy gather. On the plain itself is a slight elevation, which suits the place where the Trojans gather before an attack.

These small touches suggest some knowledge of the terrain, and this knowledge is at times used with dramatic effect. The large view from the top of Hisarlik confirms the ease with which Helen points out the Achaean leaders from the walls. When Achilles fights the river-god Scamander and Hephaestus comes to his rescue and burns all the vegetation.

Burned were the elms and the willows and the tamarisks, and burned was the clover and the rushes and the galingale.

(xxi 350-1)

This is the vegetation which still flourishes on Trojan river-banks. When Achilles pursues Hector three times round Troy, we might expect it to be a heroic prodigy, but in fact the distance is not great, nor the terrain very difficult. When Priam goes out at night to visit Achilles in the Achaean camp, he can travel easily in a wagon, for almost the whole journey is over level ground. When Achilles drags Hector's body behind this chariot round Troy, Andromache comes out of her house on to the walls by a tower and sees what is happening. These are but small points, but in them the physical setting adds something to the story. Once or twice it does so more unexpectedly. When Patroclus attempts to scale the walls of Troy, he tries three times and three times he fails:

'Three times Patroclus moved on to the angle of the lofty wall, and three times Apollo drove him away by force'.

(xvi 702-3)

Now it happens that the lower part of the walls of Troy are at an angle which makes it not too difficult to climb them, but at the top of this were perpendicular battlements. Patroclus reaches the angle (literally 'elbow'), where these meet, and is pushed down. A batter of this kind is rare, and this looks like a genuine reminiscence. Again, Andromache tells Hector:

'Station the host by the wild fig-tree, where the city is most easily approached and the wall may be scaled'.

(vi 433-4)

It happens that the excavations have revealed a weak spot in the western fortifications, and of this the passage may contain some echo.

Not everything in the Homeric scene of Troy can be substantiated, and one or two problems remain unsolved. First, the two rivers Scamander and Simois may be identified with the modern Mendere and In-tepe Asmak, but in the flat plain these rivers often change their courses and we have no assurance that their present position is what was known to Homer. On the whole his picture is clear. The two rivers flow, very roughly parallel, across the plain to the sea. But two points are difficult. First, it looks as if the battle swayed between the rivers without obstacle, and yet at one point we heard that the rivers join their streams. It does not much matter, but it may come from a time when the rivers had different courses, and the battle would not flow easily between them. Secondly, there are three places where there is a ford over Scamander. We might expect the ford to be a place to cross the river, but this seems to be used for watering horses and then passed on the flank—not impossible but curious. A similar difficulty arises with the hot and cold springs which Hector and Achilles pass in their race. The description is exact and convincing and looks like a real memory but though the Troad offers some natural hot springs, no springs like these have been discovered. Time may have changed them, or perhaps legend, knowing something not very accurately, has built up a picture. Yet neither with the springs nor with the rivers can we say that the Iliad is wrong. Such divagations as it presents from the present geography can be explained by the changes brought by time.

If we allow that much of the knowledge of Troy, such as that displayed by the epithets, is of ancient origin, it is always possible that the living poet has made his own contributions and may even have visited the site of Troy, which was beginning to revive in the eighth century with Greek colonists. For this there are certain not final, but at least favourable, arguments. First, the account of the landscape is remarkably consistent and creates no difficulties. A poet working only with traditional material might well make blunders, and his failure to do so suggests that he knows something of the subject. Secondly, the country and the city are used with great dramatic effect, whether in the ebb and flow of battle or the nocturnal journey of Priam or the appearance of characters on the city walls. Such use would come more readily with actual knowledge.

Ithaca, which is the scene for much of the Odyssey, presents a different case. Historically this small, rocky, and barren island had one great advantage. It stood off the western end of the Gulf of Corinth and commanded the sea-ways to and from the west. This may account for its place in legend. Nor need we doubt that Homer's Ithaca is in some sense the modern Thiaki or Ithaki, which has kept the name through the centuries. What we may doubt is how much the poet knew of it. Some at least of his story fits into the modern island. Odysseus is landed in the harbour of Phorcys, which corresponds to Vathy. His palace is some way from this and may be placed on the west of the island at Polis. The steading of Eumaeus fits the southern part of the island and the remote dwelling of Laertes the northern. The adjective 'under Neius' agrees with Mount Anoi. There is a recognizable fountain of Arethusa, and a small harbour of St Andrea on the south coast, where Telemachus can land on his return from Pylos. Not quite so neat but still possible, if we allow for poetical transformation, is a cave near but not very near to Vathy, which will serve as the cave of the Nymphs, though it is not immediately by the harbour. Perhaps the island of Dhascalio, in the strait between Ithaca and Cefalonia, will do for the island of Asteris, behind which the Suitors lie in ambush. It may not matter that the modern island is much too small, since it may have been reduced by earthquakes. So far the Homeric Ithaca betrays some local knowledge, which got into the tradition, despite the remoteness of Ithaca from Ionia. We might even think that these details come from a time before the migrations eastward. But this is not the whole story. There are places where the Odyssey speaks of Ithaca in a way which does not suit the present island, still less the semi-island of Leucas, with which it has sometimes been identified. The chief of these is the account given by Odysseus himself to Alcinous:

'Itself it is low-lying, and lies, furthest out, in the sea towards the gloom, and the other islands are separate towards the east and the sun.'


This contains three false statements. Ithaca is not lowlying, and we have no right to say that the word means 'near the shore', which anyhow it is not. It is not furthest out, even if we assume that the coast was thought to run east to west, which of course it does not. So far from the other islands being to the east and the sun, they are to the south, west and north. It looks as if while the tradition was still forming and new features were added, somebody who knew almost nothing about Ithaca added these lines to make it more convincing.

What counts most in the Homeric poems is action. It awakes the responses through which we judge the poetry. To the range of these responses there is almost no limit. There is almost no human reaction which Homer did not translate into a concrete poetical form. The one of which he is a little sparing is laughter. This is applied abundantly to the gods, who laugh at each other and whose merriment is presumably shared by the poet's audience, especially in such full-scale episodes as the Deception of Zeus or the song of Demodocus on the love of Ares and Aphrodite. Among men this is much rarer. It is true that there is gentle fun in the exchange of armour between Glaucus and Diomedes, where the generous impulse of Glaucus makes him give away his golden armour in exchange for the bronze armour of Diomedes, which is worth only a ninth of it. There are too outbursts of bitter laughter, as when the Achaeans laugh at the blow which Odysseus gives to Thersites with his sceptre or the frenzied laughter of the Suitors which Athene sends to them. But this is not humour, but derision and, as such, well fitted to the heroic temper in its wilder or angrier moods.

With this partial exception there is almost no human emotion which Homer does not present or which he does not arouse. His effect is the more powerful because it is direct, immediate and single. He may be compared first with other practitioners of oral heroic song, and we mark the enormous difference of range between him and not merely the author of the Song of Roland and the poets of the Elder Edda but the authors of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, to say nothing of Mongol or Tatar poets still or recently at work. These other poets have indeed moments of concentrated force and assertive power, but so has Homer; what they have not got in his wonderful range which seems to cover all human experience that is worth covering. Heroic poets are not expected to do this; their job is rather to catch certain high moments and concentrate on them. Homer has an effortless grasp of most elementary human states, and moves easily from one to another. Conversely, he may be compared, in quite a different respect, with those poets, writers of literary epic, who sought to imitate and rival and improve him. Of these Virgil is first and foremost. Though he knew that he could never really rival Homer in his own field, he still tried to do something comparable, and attained at least a noble scope and dignity. He is hampered by his own contorted, conflicting, uncertain emotions and by his insecurity of belief and outlook. By trying to believe more than he did he succeeded in believing less, and his vision of imperial Rome is much vaguer than Homer's vivid sense of heroic manhood. Homer would not have maintained his wonderful directness of approach if he had not sung to a listening audience and felt himself bound to make everything beautifully clear to it. Conversely, in exploiting a far wider range of themes than other heroic poets he may have been helped by the wealth and antiquity of the Greek poetical tradition which accumulated stories over a long period, and reflected a generous taste for life because it was almost the only fine art that flourished in the dark ages after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization. A poet could take advantage of this and learn from it, but he would not have gained much if he had not possessed to a very high degree the imaginative insight and the creative understanding which turn human emotions into poetry.

In depicting the emotions at work Homer makes his audience share them and enter into the spirit of his characters. This happens so effortlessly that we hardly notice it, but the ease is largely due to Homer's concentration on a single mood and his subjection of everything to this. Thus the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in Book i is a study in anger on both sides. Each hero is dominated by it because he thinks that he has been wounded in his honour, Agamemnon by having to give up Chryseis, Achilles by having Briseis taken from him. Anger flares through the book and takes vivid forms, from rabid abuse to thoughts of violence which come very near to action. In the exchange of insults the two heroes are well matched. We may not for the moment ask who has right on his side, and it is not till later that we see the case of Achilles. This is the authentic Homeric technique. The simple, powerful emotions promote swift and overwhelming action. The high temper displayed by the two heroes is self-destructive and leads to untold harm, but it can take other, less deadly forms, and in any case it is essential to the action on the battlefield, to the impetus which carries Hector or Patroclus, Diomedes or Sarpedon, on his unrelenting course. It sets the tone for the fiercest events, and everything follows naturally.

Just as in his construction of narrative Homer follows the rule of 'one thing at a time', so this enforces on him a simplification and indeed a simplicity of poetical effect. Every episode has on the whole a single character, but once it is finished we may expect something quite different. Once his direction is set, he goes irresistibly ahead. So when Iris tells Achilles to appear at the trench and dismay the Trojans, she does it after scenes of lamentation and grief, but at this point Homer takes a new direction and the whole passage is an astonishing display of what the mere appearance of Achilles can do. A fierce, heroic splendour shines in every line, and it is right and proper that at the sight twelve Trojan charioteers die of shock. So too, when Odysseus strings the bow, we are held in tense expectation, but the whole situation moves forward with increasing excitement as he first shoots an arrow down the line of the axes and then leaps upon the platform, throws off his rags, and announces his new task of vengeance. The tone is suddenly changed and then maintained for the new actions.

This concentration is applied to quite small matters, and does much to integrate them into the main poem. For instance in Book i the angry quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles is interrupted by a description of the voyage in which Odysseus brings back Chryseis to her father. It tells the successive stages of the voyage, the landing, the welcome, the feast, and the departure. Each is factual and precise and brief, and the whole episode breaks for a few moments the violence of the quarrels behind it. It is quite wrong to think it an interpolation; it fulfils a need, and it does so by keeping its own quiet tone without a mistake. Rather more exciting but equally well maintained is the small episode in which Odysseus, drawing unknown near to the hut of Eumaeus, is attacked by the dogs and fortunately rescued by the swineherd. It is a sudden moment of excitement, admirably sustained, entirely true to Greek life, and an excellent introduction to Eumaeus. The different elements are fused into a single whole, which has a character different both from what precedes and from what succeeds it.

The direct movement of narrative is enriched by Homer's eye for the illuminating detail, the small touch which throws a vivid light on what happens. Thersites, for instance, makes only one appearance in the Iliad, but though it is short it is important because he embodies unheroic, even anti-heroic qualities, and these are reflected in his appearance:

He was the ugliest man who came to Troy. He was bandy-legged and lame in one foot. His shoulders were bent and met over his chest. Above, he had an egg-shaped head, and on it sprouted some scanty hairs.

(ii 216-19)

Such an appearance fits Thersites' character and behaviour and marks him out for contempt. Less obviously brutal but no less telling is the introduction of Dolon:

He had much gold and much bronze. He was ugly to look at but fast on his feet, and he was an only son, with five sisters.

(x 315-17)

This is nicely damaging and makes it easier to endure Dolon's death which soon follows. Such touches are unexpected and sometimes bizarre, but they are delightfully apt. A small but delightful touch comes from Menelaus when he tells how Helen walked round the Wooden Horse and addressed the Achaean leaders, imitating the voices of their wives. We can believe it of her, but it is told so simply that it takes a moment to see how illuminating it is. So too when a very unusual situation is in question, Homer makes sense of it by some deft stroke of insight. When Menelaus lies in wait for the sea-god Proteus, he and his companions hide by wrapping themselves in newly-flayed seal-skins:

'There would our lying-in-wait have been most horrible, for the deadly stink of the sea-bred seals wore us down terribly; for who would lie down to rest by a creature of the sea?'


Fortunately they are saved by the goddess putting ambrosia under their nostrils—but the point has been made, and illustrates the unusual nature of the adventure.

Such small touches may give a powerful reinforcement to some general effect which is intended. When Hector, takes advantage of a lull in the battle to go into Troy, he finds his wife Andromache on the walls. They exchange touching and beautiful words about the dark prospects that face them, and then Hector turns to his small child Astyanax:

After speaking, Hector reached out his arms for his child; but the child shrank back crying to the bosom of his deep-girdled nurse, frightened helmet. His dear father and his lady mother laughed. Then shining hair plume, which he marked as it nodded terrible from the crest of the helmet. His dear father and his lady mother laughed. Then shining Hector took the helmet from his head, and set it, all glittering, on the ground.

(vi 466-73)

This changes the tone, which is beginning to reach a tragic temper, and introduces the warmth of a young family, but the one rises out of the other, since the child is the token of the love of Hector and Andromache. The common, human touch adds to the grandeur and nobility of the occasion. So too when Achilles has tied the dead Hector to his chariot and is already dragging him round Troy, Andromache does not yet know what is happening. She is busy with her embroidery, and then she gives orders to her slaves to heat the water for Hector's bath when he comes back from battle. She then hears the sound of wailing, rushes out and sees the worst. The small domestic touches mark the gap between the life of a woman and the life of a man, and their juxtaposition shows how closely interwoven they are. At a less tragic level but deeply touching is the dog Argos, who recognizes Odysseus after twenty years and then dies. He is the true and faithful servant who knows his master without any marks or signs, and suffers for his loyalty as he lies cast on the midden, neglected and full of ticks. These are an indication of his loyalty, and death is the right end at the right time.

In these cases, and in many others like them, a detail adds something highly individual and yet illuminating, and such details are more effective when they strengthen some display of emotion or affection. They are as necessary to the heroic outlook as any kind of prowess, for they provide the hero with a solid background and bind his friends to him. The Iliad, like other heroic poems, has its examples of heroic friendship, not only in Achilles and Patroclus but on the Trojan side in Sarpedon and Glaucus. These friendships find their chief outlet in war, where each friend helps the other, and if either is in trouble he calls for the other's help. So Sarpedon reminds Glaucus that they receive great honours in their own homeland, which they do not deserve if they fail to rise to the present challenge; so let them take the risk and advance to battle. Later, when Sarpedon has been mortally wounded by Patroclus, he calls on his friend to look after his body and his armour after his death, and this Glaucus, with the help of the gods, does.

The affection between Achilles and Patroclus is more powerful and more tragic, since Achilles feels that he failed to save Patroclus. So long as Patroclus is alive Achilles treats him as an equal and shares his troubles with him. When Patroclus is deeply distressed by the disasters of the Achaeans, Achilles mocks him gently and compares him to a child running to its mother, but when he knows what the trouble is, he treats it seriously and not only lets Patroclus go to battle but lends him his own armour. The strength of his love for Patroclus is revealed when the latter is killed, and takes almost extravagant forms, so that Antilochus is afraid that Achilles will cut his throat from grief. Because Patroclus has been killed by Hector, Achilles is obsessed by a desire to kill Hector in return, but even this is not enough for him, and when he has killed Hector, his troubles are not finished.

These male affections are stronger and more demanding than affections between men and women. Since the woman is dependent on the man, she finds her fulfilment in him. Andromache's whole life is centred on Hector and their small child. Indeed they can hardly be otherwise; for her whole family has been killed by Achilles, and her husband takes their place:

'Hector, you are my father and my lady mother and my brother, and you are my sturdy husband.'

(vi 429-30)

In her love for him she foresees his death and knows that it means the end for herself and her child. Yet in this there is nothing mawkish. Andromache lives entirely for her duties as a wife and a mother, but she has her woman's honour which lies in her husband's prowess. She is still a very young woman, and her pathos is enhanced by it, but she is not pathetic in any cheap or commonplace way. She knows what the dangers are and she is ready to face them.

In this matter there is a great difference between Achilles and Hector. Even in battle it is noteworthy that while one of Hector's gifts is for rallying and inspiring his fellows, Achilles needs no support and fights alone. This reflects the great difference between their personal lives. Patroclus is deeply attached to Achilles, but hardly says so, and complains that he is not the son of Peleus and Thetis but of the sea and the rocks. Patroclus may even be said to die for Achilles in so far as his career in battle is caused by his shame at Achilles' abstention from it. But the ties between them are quite different from the steady, quiet devotion which bind Andromache and Hector. Nor is Thetis dependent on Achilles in any respect. She is deeply involved in his life, and feels his sorrows all the more because he is doomed to die young. This is about all the affection which Achilles inspires, and the contrast is complete with Hector, who is the mainstay not only of Andromache but of Priam, who sees in his death the end of Troy, of Hecuba, who loves him more than all her other children, and of Helen, who is deeply conscious of his kindness to her. In the scarcity of his human ties Achilles stands out more emphatically as a hero, while Hector is a little too human to be a hero of the highest class. Yet both are presented through the affections that they arouse in others or feel for them. It is not their only claim, but it is a background against which their other qualities show their worth. It is right that they should be pitted against each other, and each gains something by it.

In the study of Homeric affections Odysseus and Penelope have a special place. When we are introduced to them, they have been severed for twenty years, and after all this time Penelope cherishes his memory and breaks constantly into tears at the thought of him. She is convinced that he is dead, but such is her love for him that she clings to hope and trusts that every rumour of his survival may be true. She does not speak explicitly of her love for him. That is taken for granted, and yet, when he is at last restored to her, her inbred suspicion is strong and she hesitates before she accepts him. This is true to human nature, and after all he has been away for a very long time. On his side Odysseus is almost equally undemonstrative, but he reveals his true feelings to Calypso when, to no purpose, she hopes that he will stay with her, and he answers:

'Lady goddess, be not angry with me in this way; I too know very well that wise Penelope is inferior to you in looks and figure for the eyes to see; for she is a mortal woman, and you are immortal and free from old age. But even so I wish and hope all my days to go home and see the day of my return.'


