Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715
The narrative of The Iliad is rooted in a mythic tradition that had been evolving in Greece for hundreds of years. As the poem was recited, audiences would have recognized allusions to familiar stories of gods and heroes. Some of these allusions are overt, with characters explicitly referencing past events; others are better understood as motivations for the events unfolding.
Thetis’s Curse: A Nereid, or sea nymph, Thetis is the recipient of a prophecy: her son will grow up to be greater than his father. Hearing of the prophecy, Zeus abandons his pursuit of her and marries her to Peleus, a mortal hero who accompanied Heracles in his battle with the Amazons and Jason on his quest for the golden fleece. Though Thetis initially refuses him, Peleus learns from a sea-god how to overpower her, and he is able to capture and subdue her. Peleus and Thetis have a son, Achilles.
The Judgment of Paris: Eris, the goddess of discord, isn’t invited to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus. Offended, she throws a golden apple into the party marked “for the Fairest.” Fighting in order to be considered the apple’s intended owner, Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera ask Zeus to select the fairest among them. He refuses, suggesting instead they go to Mt. Ida where Paris is tending sheep and ask him to judge. Later traditions include the three goddesses offering gifts to Paris to sway his opinion. When Aphrodite offers to give him the most beautiful woman in the world, he selects her as the most beautiful of the goddesses.
The Seduction of Helen: When Paris selects Aphrodite as the most beautiful, she promises him Helen, who was then the queen of Sparta. Trusting in xenia, the sacred guest-host relationship valued in ancient Greece, Menelaus departs for Crete while Paris is a guest in his home. When Menelaus returns, Helen and Paris are gone, having left for Troy.
Structure of the Text
Epic Poetry: As the first written text of its kind, The Iliad captures the structure of epic poetry from the oral tradition in writing. The devices therein exemplify the hallmarks of Greek epic poetry, many of which were continued throughout the Latin tradition.
- Dactylic hexameter: The lines of The Iliad were composed in dactylic hexameter, meaning each line contains six feet—units of syllabic measure—that follow either a dactylic or spondaic pattern. Dactylic feet consist of one long syllable followed by two short syllables, and spondaic feet of two long syllables. The effect, in ancient Greek, was rather like that of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) in English: heightened formality and rhythm but not an unnatural or overly musical sound.
- Enumeratio: These are the extended genealogies and catalogues throughout the epic, most notably the “Catalogue of the Achaean and Trojan forces” in book 2. In The Iliad, this episode serves to contextualize the world of the Trojan War. Many of the Achaean warriors named by the poem were considered great heroes or leaders in Homeric Greece, and audience members would be gratified by the inclusion of their ancestors in the catalogue.
- Epithets: Multiple descriptive names accompany characters throughout the text, frequently as extensions of their given names. Some translations largely omit these, as they rarely serve narrative purpose—Athena will be called “grey-eyed” regardless of the color’s pertinence to her immediate actions. In the act of performance, however, epithets served important functions as mnemonic devices and as metrical aids. A similar function is served by kennings in Norse epics.
- Invocation: The speaker asks for divine inspiration from a Muse, a goddess of creativity, at the start of the text and at key points throughout. Invocations serve multiple purposes: elevating the epic’s narrative through the involvement of a goddess, elevating the poet’s credibility through an implied relationship with said goddess, creating an illusion of a dialogue through which the listeners can be engaged in the narrative’s formation, and, on a performance level, queueing an audience to be silent.
- Refrains: Important descriptions and actions are repeated verbatim throughout the text. This served two important functions: building and maintaining a unified tone or theme for the piece, and reminding the listening audience of what was happening in the narrative.
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