Tag Archives: Homer

The Iliad: Progress report 5

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 12 line 42 to Book 14 line 407

For the last five months, I’ve beenreading roughly 70 lines of The Iliad each morning, and it’s a great way to start the day. I expect to finish reading it by the end of this year

Books 12 and 13 are mainly accounts of horrific fighting. There’s some attention to tactics as the Trojans, supported by Zeus, attack the Greeks’ ships, and the Greeks, surreptitiously helped by Poseidon in spite of Zeus having forbidden it, inflict serious damage right back.Robert Fagles’ translation goes for anatomical precision where Pope, for example, is much more general and so less visceral in effect. I actually gasped aloud at least once. I’ll spare my reader’s sensibilities and not give an example.

I have so many questions. Is this an anti-war poem – a cry of despair about ‘the surging inhuman blaze of war’ (Book 12, line 205)? If so, what to make of its talk of glory and the joy of battle? Like this (Book 13, lines 398–399):

Only a veteran steeled at heart could watch that struggle
and still thrill with joy and never feel the terror.

If The Iliad is a foundational text of western culture, what kind of civilisation is this, where killing and robbing the freshly dead are honourable deeds? What is a man in this culture? What are we to make of the seemingly endless lists of warriors? Do they refer to stories and histories that were familiar to the book’s original leaders and listeners? Or are at least some of them Homer’s inventions? (Either way, it’s a formidable feat on Homer’s part.) Are the gods there as light relief, or as anything more than a whimsical embodiment of the idea that things aren’t always under human control?

Today I’m in the middle of an episode in which Hera decides to seduce her brother–consort Zeus. Many lines have been spent describing her alluring attire and perfuming. She has tricked Aphrodite into giving her a breastband, ‘pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment woven through it’, and bargained with Sleep to knock Zeus out after she has had it off with him. Now she flies to Zeus on Mount Ida and ‘at one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race’. He then tries to sweet-talk her into going to bed with him, little knowing that this is exactly what she is planning. To my mind, his seduction speech is hilarious. He says his lust for her at this moment is greater than any he’s ever had for goddess or mortal woman, and proceeds to list his past conquests. I’ve peeked ahead and see that his speech works, or at least it doesn’t put Hera off. And after all the horror of the battlefield, here’s the passage about the gods making love that I’ve just glimpsed in tomorrow’s reading (Zeus is the son of Cronos):

With that the son of Cronus caught his wife in his arms
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft
it lifted their bodies off the hard, packed ground ...
Folded deep in that bed they lay and round them wrapped
a marvellous cloud of gold, and glistening showers of dew
rained down around them both.

Phew! And I expect that the rest of Hera’s plan, which will let Poseidon come out into the open to help the Greeks, will also go ahead … up to a point.

It’s brilliant story-telling to have this interlude as an emotional respite in the middle of the terrible man-on-man fighting and killing. But to return to my question: does it represent some understanding of the nature of the gods; is there a theological point to the episode? I expect a lot of scholarly ink has been spent on that and similar questions.

I have no idea. In the same way, I don’t understand the ancient Greek concept of the Hero, which is very important to this book. But the abrupt change of perspective that happens when the story turns to the gods felt strangely familiar. I realised that having recently read the current issue of Southerly (my blog post here) and then read news items on the current election campaign, I had encountered a similar switch. First I was immersed in personal accounts of people who have suffered under the Australian government’s policy about ‘boat people’. Then, coming up for air, I read the abstractions and personality-based coverage of the election, some of which would be mildly laughable if it wasn’t so consequential., where if refugees and asylum seekers in detention are mentioned at all, they are counters in a game of wedge and counter-wedge. So if I happen to say that a particular politician is godlike, please understand that I have the petty, lustful, self-serving, deceitful and arrogant gods of Homer in mind.

The Iliad: Progress report 4

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), beginning Book 10 to Book 12 line 42

As I continue my slow read of the Iliad, I keep being shocked by the intensely physical descriptions of the fighting. The warriors are surely meant to be admired, but it’s hard to imagine anyone reading without revulsion the accounts of spears penetrating just above the nipple, heads and arms severed, the ground littered with corpses, clothing drenched in blood. There’s one gruesome moment when Odysseus and Diomedes extract information from a Trojan spy then kill him in cold blood, while Homer lets us know he was a bit of a wannabe anyhow. It could be straight out of The Sopranos.