When at the end of a long story husband and wife are alone together they pick up an old intimacy and Penelope cannot take her arms off her husband. This decorous, lasting affection does not touch us very deeply, and we cannot but compare it with the love which Odysseus' mother, Anticlea, feels for him, and which we hear of when he calls up her ghost at the end of the world. He asks her what brought her death, and she answers:

'The far-seeing shooter of arrows did not come upon me in my chambers or kill me with her gentle shafts, nor did any sickness attack me, such as most often takes away life from the limbs with hideous wasting. But it was longing for you and for your ways, glorious Odysseus, and for your gentleness of heart, that took away life from my limbs.'


This is the most direct and most powerful outburst of affection in Homer, and it illustrates how his concentration on a single mood gives a uniquely dramatic power.

When Homer has exploited a single mood or tone, he changes to another, and this too is done simply but conclusively. The most complex case is in Book ix when an embassy comes to Achilles to make amends for Agamemnon and to ask him to relent, but he refuses and they go away unsuccessful. Inside this main plan of failure Homer marks three stages and each makes a dramatic surprise. At 357 ff. Achilles announces that he will sail away on the morrow; at 618 ff. that he will sail away in the morning; at 650-3 that he will join battle when Hector reaches the ships of the Myrmidons. Though for the moment these amount to a refusal, in the long run they mark stages towards the still distant moment when Achilles will return to battle. The change is deftly and delicately presented, and each section has its own character. So too in the exploits of Patroclus there is a marked variation of tone and effect. In the first stage he carries all before him. Then Apollo opposes him, and the mood changes to uncertainty, doubt, and alarm, until finally Patroclus is wounded and disarmed and killed. The two phases are quite distinct; each has its own marked character, the first working through the thrills of a victorious progress, the second through a sense of forthcoming failure and defeat.

The emotions which Homer shows at work are those of living beings, human or divine or animal. In the last class are the horse of Achilles and the dog of Odysseus, both deeply concerned with their masters and each showing it in his own way, the horse by speaking in a human voice, the dog by wagging its tail and dying. The gods are close to us because they are like human beings. They are vastly more powerful and do what men cannot possibly do, but this somehow enhances their likeness and makes us treat them as we would men who are not doomed to die. They have distinct personalities and move in their own right. Each of the three goddesses, Athene, Hera and Aphrodite, is moved by proper pride, as heroes are, and pursues her enemies without qualm. But the gods are brought closer to men in other, more interesting ways. First, they have their human children. Aphrodite is the mother of Aeneas, and protects him in battle; Zeus is the father of Sarpedon and would protect him if it were possible. Though they themselves cannot really be hurt, the gods can be wounded in their affections when their children suffer. Secondly, the gods have their human attachment. We have seen how strong is Athene's for Odysseus, but in a different way Aphrodite's care for Paris is hardly less strong, though less friendly and intimate. Because he gave her the prize of beauty, she gives him Helen, and both saves him from death in the duel with Menelaus and consoles him by forcing Helen to do what he wishes. The affections of the gods do not touch us very deeply but make the gods more likeable. It is the other side of their hatreds, of the injured pride which compels them to maintain unceasing hostility to those who have in some sense dishonoured them. That is why Athene and Hera fight on the other side to Aphrodite, why Poseidon harries Odysseus for blinding Polyphemus and hates Troy because he was cheated by Laomedon.

By giving human traits to his gods and his animals Homer unifies his approach to his complex subject, and this attitude helps to explain his intention in composition. It is clear on all sides that he does not wish to instruct. His comments on the action are hardly ever his own, but are made by the characters on each other. Even if the Trojan War is due to the shamelessness of Paris in preferring Aphrodite to Hera and Athene, the poet does not actually condemn Paris; he merely reports why the gods acted as they did, and assumes that Paris was, as he is elsewhere, mad about women. Nor elsewhere does he condemn any action by one of his characters, or even praise one. Nor is it clear that he tells his tale to instil ideals of manhood and present models of it for imitation. He certainly holds these ideals and they give shape to his narrative, but he does not underline them or drive them home. In later times Homer was regarded as a teacher of the young, well versed in the right kinds of behaviour and able to give vivid instances of it, but this was simply a means to justify the study of him in schools. When Plato attacks him for his low view of the gods or his over-indulgence in the emotions, it was because these were accepted as norms of behaviour. But there is no reason to think that Homer himself created types of manhood for imitation or even as warnings. His personalities derive their being from his passionate interest in them, and this itself may well have been fostered by a tradition which rejoiced in the glorious doings of men. This is the central spring of his power and if incidentally he inspires or instructs, it is because he believes so strongly in the reality and worth of certain human qualities. No doubt he composes poetry because he must, and that is explanation enough.

In his poetry Homer wishes to give delight. This is the intention which he ascribes to his imaginary bards. Telemachus explains to Penelope that Phemius gives pleasure as his spirit moves him, and Alcinous speaks of Demodocus in similar words. Both ascribe this power to a god and so exalt it. When Homer invents a father for Phemius he calls him Terpiades, where the root terp- is that of the word 'delight'. This is a kind of enchantment. Penelope uses the word 'enchantments' of songs in general, and when Odysseus tells his own story, the audience is held 'by a spell.' Since the bard is inspired by a god, it is right that his song should have a magical power of holding his hearers. This view presupposes a high level of style and outlook. Homer aims not at mere enjoyment, but at enjoyment of a lofty kind which comes from the gods and holds the attention of men. This view of poetry is by no means unique, but seems to be held quite often in circles where heroic song is honoured. The bards are so sure of the worth of their material and of their own ability to handle it that they can afford to present it without didactic or moralistic additions. It is later that the poet becomes a teacher, as he certainly did in Greece. Homer's impact is different, and all the stronger because he is concerned primarily with the vivid presentation of human beings. Moreover, since he presents them in action, he makes them living entities without any of the distortion introduced by abstraction and instruction.

Homer has his own view of the place of song in the world. This he states both in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, and though the words vary a little, and suggest that they are not strictly formulaic, the main substance is the same. In the Iliad Helen tells Hector that she and Paris are the cause of the troubles of Troy:

'Upon us Zeus set an evil doom, that afterwards we may be sung of by men to come.'

(vi 357-8)

In the Odyssey, before Odysseus begins his long story, Alcinous, noticing his distress, on hearing a tale of Troy, says of this doom:

"The gods fashioned it, and they wove destruction for men that they might be a song for those in the future.'


This is a clear and emphatic view, and not what we should expect to find in Homer or what in fact we find in other heroic poetry. It asserts the supremacy of art over human fortunes and justifies them because of the pleasure which songs about them will give. Whatever the social position or authority of the poet was, he had no doubt of the importance of his art, and he asserts this confidently through two important witnesses, Helen and Alcinous. Even though we argue that this belief is relevant to Helen's own case and helps her to endure her troubles, Alcinous is above the battle and offers consolation to the much-enduring Odysseus. No doubt Homer's own patrons were comforted by the thought that their doings would be remembered in song; Homer himself went further and saw in song a consolation and an explanation of the ills and sufferings of mankind. It commemorates them and transcends them, and raises them to an unperishing order of being.

Martin Mueller (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8208

SOURCE: "Fighting in the Iliad" in The Iliad, George Allen & Unwin, 1984, pp. 77-107.

[In the following excerpt, Mueller discusses ways in which individual warriors are represented fighting, dying or exulting over the bodies of their enemies in the Iliad.]

[My purpose in this essay] is to survey the representation of battle in the Iliad, moving from the components that make up the individual encounter to the devices by which larger narrative units are created from such encounters."… Here my chief aim is to classify phenomena and to convey a sense of their relative frequency. It is in the battle scenes that the modern reader is most likely to be wearied by the seemingly endless succession of virtually identical incidents and to experience the 'formulaic style' at its stereotyped worst. For this reason there is some virtue in sorting out the frequency of typical incidents and in establishing the degree of variation between closely related phenomena. As it turns out, the impression of endless repetition rests on a fairly small base, and many details of battle owe their 'typically Homeric' status not to repetition but to vividness of language, like the 'Homeric' laughter of the gods that arises only once in the Iliad (1.599).

There is no doubt that battle scenes, which amount to 5,500 lines or a good third of the Iliad, enjoy considerable autonomy in the poem. The poet and his audience like such scenes, and their periodic occurrence requires no greater motivation than bar-room brawls in a Western. But, although narrative control over the battle scenes is often relaxed, it is rarely absent, and it would be a great mistake to ignore specific narrative aims that guide the elaboration or deployment of particular motifs. Such questions as 'Why does this convention occur three times in this part of the poem?' often have an answer that points to the story of Achilles, Patroklos and Hektor. Often, but not always: a judicious reader must be alert to the function of detail without demanding the rigorous integration of every particular into the design of the poem. (In the following [essay] I am much indebted to Friedrich, 1956, and Fenik, 1968, whose books subsume much of the extensive literature on fighting in the Iliad.)

Warfare in the Iliad depends entirely on the strength and courage of the individual fighter. There is no room for strategy or cunning. There is not even much interest in skill. It is assumed that the warrior knows how to throw a spear or wield a sword, but special dexterity in the use or avoidance of a weapon is not a significant feature of the narrative. This attitude is Iliadic rather than Homeric or heroic. Cunning is highly regarded in the Odyssey, and in the Iliad there are occasional references to it. The shield of Achilles shows men gathered in an ambush and increasing their strength through cunning. Idomeneus praises the sang-froid Meriones would display in an ambush. Nestor likes to give orders and advice of a strategic kind; he also tells Antilochos how a good charioteer can use intelligence (metis) to compensate for inferior horses, and the dutiful son remembers the advice so well that he seeks to improve his position in the race by reckless cheating. On another occasion Nestor tells how in the old days Lykurgos killed Areïthoôs 'by guile rather than force.' But, while the Iliad is clearly familiar with a world in which the outcome of contests turns on the unscrupulous use of intelligence and the ruthless exploitation of the opponent's weakness, the poem banishes both from its arena and presents a spectacle of war at once brutal and innocent: no ambush, no stratagem, no diversionary or dilatory tactic qualifies the encounter of enemies in the field of battle. The bow is a marginal weapon in this world and does not become a major warrior. It is used by Pandaros, Paris and Teukros, but Odysseus, who gives a taste of his cunning in the wrestling match with Aias, left his bow at home when he sailed for Troy and like other major warriors fights with spear and sword. Only accident is allowed to qualify open force: some dozen warriors in the Iliad lose their lives because they stand in the path of a spear aimed at someone else. The trickery of the gods is a special case. The one part of the Iliad in which deception plays a major role, the Doloneia (Book 10), has been firmly established as a later addition to the epic.

The ethos of fighting is perfectly embodied in the words that precede Hektor's attack on Aias in their duel in Book 7:

Yet great as you are I would not strike you by stealth, watching
for my chance, but openly, so, if perhaps I might hit you.

Fighting in this spirit not only despises guile and cowardice; it is also constrained by an implicit notion of fairness. The actual fighting in the Iliad does not always live up fully to that ideal; indeed, it is Hektor himself who runs away from Achilles and takes ruthless advantage of Patroklos' injury. How typical are these striking violations of the code?

The question of fairness arises wherever a warrior is taken by surprise. Leaving aside the few bow-shots and the spear-casts that hit someone else, such surprise is not very common. In the fourth book, Elephenor bends over a slain warrior to strip him. As he does so, his ribs are exposed and Agenor hits him. Similarly, Koön takes Agamemnon by surprise as he removes the armour of Iphidamas. These incidents reflect on the victim's lack of caution. On two occasions in Book 13 a Trojan warrior unsuccessfully attacks an Achaean only to be caught unawares by Meriones on his retreat. A more drastic instance of intervention by a third warrior occurs when Menelaos kills Dolops from behind as he is facing an attack by Meges. All three cases seem less than heroic and occur in a stretch of fighting distinguished by savagery of other kinds. None of these incidents, however, matches the ruthlessness of Hektor's killing of Patroklos. On three occasions a warrior kills an enemy whom he has previously disabled. But there is no other case of a warrior killing an enemy whom someone else has disabled.

If the death of Patroklos is the most serious violation of fairness, the duel of Hektor and Achilles provides the most glaring example of loss of courage. The Homeric warrior aims at inspiring in his opponent the uncontrollable fear that leads to flight (phobos). Instances of such panic are numerous, but they are typically a collective phenomenon. Individual flight is a much rarer and more qualified phenomenon. When Zeus turns the scales of battle in favour of the Trojans and the Achaeans run away, Diomedes is the only warrior to come to the help of the stranded Nestor. He calls on Odysseus as he runs past, but Odysseus does not hear him or does not listen (the text is ambiguous, 8.97). Odysseus, however, makes the fullest statement of the code of courage when, surrounded by Trojans, he refuses to yield in the face of overwhelming odds. Between these extremes, there are intermediate positions. Diomedes is afraid to yield lest Hektor accuse him of cowardice. It takes the advice of Nestor and three thunderbolts from Zeus to persuade him that retreat on this occasion is inevitable and not shameful. The hand of the god is generally a valid excuse for yielding. So Diomedes in Book 5 organises a retreat because Hektor is aided by a god. Zeus inspires Aias with fear, but even so his retreat is slow and reluctant. A warrior may without serious loss of face retreat from an enemy who is clearly superior. Thus Menelaos persuades himself that he may abandon the body of Patroklos when Hektor approaches, and Aeneas yields to Menelaos and Antilochos, but Diomedes scornfully rejects the advice to retreat before the joint attack of Aeneas and Pandaros, and events prove him right.

There are limits to Hektor's courage even before the encounter with Achilles. At the order of Zeus he avoids Agamemnon just as at the order of Apollo he avoids Achilles, although he breaks that command when he witnesses the death of his brother Polydoros. He also avoids Aias on his own initiative. When Patroklos routs the Trojans, Hektor at first resists the attacks of Aias by his skill at evasive action—the only time in the Iliad this skill is made much of—but then he, too, joins the rout. He teams up with Aeneas against Automedon in the hope of conquering the horses of Achilles, but he retreats in fear when the Aiantes come to the aid of Automedon. But neither his previous behaviour nor the other scenes of more or less honourable retreat are any precedent for his extraordinary loss of courage at the approach of Achilles. A warrior may persuade himself to stay (Odysseus) or to retreat (Menelaos), but only Hektor persuades himself to stay and fails to live up to his resolution. It is important to remember, however, that the poet sees Hektor's flight less as a failure of Hektor's courage than as a symptom of the overwhelming terror emanating from Achilles.

The unit of fighting is the individual encounter. The most salient feature of this unit is its brevity. In other forms of heroic poetry warriors demonstrate their prowess in protracted struggles with one or more opponents. Hours or days and many lines may pass before the decisive stroke, and the victor may suffer as many wounds as the vanquished. Not so in the Iliad, where the first blow disables the opponent, occasionally through injury, but mostly through death, which is always instantaneous.

Except for two occasions, the injured warrior has no power to strike back. Agamemnon and Odysseus withdraw from battle after killing the men who injure them. The other injured warriors do not return to battle until a god heals or strengthens them as happens to Diomedes, Aeneas, Glaukos and Hektor. The wounding of Menelaos by Pandaros does not occur in battle. Sometimes injuries are forgotten or trivial and healed by the surgeon. Sarpedon, who suffers a serious thigh-wound on the first day, fights on the third day as if nothing had happened to him. Similarly, Teukros suffers what appears to be a disabling shoulder injury on the second day of fighting, but is all there again on the following day. It is hard to tell whether these cases are due to heroic resilience or to a lapse of memory, but the three Achaean leaders wounded in Book 11 hobble to the assembly on the following day.

Out of some 140 specified encounters only twenty involve more than one blow, and except for the duel of Hektor and Aias no encounter goes beyond a second exchange of blows. On three occasions, the victim is only disabled by the first blow, and it requires a second blow to kill him. The death of Patroklos at the hands of Apollo, Euphorbos and Hektor is an elaboration of these cases.

On two occasions, the warriors let go of their missiles simultaneously. On seven occasions, the aggressor misses the enemy or does not pierce his armour fatally and is killed or disabled in return. The victim is always a Trojan. We find this pattern with Pandaros and Diomedes, Ares and Diomedes/Athene, Euphorbos and Menelaos, Hektor and Aias. A slight variation occurs in the duel of Meges and Dolops. Meges is hit by Dolops, whose spear does not pierce. Meges, who has used his spear to kill another Trojan, hits Dolops with his sword. This stroke, however, is not fatal, and Dolops is killed by Menelaos, who comes up from behind and pierces his chest with his spear. Finally, in two closely related scenes, the Trojan aggressor injures an Achaean who retains enough strength to avenge himself on his aggressor but is then forced to leave the battle. This pattern is found in the wounding of Agamemnon and Odysseus in Book 11 by Koön and Sokos. Agamemnon is injured less seriously than Odysseus but, while he continues to fight for a while after Koön's death, the poet does not attribute any named slayings to him.

Only eight encounters go beyond a first exchange of blows—a telling indication of the narrator's preoccupation with the decisive moment. The first exchange always involves spears and has a variety of outcomes. Peneleos and Lykon miss one another. So do Sarpedon and Patroklos, but each of them hits another victim, the latter the charioteer of Sarpedon, the former the tracehorse of Patroklos. The outcome of the first exchange reflects the relative strengths of the combatants in the duels of Paris and Menelaos and Achilles and Aeneas. On both occasions, the Trojan fails to pierce the Achaean's shield. The Achaean does pierce the armour of his opponent, who somehow 'ducks' the spear. On four occasions it is the victor who misses on the first throw. Thus Agamemnon misses Iphidamas, Menelaos Peisandros, Achilles Asteropaios and Achilles Hektor. In each case the opponent hits but fails to pierce; the ambidextrous Asteropaios discharges two spears at once, one of which sticks in Achilles' shield whereas the other grazes his hand.

There is no standard procedure for the second exchange, although it usually involves a change from spear to sword. Menelaos attacks Paris with a sword, which breaks. He then pulls Paris by the strap of his helmet, but Aphrodite snaps the helmet strap. Agamemnon hits Iphidamas with his sword. The duels of Peisandros and Menelaos and Lykon and Peneleos are alike in that both involve a simultaneous exchange of blows in which the Trojan's blow fails. But Peisandros wields a battle-axe instead of a sword, the only warrior in the Iliad to do so. Sarpedon and Patroklos exchange spears in the second round. The former misses, the latter hits. Asteropaios, the man with two spears, has no sword. As he vainly tries to pull the spear of Achilles out of the ground, Achilles dispatches him with his sword. Achilles rushes at Aeneas with his sword, and Aeneas stands ready to throw a rock, but Poseidon puts an end to the encounter before the second exchange can take place. The most famous victim of Achilles can only be a victim of his spear: Hektor rushes at Achilles with his sword, but Achilles kills him with the spear that Athene returned to him after he missed on his first throw.

