some of the oxen
Some of the oxen.


It is the oldest movie we know of - the Iliad. It's a musical. Sung by a kithara-playing bard for a spellbound audience, it must have been much like a movie to them. 25 hours of sound-only moving picture, all the roles played by one actor, who would miss that? But for his public it must have been terribly exciting and emotional. We, at a distance, only have the script and we cannot hope to attain full understanding of it. So why should we give it our attention?
My contention is, they do have something to tell us. Granted, there is a lot that we know that the ancients did not. We have a long writing culture behind us and an unimaginable amount of information available, while they had only the Muses and oral tradition. But the more I get to know them, the more I feel that they had at least this: they had a clearer view of human beings and what drives them than we do. It could be that their less crowded and simpler world made this possible.
To give an important example, let me compare the Iliad to a popular modern epic tale of war and heroism, the "Lord of the Rings" movie and explain why I deem the Iliad to be several levels higher as a work of art and human interest. Even though we have to work harder to learn to appreciate it.

Both are myth-like tales about the fateful human habit that shapes our history and our very being: war. How shall we act given the life-or-death situations that we face? The simple answer we already know, for it is always the same: we shall be brave, we shall do our duty even if it kills us. No surprises here. But there is a lot more to be said about it, let us take a brief look at one of the differences.

The LOTR takes place in a world of simple Good and Evil. Both of these are pure: the Good has no Evil mixed in, although it may have some internal cleaning up to do in some cases, for the sake of a story. The Evil is just that: irredeemable, to be utterly despised and destroyed. The soldiers of Evil are extremely ugly, they do not know love, only hate; they do not have wives and children, they never brush their teeth. This has a strong advantage for filmmaker and audience: we can recognize them at once and kill zillions of them without feeling the least bit uneasy about it. The whole is one huge and violent feelgood operation(1).

On the surface, the Iliad seems to present a similar picture. But if we look closer, we see there is no Evil. Both warring sides are completely human. It shows anger, courage, revenge, love, cruelty from both sides. It shows the whole range of human passions and the reasons why these passions are awakened, but Evil it knows not. We should realize how rare this is especially because, as I will argue, the Trojan War that Homer describes stands for a war going on in Homer's own time, which he was involved in. He lived in a strongly walled army camp (Smyrna), in a society that was always at war (Il 14.85-). It is by no means the case that the poet (let alone the public) is "objective" or above the parties, he is very much a Greek and he knows how much his audience is, too (Il 24.64-). He makes sure always to maintain the honour of the Greek army even when they are (temporarily) being defeated. Yet he paints the real hero, the one he sets up for admiration, as the Trojan Hector, with his lovable wife and child. We are left in no doubt about the horrible fate that awaits them. Not only that, but every death, Greek or Trojan, in the poem (and there are many) is accompanied by a short anecdote or biographical detail of the victim bringing out the common humanity of the warriors and a sense of waste and loss for each one of them. This may not make us feel better. Yet the poet knows and shows with emphasis that the fighting has to be done, there is no escape from it. That is what Achilles tried to do and it cost him Patroclus.

Both movies are basically revenge fantasies. The LOTR is a simplified one, sanitized for our protection so we shall not catch crippling diseases like pity or doubt. That Achilles' rampage is a fantasy, the poet makes clear by its extreme overstatement and by hints elsewhere in the poem, that such things are not possible. We are Achilles and Homer, I say, aims at healing us and raising us up to a higher human level, to become warriors who know clearly what they are doing and why.