I’m still surprised each time by the way an individual’s death on the battlefield is followed by elegiac lines about his peacetime life war and the people who will now be left grieving. I’m still taken aback each time the narrative slows down to dwell on the splendour of this hero’s armour, or the luxurious appointments of that one’s tent – Nestor, for example, has an ornate ceremonial mug that only a very strong man can lift unaided. The luxury feels a bit Trump-like to me, though I doubt that’s how it felt to the original audiences.

Mostly I’m in awe of the way, amid the back and forth of the war and the squabbling of the gods, the main characters are clearly drawn, and the narrative arc is clear. Achilles has withdrawn from the battle in a rage, leaving the Greeks (called the Achaeans in this translation) at a disadvantage while the great Trojan warrior Hector dominates the battlefield. Achilles refuses the increasingly desperate pleas of his countrymen. Now, at the end of Book 11, Nestor proposes to Achilles’ close companion Patroclus that he, Patroclus, re-enters the battle wearing Achilles’ armour. This would terrify the Trojans by giving he appearance that Achilles was back, and Patroclus himself would be able to do a lot of damage as he would be fresh to the battle. Patroclus hasn’t yet conveyed the proposal to Achilles and is busy tending a wounded man, but we now see that all those descriptions of armour weren’t just a bit of colour, but laid grounds for a major plot development.

Now, at the start of Book 12, there’s a passage foreshadowing the end of the war, when Hector will be killed, Troy stormed in the tenth year of the war and the Achaeans sail home triumphant. Then the gods Poseidon and Apollo will divert all the rivers of the region to wash over the great rampart that the Achaeans had built to defend their ships. And all traces of the city of Troy and the presence of its attackers will be wiped away:

So, in the years to come Poseidon and god Apollo
would set all things to rights once more.

This is surely a classic midpoint, an image of the end of the story coming immediately after the moment when the tide of the story, if not of the battle, turns.

The Iliad: Progress report 3

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), Books 7 to 9

With some interruptions, I’ve kept up my daily reading of The Iliad over the past month.

Natalie Haynes’s 24-minute version of the epic (link here) summarises some Books with a single word: ‘Fighting.’ The fighting in those books has a hideous physicality, as we are told precisely which body parts are pierced or hacked off. This month’s reading has included a couple of such books. Perhaps because of the current news from Ukraine, I wasn’t enthralled by the violence or by the descriptions of beautiful armour and bickering gods that punctuated it. I began to wonder if the full text actually added much to the Classics Illustrated comic I read when I was 11 or 12.

Then along came Book Nine, and I’m enthralled. At the end of Book 8, the Greeks/Achaeans have suffered terribly at the hands of the Trojans, who are led by Hector and backed by the capricious Zeus, and are in danger of having their ships destroyed. Book 9 is the night that follows, and it boils down to a series of persuasive speeches. Agamemnon sends a delegation to plead with Achilles to return to the fight. The delegation is welcomed by Achilles as friends. They eat and drink before getting down to business (I don’t remember who is supposed to have the motto, ‘First we eat, then we do everything else’, but they may have stolen it from the ancient Greeks). Odysseus lays out his case; then Phoenix, who regards Achilles as the son he never had, makes his appeal. Achilles firmly, civilly, even affectionately, hold firm and sends them packing, and all the time Achilles’ friend Patroclus is a silent presence, behaving like a head servant who ensures that the guests are made welcome and oversees the preparation of bedding for Phoenix, who stays the night.

The speeches are long, and persuasive. It feels that Achilles must yield. Then he answers, revealing the imperviousness of his hatred for Agamemnon, the intensity of his wounded pride, and – this was the revelation to me – the depth of his love for Briseis, the enslaved woman who was taken from him. One way or another, women are definitely chattels in the Iliad, but individuals stand out: not just Helen and Andromache, but also the women taken as booty. When the delegation have left and Achilles and Patroclus go to bed for the night, Homer tells us the names of the woman that each of them sleeps with – in case you’re interested, they are Diomede daughter of Phobus, and Iphis from Scyrus respectively.