The longest fight in the Iliad, curiously enough, is the not entirely serious encounter of Hektor and Aias in Book 7. Their duel does not involve the characteristic change from spear to sword, but is based on the triple repetition of a throwing contest in which Aias comes out slightly ahead each time. When the warriors turn to their swords the heralds put an end to the fighting by pointing to the onset of night.

Battle narrative in the Iliad is dominated to the point of obsession by the decisive and disabling blow. Some 170 Trojan and fifty Achaean named warriors lose their lives in the Iliad; another dozen, evenly divided between the two sides, are injured. About eighty of these die in lists, two, three or four to a line, such as the following victims of Patroklos:

The remaining 140, only two dozen of them Achaeans, attract more of the poet's attention at the point of their death. The degree of attention varies enormously and observes a delicately graded hierarchy: Hektor, Patroklos and Sarpedon, but also Euphorbos, Iphidamas and Sokos, stand out against the many warriors about whom the poet tells us no more than their name, patronymic, and the nature of their invariably fatal injury. What unites the greatest and the least warriors is the experience of sudden and violent death.

The poet goes out of his way to introduce variety into his grim litany. Take the narrative stretch that describes a rout of the Trojans and shows six Achaean leaders each killing an opponent. Hodios falls off his chariot hit by Agamemnon's spear between the shoulders. Idomeneus hits Phaistos on the right shoulder as he mounts his chariot. Menelaos, like his brother, hits the fleeing Skamandrios between the shoulders. Meriones' spear pierces the right buttock and bladder of Phereklos. Meges hits Pedaios in the back of the head, cutting through his teeth and tongue. Eurypylos rushes at Hypsenor with a sword and cuts off his arm. A similar stretch in the Patrokleia features wounds in the thigh, chest, hip, flank, shoulder, neck, shoulder, mouth, as well as a cut-off head.

Here are the victims of Achilles, the final list of slayings in the Iliad. Iphition is hit in the middle of the head, Demoleon on the temple. His helmet does not hold: the spear crashes through the bone and brain splatters on the inside of the helmet. Hippodamas is hit in the back, Polydoros in the navel: he falls holding his guts in his hands. The spear of Achilles hits Dryops in the neck and Demouchos in the knee. Laogonos and Dardanos are dispatched with spear and sword respectively, but their injuries are not specified. Tros vainly seeks to supplicate Achilles: a sword-stroke makes his liver slip out. The spear drives in at one ear of Moulion and out at the other. The sword plunges deep into the neck of Echeklos and is heated by his blood. Deukalion is hit in the elbow; unable to move, his head is cut off and flung away with the helmet. Marrow jets out of his spine. Rhigmos is hit in the abdomen, Areïithoös in the back.

This survey of some two dozen injuries from four killing scenes provides a fairly representative sample of injury and death in the Iliad. The upper body and the head are the most common targets for the spear, the neck and head for the sword. In any sequence of killings the poet will vary the injuries and the degree of detail. He may state the mere fact of death, or he may dwell in great detail on the circumstances of a particular slaying, but most commonly he will use a phrase that is specific without being very descriptive, such as 'on the right shoulder', 'through the chest', 'below the ear'. Against the background of ordinary killings some scenes stand out for their special precision, atrocity or extravagance. In our sample, the victims of Meriones and Meges in Book 5 as well as several of Achilles' victims fall in this category.

These special injuries require separate attention because they have an effect quite disproportionate to their scarcity. Mention the Iliad in a conversation, and someone is likely to point to some particularly grisly injury as a typical instance of Homeric narrative. But such injuries are not nearly so pervasive as casual readers assume. Out of 140 specified injuries only thirty are remarkable in one way or another, and their description takes up a bare hundred lines. Far from being instances of epic battle-lust, these descriptions are associated with particular characters or situations, and they owe their prominence as much to strategic placement as to vividness of detail.

First a brief survey of the grisly scenes. A few injuries are remarkable less for their cruelty than for their attention to real or imagined anatomical detail. Thus Amphiklos is hit 'at the base of the leg where the muscle / of a man grows thickest so that on the spear head the sinew / was torn apart.' Ancient scholiasts wondered about this injury because it does not appear to be particularly lethal. Antilochos rushes at Thoön and 'shore away the entire vein / which runs all the way up the back till it reaches the neck'. For all its precision, the description defies human anatomy. The third example of what Friedrich has called fake realism occurs in Book 14 where Archelochos is hit 'at the joining place of head and neck, at the last / vertebra, and cut through both of the tendons.'

Much more important to the tone of the poem are scenes in which a head is either severed or smashed in a particularly brutal way. Three times, and in words that echo each other, the helmet shatters under the blow of a spear and is besplattered on the inside with brain. Idomeneus drives a spear through the mouth and into the brain of Erymas. The skull splits, teeth fall out, and the eye sockets fill with blood, which also wells up through nose and mouth. The helmet of Hippothoös cannot withstand the force of Aias' blow, 'and the brain ran from the wound along the spear by the eyehole, bleeding.' The spear of Diomedes drives through eye, nose and teeth of Pandaros before cutting off his tongue at the base. A whole line is given over to Pandaros' tongue, perhaps because he had been such a braggart in his life, but Pedaios and Koiranos suffer a similar fate. The realm of the probable is clearly left behind in two scenes where the violence of the blow forces the eyes out of their sockets so that they fall on the ground, the fate of Peisandros and Kebriones.

Decapitation occurs half a dozen times, sometimes as a form of mutilation. Aias Oileus cuts off the head of the dead Imbrios and throws it before Hektor's feet. Agamemnon chops off Koön's head over the body of his brother Iphidamas. When he hews off the arms and head of Hippolochos, killing and mutilation are both present. The same is true of one of the most grotesque scenes in the Iliad. Ilioneus is speared in the eye; as he falls backward, Peneleos cuts off his head and triumphantly lifts his spear, with the head stuck on it 'like a poppy.' The same Peneleos later severs the head of Lykon so that it dangles from the body by a mere piece of skin.

Abdominal injuries are not uncommon, but are usually not specified beyond such phrases as kata laparen ('in the flank'), mesen kata gastera or neiairei en gastri ('in the middle or lower belly'). Where the wound is elaborated, the poet dwells on the image of guts spilling out of the body. This happens to Peiros, and to three victims of Achilles. The gruesomest image, however, occurs in Book 17. On two occasions a spear misses and continues to quiver after it hits the ground. This image is varied in the death of Aretos, whom Automedon, the charioteer of Patroklos, kills in revenge for his fallen comrade: the spear quivers in the entrails of the hapless victim.

Groin injuries occur four times. One of them is passed over in a phrase, the other three are remarkable for being the work of Meriones, a ruthless and somewhat sneaky warrior. The first injury is suffered by Phereklos, son of the man who built the ships for Paris' fateful voyage. An ancient scholiast interpreted the wound as poetic justice for the whoring of Paris. The other two occur in adjacent and similar passages in the aristeia of Idomeneus: a Trojan fails to pierce the armour of an Achaean; as he retreats, Meriones hits him in the groin 'where beyond all places / death in battle comes painfully to pitiful mortals.' The death spasms of the victims are compared to a twitching bull and a wriggling worm—unique images that make it clear that a sense of revulsion is intended and not the result of a more refined sensibility.

There remain three unique and bizarre scenes of death in the Iliad. Two of them involve charioteers. A straightforward version of a charioteer's death occurs after the death of Asios. His unnamed charioteer loses his wits, is hit in the stomach by Antilochos and falls off his chariot. In Book 5, Menelaos kills Pylaimenes, and once more it is Antilochos who kills the charioteer, but the motif of the fallen warrior is varied: his head is stuck in the deep sand, and the body remains standing for a while—an image that gains force from the contrast with typical closing phrases like 'he fell thunderously and his armour clattered about him'. In the other version, the motif of the charioteer's paralysis is varied. Patroklos kills the terrified Thestor by stabbing him in the jaw and then

hooked and dragged him with the spear over the rail, as a fisherman
who sits out on the jut of a rock with line and glittering
bronze hook drags a fish, who is thus doomed, out of the water.
So he hauled him, mouth open to the bright spear, out of the chariot,
and shoved him over on his face, and as he fell the life left him.

Finally, perhaps the most bizarre death of all, a second variation on the theme of the spear quivering in the ground. Paralysed by Poseidon, Alkathoös stands immobile as Idomeneus pierces his armour and drives the spear through his heart:

He cried out then, a great cry, broken, the spear in him,
and fell, thunderously, and the spear in his heart was stuck fast
but the heart was panting still and beating to shake the butt end
of the spear. Then and there Ares the huge took his life away from him.

With the exception of Koiranos, the victims of gruesome injuries are always Trojans, a reflection of the bias of the poet's narrative sources. Some interesting conclusions emerge from looking at the distribution of these injuries and at the identity of the killers. Twenty-eight of thirty injuries occur in Books 5, 13-14, and in the aristeias of Achilles, Agamemnon and Patroklos (including the fight over his body). The killers are either minor warriors or major warriors in extreme situations. The reasons for this distribution are not hard to find. Minor warriors are both distinguished and placed by their association with fanciful and cruel injuries. Meriones is the specialist in groin injuries; Peneleos acquires similar notoriety through the brutality of head wounds he inflicts. The cluster of unusual injuries in Books 13 and 14 has two reasons. We may distinguish in the Iliad between fights that sharply focus on a concrete object (the wall in Book 12, the ships in Book 15, the body of Patroklos in Book 17) and diffuse fighting scenes in which the general sense of battle yields to the individual encounter. Gruesome injuries are almost completely absent from the fighting scenes of the former type (except for the fighting over Patroklos), and they are clustered in the scenes of the latter type. The desire to make individual encounters more colourful and inevitably more brutal accounts for the frequency of unusual injuries in Book 5 and in Books 13 and 14, but it does not explain the much greater brutality of Books 13 and 14. Again the reason is not hard to find. The cruelty of Books 13 and 14 measures the changing nature of the war. The reminder of increasing brutality comes just before Patroklos re-enters the fighting. Patroklos, we recall, is singled out in the Iliad for his gentleness, and the brutality of his fate is a major theme of the poem. But, if Patroklos becomes a victim of war, he is also transformed by its rage: the fighting he leads is exceptionally bloody, and of the five unusual injuries it causes he himself is responsible for two.

It is hardly necessary to point out why cruel injuries are frequent in the aristeia of Achilles: his violence is a response to and further intensification of the brutality that has claimed Patroklos, but as with Patroklos it is at odds with his 'character': 'Achilles' unyielding harshness to both living and dead enemies is less the function of his nature than of his fate' (Friedrich).

Agamemnon is a different case. His cruelty manifests itself in the first scene of the Iliad when he rebuffs Chryses, and his bloody aristeia seems quite in character. On the other hand, Agamemnon as the leader of the expedition has the strongest sense of the wrong done by the Trojans. His killing of the suppliants Adrestos and Hippolochos is motivated by his sense of outrage. Thus even the Iliadic Agamemnon may not be cruel by nature, but we discover in his portrayal the theme of the brutalising force of a moral mission, which Aeschylus was to develop with magnificent thoroughness.

The preoccupation with the individual encounter and the decisive stroke of death appears in another Iliadic convention, the phrase, ranging in length from a half-line to three lines, by which the poet confirms the death of the victim. These poetic death certificates appear roughly a hundred times and exhibit considerable variety.

Death appears as the loosener of limbs in a set of phrases of which luse de guia (X 6) is the commonest. Another set of phrases equates death with the literal fall of the warrior. Doupesen de peson, 'he fell with a thud' (X 12), occurs most frequently, its very sound echoing the fall of the warrior on the ground. Less onomatopoeic is a set of phrases that are derived from the verb ereipein, 'to fall', and specify the direction or origin of the fall, such as 'from the chariot', 'over his feet', or 'in the dust'. The phrases keito tanustheis (X 2) and keito tatheis (X 2), 'he lay stretched out', dwell on the result of the fall. After the death of Kebriones there is fighting over his body, and the poet returns to the body on the ground: ho d'en strophalingi konies/keito megas megalosti lelasmenos hipposunaon ('he lay in the whirling dust mightily in his might, his horsemanship all forgotten').

The falling phrases may stand by themselves but more commonly they are combined with others. The most famous of these combinations contrasts the thudding sound of the body with the clatter of its armour, imitating the contrast in its own phonetic structure: doupesen te peson, arabese de teuche' ep'autoi, 'he fell with a thud and his armour clattered about him' (X 6). Another phrase for the accompanying noise of the armour is amphi de hoi brache teuchea poikila chalkoi, 'his glittering armour clattered about him' (X 3), and a unique variant focuses on the noise of the helmet: amphi de pelex smerdaleon konabese peri krotaphoisi pesontos, 'the helmet crashed fearfully about the temples of the falling man'.

The sound can also be the death shout of the falling warrior, as in gnux d' erip ' oimoxas, 'he fell backwards in the dust with a shout', and in the phrase that closes the falls of Asios and Sarpedon:

hos ho prosth' hippon kai diphrou keito tanustheis
bebruchos, konios de dragmenos haimatoesses

So he lay there felled in front of his horses and chariot,
roaring, and clawed with his hands at the bloody dust.
(13.392-3 = 16.485-6)

A similar gesture of futility appears in the line ho d'en konieisi peson hele gaian agostoi, 'falling in the dust he clutched the earth with his hand' (X 5). Even more pathetic is the vision of the dying warrior stretching out his hands towards his comrades: ho d'huptios en konieisi kappesen ampho cheire philois hetaroisi petassas, 'he fell backward in the dust stretching out his hands towards his companions' (X 2).

The contrast of death and fertility occurs in a line that closes catalogue killings: pantas epassuterous pelase chthoni pouluboteirei, 'all these he felled to the bountiful earth in rapid succession' (X 3). Perhaps a similar association informs the line keito tatheis, ek d'haima melan rhee, deue de gaian ('he lay at length, and the black blood flowed, and the ground was soaked with it'). The most impressive of these closing phrases transform the absence of life into a dark and threatening presence. Ton de skotos osse kalupse, 'darkness covered his eyes' (X 11), is the commonest version of a theme on which the poet likes to play sombre variations: thanatos de min amphekalupse, 'death covered him all around'; nephele de min amphekalupse kuane, 'a dark cloud covered him all around'; stugeros d' ara min skotos heilen, 'hateful darkness took him' (X 3); ton de kat' osse/ellabe porphureos thanatos kai moira krataie, 'the red death and destiny the powerful took hold of both his eyes'; amphi de min thanatos chuto thumoraistes, 'life rending death was poured about him'; ton de kat' ophthalmon erebenne nux ekalupse, 'baleful night covered him from the eyes down'.

In a few cases, this possession appears as a grim exchange: oka de thumos o 'chet' apo meleon, stugeros d' ara min skotos heilen, 'swiftly the spirit fled from the limbs but hateful darkness took him' (X 2); and psuche de kat' outamenen oteilen essut' epigomene, ton de skotos osse kalupse, 'life rushed from the wound, urged on, but darkness covered his eyes'.

The collective impact of these phrases is very powerful and shapes the representation of death as a sudden and violent disaster. The frequency and elaboration of such phrases in different parts of the narrative is random. In this they differ from the unusual injuries, which are highly context-bound. It is clear, however, that the poet avoids the use of the same phrase in successive scenes. Such repetition occurs twice with relatively colourless phrases, and the arresting line ho d'en koni isi pes n hele gaian agost i, 'falling in the dust he clutched the earth with his hands', occurs twice within the space of thirteen lines, possibly to underscore the tit-for-tat of slaying and counter-slaying. But a survey of scenes in which warriors are killed in quick succession shows the poet at pains to achieve variation. This is most apparent in the fifty-line stretch in Book 5, where six Trojans die, each with a different closing statement:

He fell, thunderously, and his armour clattered upon him

He dropped from the chariot, and the hateful darkness took hold of him.

He dropped forward on his face and his armour clattered upon him.

He dropped, screaming, to his knees, and death was a mist about him.

and he dropped in the dust gripping in his teeth the cold bronze.

The deaths of Patroklos and Hektor are so central to the poem that the poet invents a special elaborate death formula and stresses the interrelation of the two events through its use on those two occasions only:

Of the victims in the Iliad only Sarpedon, Patroklos and Hektor, and to a lesser degree Asios, Pandaros and Euphorbos, play any role prior to their death. The rest appear and disappear at the moment of their death and occupy the poet's attention for the space of a few lines only. Most of these victims might as well be nameless, but in some thirty cases the poet gives a sketch of the warrior's background and history. These little necrologues, consisting typically of three or four lines, are, like the similes, a master-stroke of Iliadic art. Through them the poet not only introduces variety into his narrative, but also the collective effect of these miniatures is to create a powerful image of the suffering of war and to extend the narrator's sympathy to Trojans and Achaeans alike.

Evidently the narrative has a strong Achaean bias. Achaeans are killed rarely; even in scenes of Trojan victory, the Achaeans win most of the individual fights, and Achaeans are spared cruel and undignified injuries. Despite the premiss that without Achilles the Achaeans are at the mercy of Hektor, no Achaean fighter of rank is defeated by Hektor, who in fact loses both to Aias and to Diomedes, does not confront Agamemnon, and is even denied the glory of killing Patroklos in open combat. It would have been possible for the poet to motivate this superiority of the Achaeans in moral terms and to attribute the defeat of the Trojans to a moral failing. Herodotus, who thought of his history as in some sense a continuation of the Iliad, interpreted the war of the Greeks and Persians as an east-west conflict, in which voluntary submission to law triumphs over the despotism of an oriental ruler. There are traces of such a conception in the Iliad. When the armies first clash, the order and silence of the Achaeans are contrasted with the noisy confusion of the Trojans and their allies. Such lack of control is easily related to great wealth and to the foolish passion of Paris that caused the war. Occasionally a Trojan death is seen as the consequence and punishment of wickedness. Thus Menelaos in a speech over the fallen Peisandros sees his victory as just retribution for Trojan licence. In two other cases the sketch of the victim's background sounds a similar theme. We hear of Phereklos that he was the son of Harmonides, who built the ships for Paris' fateful expedition. Peisandros and Hippolochos are the sons of Antimachos, who took bribes from Paris and prevented the return of Helen. Agamemnon, on listening to their supplication, remembers that their father proposed to kill Menelaos and Odysseus when they were on a diplomatic mission to Troy, and he proceeds to avenge the father's disgraceful deeds on the children.

