Tag: Homer

18. The Homeric Hymns (c. 520 BC)

Plot: A collection of 33 hymns, each praising a specific Greek god or demigod. Each hymn is sung to a god or goddess to praise them and request good fortune in return for the singer.
My thoughts : Not now believed to be penned by Homer, most are quite short and all were easy to read. My copy was a second edition translated by Apostolos Athanassakis (a nice genuine Greek name) and published by Johns Hopkins University Press (ISBN 0801879833). This translation was certainly more modern and approachable, and brought the gods to life with less of their overwhelming stature and more of their fun and humanity.
Favourite lines/passages: My own personal fondness for certain gods and goddesses influenced which hymns I favoured, particularly Pan, Artemis the huntress and Selene the moon goddess. But the best was hymn #3 to Hermes, as he steals Apollo’s cattle in the evening of the day he is first born, then pretends to be just an innocent babe when the angry god tracks him down (page 34)
“when Zeus and Maia’s son saw Apollon, the Far-Shooter, angered about his cattle,
He snuggled into his sweet-scented swaddling-clothes; ….
Into a small space he huddled head, hands and feet, like a freshly bathed babe courting sweet sleep,
But in truth still awake and holding the lyre under his arm,
The son of Zeus and Leto did not fail to recognise the beautiful mountain nymph and her dear son,
Though he was a tiny child steeped in crafty wiles, …..”

hermes-apollo-cattle-1

Personal rating : 7/10
Next : Studied by military men down through the ages, the sixth century BC Chinese classic The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is next.

6. The Odyssey, by Homer c.750 BC

odysseus
Plot : While a plague of arrogant young suitors camp in his house, feasting and laying waste to his flocks and vineyards; Odysseus is struggling to return home, and must face the giant flesh-eating Cyclops, the magical witch Circe, the besotted nymph Calypso, the spectres of the dead in Hades, the seductive song of the Sirens, and the twin threats of Scylla and Charybdis.
My thoughts : If The Iliad was a slug-fest war story, The Odyssey is an adventure story, a one man quest filled with magic and monsters. Ray Harryhausen must have loved it.
In some ways a sequel to the events of The Iliad (classical scholars are divided on which was written first), The Odyssey starts by describing the fate of many of the Greek leaders from that story, including Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus and Nestor ; in tandem with the shameful events in Odysseus’s own palace brought about in part by his prolonged absence. The central third of the story is told in flashbacks by Odysseus himself, describing the fantastical adventures he faced; before the climactic conclusion of his homecoming and defeat of the Suitors.
For my money, I found this a more interesting read than The Iliad, which was very repetitive despite its remorseless build towards a tragic end. I understand the repetition of phrases was a feature in being able to recite sections orally for an audience, but it does tire when on the written page. However, The Odyssey is more varied and kept my interest due in large part to the encounters with mythological beings as well as the Gods, and the buildup to his defeat of the gang of Suitors. Odysseus is more human and prone to mistakes, partly because he loses some of the glory and status he wore on the battlefield.
The Trojan Horse is also mentioned in passing, so my comments on that score in the Iliad review stand corrected.
My copy for this project was the Penguin Classics edition, edited by E. V. Rieu. (9780140449112), but there are many different versions available.
Favourite lines/passages
Achilles’ lament in Hades (Chapter XII) struck a chord, especially from a character who was the greatest hero of the Greeks in The Iliad:
“Spare me your praise of Death. Put me on Earth again, and I would rather be a serf in the house of some landless man, with little enough for himself to live on, than king of all these dead men that have done with life.”
Diversions/digressions
Agamemnon’s fate is also the basis for later tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. There is obviously some value in reading literature chronologically, as now his back story as Leader of the Greeks and the reason for his own long absence is already known.
The mythological quest story will also reappear in our readings when Jason and the Argonauts go in search of the Golden Fleece, a legend set before the Trojan War but surviving in recorded form by a version after Homer.
There is also a more modern appropriation of The Odyssey (a term my teenage daughter taught me this week) in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is years away for us yet.
Personal rating : 7.5/10
Kimmy the Lit-Terrier’s rating : Too much messing around in boats for Kimmy, but the bitter-sweet reunion scene with Odysseus’ old dog Argus in Chapter XVII redeems a little : 3/5