What it is not

First: the poem is not primitive. There has been a constant tendency to see the oldest surviving poems of western culture as somehow representing a more primitive kind of man: "he was the first to...", "they were not yet...", both intellectually and morally. Obviously, the world they lived in and their culture were very different from ours but it is severely misleading to assign 'levels' to cultural differences. The habit of putting ourselves at the summit of human culture is in itself not really a sign of advanced thinking. On the contrary, what I think we can learn from the Iliad, is that, within the rules of our different cultures, they and we act driven by the same forces - though we talk about it in very different ways.
Second, it must be clearly stated: the Iliad is not a novel in the sense that it is not about individuals and their character, it is generic: they are examples of all of us and our actions. What do we do and why do we do it. The hero's actions are not described in terms of character in the modern sense, something internal to us and only us. It is about whom or what we are obeying when we act: e.g. a god or another human being.
Homer is too good a poet to give us only cardboard characters, even if they are types: they seem taken from real life. This is especially the case in his picture of Hector, the Trojan leader. But Homer's whole approach to poetry is geared towards the generic and - related to that - the allegorical. For instance, ships and horses and young heroes are called 'swift' because that is what they generically are, even if they are not moving now. Also, young heroes and horses are like each other (more about that here). All the typical epithets qualify the idea of the person or thing, regardless of the actual situation.

What it is

Let me skip to the conclusion and state what I think the Iliad is. In the rest of these pages I will try to justify my findings.
The Iliad is a huge epic poem, a tour de force composed in memory, without writing. Not by a traditional professional bard comparable to a Serbian guslar but by a professional Ionian soldier, a son of one of the most powerful aristocratic families in Greece. Having become disillusioned with the attempts of the Ionians to push further inland and also with the behaviour of his fellow warriors, he quarreled with his family and went (or was sent) into exile, leaving his home and his name behind.

At some point after that, he decided to use his talents as a speaker and his love of poetry as a means to get a message across. There may already have been a political movement connected to the establishment of the Olympian religion, the oracle of Delphi and a country-wide effort to diminish stasis. Possibly the poet connected himself with this. Whatever the case, he composed an epic designed to appeal to all Greeks, from all over Greece (by including heroes, gods and myths from all regions) and explaining the Reign of Zeus in terms of the characteristics of the Olympian family.
He debunked the myth of the abduction of Helen and the fall of Troy by reformulating it in such a way that it could no longer be used as a charter myth for conquering 'Troy' (western Anatolia). On a less political and more personal level, he was concerned to teach the young warrior, the Achilles, what war is really like ('equal war') and that the enemy is no different from himself. So for this purpose, to persuade the heart of a young semi-divine warrior, he made a sacrifice of...

A hundred oxen

A hundred oxen for slaughter, a hecatomb, that is the Iliad. A feast for the dogs and birds, a giant cup full of strong intoxicating wine, a vision of our world that only an Achilles can bear to look at. A healing song. An immeasurable ransom. A fierce, angry poem which does not have its equal. In these pages I hope to show why the Iliad really is all those things, that it is first and foremost a poem with a message and that Homer is a kind of prophet or seer. His epiphany and mission statement are here (Il 24.173, Iris to Priam):

“... Διὸς δέ τοι ἄγγελός εἰμι,
ὅς σευ ἄνευθεν ἐὼν μέγα κήδεται ἠδ' ἐλεαίρει.
λύσασθαί σ' ἐκέλευσεν Ὀλύμπιος Ἕκτορα δῖον,
δῶρα δ'Ἀχιλλῆϊ φερέμεν τά κε θυμὸν ἰήνῃ”
“...I am a messenger from Zeus,
who, although far away, is concerned and pities you
The Olympian orders you to ransom the great Hector,
bringing gifts to Achilles to melt his heart”

Achilles at that moment is acting like a hunting dog who refuses to give up his prey, the body of Hector. Priam is to get him to release that. The gifts are the same gifts, the “ἀπερείσι᾽ ἄποινα” (immeasurable ransom) that the priest of Apollo, Chryses, brings to ransom his daughter in book 1. The ransom, of course, is the poem itself. Achilles is its main addressee and Homer is thus on a mission to visit all Achilleses in Hellas and "melt their heart", teach them (Il 9.496, Phoenix to Achilles):

“ἀλλ᾽ Ἀχιλεῦ δάμασον θυμὸν μέγαν: οὐδέ τί σε χρὴ
νηλεὲς ἦτορ ἔχειν...”

“Conquer your great passions, Achilles. There is no need
for you to have a pitiless heart...”

A humorous reference to the Iliad and its intentions is the little story told by Mentes in Od 1.260-4. Odysseus receives a "man-killing medicine" from Mentes' father. Since Mentes is Athena in disguise, his/her father is of course Zeus. The Iliad is very much a man-killing poem but it is meant as a medicine.

