BACKGROUND TO HOMER:
"Homer" was the name given in antiquity to the author of a number of monumental epic poems that served Greeks in the historical period as a record of their ethnic history. Of those poems only two survive intact: The Iliad and the Odyssey. These were the most popular epic poems in antiquity, and memorizing large chunks of them constituted an important part of elementary education for young men. Therefore the world-view, the ethics, and the lessons of the Iliad and the Odyssey formed an integral part of every male Greek's psyche for centuries.
Even in antiquity, there was uncertainty about who Homer was, whether he wrote both of these poems and even whether he actually existed. Needless to say, we know nothing of his life with even the remotest whiff of certainty. Nowadays most scholars use the term "Homer" as shorthand for "the composer(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey whoever he/she/they might have been."
The date of "Homer" is likewise uncertain, and even the concept of a specific date for the poems is somewhat problematic. The poems are in large part traditional, orally-transmitted poetry containing material that was first given verbal expression centuries, if not millennia before the time that they were finally written down. For this reason, many historians doubt that the social structures and customs portrayed in the poem can be ascribed to a real society at any historical time or place. The writing-down of the Homeric poems as we now have them may have occurred as early as 800 BCE or as late as 550 BCE. Most scholars would guess somewhere around 700 BCE, thus making the poems the among the earliest, if not the earliest, Greek poems that we have.
GUIDE TO HOMER EXCERPTS:
Click HERE to skip to the notes on the ODYSSEY
The ILIAD is a tale set in the tenth year of the ten-year siege of Troy by the Greeks (Greeks are not called Greeks or Hellenes in this poem, but instead a variety of names including Achaians, Argives and Danaans). The war between the Greeks and Trojans started when a Trojan prince, Alexander (aka Paris) ran off with the wife of his host, Helen, the wife of Menelaos the king of Sparta. Menelaos ran crying to his big brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, who summoned other doughty warriors from all over Greece to join in the expedition to Troy in order t o retrieve Helen and punish the Trojans for Alexander's impudence.
None of this is told in the Iliad, nor is the eventual
capture of Troy by the Greeks (using the famous Trojan Horse). The topic
of the Iliad is a few weeks in the last year of thewar when the most fearsome
Greek warrior, Achilleus (aka Achilles) has a falling-out with Agamemnon
and withdraws from the fighting. The Greeks start losing battles to the
Trojans big-time until Achilleus' beloved comrade Patroklos, shamed by
the fate of his Greek comrades, dons Achilleus' armor and goes off to fight
the Trojans. Patroklos is killed by the mightiest Trojan warrior, Hektor.
In grief at Patroklos' death Achilles patches up his difference with Agamemnon,
plunges back into the fighting, and eventually meets Hektor in a climactic
duel in which he exacts brutal vengeance from the Trojan prince for his
friend's life. Though the story as outlined here makes sense as a completely
human story, one must not forget that the human characters involved are
portrayed as "heroes", i.e. a superior race of men from the distant past
who were taller, stronger, faster, more beautiful than the average human
of the poet's own day. They also were on intimate terms with the gods in
a manner that people of the poets day could never hope to be. The gods
even take part in the fighting and, except for Zeus, who remains neutral,
clearly support one side or the other.
The Excerpts in your packet are from:
BOOK I: The beginning of the quarrel between Achilleus and Agamemnon.
1) What is the cause of the quarrel? Who is responsible for it?
2) What gods play a role in this book? Do the gods act in a fair and just manner?
3) What possible evidence for formulaic composition do you find either in this book or in any of the later ones?
