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, but for the 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?
I think we can learn from it. There are a lot of things that we know and the ancients did not: for instance, we know more about their history than they themselves did. We have a long literary 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. 2500 intervening years of philosophy and religion, however worthy of admiration, have obscured our view with ideology, political bias(1) and perhaps too much information. The human sciences have not been much help.
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.

In the Iliad on the other hand there is no evil. 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. Take a moment to 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. He lived in a heavily walled army camp, 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 that his audience is, too (Il 24.64-). 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 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. Yet 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.

In all this, Homer touches a sore spot. Some would object to it. What Homer did is not so far from the "love your enemy like yourself" that another prophet tried (and failed) to teach us. This may sound surprising for a poet who fired us up with his picture of Achilles' rampage. But in these pages I will try to explain why I came to this conclusion.
War-time political leaders (and those who always think we are at war) as well as the voices of heroism, e.g. Nestor in the Iliad, would see this as potential weakness on our side. Love your enemy? Kill your enemy and love his wife, or his daughter, all in revenge for Helen (Il 2.354): that is what is supposed to keep us going. No pity. Nestor's honeyed voice is what we want to hear, and go kill some more orcs. Homer knows this very well and he plays us. He grabs us by some body part and leads us to a place where we can see Man as he is. Homer is not the one who thinks Achilles the most beautiful. The poet is not a believer: he is a make-believer, with a purpose.



In order to explain how I came to this interpretation, I have to discuss the following characteristics of the poetry. These I take as axioms. Not because their truth is self-evident but because without them I cannot find a reasonable interpretation of the poem, and these are hypotheses that cannot be proved. The only test is how well they work, i.e. whether they can explain more than another set of axioms and raise fewer problemata(2) by themselves.
Right here I am limiting myself to the Iliad, because these webpages are mainly about that poem. The Odyssey and Hesiod I use mainly as illustration and because those poems seem to comment on the Iliad.

A thing which never fails to impress me about the Iliad is its clarity and well-formedness. Its language runs smoothly off the tongue, its ideas are presented in an easy to understand, straightforward way. Its paratactic style, its use of epithets and type-scenes all make it easy on the listener as well as the singer. All-pervasive ring-composition also has a lot to do with this clarity and this website aims to bring this out.

If you think of "oral composition" not as well-rehearsed improvisation but as a poet creating a poem inside his head, knowing every line by heart and carrying it around with him for years from performance to performance, the reason for this refinement is clear: the poet had ample time to adapt and clarify his creation based on his own experience performing and discussing it. The tale grew in the telling and what we have is the mature form. Traces of this "growing" are visible, more about this elsewhere.

This oral-composition hypothesis is related to the poetic structure that I wish to bring out: to compose a huge poem without writing, I think you need a clear structural skeleton to build your poem on, a mnemonic aid and an ordered way of setting up your story. This is what I think my 'thematic map' is a trace of. It is not a formal structure, it may mainly have served the needs of the poet himself. It helped him go from point to point in an orderly fashion and presents themes that are related close together. How noticeable the map itself can have been for the public is hard to say. We may suppose that people were used to ring structures at least in the speeches that they heard. On the other hand, a recursive structure as elaborate as this would be hard to follow when listening to a performance.

The Odyssey seems to present a much less unified picture although ring structure certainly is present. Taking a hint from Penelope's weaving and unraveling of the shroud: perhaps the poem was unfinished when its primary author died and was completed by his successor members of the Homeridae.

The Iliad refers to a historical reality in two ways: as a possible dim memory of events in the distant past, something that does not concern me here, and as a mirror of events in Homer's own time (εἴ ποτ' ἔην γε). The most important aspect of it: it is about a community at war. My hypothesis is that a Ionian poet in the 8-7th c. composed one or two poems to comment on events and developments in his own world and that he used and adapted well-known stories from the rich world of myth to express his ideas, and also to hide them. This was a common use of myth. One example is the political use of charter myth.  The charter myth that this is all about is the story of the Abduction of Helen. "They raped our women!". I believe this myth was actively used as a political banner in Homer's time, to explain and legitimize Greek presence on and propagandize emigration to "Troy", to the Asian mainland with its rich and fertile floodplains of the Hermus and Meander rivers. The point of such a myth is not whether it is true or false: it is whether you are for or against it. It is also double layered: it sends the message "join us to take revenge for Helen and to get rich" to the "common people". To the leaders of society the story of Paris' judgement explains what we can offer the potential emigrants so they will sign up. In this it is very much like the "We are the sons of Heracles, coming to claim our inheritance" of the Dorian invasion.
Homer uses the same myth to criticize this policy. He makes abundantly clear that he is appalled by some aspects of it and that he thinks it cannot succeed militarily. The fact that he did this within a society at low-level war (at least locally, in Ionia) is the reason that he cannot say certain things straightforwardly. "Zeus is against it" or "Troy will never be taken" he cannot say. So he comes up with the "Evil Dream" plot and that Troy will fall, but not just yet. The poet must have hit a sore spot and therefore his traditional association with "exile" is not without foundation. The fact that he can take such a political position also indicates that he cannot have stood alone, there must have been some powerful Greece-wide movement, perhaps related to the foundation of Delphi and the redirection of migration to the west and the Black Sea instead of Ionia, which provided patronage for him. There may be a reflection of political tension in the Greek world in the picture of the discord between Zeus and Poseidon. More about this here.

