Reading the poems of Homer

Of course there’s nothing very original here, it’s all been said before, but I find the topic one of the utmost fascination, and have read the poems and associated literature ever since I was a teenager. I can remember saving up to buy Gilbert Murray’s Rise of the Greek Epic while I was still at school. Not a school subject, needless to say.
The poet
Homer has been admired as one of the world’s greatest poets for three thousand years. It comes as a surprise to find we know nothing about him. There are those who believe he never existed. The few anecdotes surviving about him – his birth or residence on Chios, his blindness, the etymology of his name, ‘hostage’, suggesting he may have been a slave, perhaps a captured soldier from inland Asia (perhaps even from Troy) – are all conjectures that cannot be verified. The Homeridae of Chios were a group of rhapsodes or performers, suggesting that ‘Homer’ may be a common noun for performer of epic, given an heroic founder – false etymologies abounded in the ancient world. ‘Homer’ really means two poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey (and a collection of shorter hymns associated with Homer which were chanted at festivals prior to epic recitation).

Though we don’t know anything for certain about the poet, we do know something of the poems and how they were created, from analogy with other cultures which have evolved in similar ways to those of ancient Greece, and from information mentioned by Herodotus.

The poems are set in the twelfth century BC Bronze Age, and purport to tell the exploits of Bronze Age warriors who were the ancestors of noble families of what are called the dark ages of Greece, the eighth and ninth centuries BC.

These cultures valued honour above all else, even above piety. It was the glue which held their world together. Prowess and success in battle, the accumulation of spoil, ostentatious display of wealth in apparel and building, and fame, were the objective of every young man of noble family. Fame was more important than life, but every survivor in battle made sure that all knew about his exploits. The inscriptions of Ramses II were typical of the values of this type of culture. The great evil was shame, loss of face, of prestige.
The poems almost certainly started as boasting by the protagonists of their valour, fighting ability and resourcefulness. This boasting was a value of their society, not a fault, as it is in our own. At the death of noble clan members bards sung of their exploits, using the tales the men had first told of themselves. These came to be chanted to a lyre accompaniment, and the stories elaborated by the addition of an ‘historical’ framework to explain to later generations just where the protagonists fitted into the scheme of things. As in this society the gods were all about, responsible for mysterious natural phenomena and puzzling human behaviour, they too were given a role, especially as the noble families traced descent from the gods.

We know something about how these chants were transmitted in the period between the 12th and 8th centuries when writing was unknown in Greece, from examination of similar works in Celtic societies such as turn of the century Ireland or nineteenth century Balkans. The chants were not defined works. They were loosely connected narrative structures about a raid, a battle, a journey, held together by rote phrases which helped the bard to structure his chant for the occasion.They often began with a prayer by the poet, calling on god to help his improvisation be worthwhile. Each performance was different, adapted to an occasion and the family for whom it was performed. Their ancestor was featured, and the performance varied in length for each occasion. These performances were in no sense artistic ones, though a gifted bard could make them so. But their essence was social. They were a celebration of the noble clan, and hence of the status quo, and hence of order and stability in society.

We have no idea by what method they were composed. Some bards may have rehearsed, others may have performed extempore. On some occasions a lesser bard may have learned by heart a favourite piece performed by a more famous man.

At some point in the sixth century BC in Greece some of these performances were written down. At some time in the seventh and sixth centuries shorter pieces relating to the same hero were connected to form a longer narrative. We have no idea whether this consolidation was creative, the work of a performing bard, or editorial, the work of a scholar joining associated texts together. Episodes could have been re-used, an admired battle episode, for instance, featuring one hero ancestor could have been recited at another family feast and the name of that family’s hero ancestor substituted for the original. Accuracy was not at stake: honour and prestige were. The name ‘Homer’ probably dates from this period, but could have been used of any bard after Demodokos, the one mentioned in the Odyssey, and perhaps was used of all of them. We do know that the chants were preserved, written down, consolidated and edited by poets or/and scholars under the orders of the tyrant Pisistratos, but have no idea what this work consisted of. ‘Homer’ may have been the first to write his chants down, the first to write down the chants of other bards, or the editor who first shaped the traditional chants into a more literary form. This whole exercise was undertaken because the society of noble houses with their dependent estates of Bronze Age Greece was fading away, and a new form of society, the poleis, taking its place. There were those who did not want the celebration of ancient ways lost. There may have been an appreciation that the chants had reached a valuable and beautiful form worthy in itself of preservation. Or the greatness of the verse may have been imposed on rough traditional material only when it came to be written down.