Names to remember: Achilleus, Agamemnon, Briseis, Nestor, Odysseus, Athene, Thetis, Zeus, Hera, Hephaestos
BOOK VI: In Achilleus' absence, the Greeks were doing poorly, so the goddess Athene came down and endowed the third most powerful Greek warrior, Diomedes, with special powers. This held of the Trojans for a while, but in this book Diomedes is back to his normal self, without divine aid. He meets a Trojan warrior on the battlefield and the result is a surprising one. During the fighting the Greatest Trojan warrior Hektor goes back into the city to find out where the cowardly Alexander/Paris is hiding. He finds him with Helen, and while in town also visits his wife Andromache (in one of the poem's more touching scenes), and his infant son.
1) What effect do you think the poet is striving for by introducing these two unusual episodes, the encounter between Glaukos and Diomedes and Hektor's retun to Troy, into his narrative of the combat between Greeks and Trojans?
Names to remember: Glaukos, Diomedes, Hektor, Helen, Hekabe, Andromache, Astyanax
BOOK IX: After seeing his Greeks getting thrashed time and again, Agamemnon tries to make peace with Achilleus. He sends to Achilleus' tent three of the Greek warriors, Ajax (the second greatest warrior after Achilles), Odysseus (the most clever spokesman of the Greeks) and Phoenix (Achilleus' aged tutor) as envoys to offer him enormous rewards if only he will return to the fighting.
1) How does the poet characterize the three envoys? Why are these particular men sent to reason with Achilleus? Who is the most effective of the three?
2) What does this episode reveal about the characters of Agamemnon and Achilleus? Has either of them changed or learned anything since the time we saw them in the first book?
Names: Ajax, Odysseus, Phoinix
BOOK XVI: Achilleus' friend Patroklos, incensed by the slaughter of his fellow Greeks, convinces Achilleus to allow him to go into battle wearing his (Achilleus') armor. After achieving many victories over mighty Trojan warriors and driving the Trojans back from the Greek ships, Patroklos himself is cut down by Hektor.
Names: Patroklos, Sarpedon, Hektor
BOOK XIX After fierce battles over his body, Patroklos is brought back to Achilleus' camp. Achilleus comes to an agreement with Agamemnon and vows to re-enter the fighting. The women that Patroklos and Achilleus had kidnapped together mourn his passing, and Achilleus has a conversation with one of his horses.
1) Does Patroklos' death make Achilleus reflect on his own actions? Why does he reconcile with Agamemnon? Has he had a true change of heart or does he simply want to free up his anger and hatred to direct it toward a different target?
Names: Patroklos; Briseis, Xanthos
Book XXII Achilleus hunts down Hektor and has the final showdown with him.
1) Which of the two characters is presented more sympathetically? From whose viewpoint do we see the battle?
Names: Hektor, Artemis
Book XXIV Encouraged by the Gods, Hektor's father, King Priam, makes a dangerous journey to the tent of Achilleus in hopes of ransoming his son's corpse, which remains unburied and which is being repeatedly desecrated by the still-angry Achilles. Though his first impulse is to murder Priam, Achilleus eventually shares a manly sob-fest over departed loved ones with him. Then in a somewhat more conciliatory mood, Achilleus agrees to give the body back. The epic ends with the funeral-pyre of Hektor at Troy.
1) One famous scholar said that the Iliad would be an epic for savages if it were not for Book 24. Do you concur? Why?
Names: Priam, Hekabe.
The Odyssey is about one of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War, Odysseus, who is blown off course on his way home from the war and spends ten years wandering lost at sea before returning to his home. His ten-year voyage, plus the ten years of the war itself, means that he was away from home for twenty straight years. His son, who was a baby when he left, has now reached the threshold of manhood, while his wife, Penelope, struggles to remain faithful to him and keep his household together . When Odysseus returns home, after avoiding death by warfare, shipwreck and monsters, and after resisting temptation in the form of beautiful nubile maidens, he finds his house occupied by a large crowd of suitors for the hand of his wife (whom they believe to be a widow). He enters his own house in disguise, scopes out the situation and, when all is prepared, reveals himself and exacts horrible bloody vengeance on the suitors.
