Reading Homer

So I’ve jumped into the Iliad and am rather enjoying it so far.

This translation by Stephen Mitchell includes a long introduction which has been useful in giving some clues about the basis of the poem itself. Mitchell also details the richly descriptive language used by Homer and a pretty darn good ability to use simile and metaphor to add drama to his work.

I have read through Book 2 at this point which has detailed some of the background of the prolonged war between Troy and the Achaeans.

Some things of note:

1. Honor is a huge deal with these characters who represent ancient Greek culture. Rules are to be followed at all costs and dishonor is met with retribution – really horrible retribution.

2. The gods seem to enjoy trifling with mortals, as if they were placed on earth for their amusement. They are also vengeful.

3. Even with great power, Homer gave mortal qualities to his depiction of the gods. In a conversation between Zeus and Hera they carry on as a mortal married couple complaining, nagging, withholding details and plans, sharing suspicion and revealing many of the same inequalities seen between mortal men and women.

4. Prophets were both revered and hated and probably lived in constant fear for the implications of their words.

Some things I question:

When Zeus sends a dream of falsehood to Agamemnon declaring that Troy would fall under his hand why was it necessary to tell his army a lie? I certainly understand the concept of loyalty to the king and a test of this loyalty but what did Homer mean when he said the test of false words came “as custom dictates?”

Why in the world did Homer feel it necessary to devote page upon page to the list of troops and ships involved in the sudden march toward Troy at the end of Book 2? I have the impression that this was used to dramatically show the legions of men involved in this campaign but it became really rather confusing as unfamiliar names piled on top of each other and then the army of Troy was included also. Could the imagery have been just as powerful without this long list? Was this form of writing in such drawn out fashion common?

The use by Mitchell of a few words that don’t seem to fit Homeric language: whip your ass out of here (line 247, page 24), so eager to open his trap and mouth off at our leaders (line 260, page 25). Are these words as close as Mitchell could get when translating into English?




3 thoughts on “Reading Homer”

  1. We’re on the same wavelength or something – I read books 1-2 the other day, and my notes focus on the catalogue of ships (that’s that long list you’re talking about it) and Agamemnon’s deception as places that merit further investigation and discussion. Look for my thoughts on those matters soon 🙂

    As for Mitchell’s language – that informality didn’t stand out to me, but it’s something I’ll keep an eye out for now.


  2. I always thought that the extensive list of troops and ships was a memorial to those who fought. By listing each one, they will be remembered and their part in the conflict honored. (Like the many war memorials in our country listing names of soldiers)


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