You know how I like to compare translations. I looked up Alexander Pope’s version of the sleeping arrangements and was interested to find that while Pope definitely suggests sexual activity, Fagles is careful to remove any such suggestion. Here’s Pope(I probably don’t need to say that here ‘Lesbian’ means ‘from Lesbos’):

But in his inner tent, an ampler space,
Achilles slept; and in his warm embrace
Fair Diomede of the Lesbian race.
Last, for Patroclus was the couch prepared,
Whose nightly joys the beauteous Iphis shared

Fagles, line 810–814, has this:

And deep in his well-built lodge Achilles slept
with the woman he brought from Lesbos, Phorbas' daughter,
Diomede in all her beauty sleeping by his side.
And over across from him Patroclus slept
with the sashed and lovely Iphis by his side

Naturally I looked further, and found Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation (link here):

But Achilles slept in the innermost part of the well-builded hut, and by his side lay a woman that he had brought from Lesbos, even the daughter of Phorbas, fair-cheeked Diomede. And Patroclus laid him down on the opposite side, and by him in like manner lay fair-girdled Iphis

And lest this be seen as contemporary US and Victorian prudishness joining forces, I found a 2009 translation by Englishman A S Kline (here) that likewise refrained from mentioning Pope’s embraces or nightly joys. I don’t know what this means, unless that 18th century Englishmen saw sex everywhere while we moderns are much less obsessed with it. Hmm.

The Iliad: Progress report 2

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), Book 3 line 190 to end Book 6

I’ve been reading a couple of pages of The Iliad each morning for a couple of months now – with a break over the New Year when I was away from home. The slow read is a terrific way to encounter this book for the first time, not just because it allows me to mull things over rather than ploughing ahead for the story, but also because I get to notice the way The Iliad crops up in other parts of my day.

For example, in George Clooney’s movie The Tender Bar, which we watched on a streaming service this week, The Iliad is the first book the protagonist is required to read at college, as the foundational text of western literature; the professor insists that they read, and buy, his own translation.. On Twitter, someone commented on a photo of a tennis player in the Australian Open, ‘I still think he looks like something out of The Iliad.’ (I love that ‘still’.)

Rather than give an account of the fighting and blustering and wounding of gods that has gone on in these last weeks (yes, I did say wounding: Aphrodite gets a cut on the hand and Ares is badly wounded by a spear – who knew?), I’m just going to blog about a tiny moment towards the end of Book 6.

Hector, the great Trojan hero, has been sent back from the battlefield to pass on instructions to the women of influence to appeal to Athena for help. While he’s in the city, he drops in on Paris and Helen, whose liaison is the cause of the whole horror. He chides Paris for staying away from the battle (after being removed by Aphrodite from the middle on a one-on-one combat with Ajax), and he refuses Helen’s seductive invitation to sit with her. Then he seeks out his wife Andromache, whom he finds on the battlements watching the fighting below:

She joined him now, and following in her steps
a servant holding the boy against her breast,
in the first flush of life, only a baby,
Hector's son, the darling of his eyes
and radiant as a star ...
Hector would always call the boy Scamandrius,
townsmen called him Astyanax, Lord of the City,
since Hector was the lone defence of Troy.
The great man of war breaking into a broad smile,
his gaze fixed on his son, in silence.
   (Book 6, lines 471–480)

A baby! I’m no expert, but I can’t think of any other babies in epic poetry. And this isn’t just any baby, but one who brings a broad smile to the face of a great warrior in a moment’s respite from hideous bloodshed.

Before Hector returns to the battle, Andromache pleads with him not to make her a widow and leave the baby an orphan. He replies that he won’t be killed unless it’s his fate and no one can escape their fate, but the one thing that weighs him down is the thought of her being taken into slavery. Then:

In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son – but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror –
so it struck his eyes.

Hector and Andromache both laugh, Hector takes the baby in his arms, and we realise that this is a story about human beings who are very like us. I’m pretty sure I’ve read similar stories about soldiers returning from the wars of the 20th century. For all its strangeness (the nurse, the bronze and horsehair, the unspoken cultural stuff about the firstborn son), this moment is astonishingly alive. Knowing as we do that Hector is to be killed (not a spoiler – I imagine that the first listeners of The Iliad knew how the story was going to turn out), we’re all the more moved by it.

It’s worse than that. I did a bit of a dive, and found that, though there are a number of stories about the baby, the main one says the Greeks threw him from the city walls so that he couldn’t rise up to fulfil the promise of his nickname and lead the Trojans in a war of revenge. And Hector’s speech about Andromache being enslaved by the Greeks was just spelling out what the first audiences knew was actually going to happen. The sweet domestic moment is a tiny, hopeful eddy against the dark tide of fate.