Such moralising, however, is exceptional in the Iliad. The necrologue characteristically ignores the division of Achaean and Trojan and deals with the death of the warrior as a human event. Thus the pro-Achaean narrative bias of the poem generates its own counterpoint: the greater the successes of the Achaeans on the battlefield, the more the Trojan victims evoke the poet's sympathy. The poem's narrative bias leads to an unequal division of the poet's impartial sympathy: only seven victims with stories are Achaeans.

The narrator's impartial pity is established early and firmly. At the end of Book 4, the Aetolian Dioreus, an Achaean ally, and the Thracian Peiros, a Trojan ally, have both been killed. The poet takes leave of this part of the battle by dwelling on the common fate that unites them in death:

So in the dust these two lay sprawled beside one another,
lords, the one of the Thracians, the other of the bronze-armoured
Epeians; and many others beside were killed all about them.

The simplest necrologues add to the name of the father that of the mother and dwell on the circumstances of birth or conception. One is tempted to call the effect pastoral because it turns on the nostalgic evocation of a natural habitat from an unnatural perspective. On three occasions the mother is a numphe neis, a water nymph whom the father encountered while tending his flocks or herds. Here is the story of Aisepos and Pedasos and their father Boukolion (the name means 'cowherd'):

Similar stories are told about Satnios and Iphition. The mother of Simoeisios was human, but not unlike a water nymph she gave birth to her son on the banks of Simoeis, while following the flocks of her parents. On other occasions the poet simply states the beauty of the mother or the wealth and status of the father.

Some of the biographical detail is anecdotal in character. Skamandrios, killed by Menelaos, was a favourite of Artemis, who taught him skill in hunting,

Yet Artemis of the showering arrows could not now help him,
no, nor the long spearcasts in which he had been pre-eminent.

Pedaios was the bastard son of Antenor, whose wife treated him like one of her own children to please her husband. The three Achaean victims Medon, Lykophron and Epeigeus are exiles who left their home after killing a man. This is of course the fate of Patroklos as well, and it may not be random that the three vignettes occur shortly before or during the Patrokleia. Periphetes, a victim of Hektor, is described as a better man than his father Kopreus (Dung), whom Eurystheus sent on errands to Herakles. This is one of two occasions when a necrologue refers to the body of legend outside the poem. The other and rather obscure passage refers to the father of Atymnios and Maris as the man who reared the amaimakete chimaira, a monster of uncertain nature. In another case, the necrologue refers to an earlier event in the Trojan war: when Agamemnon slays Isos and Antiphos we learn that on a previous occasion Achilles captured them alive and freed them for ransom.

A motif that occurs three times in Book 13 and nowhere else involves a Trojan ally who is married to or a suitor of a Trojan princess. Imbrios married a bastard daughter of Priam and returned to Priam's house when war broke out. Othryoneus wooed Kassandra, the most beautiful of Priam's daughters, and boasted that he would drive off the Achaeans in return for her hand. Alkathoôs was the sonin-law of Anchises

and had married the eldest of his daughters, Hippodameia,
dear to the hearts of her father and the lady her mother
in the great house, since she surpassed all the girls of her own age
for beauty and accomplishments and wit; for which reason
the man married her who was the best in the wide Troad.

It is quite common in the Iliad for brothers to suffer death at the hands of one warrior, and three passages in which the poet looks at brothers united in death are particularly affecting. But the most memorable of the necrologues dwell on the grief of the survivors, the parents—more specifically the father—and the wife. They echo and universalise the suffering of Andromache, Priam and Peleus, and in so doing they establish a powerful thematic link between the major and minor characters of the Iliad. Simoeisios, the first warrior to be singled out for a necrologue, 'did not return his parents' care for him'. If in this instance the grief of the survivors is only implicit, it is very explicit in the story of the father of Xanthos and Thoön:

Harpalion followed his father to war 'and did not come home again to the land of his fathers'; indeed, the grieving father walks behind the Paphlagonians who rescue the son's body. Ilioneus, we learn, is the only son of his wealthy father; Polydoros the youngest and favourite son of Priam, who vainly tried to keep him out of battle. In the case of Sokos, the figure of the grieving parents appears in Odysseus' speech of exultation. The motif also appears in the exchange of speeches between Euphorbos and Menelaos and is confirmed in the elaborate tree simile in which the dead Euphorbos is compared to a young tree, tended carefully by a man in a lonely place and suddenly torn up by a gust of wind.

Sometimes the father is a prophet. The soothsayer Merops vainly tried to prevent his sons from joining the war. Eurydamas, on the other hand, refused (or neglected) to interpret the dreams of his sons Abas and Polyides. Euchenor faces a dilemma not unlike that of Achilles: his father tells him that he must choose between a lingering sickness at home or death in battle. He chooses the latter and, curiously enough, dies at the hands of Paris, as Achilles later will.

The grieving wife appears in the story of Protesilaos, the first Achaean warrior to die at Troy, while his wife 'cheeks torn for grief, was left behind in Phylake / and a marriage half completed'. The theme is implicit in the finest and most elaborate of all necrologues, the story of Iphidamas. Brought up by his maternal grandfather, he married his daughter and went from his wedding straight to the war, where he was killed by Agamemnon:

So Iphidamas fell there and went into the brazen slumber,
unhappy, who came to help his own people, and left his young wife
a bride, and had known no delight from her yet, and given much for her.
First he had given a hundred oxen, then promised a thousand
head of goats and sheep, which were herded for him in abundance.

The impartial sympathy that the poet shows for the fallen warrior sharply contrasts with the savage partisanship the victors display on such occasions. But the gloating speeches are similar in function to the necrologues in that they keep the fallen warrior a little longer in the limelight. The distribution of gloating speeches relates them closely to grisly injuries. Of the sixteen instances, eight are found in Books 13 and 14, three in the Patrokleia, and four in the aristeia of Achilles. Only one such speech is found outside this complex of scenes. On two other occasions, Pandaros and Paris exult prematurely at the prospect of triumph over Diomedes. But Pandaros misses his target and Paris does not inflict a fatal wound.

The gloating speeches share with the necrologues the motif of the grieving survivor, but they vary it to reflect the hostile perspective of the speaker. The triumphant warrior dedicates the corpse to animals and imagines the survivors' mourning deepened by the lack of the body to care for. The motif occurs in Achilles' speeches to Lykaon and Hektor; Odysseus' words to the body of Sokos form an unusually sombre and restrained instance of the genre:

The motif of burial is absent from the speech over the body of Ilioneus in which Peneleos contrasts two sets of survivors. The whole scene is worth quoting because it shows a single slaying elaborated by a grisly wound, a necrologue, a simile (short but striking) and a gloating speech, with the different components carefully interrelated. The death of Ilioneus brings to a close the string of brutal slayings in Books 13 and 14; its elaboration is in accordance with the climactic position it occupies:

On four prominent occasions the gloating speeches display coarse and savage irony. Thus Idomeneus addresses the body of Othryoneus, the boastful suitor of Kassandra, and offers him one of Agamemnon's daughters if he would join the Achaeans. After Idomeneus has killed Asios, Deïphobos kills Hypsenor in return and boasts that he has provided him with an escort on the way to Hades. Pouly damas goes one better on this conceit and boasts that his spear will serve his victim as a walking-stick. It is significant that the gentle Patroklos at the height of his triumph is tempted into such language. Here he is commenting on the fall of Kebriones from his chariot:

See now, what a light man this is, how agile an acrobat.
If only he were somewhere on the sea, where the fish swarm,
he could fill the hunger of many men, by diving for oysters;
he could go overboard from a boat even in rough weather
the way he somersaults so light to the ground from his chariot
now. So, to be sure, in Troy also they have their acrobats.

Twice the gloating speech turns into genealogical display. More important to the structure of the poem is the preoccupation of several speeches with the theme of revenge. This theme links the speeches of Books 13 and 14 so that in each book they form a tight cluster. Thus, in Book 13, Deïphobos thinks of his killing of Hypsenor as revenge for the death of Asios, but Idomeneus retaliates by killing Alkathoös, and referring to his victories over Othryoneus, Asios and Alkathoös he replies: 'Deïphobos, are we then to call this a worthy bargain, / three men killed for one?' In Book 14, Aias kills Archelochos in return for the slaying of Prothoenor by Poulydamas, whose boast he answers thus: 'Think over this Poulydamas, and answer me truly. / Is not this man's death against Prothoenor's a worthwhile / exchange?' The Trojan Akamas thereupon kills Promachos and boasts that the Trojans are not alone in suffering pain and misery. This prompts Peneleos to kill Ilioneus and to compare the sufferings of his parents with those of Promachos' wife in the passage quoted above. The chain of retribution that is thematised in these exchanges clearly points forward to the major version of the revenge triangle in the story of Patroklos, Hektor and Achilles. The theme recurs in the speech of Automedon over the body of Aretos, whose death he sees as retribution, however inadequate, for the death of Patroklos. For the last time, it appears in Achilles' words to the dying Hektor:

Hektor, surely you thought as you killed Patroklos you would be
safe, and since I was far away you thought nothing of me,
o fool, for an avenger was left, far greater than he was,
behind him and away by the hollow ships.

Speeches of exultation form an important part of the aristeia of Achilles and culminate in the words just quoted. The first addressee is Iphition, for no other reason than that he is his first victim. The victim's fate is briefly summarised, but then Achilles lingers over the description of his home in a manner that recalls the rhetoric of the unreal with which he envisaged the life in Phthia to which he, likewise, will not return:

Lie there, Otrynteus' son, most terrifying of all men.
Here is your death, but your generation was by the lake waters
of Gyge, where is the allotted land of your fathers
by fish-swarming Hyllos and the whirling waters of Hermos.

The other speeches occur in the encounters with Lykaon, Asteropaios and Hektor. Of these only the Asteropaios scene stays within the convention of minor encounters. In both the Lykaon and Hektor scenes the speech of exultation is part of a more complex pattern.

Paolo Vivante (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4741

SOURCE: "Homer and the Reader," in Homer, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Vivante offers a stylistic analysis of Homer's epic verse, in particular, his use of recurrent images, analogies, and epithets.]

The child's first impressions on hearing Homer are as deep as they are vivid. The wrath of Achilles conjured up all at once; Achilles and Agamemnon standing out in strife against each other; Chryses suddenly appearing before the Achaeans to ransom his daughter; Chryses rebuffed and walking in angry prayer along the shore; Apollo listening and descending from Olympus—such scenes, enacted as they are moment after moment, are naturally impressive by virtue of their own strength.

How to explain the spell they cast upon a child's mind? How to explain it quite apart from any preliminary learning? One reason for it is precisely that no preliminary learning is required. For these scenes are self-contained and self-explanatory. What they present comes to life through a power of its own. It is indeed the suddenness of realization which makes them so forcible.

Take the wrath of Achilles, the first thing mentioned in the Iliad. No need for any narrative detail. His wrath is immediately singled out because it is momentous, explosive by its very nature. Is it simply an overwhelming human emotion or, rather, a divine power? No matter. So bold and forthright is its presentation that it appears as an uncontroversial and central event in its own right, rising far above the incidental occasion. We wonder, but hardly question. Even before we learn the full story, this wrath inhabits our imagination. And in this we are at one with the child. The apprehended thing is as real as the apprehending mind is malleable, receptive, elastic.

Or take the appearance of Chryses, the starting point of the action in the Iliad (1.12ff):

Again the power of the bold, forthright stroke. There are no preliminaries. We are told nothing about the raid, the plunder, the occasion that saw a father bereft, a daughter dragged away. All the more majestic does the old man's figure appear against the silent background—as if the burden of experience were simply understood in the compelling visual significance of a suppliant human shape.

To appreciate this presentation more fully, let us give rein to that naive capacity to visualize even while we read or listen. For we touch here on something concrete and universally appealing, a plastic form in the expression. See, in this instance, how the god's name with its epithet and the mention of the divine emblems accrue to the man's presence, composing one encompassing image. Solidly implanted, he suddenly stands before us. Solidity and suddenness blend, giving the whole scene a compact quality. Chryses is not described first and dramatized later. No, the speech that follows is like an emanation of his presence. He is all at one with his function here and now; he hardly exists apart from what he does, says, and appears to be in the present instance. How could it be otherwise? you may ask. And yet this simplicity is the rarest thing. A poetic logic expunges all extraneous details, giving us the sense of an inevitable development.

The next moment sees Chryses withdrawing, rejected by Agamemnon:

So he spoke. Suddenly feared / the old man and obeyed his word
and in silence he walked / by the shore-of-the-wide-roaring-sea.
Then, as he moved away, / intense was the old man's prayer
to Apollo the king / whom-fair-tressed-Leto-gave-birth-to:
"Listen, o Silver-bow"….

A solitary man walking along the shore absorbed in fateful prayer—a picture both simple and pregnant, such as to impress the child and give pause to the scholar. Why is this so? The reason again lies in sudden compact imagery grasped at one stroke. The sea-smitten shore conspires all at once with the presence of the man and his emotion. Even as we follow him, Chryses blends with the space which the brief and yet ample cadence of the verse summons up in the resounding name of the sea.

These initial remarks could be applied in various ways to many passages throughout the poems. What is this quality that lies at the core of Homer's art? It is the capacity to let a thing become an image the moment it is mentioned; and by "image" I mean a thing rendered so as to be strongly fixed in the field of vision, both a presence in itself and an element in the narrative sequence. In Homer, to mention is to summon up, to realize. Such an image clings to the perceptive mind of the reader or listener. It has a power of attraction; and any apposition immediately leans upon it, becomes part of it, holding in check any comment or digression.

Why is it, for instance, that Andromache is so impressive when she meets Hector in Il. 6.394ff.? One reason is her mere presence on the ramparts of Troy and, along with it, the way she is presented as an image:

There the bountiful wife / came face to face running to meet him
Andromache who was daughter / of Eetion-the-great-hearted
Eetion who once lived / under mount Placus-rich-wooded
in Hypoplacian Thebes / and on the Cilicians held sway;
his own daughter it was / now wedded to Hector-bronze-armed;
Hector there did she meet, / and with her was walking the handmaid
holding the child on her bosom, / the tender child, but an infant,
Hector's son the belovéd, / like to a beautiful star.

If we were to take the text literally or as mere narrative, we would hardly have any idea of how simple the means, how strong the effect. Andromache comes running, she is suddenly there; and verse after verse, her presence acquires substance through the names and epithets of father, city, country which, weighty as they are, still seem to quiver with the initial impact of her appearance. As if by a miracle, we have fullness of form without description. Any further detail would weaken the point of focus, within whose vital range the nurse and child take their place— no narrative addition, but extension of the same movement, as in the encompassing rhythm of a sculptural group.

Or take Priam coming to Achilles in Il. 24.477ff.:

The passage makes explicit what is everywhere implicit in the poet's art: sudden and outright visualization. Not without reason does Priam enter unseen, an immediate, amazing presence heightened by the simile. The reader's wonder thus becomes that of the bystanders who suddenly see him and gaze at one another. Surprise, contemplation, nothing portentous or spectacular; simply an old man's appearance surrounded by unfathomable silence.

We may compare a passage from the Odyssey 1.328ff.:

Up from her chamber did she / in her heart catch the song god-inspired
she the daughter of Icarius, / Icarius' thoughtful Penelope;
and by the lofty stairs / down she came from her room
not alone but together / also two handmaids came with her.
Then when among the suitors / she arrived, the-divine-among-women,
she stood still by the pillar / the pillar of the-closely-built-roof,
over in front of her cheeks / holding up the glistening veil;
and with her, there, at each side / a careful handmaid stood by.
Then breaking out in tears / she spoke to the singer divine.

This is our first meeting with Penelope in the Odyssey. Again, there is no wearisome introduction: the person's identity merges with the appearance itself. She is presented on the spur of the moment, on the last note of Phemius's music, no sooner mentioned than standing before us. Whatever details are given are not descriptive but touches in her materialization; for her apprpach, her stance, her holding the veil are hardly things intended to satisfy our curiosity or our taste for realism. What we have here is something of a more fundamental nature. Each detail both builds up Penelope's image and advances the action. It is as if a progressive rhythm made her more and more palpable step by step. We have, in each instance, a moment that lingers in the suspense of the verse and does not pass without leaving a vital contour. What emerges is a growing sense of form. Even the handmaids on either side of her contribute to it, like figures at the extremities of a pediment.

Compare, in the same book (lines 102ff.), Athena's appearance in Ithaca:

She went down from Olympus / down from its peaks with a leap;
she stood in Ithaca's land / right there at Odysseus's portals,
upon the courtyard's threshold: / and she held a spear in her hand
resembling a guest in looks, / even Mentes king of the Taphians.

Again, the presentation is as simple as it is powerful: no account of Athena's flight from Olympus to Ithaca, no strange epiphany as she arrives, simply the purest motion and position. The Greek verbs have a striking effect. To go, to leap, to stand: it is as if the goddess were an instant embodiment of these acts, as if these simple acts acquire through her a portentous substance and quality. She thus naturally appears in human form, like Mentes, as she usually does when seen with Telemachus. Homer's anthropomorphism is true to his sense of form.

The image-making process continually tends to absorb the narrative. Thus the Penelope passage quoted above occurs elsewhere; so does the verse portraying Athena's leap; and, with slight variations, the verse portraying a man walking, like Chryses, by the sea. The narrative hardly affects these image-making positions or movements; on the contrary, it is the narrative (or the ebb and flow of circumstance) which is magnetically drawn around them.

Least of all can the Homeric poems be read with a voracious interest in plot and its dénouement. It is not so much a question of reading as of rereading, absorbing, becoming attuned. The reader may even find the literal content disappointing; but what will challenge his imagination, if he is at all sensitive, is the representation itself. For sheer variety of incidents or for fantastic and mythical events, he will turn with advantage elsewhere: here, the poetry lies in a fundamental way of being, of happening.

A way of being, of happening: this is what Homer's recurring imagery is all about. Why is it that by its recurrence it does not dull our senses but, rather, never ceases to delight us? How is it that Homer's poetry, qua poetry, is hardly conceivable without it? We here come to a crux of modern scholarship, its tantalizing effort to justify Homer's so-called formulas (or repeated phrases and sentences), which it regards as a Homeric peculiarity alien to modern taste and only to be appreciated as a form of "oral" compositional technique. What lies in question here is Homer's style. We must do justice to it. We must try to see how it is, not only not alien to modern taste, but how it satisfies that primordial instinct for form which is common to all poetry.

