Homer’s Iliad

First a word about the genre of “epic.” An epic is a long narrative poem written in an elevated style and presenting characters in high positions involved in a series of adventures heroic and nationalistic in proportions. The hero is of imposing stature and of national legendary importance. The setting is vast, involving nations or even the cosmos. The action focuses on deeds of valor and superhuman courage. And the supernatural is often involved: otherworldly forces take an interest and intervene.

Epic Conventions

Theme: the opening lines should state a theme, and here it’s not war but rage — the wrath of Achilles. Incomprehensibly, this rage starts with Agamemnon and is interestingly contagious since he in turn ticks off Achilles. Cleverly, this is all bound up with a time of plague.

Invocation: The opening lines should call upon the relevant Muse for inspiration and instruction of the lowly poet (70), like “channeling.”

In medias res: The story should begin “in the middle of things.” The exposition will come, possibly in bits, later in the work. Why do this? (Beyond the American advertising assumption that the reader’s attention must be manipulated out of him.) How is this more natural a beginning? (It’’s like joining a soap opera, rather than tv sitcoms’ awkward and stilted premiere episodes with their belabored introductions. Like getting into a soap, you gradually learn names and connections which are initially baffling. You join soaps and, in fact, life in medias res. You’re plunged into an ongoing story and you have to backtrack gradually later to fill in the blanks.)

Epic Similes: These are extended comparisons added for poetic flavor and sometimes subtle detail to the narrative dramatic moment. They follow a pattern: “Just as …, so ….” Their mundane purpose is to draw from a wider variety of images so that readers get a better, fuller, and more picturesque sense of the culture and an enriched appreciation for the topic. But some of these actually do a lot more! (See 92, 93.)

Epic Catalogues: Long lists of warriors (the second half of Book 2!), or of ships, armies, weapons, trees, and so forth appear in epics. Be impressed and skip them.

Epithets / Formulaic Repetitions: You’ll grow weary of hearing certain phrases such as “the strong-greaved Achaeans,” “cow-eyed Hera,” “the great tactician Odysseus,” “swift-footed Achilles,” “the son of …,” etc. These partly developed from the mneumonic and poetic needs of oral poetry.

Formal Speeches: Grandiosity aside, how can these lengthy pontifications be taking place in the heat of battle? How can anyone hear each other unless they’re close enough, in which case, just shut the guy up by heaving a spear! Suspend disbelief. These Greeks have to go through the whole ritual, and sometimes they have interesting things to say, or at least goofy and entertaining.

“Homer does not provide any kind of guidance to life if the lessons derived are the usefulness of violence, the lack of regret at killing, the subjection and selling of women, the extinction of all men in a surrendering city or the sense that justice resides in personal revenge” (Nicholson 244).

“These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model for a man. Nor Penelope or Helen for a woman. Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery. What we want is Homeric wisdom” (245).

“Homer will enlarge your life. Homer is on a scale that stretches across human time and the full width of the human heart. Homer is alive in anyone who is prepared to attend. Homer is humanity” (31).

Iliad Index