Then Hector, ‘slow to turn from the spot’, heads back to the war, to be joined by the insufferable Paris, who is described in this way:

glittering in his armour like the sun astride the skies,
exultant, laughing aloud.

This is amazing story-telling.

The Iliad: Progress report 1

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, with notes and an introduction by Bernard Knox, ©1990, Penguin 1998), from beginning to Book 3 line 190

My partner, known on this blog as the Emerging Artist, asked why I was reading The Iliad, which is surely all about men killing each other. I didn’t have a coherent answer beyond, ‘Because it’s there.’

Anyhow, after one month I’m half way through Book 3, and only one person has been killed. Apart from four or five mornings’ worth of roll call of the Greek troops and then the Trojan defenders, I’m riveted. Achilles has had a big row with Agammemnon and withdrawn from combat. The gods keep intervening in fascinating ways, including making promises they have no intention to keep. Now, as the vast armies are lined up against each other, it looks as if the war is about to be called off and replaced with a two-man fight to the death between Paris, the strikingly handsome man who abducted Helen, and Menelaus the wronged husband. I’m on the edge of my seat: I know the plan isn’t going to work, but I can’t see how.

I’m not going to do this in every monthly progress report, but I want to compare some translations. Here’s the very first death in Robert Fagles’s translation:

The veteran Protesilaus had led those troops
while he still lived, but now for many years 
the arms of the black earth had held him fast
and his wife was left behind, alone in Phylace,
both cheeks torn in grief, their house half-built. 
Just as he vaulted off his ship a Dardan killed him, 
first by far of the Argives slaughtered on the beaches.
(Book 2, lines 796–802)

Compare Alexander Pope’s translation of the same passage, published in 1715. Pope sacrificed literal translation in order to render the poem into rhyming couplets – heroic couplets. He also renders the ancient practice of tearing one’s cheeks into the more familiar breast beating.

These own’d, as chief, Protesilas the brave,
Who now lay silent in the gloomy grave:
The first who boldly touch’d the Trojan shore,
And dyed a Phrygian lance with Grecian gore;
There lies, far distant from his native plain;
Unfinish’d his proud palaces remain,
And his sad consort beats her breast in vain.
(Book 2, Lines 853–859)

Alice Oswald’s version emphasises the pathos of the moment. It’s not a literal translation, though you could argue that it feels closer to Fagles than to Pope. As she says in her introduction to Memorial (faber & faber 2011), ‘Instead of carrying the [Greek] words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at.’ This passage includes material from earlier and later lines:

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything 
Pyrasus   Iton    Pteleus   antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face 
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother 
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Starting the Iliad

Homer, The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles, with notes and an introduction by Bernard Knox, ©1990, Penguin 1998)

It’s more than a week since I finished reading The Prelude, and I’m already missing reading a couple of pages from a classic text first thing every morning. I’ve decided to take on Homer’s Iliad, which definitely fits the definition of a classic as a book that you can’t read for the first time. My copy of Robert Fagles’s translation was a Christmas gift a while back and has been begging for attention from my sagging To Be Read shelf ever since.

This is my first crack at the actual Iliad, but I have read many fragments, versions and variations of it. Here’s a list of the ones I remember:

  • Kingsley’s Heroes, the Argonauts Club and the Queensland School Readers – from my parents, the ABC and primary school respectively – all told stories of Achilles, and almost certainly some parts of the Iliad
  • The Classics Illustrated comic some time in the 1950s
  • Book 2 of The Aeneid, Virgil’s account of the fall of Troy, which I studied in high school
  • Alice Oswald’s Memorial, subtitled ‘an excavation of The Iliad‘, which presents only the deaths from Homer’s poem (here’s a link to my blog post)
  • The 28 minute version in Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics (link to the podcast)
  • Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, which tells the story from the point of view of a captured woman (link to my blog post)
  • David Malouf’s Ransom, which I’m pretty sure I haven’t read, but I feel as if I know it intimately from reading and hearing about it.

I made a start on it this morning. So far I’ve read the translator’s note and I’m part way through the learned Introduction by Bernard Knox. Getting excited already. I’ll report back in a month.