The response of the common reader, or even of the child, may be of interest to the critic on this point. How often we come across people who have a vague knowledge or memory of Homer but still remember with pleasure such phrases as "swift-footed Achilles," "rose-fingered Dawn," "resounding sea," "wingéd words," "long-shadowed spear." Why? These phrases are in the themselves memorable, haunting. And yet the reader would soon forget them did they not often recur in the poems, and at significant vantage-points. For they are not mannerisms or mere figures of speech: they arrest the transient image where verse and sense allow it, lifting it above the blunting literal meaning of the surrounding passage. The realization of images is thus generalized into a typical mode of expression. Form emerges, as it were, from below—from a sense of sheer existence surfacing above the shifting relations of the narrative.

Consider the simplest designation of things. In Il 3.346-47, for instance: "First did Alexander send forth the longshadowed-spear and he struck on Menelaus' all-evenshield." Spear and shield are given in Homeric form: their recurring shape makes them at once familiar and impressive. But no less recurrent is that "sending forth" and that "striking" of metal against metal. The epithets thus give sensuous evidence and weight to the moment; and such a moment so binds the thing to its intrinsic occasion that the narrative interest wanes and we might even forget who is striking whom, seeing nothing but the actuality of the event arrested in its form.

Compare "sailing with the well-benched ship over the wine-colored sea" (Il. 7.88), "we came with the dark, swift ship" (Od. 3.61), and "They steered the ships-that-are-curved-on-both-sides" (10.91). Would not the simple verb to sail do as well? Why is this sailing so richly expressed? The reason is that it is not taken for granted. Wherever an opening perspective allows it, we are made to see the ship image itself, a shape against the background of the sea.

The same applies to people. Why, for instance, "swiftfooted Achilles so spoke"? Why an epithet for any hero speaking, rising, standing, or moving? Again, it is a question of sudden relief. The fleeting human occasion brings the hero's image to the forefront. How effective in this connection is the epithet "swift-footed"! The very fact that it has no pointed connection to anything else makes Achilles' image clear and strong in itself and by itself, utterly absorbed into the position and stance of the moment.

The reader of Homer can easily multiply such instances. Everything in the poems flashes brightly before it passes away; and yet everything also finds its place and moment by striving toward constant outline and rhythm. Occurrences become recurrences; and, through persisting association, the things so brought into play acquire an intrinsic function, take position and form, become as symbolic of themselves as they are true to nature. Here is a selfconsistent fullness upon the strength of which anything mentioned tends to appear as an inevitable image.

For the poet's treatment is never fastidiously graphic, realistic, minute. From the tangled mass of things and their occasions what stands out is anything that has contour or resonance. Thus the forward movement of a warrior conjures up that of a lion; his fall, that of a tree cut down by the foresters. Why is it that the similes strike up analogies to the human action throughout the world of nature? Not, certainly, for mere ornament or to provide a break in tense passages. Rather, the image-making force breaks through the bounds of a passage and gathers its own force, drawing the poetry toward a sense of form and away from narrative or description.

The world is thus both simplified and enriched with life—reduced, that is to say, to vantage-grounds that are scenes of action: windy Troy no less than rocky Ithaca. And this concentration is no less true of any focal point on Homer's large canvas—no less true of a throbbing heart than it is of sea-smitten shore. Hardly anything is mentioned that is not singled out and sharply exposed insofar as it crystallizes an act or a state of being. We have at one and the same time an object and a pulse of life.

It is no wonder, then, that Homer's image-making sentences have a haunting effect, that even the casual reader remembers them over and above the specific subject matter. It is not really a question of vivid coloring. The reason goes much deeper. We touch, rather, upon ontological grounds. To read here is to tap the imaginative source of our understanding, to carry out in the realm of art that process which we have also carried out in actual life before our perceptions were jaded into notions taken for granted. "What is that?" asks a child, pointing to a train or a waterfall; and there is a vital urge to know in the question, a vital realization in the answer. He now recognizes things. They appear to him in the fresh evidence of their existence, taking their pertinent place in the field of vision. A word becomes a discovery. Rather than a display of fluid impressions, here form arises in all its aesthetic cogency, with delight in its definition, with wonder at its significance. And the spell persists until it is lost in a hackneyed order of things learned by rote. What then? Lost forever? No. Poetry—and art in general—come to remove, as Coleridge puts it, the "film of familiarity which blinds us to the truth and wonder of the world about us."

This poetic effect is eminently Homeric. A fresh sense of life and resilience is always brought home to us by letting the image of a thing come into view on the cadence of a verse that does no more than realize in rhythm a basic movement or position. The music and the imagery blend with the vocabulary. It is as if a new poetic language came into our ken. Here the "long-shadowed spear" finds its place as well as the "wing-stretching birds" or the "robetrailing women" or the "taper-leaved olive-tree"—each thing singled out in its individuality and yet bearing the mark of a common touch.

This delight in images is increased by their recurrences and the kindred patterns of form they cast over existence. What ultimately comes into play is a sense of recognition, a primal urge to establish identities, what metaphysicians call "the principle of individuation." For nothing is dearer to the mind than to perceive, and perceive clearly, a faculty which Homer's imagery elicits on a large scale. The interest of finding the same Homeric phrase over and over again is no idle pleasure. We look for resemblances in whatever we see. It means finding our way through the multiplicity of things.

We undergo the same process on a more elementary level when we first learn our native language: words are deeply assimilated in that they seem to conspire with the order of nature. Homer leads us to abridge and intensify this process. His imagery gives us essential contours of the things or phenomena which we actually see in the world around us; and the recurrences of his image-making phrases suggest corresponding harmonies in existence itself. For Homer avoids what is merely peculiar, something that could be remembered only so long as the interest in it remains. Nothing is here merely "interesting." The apprehension of a shape, distinctive as it is, suggests an encompassing sense of form; and this sense of form evokes kindred objects the world over. Curiosities could not be so suggestive. If Homer's imagery deeply affects the reader, the reason is that it is solidly implanted in the perception of nature.

Modern scholarship has deterred the reader from taking Homer's expression at its face value. Between the poet and nature it has interposed the thick wall of what is called tradition or "traditional poetry": formulas, themes, conventions, and techniques that are usually taken for granted.

We must encourage the frightened reader to think for himself, to appreciate Homeric poetry by appealing directly to the truth of nature. Or, conversely, we may look at nature through Homeric eyes. For the poet's meaning must be given its full force. It does not merely consist in the designation of a literal fact or a statement that can be stripped of stylistic superfluities. The wording itself is most important. It implies a whole mode of perception and expression.

Indeed many of the "formulas" are most significant in this respect, particularly those recurring verses which arrest an event in the moment of its image-making realization. For example,

Il. 1.476, etc.

When the early-born one appeared / Dawn-with-her-fingers-of-rose

spells out the moment when the slanting rays of the rising sun actually touch into radiance anything exposed to their light. Those fingers express contact, that rose is sensuous freshness as well as color. Do we have here a goddess or simply a natural phenomenon? Both at the same time. The image contains the sense of what is occurring. Hence the felicity of the expression.

Od. 2.388, etc.

Then did the sun sink down / and enshadowed were all the streets

may remind us of Virgil's maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae, "and longer the shadows fall down from the heights of the mountains." But Homer's verse is simpler and universally applicable, rendering no picturesque effect but evoking that imponderable moment when, in any place, things lose their edge as day yields to night.

Od. 13.79, cp. 2.398, etc.

Upon him did sleep / sweet sleep on the eye-lids fall

makes the moment palpable; for we realize the truth of experience at a most sensitive point, that soft pressure which "weighs the eye-lids down" (cp. Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 2, 3.1.6).

Od. 4.794, 18.189

There she sank back in sleep, / and all her joints were set loose

conveys the actual breathing-space between waking and sleep, the sweet abandon of a woman's body (cp. Od. 20.57, Il. 23.62).

Il. 17.695-96, etc.

Long was silence upon him, / wordless; the eyes
with tears were filled, / and checked was the flourishing voice.

Here is no cry, no gesture, no realistic touch fitted to the particular occasion. This silence is more eloquent, more broadly significant: we all know the moment of amazement or grief that defies all words.

Il 1.201, etc.

And at once speaking out / he addressed to her wingéd words.

The truth of this verse is borne home to us when our words come spontaneously, prompted suddenly by the passing occasion, taking flight.

Od. 9.67-69, cp. 5.292-94, 12.313-15

Further description would weaken the meaning. We know the sudden impact of a storm: a turning-point or a single touch all at once encompassing the elements. The god thus has a poetic function, bringing the various phenomena within the compass of the same power, so that any detailed account is left out of the picture.

Il. 1.481-82, Od. 2.427-28

Full blew the wind, / mid-sail, and the wave
round the bows darkly-seething / sang loud, as the ship moved on.

Wind, sail, wave, sound make one instant vital impression. A boat passing with swelling sails will ever give us such an airy, joyous sense of movement.

What do all these instances have in common? If they induce us to look at things with Homeric eyes, in what way do they summon up an image of reality?

In the first place, they do not describe in detail, they do not explain, but let the object of representation simply be what it is before it passes away. We have an outline as clear as it is swift, no arbitrary development, emphasis, no exaggeration. Further, they do not merely report a happening, they do not merely mention a thing. Whatever is said must be given its rightful cadence, its proper ground and moment. Hence no flimsiness, but a natural fullness of representation.

In other words, and to put the matter positively, what we have is concrete realization. This means that an event is seen in its actuality: the doing, the taking place, the coming to fruition are implicit in the expression, quite apart from any narrative requirement. Thus "to utter winged words" is not the same as "to say": the very phrase makes us feel the actual achievement of the utterance—how a word suddenly exists, how it finds its moment to fly out to the hearer. If, on the other hand, I were to say, "the occasion immediately elicited these words from his lips," I would be explaining the situation and thus would lose the gracious moment of utterance. In the same way we may appreciate such phrases as "sleep fell on the eyelids" or "the rose-fingered Dawn appeared." Though they avoid any description of sleepiness or of early morning, they are not the same as "he fell asleep" or "it was daybreak." What we always find is an immediate sense of the occurrence itself—how it materializes, how it is verified instantly at a fine point of contact.

Things find here an intrinsic function that brings them to the fore; and, by the same token, functions appear unthinkable without a thing to give them body. Hence the vitality of this imagery. The "formulas" are no more than an ultimate flagrant example of Homeric concreteness. Strip any event of all accessories, strip it of all descriptive and casual details, yet maintain a sense of its emergence in the field of vision—what remains? Nothing but simplicity and fullness of outline. So in Homer, we find the constant striving toward form: in the battle scenes, for instance, the relentless clash and clang and fall; in the animal similes, the perpetual attack, pursuit, escape.

But why is this form so forceful? Because it never degenerates into stale mannerism, because it vibrates with life. We have here a poetic measure that pervades the language. Quite apart from any particular imagery, it is found in the simplest instances. Any act or state appears reduced to the essentials of position and movement, and yet it is filled with its own intrinsic force. We are not told, as we are in an ordinary or easy-going narrative, that a man goes or stops somewhere: no, his going is presented as if it were a movement taking a body; his standing, as if it were a body finding its moment of rest, resistance, balance. The same effect is achieved in rendering, say, a wave or a rock. A thing always blends with the significance of its concrete position to which the surrounding action gives a dramatic relevance. The resulting image seems to be produced by the movement stilled within it or by the weight that holds it where it is.

The mere fact of standing or moving thus seems to have its own solemnity, so intimately is it fused with a body. "Who is that broad strong man conspicous among the Argives, rising above them by his head and large shoulders?" Priam asks Helen (Il. 3.226ff), and she replies, "That is Ajax-the-massive-one, wall to the Achaeans; and Idomeneus, like a god in the midst of the Cretans, stands out beyond; and around him the chiefs of the Cretans are gathered." Compare Odysseus's rendering of Ithaca (Od. 9.21): "Ithaca-seen-from-afar do I inhabit; in it a mountain, leaf-shaking Neritos, clear to the eye; and many islands around stand out very near one another, Dulichium and Same and wooded Zacynthus." The expressions are both plain and strong. The reason lies in the sharp sense of position, the sheer wonder of a body seen standing where it is, no matter whether it is the body of an island or a person (note that the verb naietao, "to inhabit," applies both to people and to places: places inhabit the earth just as people inhabit places). As a result, what we might take for granted is felt in its existential value. The islands, as well as the heroes, take position, form a constellation, creating their own space and opening up an airy perspective.

In the same light consider a simile (II. 5.522ff.): "They stood like clouds which Zeus sets still upon the peaks of mountains in the windless air—steadfast as long as the Northwind is asleep." Again here is a strong sense of position. It gives life to the simile. That precarious stillness imparts to such disparate things as clouds and men an instant relevance; their shapes are rendered as being at one with a point of balance or a poise in existence. The similes seem to grow out of the very way the poet looks at the world.

Image-making moments whose truth is the ultimate reason both for their literal recurrences and for the broader analogies which they persistently suggest, moments as real in themselves as they are typical of what must inevitably happen or exist—these produce a mode of expression that is embedded in Homer's style. The style itself is thus part and parcel of the Homeric imagination; for it naturally brings out basic patterns in the flux of existence and, in so doing, is at one with Homer's tendency to humanize or naturalize whatever the subject matter affords. The reader who is seeking extraordinary things will be disappointed to find Homer restrained in this respect—disappointed, for instance, at the fact that Achilles in Homer is not at all invulnerable, not at all a portentous being. How could he be when he, as inevitably as anyone else, must launch his long-shadowed spear, must nimbly ply his feet and knees, must feel his heart sway with passion, must be shown as a recumbent figure crushed with grief?

Henry Staten (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8890

SOURCE: "The Circulation of Bodies in the Iliad," in New Literary History, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 339-61.

[In the following essay, Staten examines the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad and explores the socioeconomic importance of war booty, vengeance, and mourning in the poem.]

"Appropriations tantamount to theft and rape": that is how Luce Irigaray characterizes the economy of capitalism [in This Sex Which is Not One, 1985], and especially its sexual economy, whose hidden essence is the essence of the whole. Women are commodities, exchange objects whose value is defined by the relationship between men, the subjects of exchange. Thus "economic organization is homosexual," and "woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself."

The first part of Irigaray's thesis, that the appropriation of women is "tantamount to theft and rape," rips no interpretive veils from the Iliad, a narrative that unembarrassedly represents theft and rape as the modalities of appropriation. As concerns the commodification of women, too, what could be more brutally explicit than the scene in Book 23 in which a woman designated as worth four oxen is offered as second prize in a wrestling contest, the winner of which is to receive a tripod? Strictly speaking of course, neither woman nor tripod is a "commodity"; we are dealing here with what Louis Gernet [in The Anthropology of Ancient Greece, translated by John Hanilton and Blaise Nagy, 1981] calls "the substance of a noble commerce," "premonetary signs" whose function as bearers of value is rooted in the contests of a warrior nobility and not in the idea of profit. Thus the word for goods or possessions, ktemata, refers primarily to "things acquired as a result of war, the games, or gift-giving. The term never gives primary emphasis to the idea of commercial gain." But precisely for this reason, we seem to see here the perspicuous protoform of appropriation and commodification that capitalism will occult.

The second part of Irigaray's thesis, on the other hand, is not given in the manifest content of the Iliad—but it immediately hooks onto an element of that content. "Economic organization is homosexual," Irigaray argues, and thus physical homosexual relations between men are forbidden by society "because they openly interpret the law according to which society operates. " Here we think not only of Achilleus and Patroklos, but also of the tantalizing fact that, even though the Greeks of the classical period already interpreted this as a homosexual relationship (for example in Plato's Symposium), there is not a single unarguable reference to homosexuality in the entire Iliad. Even when the rape of Ganymede is mentioned, as it is twice, there is no hint that he was taken for erotic purposes. It may be, as K. J. Dover concludes [in Greek Homosexuality, 1978] that the Homeric poems simply antedate the efflorescence of Greek homosexuality; yet it is very striking how apt to the purposes of the fifth-century homoerotic imagination the Achilleus-Patroklos relationship proved. The argument concerning the relation between Achilleus and Patroklos has recently been updated by Thomas McCary [in Childlike Achilles: Ontogeny and Phylogeny in The Iliad, 1982], who argues that it instances, not covert or censured, but incipient homosexuality, Greek homosexuality in its chrysalis stage. And in that case, we could still pursue an analysis of this relationship along Irigarayan lines, looking to decode its connection with the economic law of this society. McCary, incidentally, is apparently uninfluenced by Irigaray, and yet his interpretation of the Iliad reads like an application of Irigaray's thesis that women matter only as objects of men's rivalry with each other. This suggests, if not that this is the truth of the Iliad, at least that the convergence of critical discourses of the present moment makes such a reading inevitable.

But there is an essential aspect of economics concerning which Irigaray and McCary say nothing. Appropriation and possession imply the possibility of loss, and sociolibidinal economics is incomplete without an account of the economic strategies for managing loss. Perhaps worse than merely incomplete. It may be that the problem of loss is the core problem of economics, that loss is not secondary to the operations of appropriation, possession, and exchange—an accident or misfortune that derails the smooth functioning of an integral system—but rather conditions the logic of the entire system, motivates it at the most fundamental level. Certainly the Iliad itself thematizes the problems of loss and mourning in the most explicit way. To a considerable extent, we need only be attentive to the articulation of the economy of loss that the Iliad already provides.

It would be difficult to overstate the thoroughness with which the question of equitable distribution of shares permeates archaic Greek thought and vocabulary, and especially the Homeric poems. The words for destiny or fate, moira and aisa, mean "share" or "portion" and are commonly used to mean both the ultimate portion of death and also the share of meat or booty that falls to an individual as his just desserts. Daimon (divine power, deity) appears to be derived from daio, a word which means "to divide" or in the middle voice "to distribute." The communal banquet, center of Iliadic social life, is called dais, a word also etymologically connected with daio, and the Homeric formulas connected with the dais emphasize the equitable distribution of shares of meat.

But, as Gregory Nagy points out [in The Best of the Achaens, 1979], the dais is repeatedly in poetic tradition the site of quarrels leading to feuds. The heroes are driven by an intense desire to secure their moira (rightful portion) and this jealous competitiveness continually threatens to break into open violence. It is of course at the dais (wedding feast) of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilleus) that the golden apple appears that causes the dispute among the goddesses that leads to the Trojan War.