BOOK I: Odysseus has already been lost at sea for ten years; On Olympus, the goddess Athena, who is particularly fond of Odysseus, gets permission from Zeus to help him find his way home. Instead of going to where Odysseus is, however, she goes in disguise to Odysseus' home. There we get our first glimpse of Odysseus' son Telemachos, his wife >
BOOK VIII: Further feasting, athletic displays, and entertainment, with the royal family's favorite poet, Demodokos, singing songs of the gods (a famous story of the adulterous affair of Ares and Aphrodite), and of men (the story of the war with Troy). This latter tale leads finally to the long-delayed revelation of Odysseus' identity.
Names: Demodokos, Ares, Aphrodite
--Though the rules of hospitality don't demand it, isn't it odd that Odysseus waits so long before revealing his true identity? Why do you think he does that?
Having revealed his identity, Odysseus becomes his own poet and begins narrating the adventures he has had since the fall of Troy. This will occupy the next several books.
Names: Kikonians, Lotus Eaters, Cyclopes, Polyphemos
The journeys continue
Names: Aiolos, Laistygonians, Circe
--Are there similarities or patterns in the adventures Odysseus has or the threats he faces?
--How does Odysseus behave toward his companions? Is he a good commander? Does he always make wise decisions?
On the advice of Circe, Odysseus and his companions travel to the realm of Hades where the souls of the dead reside. Odysseus goes there to consult the soul of the famous seer Teiresias concerning the adventures that await him on his journeys, but he also sees other people he is acquainted with who are now departed.
Names: Antikleia, Achilles, Agamemnon, Teiresias, Elpenor
--What is the point of the lengthy series of heroic women that Odysseus claims to have seen in the underworld? Is this purely formulaic filler material, or is there some connection to the context of Odysseus' narrative?
After returning from the realm of Hades, Odysseus and his men visit Circe again, pass by Scylla and Charybdis, and land on the island of Thrinakia, where Odysseus' men foolishly butcher some cattle that belong to the sun god Helios. As a result, the rest of Odysseus' men lose their lives, and Odysseus barely makes it to the island of Kalypso. Here ends Odysseus' narration of his own travels
Names: Circe, Scylla, Charybdis, Helios, Thrinakia, Kalypso
--After reading this episode, do you agree with the
judgment that the poet expresses right at the beginning of Book I: that
Odysseus' companions perished "by their own wild recklessnes"?
The Phaiakians take Odysseus home and deposit him on the shore of Ithaka. Odysseus wakes up, encounters the goddess Athena in disguise, who reveals her identity and then transforms Odysseus' appearance into that of a beggar and counsels him on how to proceed. Poseidon, with Zeus' permission, punishes the Phaiakians for their role in Odysseus' homecoming.
Odysseus proceeds from where the Phaiakians left him and goes to the remote hut of his swineherd, Eumaios. Eumaios entertains his master (whose identity remains unknown to him) in accord with his humble means. Odysseus pretends to be needy vagabond from the isle of Crete.
Back in Sparta, Athena urges Telemachos to return home, but to proceed cautiously since the suitors are setting an ambush for him. Telemachus does so, and along the way picks up a wandering seer named Theoklymenos. Eumaios tells his story to the still-disguised Odysseus.
--Notice how Athena talks to Telemachos about his mother, and how Telemachos responds; does this fit with their relationship elsewhere in the story?
Eumaios is dispatched to check out things at the palace. Odysseus reveals
his true identity to Telemechos. Divisions within the ranks of the suitors
Names: Amphinomos, Antinoos, Eurymachos
Telemachos returns to the palace and narrates his adventures to his
mother; Eumaios and Odysseus (still in disguise) arrive separately. They
encouter Odysseus' old goatherd Melanthios, who proves himself faithless.
Odysseus' old dog, Argos, recognizes his master and promptly drops dead.
