Bitter Words

I last read The Iliad in its entirety 21 years ago. Given my interest in Alexander the Great I should have read the epic that so inspired him much, much more recently than that. Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. I’ve started reading it now and as often as I do so will write an update on this blog on how I am getting on.

Iliad Diary
Day 1

Firstly, an apology. An apology for all the references that I will miss while reading the poem. I am an amateur when it comes to the fourth century B.C. and am rather less than that when it comes to the thirteen. To make up for this, I will, as I read The Iliad be doing some background reading as well. Where I can incorporate what I learn into these posts, I will certainly do so.

Secondly, a word about how I will structure these posts. To keep the word count down, and encourage myself to be more concise I will be taking the poem one scene at a time. Having said that, I don’t want to be in the position of blogging about one line so this will change if the scenes are very short.

With that said, let’s jump into the poem. Book I Lines 1-7. I have chosen these because they comprise Homer’s introduction to his work*.

The rage of Achilles – sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief

Two things jump out at me in these two lines: the fact that Homer is asking the goddess to sing the poem through him and the fact that Achilles’ anger hurts his own side, not the Trojans.

A question: which goddess is Homer referring to? Is it Artemis, the goddess of war? Or perhaps Hera, who loved Achilles (I.201)?

Whichever goddess it is, the first line of the poem tells us something very interesting about how poets of archaic Greece saw themselves. Not just reciters of great lays but channels of the gods, themselves.

Now, I am sure Homer was a very humble man, but the idea of poets seeing themselves as the gods’ interlocutors must have given at least a few of them big heads.

This reminds me of Callisthenes’ alleged big headedness. Arrian tells us (IV.10) of a story that Aristotle’s nephew claimed,

without the history he was writing, Alexander and his work would be forgotten

And that Callisthenes claimed,

if Alexander was destined to have a share of divinity, it would not be owing to Olympias’ absurd stories about his birth, but to the account of him which he would himself publish in his history.

At this point, I should say that if at any point I can relate anything I read in The Iliad to Alexander’s life, then I will endeavour to do so. I beg your patience if the connexions I draw are just too tenuous!

Going back to the poem, the poet implies that Achilles’ anger was ‘the will of Zeus’. The king of Olympus, therefore, permitted many of his people – Greeks – to die because of Achilles. This is a very pressing reminder that though Hera loved Thetis’ son, the gods could not always be relied upon to have their subjects backs at any given time.

A question: Was this because the Olympians only ever acted according to self-interest or were they at the mercy of fate, or the Fates?


I almost forgot to tell you: I am reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in e-book form (Phoenix 2013).

The Arrian I quoted from is the beat up Penguin Classics (1971) edition that I wouldn’t lose for the world.

Categories: Books, Homer | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Bitter Words

  1. S. Abel-Smith

    Would the goddess invoked at the start of a poem not be the Muses?


  2. Your cultural initiative is noteworthy. Being an old student of ancient Greek language (and of Homer especially), I feel free of point out to you some observations about the translation you used: the goddess to whom the poet claims to keep inspiration isn’t Artemis, nor Hera, but the Muse (Homer speeks often of one Muse, but also of many Muses) and in the original text there is no ‘through me’: the Muse herself sings the ‘rage of Achilles’.


  3. Abel-Smith and Silasaila – thank you both for your comments; yes, the Muse(s) would be an obvious choice… perhaps that is why I didn’t see it!

    It’s very interesting to read about the absence of ‘through me’ in the original Greek. I wonder why Mitchell added it.


    • I think Mitchell added it anticipating the longer and more solemn second invocation to the Muses that opens the Catalogue of the Ships in Book 2, 484- 492. It says: ‘Tell me Muses who live in the houses of Olympus, you are goddesses, and are always present and see everything – we heard only the glory, but didn’t know nothing – and so on’. The poet believes he is the medium that makes possible to the Muse(s) to communicate their divine knowledge, but only in the second invocation he speaks of himself (‘Tell ME Muses); in the first he only asks the Muse to sing, pretending not to be present.
      As to Callisthenes, you are absolutely right: he is the last one in the long line of poets and wise men from Homer on (like Pindar and Isocrates) who believe fame of heroes and great men cannot last without the celebration made by themselves. Remember how Alexander declared Achilles happy for having such an herald of his deeds like Homer (Arrian, Anab. 1, 12, 1).


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