The story of the judgment of Paris does not appear in the Iliad, but it is directly alluded to in Book 24, and, as Karl Reinhardt showed in a famous essay ["Das Parisurteil," in his Tradition und Geist: Gesammelte Essays Zur Dichtung, edited by Carl Becker, 1960], it is clearly present as the immediate background of a number of scenes in the Iliad involving Hera and Athena. The all-consuming rage against the Trojans of the two goddesses spurned by Paris has no other explanation than the "folly of Paris / who insulted the goddesses when they came to him in his courtyard / and favored her who supplied the lust that led to disaster." Since in any case the story of the judgment perspicuously represents the same system of tensions found in the Iliad it is worth pausing for a moment to consider it.

Whereas in the world of the Iliad we might be inclined to attribute the outbreak of conflict to the contingent condition of limited resources, the story of the apple of Eris (Discord) points to a deeper, structural analysis. The golden apple for which the goddesses strive is not taken from anyone but freely (and maliciously) given by Eris. It represents a pure principle of disequilibrium because its only value is in the disruptive distinction it marks and which it introduces into the society of the gods. Just as in Rousseau's fable, the introduction of a comparative judgment of better and worse is the fall from idyllic harmony. Aphrodite does not incur the wrath and enmity of Athena and Hera because she comes into possession of a golden apple which they crave, but because she is marked by a distinction whose positive value entails, and partly consists in, a diminution of their own value. And once the principle of disequilibrium begins to operate, it keeps generating new disequilibria: the Trojan War ensues as a direct consequence of the judgment of Paris, and the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilleus as a consequence of the war. In case we might be tempted to think that Aphrodite's distinction as "most beautiful" is real or grounded in a positive content, the myth informs us that it is not because of her beauty that she receives the apple but because of what she promises Paris. The decision is thus made on "political" grounds rather than on the basis of any inherent merit, and Athena and Hera know it. Again, lest it should seem that Aphrodite cheats, both Athena and Hera make ulterior promises as well; Aphrodite's action conforms to the norm. It would be difficult to frame a more explicit representation of the arbitrariness of distinction than this story; yet once the meaning of the apple has been assigned, the distinction it confers is real and powerfully operative. Hera and Athena are as relentless in their anger at this loss of tim (honor) as is Achilleus at his; the Iliad is in fact the story of two parallel angers, that of the goddesses and that of the man.

Turning now to the beginning of the Iliad we can begin to analyze its more complex structure in relation to the perspicuous model provided by the judgment of Paris. The object at issue here is first Agamemnon's "prize," Chryseis, and then Achilleus's prize, Briseis. Even the close similarity of the names indicates the interchangeability of the two women in the operative system of exchange; but, unlike the apple of Eris, the women are more than purely arbitrary markers of distinction. Agamemnon describes the virtues, physical and mental, of Chryseis and declares his intention to have her in his bed; Achilleus will later tell us he loved Briseis "from the heart" and Briseis herself will inform us that plans were afoot to make her Achilleus's wedded wife. Nevertheless, they also function as conventional, if not purely arbitrary, markers of distinction. Each woman has been assigned to her respective possessor by the Achaians acting as a collective authority, as his rightful prize from the booty taken by the army. This is, however, a special category of prize, one that goes beyond the ordinary moira (rightful portion) of the warrior. The term for this special kind of prize is geras, which Benveniste defines [in Indo-European Language and Society, translated by Elizabeth Palmer, 1973] as an "honorific portion" which is "over and above" the ordinary moira; Jean Lallot in his summary of Benveniste's chapter calls it an "honorific supplementary share." Thus the geras is a special or "supplementary" mark of distinction; this is why Achilleus takes it as such an injury to his tim when he is left without this special prize. Achilleus still possesses a large share of booty from his maraudings, as he admits in Book 9 when he says that in addition to the wealth he left at home, "from here there is more gold, and red bronze, / and fair-girdled women, and grey iron I will take back; / all that was allotted to me." Yet all of this cannot balance the loss of his "honorific supplementary share": "But my prize [geras]: he who gave it… has taken it back again / outrageously."

The women are in fact involved in a structure of "supplementation" in the Derridean sense of the word. They are extra, added on to the fullness of the warrior's moira; and yet they leave an unfillable gap in the plenum from which they turn out to be missing. Chryseis, Agamemnon's geras, although she is held by Agamemnon, is held illegitimately; she is the daughter of the priest of Apollo and therefore cannot be held against her father's will. There is a formal or magical boundary that excludes her from the circle of Agamemnon's possessions even while he holds her captive. There is thus a structural disequilibrium built into the situation with which the Iliad opens: the lack that causes this disequilibrium is one which is incapable of being filled. If Agamemnon gives up Chryseis, he, the paramount king and therefore the most to be distinguished by geras, would be in the anomalous and intolerable position of being the only one of the Achaians who would have no geras. As Achilleus points out, all the booty has been distributed and there exists no common store from which Agamemnon could have his loss made good. From this it follows that Agamemnon must take the geras of one of the other heroes, and that this in turn will necessarily leave a new and once again intolerable absence of geras for someone else.

Briseis thus becomes the equivalent of the apple of discord, the moveable marker of distinction which leaves a yawning absence of distinction in its wake, thus throwing social relations among the competitors into disequilibrium as a consequence of the envy and rancor that the loser feels toward the winner. If such disequilibrium is not regulated in some way, the resultant violence could rupture the entire social system. This is what threatens when Achilleus contemplates killing Agamemnon, a crime which would violate the most fundamental and thus divinely sanctioned of rules.

Therefore there exists a system of conventional equivalences according to which compensation or reparation may be made for injury suffered or loss incurred and in this way the vengeful anger of the injured party may be appeased. This system gives Agamemnon a publicly acknowledged and thus face-saving way of conciliating Achilleus; when Agamemnon realizes the disastrous nature of his affront to Achilleus he offers him an apoina (reparation) that is considered by the other Achaians, though not by Achilleus himself, more than adequate to make up for Achilleus's previous loss.

In this system, even the most extreme sort of injury, which could easily be felt as incommensurable with any compensation, the murder of close kin, is reparable by the paying of a material equivalent, poine (blood money). Blood money is the last brake on vendetta, the hinge between the functioning of lawful order and the outbreak of murderous violence, as is indicated in the allegory inscribed on Achilleus's shield. Two cities are pictured on the shield, a city at peace and a city at war. But within the peaceful city itself we move from the opening description of marriage festivals to a description of a tense judicial scene in which one man refuses to accept from another poine for a murder; this description mediates between the scene of marriage and the immediately following scene, in the second city, of open warfare. The crucial role of blood money is also made apparent by Aias in his appeal to Achilleus in Book 9, where Aias urges Achilleus to accept Agamemnon's propitiation by giving this most extreme example of the placability of disruptive violence: "And yet a man takes from his brother's slayer / the blood price, or the price for a child who was killed, and the guilty / one, when he has largely repaid, stays still in his country, / and the injured man's heart is curbed, and his pride, and his anger / when he has taken the price." Because there are compensatory equivalences, there are limits on violence, which is to say limits on the boundless augmentation of a particular kind of affect: anger, vengeful fury.

There is no clear line between community and noncommunity with respect to the problem of vengeful fury. On one hand, the violence that unleashes vengefulness infects even the innermost core of community, the kinship group. On the other hand, even between enemies equivalences are available that make exchange possible, and these exchanges palliate the absoluteness of war, introduce some limit to the eruption of absolute violence (ransoming of prisoners, gift-exchange among enemies, ritualized duals, restoration of things stolen). These exchanges function as the medium of a kind of "conversion" of affect, its transformation from one form into another (hostility into friendliness) or its "capturing" in objective social form (hostility captured or contained in a formal relation of friendliness). Ransom, reparation, and blood money are mediations between the subjective order and the political order. The subjective wound finds its symbolic equivalent and the stream of affect is rechannelled in a way less destructive to culture.

The operation of various sorts of limits in the war between Trojans and Achaians has in fact created up to the moment that the Iliad opens a condition of stalemate: for nine years the war has remained undecidable. The gift-exchanges between Aias and Hektor, Glaukos and Diomedes, in the early part of the poem are reminders of this earlier stage of the war in which the enemies still recognize the option of "conversion" of hostility through symbolic exchange, thus still recognize some symbolic order that encompasses both sides and keeps the enmity of war from being total. We are also repeatedly reminded that taking prisoners in battle and holding them for ransom was formerly a common practice, but, as Robert Redfield points out [in Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 1975] in the Iliad even though ransom is offered in several instances, it is always refused and not one prisoner is taken for ransom.

The Iliad thus marks the breakdown of the condition of stalemate/equilibrium, and this breakdown takes the form of a breakdown in the circulation of equivalences. Agamemnon will not accept apoina (ransom; reparation) for Chryseis; Achilleus will not accept apoina for Agamemnon's insult to him, and later on he will not accept apoina for the body of Hektor. These three refusals are the pivotal points on which the plot of the Iliad turns.

What is at issue in the Iliad is thus an accelerating crisis of equivalence which is at least nominally set in motion by Agamemnon's refusal to accept the ransom offered by the priest of Apollo in exchange for his daughter Chryseis.

The system of conventional equivalences is central to the system of social order. If Agamemnon had accepted the value of the proffered apoina as proportional to his desire for the daughter and his frustration at losing her, he could have fulfilled his obligation to respect Apollo's priest while at least publicly maintaining the honorable stance that he had received a prize that adequately supplied the lack of the one he lost. In that case order would have been maintained and no quarrel with Achilleus would have ensued. If Achilleus, in turn, had been willing to accept Agamemnon's reparation as proportional to his pain at losing Briseis and the damage to his tim at being publicly humiliated, he could honorably have let go his anger and rejoined the Achaian host.

The crucial point is that ransom or reparation is only worth the injury it comes to make up for if the injured party agrees that it is, and this agreement is not in the Iliad easy to secure. It is in the interest of the group that such equivalence should be accepted, as we see from the way the other Achaians urge Agamemnon and Achilleus in their respective cases to accept ransom or reparation (apoina). But the injured party finds it more difficult than those not directly involved to feel that the reparation actually does measure up to the loss.

Achilleus's complaint against Agamemnon in Book 9 wavers between his claim that he loves Briseis as his alokhos (wife) and his claim that she is his geras (prize). Her role is structurally ambivalent: she functions on the level of both social and libidinal economy. And the laws of these two economies are partly in conflict. Insofar as she is more than a mere exchange object to Achilleus, her rape opens the question of irreparable loss; that is, the question of mourning. The full force of mourning will of course befall Achilleus as a consequence of the loss of Patroklos, not Briseis, but we shall see that there is no opposition, no either/or, between Achilleus's love for Patroklos and his or other men's love for women—for example, Hektor's for Andromache. Rather, the former lays bare a libidinal structure that also inhabits the latter. The remainder of this essay will be a demonstration of this thesis.

We recognize in the motif of the loss and return of Briseis that type of circulation of a symbolic object that functions at a meta-narrative level. Once we are alerted to the level of abstraction at which the poem represents the circulation of symbolic objects, we see that it articulates a continuous problematic of exchange, loss, and symbolic reparation, a problematic whose most prominent articulations are five types of refusal of reparation. We may schematize them thus: (1) refuse ransom, kill male captive (recurring instance); (2) refuse ransom, keep female captive who is phile (dear, well loved) (Agamemnon and Chryseis); (3) lose female captive who is phile, refuse conciliatory reparation (Achilleus and Briseis); (4) lose one's philos (loved one, kin), refuse conciliatory reparation (pictured on shield); (5) keep body of slain captive, refuse ransom for body (Achilleus and Hektor). It should be apparent that these situations form a transformational series in which the same basic themes are variously intertwined and a single complex problematic is elaborated. The crisis of equivalence that is set in motion by Agamemnon's refusal of ransom for Chryseis is finally resolved, at least for the purposes of poetic closure, by Achilleus's acceptance of ransom for Hektor's dead body. We may reconstruct the underlying logic of this series in terms of an initial situation involving possession of an object, one that is libidinally cathected (a woman or friend); followed by the loss of this object, against the will of the possessor and without compensation; after which compensation is required, either through vengeful aggression against a substitute object that comes into one's possession (the living or dead body of the enemy), or through the option that is so hard to come by in the Iliad, acceptance of apoina as conciliating reparation.

The Homeric warriors are supposed to be motivated by the pursuit of greater and greater time. Yet the action of the Iliad is set in motion by a yawning insufficiency of booty such that someone, either Agamemnon or one of the other heroes, must necessarily be left at least temporarily without his honorific portion and thus without his proper share of time. This means that the time in question at the center of the poem must come belatedly, not as the positivity of the glory that a warrior pursues, but as compensation for a loss that he has previously endured. The forms of reparation, apoina and poine, participate in the preservation or restoration of time as a substitute or compensatory equivalent for what is properly a prize of honor, moira or geras. But as we pursue the logic of compensation we begin to suspect that reparation may participate in the essential constitution of that time which it supposedly comes to repair.

In one way it seems that to kill one's enemies, and to kill them as brutally as possible, humiliating them in the process, would be the fulfillment of the warrior's vocation, that the warrior would then be most himself. This is how he gains tim and subsequently the kleos (glory) of poetic renown; and this form of time seems to be the true warrior honor, beyond the apportionment of tributes and women. And yet the poem also portrays this time as vengeful in its essence, as the last desperate expedient upon which men fall back when the system of symbolic compensation and reparation fractures and fails.

The sociosexual humiliation Achilleus suffers hurls him, at least for the moment, entirely outside the system of conventional equivalences. The absolute incommensurability between his suffering and any possible restitution or reparation: this is what he declares in the crescendo of hyperbole with which he rejects Agamemnon's apoina:

Not if he gave me ten times as much, and
twenty times over as he possesses now, not if
more should come to him from elsewhere, or gave
all that is brought in to Orchomenos, all that is
brought in to Thebes of Egypt, where the
greatest possessions lie up in the houses, Thebes
of the hundred gates, where through each of the
gates two hundred fighting men come forth to
war with the horses and chariots; not if he gave
me gifts as many as the sand or the dust is, not
even so would Agamemnon have his way with
my spirit until he had made good to me all this
heartrending insolence.

Achilleus rejects the "conversion" of his vengefulness by the formal process of reparation; he wants what we could call a raw equivalation, "pain for pain, dishonor for dishonor" as Robert Fitzgerald freely, but I think accurately, translates the last line above.

Animals of course do not seek vengeance; vengeance is not "raw" in the sense that it could exist outside the context of language and culture. The very fact that vengeance is essentially a form of compensation or equivalence means that its conception involves a mental operation of a sophisticated order. Furthermore, the enjoyment of vengeance requires an acute perception of the subjectivity of the other, a sense of the reality and intensity of the suffering he or she experiences at our hands. If nevertheless I call vengefulness the desire for a raw equivalation it is to mark its tendency to escape and undermine the system of conventional equivalences established by culture. "An eye for an eye" is already an attempt to limit vengefulness by a conventional definition; the Iliad suggests that what the unconstrained urge seeks as compensation for suffering undergone is not the formal equivalence of objects or body parts but the feeling that the other experiences within his or her interiority a suffering at least equal to what the avenger has suffered. But there is no way of measuring or setting a limit to this subjective sensation. As long as I am in the throes of suffering over an injury done me, the sensation of grievance is unbounded. If the entire substance of my being is convulsed by pain or grief over an injury or loss, if the loss can never be undone as such, only an equally unbounded and irremediable suffering on the part of the transgressor can count as a compensatory equivalent. Such suffering is what Achilleus attempts to exact from Agamemnon, and later from the Trojans.

Vengeance is here the attempt to find an equivalent for the incommensurable, reparation for the irreparable. It is, in other words, the last measure for staunching the flow of mourning. Thus Euphorbos says to Menelaos:

This logic of equivalence, according to which vengeance and mourning inflicted can compensate for and assuage mourning suffered, structures the entire Iliad, but is most insistently and nakedly visible in a sequence near the end of Book 14. Poulydamas, having killed a Greek, Prothoënor, "vaunted terribly over him" and "sorrow [akhos] came over the Argives at his vaunting," stirring the vengeful anger of Aias, who kills a Trojan. Aias then shouts at Poulydamas, "Is not this man's death… a worthwhile exchange [anti… axios]?" In response, "sorrow [akhos] fastened on the Trojans," and the Trojan Akamas kills Promachos, at which akhos once more comes over the Greeks, so that Peneleos kills Ilioneus and then vaunts:

Trojans, tell haughty Ilioneus' beloved father
and mother, from me, that they can weep for him in their halls, since
neither shall the wife of Promachos, Alegenor's
son, take pride of delight at her dear lord's coming.

This logic is carried to its limit in Achilleus's motivation, as he seeks to assuage his grief for his losses first by humiliating Agamemnon and then by the holocaust of vengefulness in which he engages against the Trojans: measureless reparation for his measureless pain.

We learn from Achilleus that it is life itself for which time would come to compensate if it could. Achilleus, weeping like a baby beside the sea, says to Thetis:

Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life,
therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me
honour [time] at least. But now he has given me not even a little.
Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon,
has dishonoured me [étimesan], since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.

That he is "a man with a short life"—that is what grieves Achilleus so deeply and for which he feels he is owed compensation. But it is the definition of men in general that they are born to a short life. Achilleus's is particularly short, but no shorter than that of many other warriors in the Iliad, and the perspective of the immortal gods is always there to remind us that even the longest human life is pathetically short.

But even this limited recognition of time as having a value that might compensate for shortness of life is withdrawn by Book 9. Agamemnon's proffered gifts are truly vast. We should compare what is normally called "countless gifts" in the Iliad with what Agamemnon offers; all other instances are paltry by comparison. If the size of the reparation is proportionate to the time bestowed, this is an extraordinary time indeed. And yet for Achilleus now even an infinite amount of such reparation would mean nothing. Achilleus is no longer thinking or feeling within the system of cultural equivalences. He feels so aggrieved, he has nursed his resentment so assiduously, that he touches his own subjectivity in a profound new way. Whereas his time could earlier, so long as it remained intact, still mask his sense of the fleetingness of his own life, the violation of his time by Agamemnon makes him feel the full surge of automourning, of grief over his own death. And now he becomes conscious of the subjective essence of his own being as psykhe, the elusive breath of life that is incommensurable with any time that booty can bring:

Achilleus does not mention time in these lines, but within the structure of distribution of booty that these lines presuppose, the same structure within which Briseis and his other honorific portions have been bestowed, booty must be allotted by the group after it has been taken, and embodies time.