Odysseus makes his way through the palace begging for scraps of food from
Name: Argos, Melanthios
--One of the reasons Odysseus remains in disguise is to gauge the relative
guilt and innocence of members of the suitors party and to discover who
in his own household has stayed faithful and who has not. What does he
discover in both of these areas?
Odysseus gets into a fight with another beggar in the palace, and gives
a small display of the prowess that lies under his unimpressive get-up.
Odysseus continues to receive rude treatment from the suitors and also
from one of his own slave girls who, in his absence, has taken up with
one of the suitors.
Names: Iros, Melantho
Telemachos and Odysseus remove all weapons from the palace that the
suitors might find useful later. Penelope summons the intriguing beggar
who has come to her house for an interview. She instructs the servant Eurykleia
to wash their guests' feet, and as she does so, she recognizes a scar on
Odysseus' leg. Odysseus' threatens her to silence and maintains his Cretan
identity throughout his conversation with his wife. After the interview,
Penelope resolves to establish an archery contest for her suitors to determine
which one she will marry.
Name: Eurykleia, Autolykos
--Is there anything in Book 19 (or earlier) to suggest that Penelope
had some inkling as to the true identity of the beggar?
The suitors arrive for their last meal in Odysseus' palace. They continue
to mistreat Odysseus. Theoklymenos prophesies their doom, but they don't
believe him. Odysseus finds another ally in a faithful old cowherd.
The contest of the bow: Telemachos tries to string the bow and fails, as do several of the suitors. They all laugh when the mangy beggar steps up and starts trying to string it, but they stop laughing when he easily does so and fires an arrow clean through the twelve axe heads.
The slaughter of the suitors begins and is over quickly. The servants
and the serving women who sided with the suitors are ruthlessly punished.
The clean-up begins.
Penelope comes down from her chamber and at first does not believe that
the now-revealed beggar is really her husband. After tricking him into
revealing an intimate detail, the couple is reunited. They retire to bed
Odysseus goes to visit his aged father Laertes on his remote farmstead.
The relatives of the suitors gather and seek out Odysseus to extract vengeance.
Odysseus and his allies prepare to fight, but just as the battle gets underway
Athena comes down and tells everyone to go back home.
More often than not, except in the case of choral lyric, the poets speak in the first person (I, we) and make personal feelings and observations the subject of their songs. Yet as with Hesiod and his brother Perses, the question of whether the poets' first-person statements shouldbe taken as expressions of their own individual personalities or whether they should be seen instead as formulaic and quasi-fictional manifestations of traditional themes is a perennial problem. Just as any performer today could sing "I left my heart in San Francisco" even if he or she has never been west of the Mississippi, we must always keep in mind that what a lyric poet writes is not necessarily confined by the limits of his/her own experiences.
Most of the famous poets who worked in these genres come from the Archaic period, that is, more specifically, from the mid-600's to the early 400's BCE. To find out what was going on in Greece at this time, read Martin, Chapter's 4 and 5 (or, on the Web version, the sections on the Archaic Age). In brief, this was a period when the poleis (city-states) began to stabilize, somewhat more egalitarian forms of government were instituted (ironically, often after a brief period of one-man rule known as tyranny). Hoplite infantry warfare was on the rise. Look for reflections of these trends in the poetry you read.
Types of Archaic "lyric" poetry:
LYRIC: literally, poetry sung (rather than recited) to the accompaninment of a lyre (a plucked stringed instrument something like a small harp). Lyric poetry comes in very complex and intricate meters (rhythms)* and falls into two basic types:
LYRIC MONODY (monody = solo singing): performed by a single performer, often for entertainment at dinner parties and drinking parties, but also for weddings, religious ceremonies and other occasions. Includes love songs, war songs, political songs, drinking songs, songs of mourning and many other subjects.ELEGY: Poetry in elegiac couplets, a meter simpler than the meters of lyric poetry consisting of lines of dactylic hexameter (the meter of Hesiod and Homer) alternating with lines of dactylic pentameter.** Elegy was customarily performed by a single performer with the accompaniment of a wind instrument called the aulos. Elegy originated as songs of lament, but by the time our poets are writing, elegy is used for a number of other subjects as well: war, love, politics, philosophical reflection, etc. Later, for the Roman poets it was the chief meter used for poems of love.
