‘those who can see that force, today as in the past, is at the center of all human history, find in the Iliad its most beautiful, its purest mirror’, Simone Weil, 1939
As I’ve mentioned, I’m going to be blogging here about some of my favourite classics. First up, Homer’s Iliad, the earliest work of the almost 3,000 year old western literary tradition. Not much is known about Homer because he lived towards the end of a dark age that followed the fall of Troy. All we really know is that he probably lived in the 8th century BC; he was probably an oral poet; and he may have written down parts of the Iliad and Odyssey because writing was beginning to appear in the Greek world during the 8th century BC.
I love the Iliad – it’s a rousing, electrifying poem. It tells the story of the war between Greece and Troy (‘Iliad’ means ‘a poem about Ilium’, or Troy) and the events that lead inexorably to the fatal clash between their two mightiest warriors – Achilles and Hector, eldest son of Priam, King of Troy.
Choosing the right translation is crucial to enjoying this poem. The best I’ve read is Robert Fagles’ award-winning 1990 English translation. His energetic verse and rhythms immediately grabbed me, unlike the tedious prose translation I struggled through for ancient history. Here are the Iliad‘s opening lines in Fagles’ translation, all rage and violence:
‘Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, / murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, / hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, / great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, / feasts for the dogs and birds, / and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. / Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, / Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.’
The poem starts in the middle of the action, in the tenth and final year of the Greek siege of Troy. Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles, has been slighted by the commander of the Greek armies, Agamemnon, and refuses to fight. He sits idly in his tent, too enraged by Agamemnon even to put on his armour. Why does Achilles defy Agamemnon’s order to fight? Because Agamemnon has stolen his precious war trophy: the young princess Briseis. And without Achilles to inspire them, the Greek armies are being driven back across the battlefield by the Trojans, from outside the city of Troy to the beaches where their ships are moored.
The fleet of allied Greek forces led by Agamemnon has sailed across the Aegean and landed on the beaches of Troy (whose ruins lie on the coast of modern Turkey near Gallipoli) to demand the return of Agamemnon’s brother’s wife, Helen, from Hector’s younger brother Paris.
Many years before the Iliad opens, Helen was famously abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, an act which triggered this earthly war. But there is also a war being fought among the gods and goddesses on Olympus, unleashed by the so-called Judgement of Paris.
Before Paris took Helen to Troy, there was a beauty contest on Olympus between its three most powerful goddesses: Zeus’s wife Hera; Athena, the goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. When no god dared to judge which goddess was the most beautiful of the three, they called the shepherd prince Paris to Olympus from Troy to decide. Paris chose Aphrodite, but only after she’d promised to give him the most beautiful woman on earth – Helen. It didn’t matter to the goddess of love that Helen was already married, to Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, King of Sparta. And so Paris abducted Helen and returned with her to Troy. The two spurned goddesses, Hera and Athena, became the sworn enemies of Aphrodite’s beloved Troy, as the Iliad recounts:
‘They clung to their deathless hate of sacred Troy, / Priam and Priam’s people, just as they had at first / When Paris in all his madness launched the war. / He offended Athena and Hera – both goddesses. / When they came to his shepherd’s fold he favored Love / Who dangled before his eyes the lust that loosed disaster.’
During the Trojan war, Athena and Hera help the invading Greed warriors against the Trojans, flying down from Olympus to turn the course of the battle in favour of the Greeks. On the other side, Aphrodite and her lover Ares, the god of war, assisted by her father Zeus, fight for the survival of Troy.
So, why read the Iliad in 2011? Here are three good reasons:
1. It’s one of the great works and founding narratives of the western literary tradition.
2. Its stories and characters have inspired writers from ancient times to the present. The Athenian dramatist Aeschylus, ‘the father of tragedy’, drew on it in his Oresteia trilogy, about what happens when Agamemnon returns to Greece. The Roman poet Virgil took from the Iliad the Trojan hero of his Aeneid, the founding poem of the Roman Empire. In turn, Dante’s Commedia was inspired by and features Virgil (and Achilles). More recently, Hollywood drew on the Iliad for Troy, with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector. As did Sinead O’Connor for her song ‘Troy‘.
3. I think it’s worth knowing that the action in this formative literary work is driven by four rapes of women and a beauty contest between the three most powerful goddesses of ancient Greece. What does this say about our literary tradition? It suggests to me that the ongoing debate about the place of women and women’s writing in our literary culture goes deeper than the second male-only Miles Franklin shortlist in three years. I think it goes about 3,000 years deeper. Two of my favourite writers have tackled this legacy by giving voice to one of the marginal characters in the Iliad: Cassandra, a Trojan princess mentioned in passing as ‘Priam’s loveliest daughter’. American fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley tells her story with characteristic gusto in The Firebrand (1987) and German writer Christa Wolf in her more complex interrogation of the myth in Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (1984).
I highly recommend all three books.