Homeric poetry is not surface-only, any more than a religious icon is. Its images are likenesses that refer to ideas and its intention is to persuade. Just like Odysseus in his efforts to calm down the people in the second assembly (Il 2.188-206), Homer uses a two-pronged rhetorical attack:

a) to commoners: learning by pathos (hit them with the sceptre). The learning process is a "pleasurable pain". We must imagine his public as mainly young, male, aristocratic (all little Achillesses), eager for honour and glory and very much philhellene. Also, importantly, angry at least at some level. Like angry young men of all times, potentially feeling they lack honour because they do not get the recognition they think they deserve.
This is the public that the literal level of meaning is aimed at: wildly enthusiastic, the heart swelling with pride with every Greek heroic act. He could control their pity and fear as well as other emotions like no other poet could. This way of frightening them into submission, as Odysseus does and as Homer does with his Achilles, the shirker who is refusing to fight, was attacked by Plato who called it "being courageous through fear" meaning fear of shame. The Iliad is very much a poem about shame. Both the danger and the benefit of it are treated in depth in the figures of Achilles and Hector.
b) to "kings and prominent people": allusion (persuade them with arguments). On this level there is a sharp criticism of Ionian politics of his day and especially of the Helen-myth. It is generally aimed at those who understand metaphor, veiled references and irony and who are "shepherds" (or swineherds) rather than "sheep". For this audience, the Iliad is meant to function as a speculum regis, a king's mirror. It becomes the aristocratic ethical constitution of the city-state: "this is how we are".
This manner of speaking, the use of language with both public and insider meanings combined with a dose of irony, word-play and competitive digs at each other, has been named sympotic language. It is related to riddles, and to understand their meaning, find the (most obvious) likeness. It must have been an aristocratic culturally acquired skill mostly. This is one of the things which indicate that this poet was no lowly bard, he was an aristocrat, one familiar with power and leadership - and persuasive rhetoric. I also believe that the very fierceness of the rhetoric makes it likely that the Iliad was initially meant for private aristocratic, symposium-like settings only. Think of the feasts of the suitors in the Odyssey. The wider public probably learned about the Odyssey first (through the Homeridae, performing at religious festivals) and only much later about the Iliad.

Homer's view of the gods is not naive and not characteristic of the public opinion of the Greeks in general. Nor are they there for 'comic relief' only though that seems at least part of their function. The amazing stories of the gods must have been controversial even in Homer's day and the view is much normalized in the Odyssey. The divine-human interaction and especially the so-called 'double determination' of human actions are created by Homer to explain something to us concerning human character, fate and justice. The most important background story for this is the 'Judgement of Paris', the prelude to the Trojan War.
The Olympic scenes sometimes tie in with self-reflection: the way the gods watch us is like the way we, the listeners, carefree but committed, watch in fascination the story and its characters. We are like the gods: we think (or at least act as if) we will never die:  “Οὖτίς με κτείνει”, “Nobody kills me”(Od 9.408). Too late we discover that our feet are not on the ground and we fall to our death. (Od 10.551- about Elpenor, "hopeful").

The key concept in approaching Homer's gods, is seeing that they are "what we obey". Obey, persuade, trust, follow, all part of the same semantic field which is very important and central in the ancient world and likewise in the Iliad. We may simply "obey Night" and go to sleep. This makes Night a god. See Hesiod, WD 760-, for another example of this principle. We may be persuaded by Beauty, like Paris or like Zeus in Il 14.153-. We may fail to honour (obey) them and they will be angry at us. Homer, in the guise of Proteus, claims to be able to tell us "θεῶν ὅς τίς σε χαλέπτει" - which of the gods is angry at us. More about the gods here.