CHORAL LYRIC: perfomed by a chorus with dance as well as musical accompaniment during religious ceremonies, festivals and public celebrations. Content tends to be narrative, usually mythological.
IAMBUS: Poetry written in a number of relatively
simple iambic and related rhythms.*** This poetry seems originally
to have been employed for the purposes of ritual jesting and ridicule,
which was an integral part of many Greek religious festivals (in Athens
this practice is manifested in the performance of comedies, which were
originally presented in the context of religious festivals). By the
time we see it, in the hands of its greatest practicioner Archilochus,
it is still used for comic themes and invective (personal attack), but
is also used for other themes as well, including drinking poems, love poems,
philosophical reflection, etc. This poetry was probably meant to
be recited rather than sung.
Introduction to the poets in your collection:
GENERAL NOTE: No accurate historical and biographical records were preserved from when these poets wrote; therefore most of what we think we know about their lives comes from much later sources. Unfortunately, these later sources had very little hard evidence to go on as well, so they extrapolated biographical details from the poetry itself. The problem with this, as was mentioned before, is that what poets write is not always (for some poets, not usually) autobiographical. As a result, there is little we can know for sure about these poets.
ARCHILOCHUS: From the island of Paros in the Aegean sea. In his poetry he claims to have participated in his city's colonization of the island of Thasos and to have served as a mercenary. Though he is the earliest of the "Lyric" poets, he writes mostly iambic and elegiac poetry. He writes of war, grief, love; his iambic poetry can be quite ribald and quite insulting to the people who are unfortunate enough to be his targets. He flourished in the mid-600's BCE, and is thus probably the earliest of the "lyric" poets.
TYRTAEUS: One of two poets of this period who come from Sparta, a city which in later times was hardly renowned for its high culture. Tyrtaeus wrote in elegaic meter, and his poetry exhorts his fellow Spartans to war against their neighbors the Messenians. He probably flourished around 625 BCE
ALCMAN: The other Spartan poet, most famous for his choral lyric written for choruses of girls at Spartan puberty festivals (sorry, I didn't include these in your reading packet. He flourished in the late 600's BCE
MIMNERMUS: An elegaic poet from the city of Colophon in western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey, which was then part of the Greek world) He flourished in the late 600's
SOLON: The earliest literary figure from Athens, Solon was in fact more famous as a political reformer who prevented a civil uprising in Athens by passing laws that favored the poor and landless and set the stage for later reforms that created the Athenian democracy. Solon wrote in elegaic and iambic meters, and the topics treated by his poems include his political reforms (and were doubtless used as propaganda to gain support for them). He flourished in the early 500's BCE.
STESICHOROS: An early master of choral lyric who flourished in the early 500's BCE. His name means "He who stations the chorus" and may be a title rather than a name (one late source tells us that his name was really Teisias). Most of his choral odes had mythological subjects. It is said that he once wrote a poem telling how Helen had run off with Paris to Troy, and was then struck blind by the spirit of Helen (who in certain parts of Greece was considered something of a goddess). He remained blind until he wrote a "palinode" (an I-take-it-back poem), in which he renounced his former poem and told instead how it was a phantom of Helen who went to Troy rather than the real Helen. The beginning of this poem is what is preserved as #192 in your book.