This was not the end of the evolution of the Homeric chants, by now poems in hexameter form. They had been sung for five hundred years in one form or other, and were part of Hellenic self consciousness. They also contained words and references from all the periods of their transmission, some of which were obscure to fifth and fourth century Greeks. The texts were edited, glosses added, and became significantly larger. Eventually they became an institution in Greek culture, recited on public occasions, adapted for tragic performance, quoted by later writers.

Where does the authorship lie in this kind of composition? We need to forget a convention we are very fond of before answering this question. We have a distrust of the collaborative process and prefer to adulate the great artist. Creation by committee doesn’t seem very creative to us, even though we all enjoy musicals and opera collaborated upon by musical composers and lyricists. We’re not comfortable about Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights re-writing older plays. This is an heritage of the Romantic movement of nineteenth century Europe, of the elevation of the ‘inspired’ poet, the man of genius, one of Ruskin’s ‘great men’.

Examination of the working practice of any major artist shows that they proceed by experiment, have more failures than successes, often have no clear idea of their own achievement, and are only recognised when in accord with the times they live in.

Examination of any performing art such as Homer’s, or of a modern play or film, show that a successful work can be the result of many hands, that on occasion one role is dominant, on others not, and that success can often be the result of creative conflict as much as of inspiration.

The dominant role in film making, for instance, can be the producer, the director, one or more of the actors or the editor. Sometimes this dominance makes for a great film, sometimes it results in a failure. Great films have been made under the old studio system, where each crew or cast member had a defined role and rarely went beyond it. To take an example: is Citizen Kane a great film because of the direction of Welles (surely not because of his acting?); or because of the writing of Herman Mankiewicz; or the acting of Joseph Cotten; or the superb photography of Gregg Toland; or the editing of Robert Wise; or the sets of Van Nest Polglase? All (except Cotten) were nominated for Oscars. Is it a great film because they all worked as a team? Is Annie Hall a great film because of the writing and directing talents of Woody Allen, or because editor Ralph Rosenblum cut the original 50 hours down to 93 minutes? We prefer to see just the director, and forget the other film makers involved, or remember the star, and forget the other collaborators, but this is not always an accurate way to describe a successful film.

Homer may have been a successful performer, but he may not have composed the chants he recited. He may have revised and reshaped traditional matter and radically altered it. He may have been the first to write down a performance. Or he may have been an editor of genius who polished rough material into a masterpiece. Or simply a great poet (a concept that evolved only after literacy). Nobody knows. However after their gestation period the poems were preserved, and are pretty good.

But are they really that good? They are written in a dead language. Nobody now speaks ancient Greek except scholars. Do they know how to pronounce it correctly? This is very important where poetry is concerned, because poetry is a form of music. We rely for the most part on translations for our experience of Homer, but can a translation ever be reliable? To what extent are they adaptations and not translations? In a sense we can only understand the evolution of the poems by reciting the ancient Greek hexameters. The measure of the words would help explain why this one was chosen over that one, why the epithets occur at the places they do, where episodes have been joined to form a longer poem.

Some of the characteristics of Homer’s poems can be seen in the fifteenth century border ballads based on heroic conflicts between English and Scottish nomadic bands of warriors. The ballads, like Homer’s poems, are swift moving and direct, employ direct speech, are highly condensed and very dramatic. They often feature supernatural events. The poets who created these poems are also unknown. The verse form however is much simpler than that used by Homer. Another poet who gives a reader of English some of the qualities of Homer’s verse is Chaucer. Chaucer has Homer’s energy and flexibility, also his obscurity (for us) of language, but is not as tragic.