What it is not

First: the poem is not primitive. There has been a constant tendency to see the oldest poems of western culture as somehow representing a more primitive kind of thinking: "he was the first to...", "they were not yet..." both intellectually and morally.
There is not any a priori evidence for that and I think the habit of putting ourselves at the centre or the summit of human culture is not really a sign of advanced thinking.
Second, it must be clearly stated: the Iliad is not a novel in the sense that it is not about an individual and his/her character, it is generic: about 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. It is about whom we obey: a god or another human being.
Homer is too good a poet to give us only cardboard characters, they seem taken from real life, as if you might meet them when visiting archaic Greece. But Homer's whole approach to poetry is about the generic. Ships are "swift" because that is what they generically are, even if they are not moving now. All the typical epithets qualify the idea of the person or thing, regardless of the actual situation. The same goes for typical scenes: they represent an idea. Variations, deviations from the standard, are a communication to us.

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 (4). A fierce, angry poem which does not have its equal. The ancient Greeks were completely bowled over when it first hit them though whether they 'got the message' is another question. In these pages I hope to show that the Iliad really is all those things. It is a poem with a message and 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
He 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, Priam is to get him to release the body. 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. The latter is of course Zeus.

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 honor" 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 in the Odyssey, he uses gigantic overstatement to try to get a point across: this is a revenge fantasy. He seems to hope that we will react like Hera when she sees Hephaistos' fiery rampage (Il 21.379-) even though she called Hephaistos out herself.
Homer gives hints throughout the poems that such enormous slaughter or such implacable revenge is both impossible and inhuman (e.g. Il 20.356-, Il 24,39-). 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 allright in Homer's time and they are meant to shock the public. Another way of saying it: Homer is "feeding the dogs before the hunt" - in the guise of Odysseus (Il 19.198-). See The Mortal Hero

So the poet is on a mission. We can see that his life hinges around 'assemblies' (gathering to listen to him) and 'embassies' (he considers himself to be an ambassador of Zeus). Other themes that fit in with his life are the 'dais' (feast-meal) and the sacrifice.

First he travels on his own, later he settles down and finds that he is gathering a following: young men from all over Greece 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 for easier teaching and as a monument for later generations. So he became not only The Poet but also the first schoolmaster.


The name "100 oxen" of this website ties in with a wonderful joke the poet makes in Il 6.234-6:

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, 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 we hear how he single-handedly wipes out half an army. Are we so gullible that even there we suspend our disbelief?

  1. I am not saying that they did not have their bias: it is all too clear that Homer addresses the aristocracy and not at all the common people. He created a "speculum regis", a king's mirror. But the view in this mirror is relatively unclouded by ideology.
  2. On the other end of the scale, there is of course the hardcore Parryist point of view: that it is useless to search for meaning because these are just the automatic ramblings of a traditional singer of epic tales. All choice of words or formulae is determined by the metre, not by their meaning. But the statement that a text has "no meaning" can never be falsified. That is bad science and diminishes the poem. A formula is not always used according to the context, its meaning is generic so it does not matter very much where you use it.
  3. The poet draws a parallel between the iconic Heracles and Achilles: when Achilles decides to end his quarrel with Agamemnon and to fight (Il 19.95-), Agamemnon tells the tale of the birth of Heracles, he who has to do all these labours for the king. Achilles is not exactly a Heracles, though: Heracles is a servant who "ought to be" a king; Achilles is a king who "ought to be" a subordinate.
  4. The 'immeasurable ransom' mentioned in Il 1.23 is obviously either not large enough to satisfy Agamemnon, or of a non-material kind. The fact that the rest of the Achaeans are involved and want to receive it (1.23) suggests the latter option. If it had been treasure or something like that, it would surely all have gone to Agamemnon. The ransom is 'immeasurable' because the poets words flow from him 'νιφάδεσσιν ἐοικότα χειμερίῃσιν' (like snowflakes in winter) (Il 3.322). It is a ransom because of Priam's embassy to Achilles, the 'mission statement' of the poem. Also, it is an angry statement: Apollo is angry and the words are like the snowflakes that Zeus sends, 'ἀνθρώποισι πιφαυσκόμενος τὰ ἃ κῆλα' (telling the people of his anger) (Il 12.280)