SAPPHO: The most famous of the lyric poets, and almost the only woman author we know about from ancient Greece. She was from the island of Lesbos, and it is from her that we get the modern connotation of the word "lesbian" (meaning: homosexual woman), since many of her poems express erotic desire for other women. Despite this, the ancient biographies tell us that she had a husband and children, and that she died by throwing herself off a cliff out of unrequited love for a handsome young man. Much, if not all of this biography, is sheer fantasy on the part of later biographers, though how much is impossible to say. Even in antiquity Sappho was considered one of the greatest poets, and was admired for the beauty of her verses and her imagery. Unfortunately, with one or two exceptions, we have no complete poems of hers surviving. All we have are bits and pieces: fragments found on scraps of papyri and one- or two-line quotes in the texts of later authors. She flourished in the early 500's BCE.
ALCAEUS: Sappho's older contemporary (late 600's/early 500's) from the city of Mitylene on Lesbos. He and Sappho are the greatest representatives of what must have been a particularly strong traditions of true lyric monody on the island of Lesbos. While Alcaeus' poetry includes love songs and drinking songs, he is most famous for his poems about contemporary political issues (In his lifetime Mitylene rid herself of a despotic ruler, Myrsilos, whose death Alcaeus celebrates in #332).
PINDAR: We now skip ahead to the fifth century and the classical period. Pindar (ca 518-438 BCE), from the city of Thebes in central Greece, was the greatest composer of Greek choral lyric. His choruses would perform on many religious and civic occasions, but he is most famous for the odes that he wrote for victors in the great Panhellenic athletic competitions, especially the Olympic games at Olympia and the Pythian games at Delphi. These odes would be commissioned by the athlete, his father or his family (or, in the case of chariot races, by the owner of the chariot team, who was generally given credit for the victory). They typically heap lavish praise upon the athlete, his family, his city, his ancestors, and on the competition itself and the gods who oversaw it. Most of his "Epinikia" (victory odes) also included substantial mythological narrative (as is traditional with choral lyric) that reflected somehow on the victor or the local traditions of his native land.
BACCHYLIDES: From the island of Ceos (ca 520 - 450),
Bacchylides was Pindar's contemporary and chief rival in the field of choral
Lyric. He too wrote victory odes for pan-hellenic athletes and choral
songs for many other occasions. His mythological narrative tends
to be more straightforward and accessible than Pindar's often cryptic and
densely allusive style.
*The complexity and consistency of Greek lyric meters
is one of their most amazing characteristics. Unfortunately it almost
never survives translation. All Greek meters were a pattern of LONG
and short syllables (this is a contrast to English poetry, where rhythm
depends on the presence or lack of stress). Some taste of the complexity
of these meters can be glimpsed by this transcription into LONG and short
syllables of the first stanza of the poem by Sappho labelled #31 in your
PHAI ne TAI MOI KE nos i SOS the OI SI (appears to me that (man) equal to gods)
EM men O NER OT tis en ANT i OS TOI (to be, the man who opposite you)
IS dan EI KAI PLA si on A du PHO NEI (sits and nearby (you) sweetly talk-)
SAS u pa KOU EI (-ing hears)
This is a repeating stanza (called the "Sapphic Stanza"); The first three lines have the same complex pattern of long and short syllables, while the last line is different.
**The first poem in your collection, by Archilochus, is a single elegiac couplet:
EI mi d'e|GO the ra|PON men en|U a li|OI o a|NAK tos (dactylic hexameter) (am I servant, for one thing, of Enyalios lord)
KAI MOU | S'ON e ra| TON| DO ron e|PIS ta men|OS (pentameter) (also of the Muses lovely gift (I am) knowing)
The British poet Coleridge made up this couplet to illustrate the elegiac meter in English:
IN the hex|Ameter| RISes the |FOUN TAIN's| SILver y |COL UMN
IN the pen|TAmeter|AYE | FALLing in | MEL od y| BACK
Note that the pentameter is not so much five dactyls as two sets of two and a half dactyls.
***(the most popular meter used in English poetry is iambic; an iamb consists of a short or unstressed syllable followed by a long or stressed syllable. Much of Shakespeare is in Iambic Pentameter (five iambs per line: two HOU|ses BOTH| aLIKE|in DIG|niTY.....)).