Generally a translator has a hard choice: to translate literally, and gloss unfamiliar words and phrases, which makes a hard to follow version; to attempt a verse translation, which means, in English, substituting stress for measure, in other words, creating a different form of verse; telling just the story, by creating a prose version; or a combination of verse and prose, as Robert Graves did in his version (he felt the poems were like opera, with recititative and aria, and not continuous verse).
The Iliad is a strange work for a national Greek epic. It tells the story of three unpleasant ruffians, arrogant and stiff-necked Agamemnon, vainglorious and petulant Achilles, and crafty and deceitful Odysseus, and their destruction of the family and city of the noble and brave Hector. It seems told from the Trojan perspective. It is violent, and considered accurate in its depiction of battle as it was at that time. The heroes are sliced and chopped by swords, dragged to their deaths by runaway horses, are crushed under chariot wheels, lie on the battlefield expiring in agony. We have to remember though it’s not about winning or losing the war so much as it’s about being seen behaving with valour, acting as a hero should. Compared with this, survival, victory and booty all fade into insignificance. It is a snapshot of a war, 50 days towards the end of a 10 year conflict that has proved indecisive. The battle, in other words, is an end in itself.

Antilochus was the first to kill a Trojan captain,
tough on the front lines, Thalysias’ son, Echepolus.
Antilochus thrust first, speared the horsehair helmet
right at the ridge, and the bronze spearpoint lodged
in the man’s forehead, smashing through his skull
and the dark came whirling down across his eyes –
he toppled down like a tower in the rough assault.
(Fagles trans. II 529-35)

There is a lot of this gory stuff in the Iliad. It begins with the affront offered Achilles, whose loss of face leads to his withdrawal from the fighting. The Trojans gain the advantage, as their leader Hector is second only to Achilles in prowess. Success is due only to fighting ability, and of that of relatively few men, not of strategy or tactics. The leaders of both sides squabble, and so do the gods. At the end Hector is buried with full honours. I’m no soldier, but this seems a true picture of war, of its illusions and futility, given with much authenticity. Someone, if not Homer, was present at such a battle and reported what it was like. It is a powerful depiction of a tragic view of life, and of the presence of death always within it. No wonder the Athenian dramatists drew upon Homer.

When the two armies came to one common ground,
they smashed into each other—shields, spears, fierce angry men
encased in bronze. Studded shields bashed one another.
A huge din arose—human cries of grief and triumph,
those killing and those killed. Earth flowed with blood.
Just as streams swollen with melting snows pour out,
flow downhill into a pool, and meet some torrent
from a great spring in a hollow gully there,
and the shepherd in the distant hills hears the roar—
so the shouts and turmoil resounded then from warriors,
as they collided.

Antilochus was the first to kill a man—
a well-armed Trojan warrior, Echepolus,
son of Thalysius, a courageous man,
who fought in the front ranks. He hit his helmet crest,
topped with horsehair plumes, spearing his forehead.
The bronze point smashed straight through the frontal bone.
Darkness hid his eyes and he collapsed, like a tower,
falling down into that frenzied battle.
(Ian Johnston trans. II, 519-37)

The Iliad has faults and difficulties for modern readers. The verse is such that no translation can accurately capture the poet’s skill. The action is repetitive (unless it’s your ancestor being celebrated). The behaviour of the gods is puzzling. Hidden in the Iliad and one of its many sources is a parodic treatment of the subject, where villanous warriors boast and run away, and empty-headed gods squabble like children. This kind of treatment served some unknown purpose in ancient culture, and we know of one or two examples that have survived in the genre of poetry (some lines of Archilochus) and in tragedy (satyr plays).