5. The Iliad by Homer (c.750 BC)

5. The Iliad by Homer (c.750 BC)

Plot :

For nine years, the massed armies of the Greeks and their allies have laid siege to the walled Trojan city of Ilium, seeking revenge for the abduction of their King’s brother’s wife Helen (she of the Face that launched the thousand ships). The Gods of Olympus are also divided in support of the two warring sides, and goad and support the fighters as the tide of battle ebbs and flows from side to side on the field between the beached Greek ships and the city walls.

Now in the tenth year, the greatest Greek fighter Achilles has withdrawn from the fighting after an insult from his KIng Agamemnon, and it seems as if the Trojans under the leadership of King Priam’s son Hector will succeed in driving the Greeks into the sea. What will it take for Achilles to resume the battle and save his side from defeat?

My thoughts: The first lengthy piece of literature surviving from ancient times, the Iliad starts fairly slowly with hosts of unfamiliar Greeks and Trojans, each briefly outlined with their various histories and successes, usually just before they meet a stronger foe on the battlefield and find themselves killed and on the way down to Hades. As the war turns in the Trojans’ favour and they have pushed the battle to the very brink of the Greek ships, the excitement of the fighting actually starts to impact on the reader, and the violence becomes very graphic.

Who is the hero of the story – Hector or Achilles, or even Patroclus? To Homer’s Greek audience, Achilles might appear the hero –  the doomed man who loses his best friend through his own pride and inaction. Yet he treats Hector’s corpse shamefully, and spends much of the story sulking near his tent. On the other side, Hector is fighting for his town and family, and the scene where he says goodbye to his wife and child are heartfelt, but his cowardice in running from Achilles for three laps around the walled city is not the modern concept of a hero. The truth seems to be that heroes or cowards are judged by their actions, not just in war but also sport and love, which is influenced very strongly by the whims of the Gods. So much of the action in the Iliad is directly or indirectly due to Their intervention – we are all playthings of the Gods indeed! In literature up until now, the Gods were beseeched for help, but did not appear on the stage in the way Homer has included them.

Several of the players are very well drawn in their characteristics. I can easily imagine old Nestor telling his long stories of his glorious youth and boring the grouped soldiers, Achilles nursing his pride and hurt, Paris’ vanity and the criticism from his older brother Hector.

The ultimate sacking of Ilium thanks to the Trojan Horse strategy is not reached by the end of this story, which seems odd. Why did Homer not include such a momentous conclusion? Is that part of the story a fabrication from a later age? Homer settles for the climactic battle between Achilles and Hector, and Achilles’ final softening to release Hector’s body to Priam.

Two of the survivors of the Trojan war will appear in later works : Odysseus’ long delayed voyage home is described in Homer’s other major work, The Odyssey, while Aeneas’s future is featured in Virgil’s Aeneid.

If Homer made his living telling this story in sections after banquets, he must have dined long and well pretty frequently.

Favourite lines/passages : When Hector breaks through the gates of the Greek defence, at the end of Chapter 12, exactly half way through the story:

He lifted up the rock … hit the doors full in the middle, and broke the hinges off on either side… as the panels were smashed to splinters by the impact….. Glorious Hector leapt inside, with a look like nightfall on his face. He held two spears in his hand and the bronze on his body shone with a baleful light. …. With fire flashing from his eyes, he turned and called on the Trojans … some swarmed over the wall, other poured in through the gate itself. The panic-stricken Danaans fled among the hollow ships, and hell was let loose.

Diversions/digressions : The Greek Gods (later adopted and renamed by the Romans) are certainly worth study. Bullfinch’s is a well known reference work, but also Graves’ 2 volume The Greek Myths gives both the myths and plenty of footnotes to explain.

Personal rating : 7/10

Kimmy’s the Lit-terrier rating : Lots of exciting action and roast meat, and camp dogs to play with. The noise and terror of battle costs the story a point : 4/5

Next : Homer’s other surviving work, The Odyssey