The psykhe is here pictured by analogy with precious possessions, objects that may be wrested from the possession of someone else and made one's own, circulate from one owner to another, be lost, and then regained or at least compensated for. These are the objects in terms of which the conventional system of exchange and equivalence functions. The psykhe does not belong to this system; it is a precious object that will not circulate; once lost it is lost forever.

In the Iliad, compensation will always fail to catch up with the anteriority of loss, which reasserts itself at the end of the series of compensations. Culture declares the commensurability of loss with compensation or reparation, but culture also generates tensions that rupture the equivalences it proclaims, that reveal some final inadequacy in them to balance the loss they come to repair. I will take advantage of the ironically double sense of the term moira (rightful portion; fate, death) and call the logic of this regression moiranomics; opposing it to the official ideology of the warrior culture, its oikonomics, voiced by Aias, according to which no loss is uncompensatable and everything finds its equivalent, even the loss of one who is most near and dear. This is good sense, good management; the system of exchange and substitution must reach all the way into the interior of the oikos (household), for only then can it properly regulate the retaliatory violence that would otherwise shake the foundations of social order (for instance, in the regicide that Achilleus almost commits). But Achilleus, far from accepting a substitute or equivalent for Briseis, refuses to accept Briseis herself as reparation for herself; he reacts as though her loss were absolute, as though she were dead. (This is what Aias senses when he tells Achilleus that a man accepts reparation even for a dead son.)

We now see how it is that Briseis's structural location at the intersection of inside and outside, as both prize of honor and beloved wife, opens the possibility of Achilleus's break with the official ideology—a break which also reveals the inner dynamic of that ideology, the resentful urge for vengeance that is the unrestricted form of the demand for reparation, the insatiable maw that all material forms of time attempt to appease. Briseis, whom Achilleus loves, is at the same time part of Achilleus's moira, the supplementary part, the part that both is and is not part, the part that somehow escapes and leaves an unstaunchable wound, a wound which she herself, restored, cannot staunch. As such, she breaks open the system of circulating equivalences, hurls Achilleus into an aggrieved awareness of the ironic double meaning of moira, of the system of moiranomics that unfolds within oikonomia: "Moira is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. / We are all held in a single time, the brave with the weaklings. / A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much." This aggrieved awareness will in turn lead to the loss of Patroklos, and only then will Briseis return.

What we see in the Iliad is a chain of desires for reparation for the suffering incurred in the foregoing loss of objects of desire, such that each of these desires for reparation substitutes for the preceding and in its turn fails of satisfaction; or more precisely, the very attempt to obtain reparation leads to the next loss that in its turn calls for compensation. The case of Achilleus shows us that the pursuit of time is involvement in this chain, is in fact a culturally mediated expression of ressentiment against the world and other people for the deprivations it and they necessarily inflict upon even the most powerful, and fundamentally for the ultimate deprivation of death. This is the bitter irony in Achilleus's words to Lykaon in Book 21 as he refuses Lykaon's plea that Achilleus take him for ransom. Once he took the Trojans for ransom "in droves," Achilleus says, but no more; now that Patroklos has died, Achilleus sees that he too must die and pursues a different kind of compensation:

So, friend, you die also. Why all this clamour about it?
Patroklus also is dead, who was better by far than you are.
Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid
and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal?
Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny [moira].

Nature itself, in the form of the river Skamandros, revolts against the gruesome extremity of Achilleus's vengeance that chokes Skamandros's water with corpses.

But there is a most refined delectation of vengeance beyond even that of killing the enemy, one that comes from the imaginative anticipation of the helpless abjection of mourning that one inflicts upon the wife and parents of the slain enemy. To be the cause of mourning, and most specifically of the mourning of women: this is the final resonance of the satisfaction of vengeance, of the reparation vengeance offers for one's own grief. Of course the women are in more obvious ways the final index of triumph over the enemy; as Nestor says, each Achaian must bed a Trojan wife in vengeance for Helen. But here is how at one point Achilleus describes the vengeance he intends for Patroklos: "Now I must win excellent glory, / and drive some one of the women of Troy, or some deepgirdled / Dardanian woman, lifting up to her soft cheeks both hands / to wipe away the close bursts of tears in her lamentations." Similarly, the cruder sensibility of Diomedes expresses itself in the boast that "if one is struck by me only a little,… that man's wife goes with cheeks torn in lamentation." Or the women of the enemy may be made to grieve for one's own, even while their countrymen are slaughtered. Achilleus thus makes this promise to the dead Patroklos:

Before your shining pyre I shall behead twelve glorious
children of the Trojans, for my anger over your slaying.
Until then, you shall lie where you are in front of my armed ships
and beside you women of Troy and deed-girdled Dardanian women
shall sorrow for you night and day and shed tears for you.

Foremost among these women is his prize of honor, Briseis, who, now at last restored to Achilleus, leads the mourning for Achilleus's greatest loss. The theft and rape of women by those two comrades comes in the end to this, that they might have a mourning chorus.

Achilleus weeps, and makes women weep, for himself and for his loss. To wreak vengeance means, finally, to be the cause of mourning, to transform the passive affect of grief into the active, compensatory pleasure of inflicting grief upon others and, most conclusively, upon the women. But grief tends to become generalized, for vengefully inflicted grief is no more than the reflection of the avenger's own. In the end, victim and avenger weep together, as Priam and Achilleus will do.

Beyond conventional equivalence, there is vengeance; but a man cannot avenge himself for the loss of his own life. He can, however, avenge the loss of his philos (one who is near and dear), and if the philos is a mirror of his own mortality, as Patroklos is of Achilleus's, then vengeance for the philos's death would be a sort of vengeance for his own; and mourning for the philos would be mourning for himself. Gregory Nagy has shown how deeply woven into the language and traditional material of the Iliad is the theme of mourning. Even the name Achilleus appears to be derived from the word akhos, or "grief"; and Nagy offers a fascinating argument that Achilleus's epic glory in the Iliad is an extension into poetry of the institution of lamentation for him as represented in his hero-cult.

Nagy builds on Johannes Kakridis's demonstration [in Homeric Researches, 1949] that even though Achilleus's death and burial are not represented in the Iliad, in Book 18 where Thetis and the Nereids mourn the living Achilleus "Homer used as a model an older epic description of the prothesis of Achilles and his funeral." The existence of this model is known to us from references in the cyclic Aethiopis and the second Nekyia of the Odyssey. Kakridis points out that in the established form of the mourning ritual as we see it in the case of Patroklos and Hektor, one woman, the nearest kin to the dead man, leads the lamentation and a chorus wails in response. In Hektor's case, his wife Andromache begins the goos (death-lament), which is then taken up in turn by his mother and his sister-in-law Helen. In the Greek camp, however, there are no kins-women; "but custom exacts that [Patroklos] shall be mourned by women, and the place of his kinswoman is taken by Briseis and the other captive women." Similarly, Thetis begins the goos for Achilleus in Book 18 while her sister Nereids play the chorus to her lament. And when Thetis after the death of Patroklos takes the head of grief-struck Achilleus in her hands, she reproduces what Kakridis identifies as a ritual gesture of mourning. (This gesture is reproduced by Andromache and Hekuba with the corpse of Hektor and by Achilleus with that of Patroklos.) Kakridis thus demonstrates that although it is Patroklos who has died, it is Achilleus who is mourned.

But, as Nagy argues, "the Iliadic tradition requires Achilles to prefigure his dead self by staying alive, and the real ritual of a real funeral is reserved by the narrative for his surrogate Patroklos"; "the death of Patroklos is a function of his being the therápon of Achilles: this word therápon is a prehistoric Greek borrowing from the Anatolian languages"… where it had meant 'ritual substitute'."

Patroklos is most intimate, most philos to Achilleus; he belongs to the inmost interiority of Achilleus's circle of propriety. They sleep in the same tent, and Achilleus had hoped that one day, when Achilleus was dead, Patroklos would take Achilleus's son Pyrrhos back to Phthia to see the domains of his father. When Achilleus retires to privacy from the forum where warriors appear for each other in order to win time, he retires in the company of Patroklos. Time is the modality of the manifestation of a warrior's selfhood before the group to which he belongs; the reality of time is public appearance, the self invested in its time is a self as seen by the group. It is of the essence of the giving of honorific shares, moira and geras, that these are public rituals; these are not possessions with an independent value that could be enjoyed in private, like the miser's gold. So, too, the loss of geras is feared as a public humiliation.

When Achilleus refuses Agamemnon's offer of reparation he is attempting to step outside the system of social valuations that makes his time a dependent and relative variable. In the end, of course, Achilleus is drawn back little by little into the matrix of social valuations, first by the appeals of Phoinix and Aias, then by that of Patroklos, but even then he is not fully reconciled to the sphere of mutuality. If the self is dependent upon its reflection in the eyes of others, he wishes at least that he could retreat to the minimal sphere of self-reflection. There is a very strong evocation of the exclusiveness of the dual relation between Achilleus and Patroklos, their tendency to form a dyad independent of the rest of the Achaians. Patroklos's ghost recalls that in life the two of them would "sit apart from our other / beloved companions and make our plans." And in a striking image, Achilleus expresses to Patroklos as Patroklos goes forth to battle the apocalyptic wish that "not one of all the Trojans could escape destruction, not one / of the Argives, but you and I could emerge from the slaughter / so that we two alone could break Troy's hallowed coronal." And Achilleus intends that he and Patroklos should be buried in the same grave mound. There must be at least one other human being who reflects his glory back to him; but ideally there should be only one other, and this one should be as close as possible to Achilleus himself, differed from him only far enough to provide his reflection. Achilleus would then be an autonomous totality, or as nearly so as a being can be who must split himself in two in order to feel himself as himself. In the immediate proximity to each other of these two philoi who are one self differed, there would be no opening for such woundings of the self-substance as even Achilleus cannot fend off so long as he subjects himself to the system of public valuations. Achilleus's time would circulate in a closed circuit between himself and the one who remains most proximate to him.

But precisely in proportion as Patroklos is philos to Achilleus, Achilleus is exposed to the possibility of another kind of loss, one more profound than the loss of prizes or honor, but which reveals the hidden essence of what those losses partly express and partly occult.

Mourning in the Iliad is represented as a structure of self-reflection in which the death of the other arouses automourning in the onlooker. The mimetic stimulation of mourning culminates in the reconciliation scene between Priam and Achilleus in Book 24. "Take pity upon me / remembering your father," says Priam to Achilleus, and Achilleus sees in Priam's grief for dead Hektor the grief of Peleus for Achilleus's own expected death. Achilleus imagines his father weeping inconsolable tears for him, then weeps for his poor father weeping for him and in this way affects himself with the pathos of his own disappearance. Achilleus's grief for his own death thus arises here in a double reflection as he sees Peleus's grief reflected in Priam's and then in the mirror of Peleus's mirrored grief finds the magnified representation of his own grief for himself.

There is an earlier suggestion of the structure of self-reflection involved in Achilleus's spectation of Peleus's grief in Book 19, when Achilleus remarks that nothing could be worse suffering for him than the death of Patroklos, not even the death of Peleus, "who now, I think, in Phthia somewhere lets fall a soft tear / for bereavement of such a son, for me." Here Achilleus imagines the greatness of his father's bereavement as a function of his own greatness, the greatness of "such a son," and touches himself with the immensity of the pathos of his own disappearance through the greatness of bereavement that he imagines on the part of his father.

And now we see that this same movement of automourning shapes the otherwise apparently somewhat incoherent farewell of Hektor to Andromache in Book 6. After Hektor says that it is her pain to come that troubles him above all, when she is led away captive and becomes the servant of some Greek, he continues:

and some day seeing you shedding tears a man will say of you:
"This is the wife of Hektor, who was ever the bravest fighter
of the Trojans, breaker of horses, in the days when they fought about Ilion."
So will one speak of you; and for you it will be a fresh grief
to be widowed of such a man who could fight off the day of your slavery.
But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I
hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.
(6.459-65; italics added)

The apparent incoherence in Hektor's words is this: that Hektor is the stay of Ilium, the one upon whom it depends to keep the Trojan women from captivity, and that, ex hypothesi, if Andromache is made captive, Hektor will be dead. But in a moment of profound feeling Hektor projects himself as witness of a widowed Andromache who weeps for him dead, with a grief which he imagines in the shape most fulfilling to the desire to be mourned, a grief that springs always anew across the passage of time, at the reminder of what a man it was whom she has lost: "and for you it will be a fresh grief, / to be widowed of such a man." Of course this grief of the beloved is unbearable to contemplate, even though it has been contemplated, in the most vivid detail, and must be contemplated, because it would be even more unbearable to think that his death would inflict no indelible wound of loss, that the loss might quickly begin to heal. Hektor imagines the first unbearability and then flees from it: "may I be dead"… before."

Hektor's words precisely anticipate Achilleus's fantasy of his father's grief: "To be widowed of such a man": khetei toioua" andros; "bereaved of such a son": khetei toioua" huios. Each imagines a scene from which he is missing and the pathos of this self-lack, and each imagines it in the same terms. The sense of the "such a—" is fully unfolded in Hektor's speech: the occasion of renewal of Andromache's grief is the speech, apparently imagined as overheard by her, that names Hektor's greatness as bravest or best of the Trojans (hos aristeueske) in battle. Hektor imagines, in other words, his kleos (fame, report of his glory) and his captive wife as memorials of this fame (not, as McCary suggests, of his shame), a fame parallel to that of Achilleus, who, as Nagy has shown, is consistently named by the Iliad as best (aristos) of the Achaeans. Again consistently with Nagy's studies, Hektor's kleos arouses unforgettable grief in the wife who will have lost him; but Hektor describes his own kleos precisely in order to imagine most vividly Andromache's grief over the loss of him, her grief as the ultimate resonance of his pathos of self-loss, a resonance that gives full affective value to the thought of this kleos which is the sonorous trace of his absent being (kleos comes from root kluó: "hear, hearken").

The economy of Hektor's self-affection here is thus not far from that of Achilleus's association of his desire to win "some excellent kleos" with the aim of making "some one of the women of Troy… to wipe away the close bursts of tears in her lamentations." Mourning as vengefully inflicted, mourning as unbearable and most necessary tribute from the beloved: there is no absolute boundary between the two. Hence the specific form of Achilleus's anger in Book 1. His wish as he withdraws is that his absence will wring the tribute of grief from the hearts of his philoi:

The aesthetic representation of someone else's mourning is capable of stimulating the affect of mourning in the audience because mourning "itself is already spectatorial and specular. This means that the separation between the affect of epic and that of cult is not as clear as Nagy suggests. Nagy writes that "the death of Achilles may have been unsuitable for the kleos of the Iliadic tradition partly because the audience itself was involved in his death…. The death of Achilles would be an akhos [grief]… to the community at large, in cult." But everything about the Iliad is constructed precisely in such a way that it involves the spectator in the scene of mourning it constitutes, to remind him/her that mourning always flows in an unbroken circuit between other and self. And Nagy himself actually blurs his own distinction between kleos and cult when he argues that Achilleus's epic is an "extension of the lamentation sung by the Muses over the hero's death."

Kleos (glory) is supposed to be the warrior's ultimate consolation or compensation for the akhos or penthos (grief) of his mortality. Nagy has argued that the concept of kleos has in fact an essential connection with poetry, that "kleos was the formal word which the Singer himself (aoidos) used to designate the songs which he sang in praise of the gods and men." But if Achilleus's own song, the Iliad, is an extension of the threnos of lamentation over his death, then if Achilleus could hear his own kleos sung it would bring him to tears. Something like this actually happens in the Odyssey, where Odysseus hears the singer Demodokos singing Odysseus's own kleos, and is overcome with grief; "we see from the evidence of epic itself," Nagy concludes, "that the kleos heard by its audience may be akhos/penthos for those involved in the actions it describes." Odysseus's grief is for his sufferings and those of his companions rather than for his own death; the genius of the Iliad is in the way it can, by means of the figure of Patroklos, represent Achilleus mourning his own death while he yet outlives it.

But in the Iliad mourners are predominantly, overwhelmingly, female. Aged fathers are prominent, too, among the mourners, but when we come to the great, concluding ritual scenes of mourning it is the women who take center stage—at least in two of these three scenes. First, Thetis and the Nereids mourn Achilleus. Last, Andromache, Hekuba, and Helen mourn Hektor. In between, Achilleus mourns Patroklos. The place of the chief mourner is marked in each scene by the same gesture: Thetis holds Achilleus's head; Andromache holds Hektor's head; Achilleus holds Patroklos's head. As Plato disapprovingly recognized, Achilleus as mourner occupies a structural slot that is marked as a woman's. Mourning belongs preeminently to women, and a man when he mourns ceases to be a man. This is what Achilleus says to Patroklos at the beginning of Book 16, when Patroklos is overcome by grief at the sufferings of the Achaians. Achilleus tells him that he is "crying like some poor little girl" who wants to be comforted by her mother. But it is Achilleus who cries out to be comforted by his mother in Book 1, when it is himself he mourns, and whose cries bring her pityingly to him once again in Book 18 after the death of Patroklos.

Deeply inscribed in the tradition of epic poetry, Nagy shows, is the antithesis between deathless kleos and unforgettable woe; the former belongs to the triumphant, the latter to the losers. And yet kleos and grief turn out in the hands of the Iliad poet(s) to be intimately interwoven. How could it be otherwise once Achilleus must die young in order to gain his kleos? Kleos is time in the mode of tele, time at a distance, tele-time; in its essence it implies the absence of the one celebrated. Achilleus rejoices when he sings the klea of the other heroes but would have to weep if he heard his own. Kleos is structured according to the logic of moiranomics. On one hand, moiranomics is the logic of heroic masculinity as something that secures for itself an ever-expanding share of time and ultimately of kleos. But it is also the logic of reparation that is ultimately ineffectual for a loss that is always anterior and that reasserts itself at the end of the series of reparations. Thus it is a logic that will sooner or later feminize the hero, render him as powerless and grief-stricken as a bereaved mother or wife, and reduce him to tears in the face of his own death through the mirror of the death of those he loves, or of their grief for his.

Maria C. Pantelia (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "Spinning and Weaving: Ideas of Domestic Order in Homer," in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 114, No. 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 493-501.

[In the following essay, Pantelia determines the function of spinning and weaving for different female characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey.]

Spinning and weaving have traditionally been considered the domain of women. All evidence suggests that in antiquity the working of wool and the production of garments were primary occupations of women, who, regardless of their social status—be they slaves or queens—contributed through their handiwork to the self-sufficiency of their own households. In the Homeric poems all women, including queens and goddesses, are either specifically described or said to be involved in the spinning of wool or the creation of cloth on their looms. Their work symbolizes the normal order of life, in which women take care of their households while men defend the city.

