The Iliad by Homer.

1806 edition of The Iliad of Homer.
I first read Homer's Iliad in 2011 and ever since I've been meaning to re-read it: the first read was most unsuccessful, but this second read I feel I did a little better. My problem is I have a bit of a block with the Iliad, despite enjoying the Odyssey and even Hesiod, who was writing approximately around the same time as Homer. But, after five years of 'meaning to' I have now read it, and will no doubt have another five years of meaning to read it again - however much I struggled though, this time I truly enjoyed it. 

The Iliad (Ἰλιάς) and the Odyssey (Ὀδύσσεια) are generally regarded to be the oldest works of the Western canon and it's thought it was written somewhere between 760 - 710 B.C. Appropriately it's first word, and perhaps the first word of Western literature, is "Rage". It tells of events during the Trojan War, a key event in Greek mythology, and begins not with the abduction of Helen as I perhaps initially anticipated but with the abduction of Chryseis by Agamemnon and Briseis by Achilles: the Iliad begins during the Trojan War, not the start. Chryseis' father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, attempts to bargain with Agamemnon to return his daughter but to no avail, and he prays to Apollo to intervene, so Apollo sends a plague to the Achaean camp. Eventually Agamemnon is persuaded to return Chryseis to her father, but he replaces her with Briseis, much to the fury of Achilles, who not only refuses to fight any longer in the war, but also asks his mother Thetis (a sea nymph) to entreat Zeus to ensure the destruction of the Achaeans.

Thus the Achaeans suffer great losses whilst the Trojans advance, even though the Achaeans have some of the greatest warriors (Diomedes and Ajax for example). Nestor advises Achilles to enlist Patroclus (a close childhood friend of Achilles') and Achilles consents, concerned about the losses but still unwilling to help, but despite some initial success he is ultimately killed by Hector, who later also kills Ajax. Zeus meanwhile is pressured by Hera, who hates Troy, to now help the Achaeans. We also see interventions from the likes of Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, Poseidon, and Hephaestus (Hephaestus makes Achilles new armour) as the battle reaches new heights. Zeus then forbids the gods to intervene and the Trojans once again advance, leading Agamemnon attempts to make peace with Achilles, but Achilles refuses the peace offerings. Hera however is unable to resist aiding the Achaeans and, with Zeus asleep, enlists Poseidon, but Zeus, on waking up, sends Apollo to help the Trojans at which point Patroclus is killed, to the horror of Achilles. Agamemnon and Achilles finally reconcile and Achilles rejoins the battle, terrifying the Trojans. After killing a great many of them (and angering the river god Xanthus in the process for allowing so many corpses polluting the waters), Achilles finally kills Hector, with the help of Athena. Initially he refuses to return Hector's body to the Trojans but he is eventually persuaded by King Priam, Hector's father, and Hector is given a proper burial and a truce is called.

Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens.
I find the Iliad an intensely difficult work, very overwhelming and rather confusing, and one of these days I think I'd benefit from a very slow read with careful analysis of each book. For now it's quite the achievement for me that I've simply tried reading it again! It is a very bloody work, breathtakingly gory at times with some details that have haunted me ever since I first read it. It is a realistic portrayal, I would think, of war yet this realism of it serves to show the warriors as heroes, as though Homer knew the truth of it was enough to show the glory of soldiers. At the same time we see the gods and goddesses interfering, picking favourites and causing mayhem, at war with each other, reflecting the war below them. Fate and destiny play a great part too in the Iliad, throughout there are warnings and omens, and the heroes of the book accept their fate and battle on fearlessly. Those who do not are derided and do not win the respect of their peers. There is a vast cast of characters, my keeping track of them was made marginally easier having read Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and the likes and having a small degree of familiarity. Even so this work does not come easily to me and, with Homer, I much prefer the Odyssey. As for Ancient epics, I do think my heart lies with Virgil. Even so I did my best with the Iliad, such as it is!

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Further Reading

Comments

  1. The Iliad is certainly not easy reading for the modern reader, but I did a re-read of it a couple years ago too. I was struck this time around by all the "trash talk" (as it would be called in today's sports world) between the combatants.

    I'm ashamed to say that I don't think I've ever read the Aeneid all the way through, though I certainly read some parts for Latin and my Classics Minor curriculum. "Arma virumque cano" will be stuck in my brain forever. :-)

    Coincidentally, I only learned after I started blogging that Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer/excavator of the site of Troy, briefly lived in Indianapolis (my home town) in 1869 (he was seeking a "quick" divorce, apparently).

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    Replies
    1. I'd never heard of Schliemann - very interesting! I had a quick read of the Wiki article, I'll have to read it properly later.

      I loved the Aeneid - you must try and get to it one day :)

      And yep, Iliad is one tough read. I try my best with it but I can never seem to get very far with it...

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  2. interesting note on Schliemann! tx... O, you didn't mention what translation...? or do you have Greek and/or Latin? i've wondered... congrats on reading Iliad; very dense and loaded with symbolism and allegory: sort of like a quadruple layer lemon/chocolate cake... yum

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    Replies
    1. It was the Fagles translation - should have mentioned that! And yes, very dense indeed... Perhaps a little too dense for my Faerie Queene-addled brain. I think I picked the wrong time to read it really...

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