He wants them to know compassion, to recognize the enemy as a human being, even while having to fight him. For this purpose he paints Hector as a real hero who is fighting for the defense of his wife, child and city. He paints a powerful picture and pulls out all the emotional stops to gain that result. All the while he has to maintain the greatness and glory of Achilles, his public, which would never let him give "equal honour" to both (Il 24.55-).

Achilles' great rampage (books 20, 21) may establish his greatness in the eyes of the public, but Homer uses it for a special purpose. Just like the killing of the suitors in the Odyssey, he uses gigantic overstatement. Everywhere else in the Iliad, Homer is concerned to give a realistic picture of war. He gives hints that such enormous slaughter or such implacable revenge is both impossible and inhuman (e.g. Il 20.356-, Il 24,39-). All this is meant to try and get a point across: that this is a revenge fantasy in spite of the fact that it is not described as such. But he always lets us draw our own conclusions.
He is by no means a pacifist, but he expects us to realise that here the heroes "go too far": Achilles with his implacable revenge, Odysseus in the Odyssey with his "killing guests at a dinner" and Telemachus' revenge on the servant-girls. These things were not alright in Homer's time and they are meant to shock the public. Another way of saying it: Homer's intention in the Iliad is "feeding the dogs before the hunt" - in the guise of Odysseus (Il 19.198-). See The Mortal Hero

The name "100 oxen" of this website ties in with a wonderful joke the poet makes in Il 6.234-6:
(Diomedes and the famous Trojan ally Glaucus meet on the battlefield. They boast, prepare for a duel, then discover that their families are old friends. So they decide not to fight but to swap armour in honour of each other)

ἔνθ' αὖτε Γλαύκῳ Κρονίδης φρένας ἐξέλετο Ζεύς,
ὃς πρὸς Τυδεΐδην Διομήδεα τεύχε' ἄμειβε
χρύσεα χαλκείων, ἑκατόμβοι' ἐννεαβοίων.

but there Zeus took Glaucus' wits away
the way he exchanged armour with Diomedes:
gold for bronze, (worth) a hundred oxen for nine.

This is not only an ironical comment on the likelihood of acquiring your "golden armour", your superhero status (like Achilles), by meeting an old friend in battle and exchanging gifts with him. It is also a byword for the whole Iliad: a hecatomb of nine oxen. The nine being the 8 members of Agamemnon's council or the eight little birds caught by the snake in Aulis (Il 2.308-), plus Achilles the motherbird. This is the poet asking us, the eager-for-glory listener: "do you think it will be like that?" just as he asks us this when he lets Achilles pray to Zeus "I will stay here but I will send my comrade out to battle [...] let him come home unharmed" (Il 16.239-) or when he lets Hector's second in command say:"The army is in terrible trouble! You know what, you go down to the city, visit the women and and tell them to pray, while we hold the line here" (Il 6.73-). Are we so gullible that even there we do not see the irony?

the Poet

Some speculation about his life here:
This poet is on a mission. We may guess that initially he travels around from place to place, visiting the local 'aristocracy': the warrior-class which is also the land-owning class who have a long standing habit of 'feasting', i.e. gathering for a meal and/or a drink around the 'krater' (the mixing-bowl for wine). Think of the scenes pictured in the Odyssey in Ithaca and in Phaeacia. This is how he may have made the Iliad known among the upper class. Later he settles down and finds that he is gathering a following: young men from all over come to visit him and probably want to follow in his footsteps. For this, he creates a "school" for rhapsodes, the Homeridae. He and his pupils wrote down the Iliad and the Odyssey (which he composed in the final part of his life) for easier teaching and as a monument for later generations. So he became not only 'The Poet' but also the first schoolmaster. These rhapsodes could also have visited popular religious festivals, performing the Odyssey for a more general public than was the case with the Iliad.

next page: the gods - what we obey

  1. I know there is more to be said about the LOTR than I do here, it is not that simplistic a tale. But for the sake of comparison, I wish to bring out this aspect.