Although modern scholarship has appropriately recognized the symbolic or metaphorical function of weaving in literature and in the Homeric poems in particular, no distinction has yet been made between weaving and spinning. Traditionally, spinning has been viewed either as another occupation of women or simply as part of the process of weaving. Despite their obvious connection—both spinning and weaving were performed by women and in a sequence, since weaving depends on the prior production of thread—the two activities do indeed represent different processes of creation. The ancient loom stood upright, and weavers walked to and fro, passing their bobbins through the threads of the warp. It is obvious that this kind of work required a certain amount of physical energy, which probably made weaving an occupation more suitable for younger women. Since looms were situated in the inner palace, weavers could isolate themselves and perform their art away from the public eye. On the other hand, the spinning of wool could easily be done by all women, regardless of age. Since it was portable and could be performed in a standing or a sitting position, it gave the spinner the flexibility to move around, and possibly engage in other tasks, such as the supervision of servants, in the case of queens. Furthermore, the art of weaving produces a fabric which often bears a design and has the potential for conveying a concrete message. In contrast, spinning produces only the thread, that is, the raw material which makes weaving possible and, most importantly, allows the weaver to speak and express herself through the specific artifact she produces on her loom.

My purpose here is to examine the various descriptions of weaving and spinning in Homer, in an effort to show that the poet exploits the differences between the two activities and uses them consistently, as he develops the individual portraits of his female characters.

There are twenty-two passages in Homer in which references to work at the loom occur, but only five female characters are actually depicted as weaving. Homer also uses the verb hyphainein metaphorically in several other passages to describe the intellectual process by which men "weave" words or wiles. Spinning is mentioned in several passages either as a separate activity or in conjunction with weaving, although only two women, Helen and Arete in the Odyssey, are actually presented as spinning wool. But let us begin with a brief discussion of the actual scenes where either spinning or weaving occur.

Helen's work at the loom in Iliad 3.125-28 marks her first appearance in literature and is, without doubt, the best known and most studied scene of weaving in Homer. When Iris comes to summon Helen to the Wall to witness the decisive duel between Menelaus and Paris, Helen is weaving "a great, double-folded purple web" on which she depicts scenes of the Trojans and the Achaeans fighting for her sake. In the context of the Iliad, where her marital status and social identity are ambivalent, Helen finds relief and escape from her sad reality by depicting on her loom images which actually record history as she herself sees it. Men like Achilles find consolation in singing of the klea andron. Helen, as a woman, acquires a voice and identity, it may be argued, only through the creativity of her weaving. Like an epic poet who preserves through his song the glorious deeds of his heroes, Helen weaves on her loom the story of the war. Her web fulfills her need to overcome death by producing an artifact which will survive and "tell her story," her kleos, to all future generations.

Andromache's condition in the Iliad is in many ways similar to Helen's. Both women face an uncertain future and express themselves through the images they depict on their webs. Both are shown in the inner palace weaving purple double-folded robes. Andromache's web, however, is not megas. It may be artistically elaborate (throna poikil') but it does not have the kind of social significance that the poet has bestowed upon the web of Helen. The subject matter of Andromache's web, although it is not specifically described, reflects her view of the world, for Andromache, unlike Helen, does not have a broader vision and purpose in life. Her role in her society and in the poem can only be defined in terms of her relationship with Hector. Consequently, her weaving does not have a social significance comparable to Helen's recording of history. It reflects merely the traditional idea of familial order which is based on the balance between two separate but nevertheless interdependent spheres, those of female domesticity and male politics, Andromache's loom acquires its function through this opposition. Once the balance is lost, the loom can no longer serve its intended purpose. Andromache's weaving, simultaneous with Hector's defense of Troy, expresses her hope that if she takes care of her duties, Hector's political and military success will also continue. As long as the war continues, Andromache's domestic and marital stability is being threatened. It is therefore significant that the poet pictures her weaving while she is waiting for Hector and, more importantly, at the very moment when she receives the news of his death. Without Hector, Andromache passes from a state of insecurity into a state of complete and irretrievable loss of identity. At that moment, symbolized by the dropping of her shuttle, the function of the loom, both actual and symbolic, comes to its end.

Andromache's role in the poem ends essentially with the death of Hector, but Helen's presence continues far beyond the end of the Iliad. It can be no coincidence that when we see Helen again in the Odyssey she is no longer weaving, but spinning wool with her golden spindle. In the postwar setting of the Odyssey Helen does not have to worry about her present or future status, since her identity as wife of Menelaus and queen of Sparta has been reestablished and a place for Menelaus and her in the Elysian Fields is assured. Secure in this position, Helen is now capable of benefiting others by redirecting her creativity towards other human beings. Instead of weaving, she now spins the thread which will empower other women, less fortunate than herself, to weave their stories and, in this way, to cope with their particular condition. Helen's new status is further symbolically epitomized in her gift of a robe to Telemachus, a robe which she had woven in times of uncertainty and will help preserve her memory. Penelope will keep it as a wedding gift for Telemachus. With this gift Helen offers Penelope some hope for the future, since this artifact is reminiscent not only of Helen's past, but also of the happy ending of her story and her return to her previous royal and divine status.

Penelope herself is also characterized through her weaving. In fact, she proves that she is Odysseus' worthy wife when she deceives the suitors by turning her actual weaving of Laertes' shroud into "a wile." In this case, the web becomes not only a symbol of the female sphere of influence and the traditional idea of familial order that Penelope seems to accept and represent in the poem, but also the very weapon which she uses in order to protect and maintain this kind of order by deceiving those who threaten it. It is significant that the design on Penelope's web is not described. Since her future with Odysseus has not yet been determined and will not be determined until Odysseus returns home, the subject matter of her weaving cannot take a specific shape. On the other hand, the purpose of her weaving is clear and indicative of her concern for the traditional social and familial order. Penelope's weaving of a shroud for Odysseus' father reflects her commitment to her husband's family and symbolizes her loyalty to the patrilinear order which she is determined to protect. However, when the "mature" Telemachus returns from his journey, ready to assume his responsibilities, Penelope is described as "spinning fine thread on her distaff." Shortly after that, Odysseus himself orders Penelope's maids to help their queen with her spinning, not her weaving. The poet seems to suggest by this that with Odysseus' return, Penelope—although she does not yet know it—no longer needs to worry about the preservation of order at Ithaca. The replacement of her weaving with spinning symbolizes the renewal of her marital stability and the transfer of power and responsibility from her hands back to Odysseus'.

The looms of Helen, Andromache, and Penelope are further connected through images of death and kleos. Penelope weaves a funerary cloth in an effort to maintain order and also to preserve Odysseus' position and fame. Andromache, who works into her loom images of life when she receives the news of Hector's death, imagines that the clothes she and other women have woven in the palace will be used at Hector's funeral, in his honor (kleos, 22.514). Interestingly enough, the robes used at Hector's funeral are described as "purple," like the web that Andromache had been weaving. As for Helen, her web depicts the struggles and death of the Greeks and the Trojans in order to make sure that the memory of the heroes and, therefore, their kleos will survive their deaths.

The production of textiles is not limited to mortal women. Circe and Calypso are also shown as weaving in Odyssey 5.61-62 and 10.220-23. The images the two goddesses depict on their webs are not described, except that Circe's web is said to be "delicate, exquisite, and dazzling." The fact that both goddesses are described as working at their looms when they are first introduced in the poem must have some significance. Calypso is weaving when Hermes tells her that she must let Odysseus go; Circe is weaving when Odysseus and his men arrive at her island. Although it may be said that gods do not necessarily experience human pain and anxieties, at least in the same way which mortals do, it is also clear that even goddesses like Circe and Calypso are not different from other female characters in the patriarchal setting of the Homeric poems. Their identity is defined and validated only through their relationships with male companions. Like their human counterparts, Circe and Calypso feel that their lives are incomplete without the presence of a man in their world (Odysseus in this case), a man whom ironically neither will be able to keep. In this sense, they use the creativity of their weaving to escape temporarily from their domestic instability. Their hopes and emotions are expressed through the images which they depict on their looms. But unlike mortal women, for whom the loom functions in part as a substitute for expression, Circe and Calypso are able to sing; in fact they are the only female characters in Homer who appear singing while they weave. Their singing points to and reinforces the connection between epic poetry and immortality. Just as the epic bard has the ability to confer immortality upon the subjects of his poetry by preserving them in the memory of future generations, goddesses like Circe and Calypso can also sing and promise their "hero" immortality. In this way, Circe and Calypso differ from Homer's mortal female characters. Through their weaving, however, they join all other Homeric women in their painful search for domestic harmony and order.

All five scenes mentioned above take place in situations characterized by a lack of domestic stability. Helen weaves while a war is being fought for her sake and is interrupted at the moment when her future is apparently about to be determined by the duel between her two husbands. Andromache weaves while Hector is fighting, and her work is interrupted by the news of his death. Penelope weaves Laertes' shroud and unravels it at night in order to maintain her domestic stability. Calypso weaves at the very moment when Hermes' arrival shatters her hope that Odysseus will stay with her forever. And Circe weaves when Odysseus first comes to her house. Like Calypso, she will fail to entice him to stay with her. Regardless of the differences we see in the purpose, the subject matter of the web, or even the character of the weaver, there is no doubt that all five women, mortal or immortal, see their weaving as an escape from a state of domestic disorder. Unable to speak or act with consequence, they seek refuge in the most private part of their homes, where they reproduce on their looms literally and symbolically the images of their hopes. In contrast, the women who finally achieve domestic stability in the Odyssey—Helen at Sparta as Menelaus' wife and queen, and Penelope in Ithaca after Odysseus' return—cease their weaving and are depicted as spinning once the circumstances around them have changed.

Besides Helen and Penelope, another powerful woman, Arete, is described as sitting beside the hearth, turning her "sea-purple yarn" on her distaff. Arete possesses unusual power and intelligence; she is honored and respected both by her people and by Alcinoos "as no other woman." It is quite apparent that Arete has never experienced any fear of disruption of either her political or her domestic stability. Alcinoos indeed relies on her intelligence and allows her to play an important role in her society by resolving disputes among the Phaeacians. Most importantly, as Nausicaa warns Odysseus at least twice, it is Arete's favor he has to win in order to receive help from the royal family. There is no doubt that the queen of Phaeacia deserves a place in the list of female Homeric characters such as Circe, Calypso, Helen, and Penelope, who, in Helene Foley's words, have "the special power to stop or transcend change in the sphere under their control."

Arete, Helen, and Penelope possess an understanding of life that other Homeric characters never achieve. Their power comes from their intelligence and their ability to see the true meaning of events. In the Iliad Helen understands the social role of history and the need to preserve present events for future generations. In the Odyssey she is able to recognize Telemachus, although she has never seen him before, and to relieve men's pain with her drugs. Penelope uses her intelligence, literally weaves her wiles, to protect her family order. Last but not least, Arete uses her excellent mind to assist her husband in maintaining social order in Phaeacia. Interestingly enough, these three women are not only the most powerful mortal female characters in Homer but also the only women associated with spinning. Arete is never shown weaving, and it is obvious that she has enjoyed a status of power and security since her marriage to Alcinoos. Helen and Penelope cease their weaving as soon as all threats to their domestic harmony have disappeared.

The life-giving or life-preserving function of thread is a well-known mythological theme. We know, for example, that the Fates spin the thread of man's life, and that Theseus finds his way out of the Minoan Labyrinth by using Ariadne's thread. The theme of the all-powerful woman/goddess who spins and helps the "hero" can be seen in other mythologies. The Navaho myth of the Two Warriors, in which the Spider Woman advises and protects the Twin Warriors with her magic charms, provides an interesting parallel. It could, therefore, be suggested that spinning and weaving carry different symbolic functions in the Homeric poems. More specifically, they signify the particular status of a female character. Women who feel uncertain about their future or identity, especially in regard to their marriage, use the creativity of their weaving as an escape from reality or as the means through which their identity will be preserved beyond the physical limitations of their mortal existence. On the other hand, women like Arete, Helen, and Penelope, especially in the later and established stages of their lives, do not have the need for such expression. Their identity and future have been determined. From a position of power and security, they are able to redirect their energies towards others by producing the thread, that is, the material other women may use in order to "weave" their own lives.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178


Combellack, F. M. "Contemporary Homeric Scholarship: Sound or Fury?" The Classical Weekly 49, Nos. 2, 3, and 4 (October 24; November 14; November 28, 1955): 17-26, 29-44, 45-55.

Surveys Homeric scholarship up to 1955, examining the state of studies on such topics as orality, archeology, literary merit, sources transmission, and editions of the poems.


Adkins, Arthur W. H. "Homer: Free Will and Compulsion." In Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values, pp. 10-29. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Examines the influence of the gods and of fate over the actions of the characters in Homer's epics.

Adorno, T. W. "Odysseus, or Mythos and Enlightenment." In Homer: The "Odyssey" translated and edited by Albert Cook, pp. 428-36. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1974.

Views the Odyssey as a struggle between fact and fantasy with the clever hero, Odysseus, striving for knowledge.

Allen, Thomas W. Homer: The Origins and the Transmission. London: Oxford University Press, 1924, 357 p.

Overview of the origins, evolution, and transmission of Homeric poetry.

Bassett, Samuel Eliot. The Poetry of Homer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938, 273 p.

Determines the importance of Homer's epics to Western literature and the effect of oral poetry upon an audience and analyzes the poetic devices employed in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Bespaloff, Rachel. "The Comedy of the Gods." In On the "Iliad, " translated by Mary McCarthy, pp. 71-9. Washington, D. C: Pantheon Books, 1947.

Explores the comic irresponsibility of the gods in the Iliad, including their quarrels among themselves and their familiarity with human beings.

Burkert, Walter. "Homer's Anthropomorphism: Narrative and Ritual." In New Perspectives in Early Greek Art, edited by Diana Buitron-Oliver, pp. 81-91. Washington, D. C: National Gallery of Art, 1991.

Attempts to answer the questions: "Why are the gods of Homer so human, and why are the Greeks from an early date both so impressed by and so critical of them?"

Butler, Samuel. "The Humour of Homer." In The Humour of Homer and Other Essays, edited by R. A. Streatfeild, pp. 59-98. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.

Discusses Homer's comical treatment of gods and humans and argues that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed by different people.

Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Homer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 108 p.

An overview of the poem which includes sections on historical background, characterization, performance, translation, and style.

Carpenter, Rhys. Folktale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946, 198 p.

Analyzes the preponderance of fiction versus fact in oral epic poetry such as the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Coffey, Michael. "The Function of the Homeric Simile." American Journal of Philology 78, No. 2 (1957): 113-32.

Provides a detailed analysis of the simile and its application in the two epics.

De Jong, Irene J. F. "The Subjective Style in Odysseus' Wanderings." Classical Quarterly 42, No. 1 (1992): 1-11.

Contends that while the primary narrator of the Odyssey is objective in tone, the secondary narrator—Odysseus himself—employs "emotional and evaluative language."

Dilworth, Thomas. "The Fall of Troy and the Slaughter of the Suitors: Ultimate Symbolic Correspondence in the Odyssey." Mosaic 27, No. 2 (June 1994): 1-24.

Maintains that the killing of the suitors in the Odyssey helped to assuage the guilt of the Greek public over the sacking of Troy.

Dodds, E. R. "Agamemnon's Apology." In The Greeks and the Irrational, pp. 1-27. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Determines the nature and role of religious feeling in both of Homer's epic poems.

Greene, Thomas. The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963, 434 p.

Traces the development of the European Renaissance epic from its origins in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Griffin, Jasper. "The Odyssey." In Homer, pp. 46-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Homer's epic, which Griffin describes as "the ultimate ancestor of the novel in Europe."

Havelock, Eric A. The Greek Concept of Justice: From Its Shadow in Homer to Its Substance in Plato. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978, 382 p.

Examines the relationship between the oral nature of the epics to the concepts of morality, ethics, and justice.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. "What Was Penelope Unweaving?" In Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, pp. 103-11. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Explores the role of weaving in the Odyssey.

King, Katherine Callen. Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, 335 p.

Assesses the characterization of Achilles in the Iliad and traces his appearance and transformation in later works of art and literature.

Lang, Mabel L. "Lineage-Boasting and the Road Not Taken." Classical Quarterly 44, No. 1 (1994): 1-6.

Discusses the role of "lineage-boasting," or describing one's ancestry, in the Iliad.

Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960, 309 p.

Defines the method and history of oral transmission of the two epics, and discusses their place within the long tradition of oral poetry.

Michalopoulos, Andre. Homer. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966,217 p.

Provides a general overview of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as a selected bibliography.

Murnaghan, Sheila. "Maternity and Mortality in Homeric Poetry." Classical Antiquity 11, No. 2 (October 1992): 242-64.

Examines the tendency in the Homeric epics to associate women with death.

Nagy, Gregory. "Homer and Comparative Mythology." In Greek Mythology and Poetics, pp. 7-17. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Determines the difference between myth and fiction in the poems, and discusses them within the traditions of Indo-European mythology and society.

Nilsson, Martin P. Homer and Mycenae. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933, 283 p.

Explores the question of who authored the epic poems, and connects the characters, locations, and events in Homer's epics to the Mycenaean Age.

Parry, Milman. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, edited by Adam Parry. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971, 483 p.

Collection of doctoral dissertations and published essays by the influential Homeric scholar.

Rabel, Robert J. "Agamemnon's Iliad." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 32, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 103-17.

Analyzes the characterization of Agamemnon as it unfolds in the Iliad, and discusses the ways in which it affects the poem's structure.

Schein, Seth L. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer's "Iliad." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984,223 p.

Provides a thematic analysis of Homer's epic.

Silk, M. S. Homer: The "Iliad. " Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 116 p.

Book-length analysis of the epic.

Steiner, George, and Fagles, Robert, eds. Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962, 178 p.

Collection of anecdotes, poems, and essays by well-known authors and critics.

Vivante, Paolo. Homer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, 218 p.

Offers an stylistic and thematic overview of Homer's epics.

Willcock, M. M. A Companion to the "Iliad." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, 293 p.

Provides an introductory survey of the action, characters, and themes of the epic, as well as explanatory appendices on transmission of the text, methods of warfare, and mythology.

Wright, John, ed. Essays on the "Iliad." Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978, 150 p.

Collection of critical essays on Homer's epic.

Additional coverage of Homer's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Classical and Medieval Literary Criticism, Vol. 1, 16; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Most-studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Poets Module; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

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