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Homer's Illiad

by Bryony Harrison (follow)
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Don't you hate it when words get overused to the point where they become diluted? Take the word 'epic' for example. Just about everything is epic these days. Thanks to the wonderful world of social media, text speak, and picture captions, we have epic cars, epic moves, epic wins, and epic fails. But let me tell you something that really is epic. Epic poetry. Epic poetry was epic before epic was cool. Now that's epic.

There are many forms of poetry, but when the word is mentioned, the archetype that conjures itself in the average person's mind is most likely one of a few relatively short rhyming verses printed on a piece of paper.

After looking through various online and print journals accepting poetry submissions, the maximum line length is usually about forty-two, suggesting that anything past that would be considered a long poem.

It therefore makes me wonder what people's reaction would be if I were to mention a poem that is fifteen thousand lines long.

Today that is almost unheard of, but historically, such epic poems were commonplace. Consider the cantos of Byron, Shelly, and other Romantic poets, who wrote novel length adventures in verse.

illiad, achilles slays hector, homer

Of course a novel is written words. To appreciate poetry at its finest you need to hear it, not read it. Oral poetry is an ancient tradition going back thousands of years, and I can't think of a finer example of an epic oral poem than Homer's Illiad. For indeed, the Illiad is the fifteen thousand line poem I was referring to.

But who exactly is Homer? That is a question which could take another fifteen thousand lines to answer still with no clear results. There have been many debates, with theories including:

Homer never existed
Homer was more than one person
Homer was a woman
Homer was around during the Trojan War

So far the most scholars have come to accept the belief that Homer was a Greek from eighth century BC. Whoever he was, one thing is certain; Homer is an amazing poet, known for the greatest Greek epic ever written - or spoken.

illiad, achilles slays hector, homer

So what is the poem about? The Illiad is set during the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, and describes the events that take place after Achilles has a tantrum and refuses to fight.

For a full understanding of the poem, one needs to know a bit of basic background information about how the war began. While some might groan at the idea of research before reading, I love that the Illiad encourages us to find out more about Greek mythology. Everything is sparked off by a beauty contest between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. When a mortal Trojan man called Paris is chosen to judge, he is left in the unenviable position of pissing off two very powerful goddesses.

He votes for Aphrodite because she offers him the love of Helen. Unfortunately Helen is already married to a Greek called Menelaus, so when Paris carries Helen away, war breaks out. This war, though bloody, would have ended much sooner if the mortals were left alone to get on with things, but gods are nosy, childish, vengeful creatures and can't help but interfere.

Athena and Hera are mad at Paris for not being chosen, so are determined that the Trojans lose. Aphrodite, on the other hand, has a soft spot for this dashing, yet cowardly warrior, and is forever coming to his rescue. For example, my favourite scene is when Paris and Menelaus are about to have a one on one battle to bring an end to the war, when all of a sudden Aphrodite swoops in.

illiad, achilles slays hector, homer

The Illiad is written in heroic hexameter. A hexameter is a line consisting of six feet. The feet of a heroic hexameter will include a combination of dactyls (one long syllable followed by two short syllables) and the irregular spondee (two stressed syllables).

All these technical terms does makes poetry sound more like a maths lesson than a leisurely form of recreation, but these mathematical equations create the vital flow and rhythm of any poem.

I have never had a good ear when it comes to writing metre, so I admire anyone who can do it. The fact that Homer stuck to this form for fifteen thousand lines is quite spectacular.

Other poetic techniques include extended similes, epithets, and repeated passages. These create great imagery, but back in Homer's time, they played an even more important roll.

Today the Illiad is written down, and has been translated into English by various scholars, but in Homer's time the poem will have been recited by a bard. Imagine for a moment that you are that bard, and you have to recite fifteen thousand lines. How far do you think you'll get before forgetting what comes next? Being able to repeat sections again gives the bard something to fall back on.

The fact that the Illiad is an oral poem is evident from the line, which says 'Sing, goddess, of the anger of achilles', indicating that the bard is invoking the muses for inspiration.

Can you invoke a muse? I think not. That is why Homer's Illiad is truly epic.

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A great article on a great poem (though not quite epic in length). I was just curious which English version you read, or would recommend?
by Ben
Hi Ben, glad you liked it. The translation I have read is by Martin Hammond.
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