Reading for pleasure is very different from studying. Anyone who wants to enjoy the Iliad should read E V Rieu’s prose version. I have yet to read a poetic version of the poem that wasn’t odd at times, and often boring. But Rieu I read with great enjoyment. It was a wonderful introduction to Homer.
The Odyssey, or adventures of Odysseus, is a treatment of the mythic journey that once had religious significance in ancient societies. It is thought later than the Iliad, and opinion is divided as to whether Homer composed it or another. In fact it would have gone through as many hands as the Iliad did. Perhaps a ritual story involving a test, and a descent to the underworld, it was adapted to stories about Odysseus. Stories about other heroes were added, such as Jason, and the hero’s name altered. It became a bardic chant recited for the families claiming descent from Odysseus, and one version of this was eventually written down. Again, we don’t know who adapted the recitation to hexameter form, or whether the extreme mastery the verse came to acquire was the work of many or just one man.

There seems to be two components of the poem, a marvellous voyage in the style of Sindbad’s (and there might have been a Persian precursor of The Thousand Nights and One Night for ‘Homer’ to draw on) or Jason’s, and which included a voyage to the underworld, to which has been added the story of the hero Odyssey and his return to Ithika and the revenge he wrought on the unruly suitors who had beseiged his palace.
The marvellous voyage, Kirke, Polyphemus, Kalypso, the Phaeacians and the underworld seem quite different in spirit to the problems of Telemachus and the subterfuge of Penelope, the return of Odysseus and the slaughter of the suitors. The return and Odysseus’ resumption of power seems similar to the world of the Iliad, but it is far from that heroic world, with a concern for restoring order which may derive from a later period. The marvellous voyage could be derived from later material still, but more likely from Persian or Middle Eastern sources. Perhaps Gilgamesh had a hand in its composition.

‘Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of action,
no more tears now, calm these tides of sorrow.
Well I know what pains you bore on the swarming sea
What punishment you endured from hostile men on land.
But come now, eat your food and drink your wine
till the same courage fills your chests, now as then,
when you first set sail from native land, from rocky Ithaca’
(Fagles trans. X 502-08)

After the bloody and tragic world of the Iliad, the Odyssey seems almost an anti-climax. The dramatic tension in even the more perilous encounters is much lower. This is a tale you could tell to children. Our version may be a rewrite of a more powerfully dramatic version more similar in spirit to the Iliad. Yet there is magic here, in the tale.
Zeus, who marshals the clouds, now sent my fleet a terrible gale from the north. He covered the sea and the land alike with a canopy of cloud; and darkness swept down on us from the sky. Our ships were driven sidelong by the wind, and the force of their gusts tore the sails to rags and tatters. With the fear of death upon us, we lowered these to the decks, and rowed the bare ships landward with all our might.

For me the skilfully written prose of E V Riew captures this magic far more successfully than Fagles or Fitzgerald.

There were two processes going on with both poems, over centuries. The first was the evolution of the matter contained in the poem. A warrior’s vaunt of his exploits, a tribute to him at his funeral, a clan story recited at clan ceremonies, expansion to form a structured narrative, addition of other matter, a status as a common story of Greek achievement. Episodes would have been added or omitted until the basic form we have was achieved. Originally a recitation in honour of a clan, and not a poem as we know it, it went through a long period of enhancement, and at some stage was written down. It was glossed, edited, conflated with other versions, and, from an extempore hero story, became a sacred text which could not be altered.

Eventually the two poems became one of the only three things that were truly national in the ancient Greek world. Nationality was a foreign concept to them. But all Greeks came together for the Olympic and other Games, consulted the great oracles of the gods, and listened to recitations of Homer.

There could have been many gifted performers of the poems while they were in a stage of oral transmission over the period 1200-700 BC, but their poetic content is likely to date from the time they were first written down. Sometime in the period 600-200 BC they achieved mastery of verse form, the work of one poet or several we have no way of telling after 1700 years of editorial intervention. Yet what matters is not how the poems were written nor who wrote them, but the skill of the writing and the magic of the verse.

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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