To the ancients the poet was foremost a seer, an inspired artist capable of revealing hidden truths to his race or nation. No bard greater exemplifies this than Homer, the man credited with composing the most outstanding of Greece's epic poems, the Iliad and theOdyssey. Who was Homer? No one knows for sure. Later Greeks believed that he was a blind minstrel from the island of Chios. In ancient times his authorship of both epics was undisputed. Modern investigation of Homer's texts showed many inconsistencies of fact, style, and language between the two poems and led to serious questions about authorship. Today, however, most scholars believe that both poems were conceived in a unified way and reflect the creative process of a single author who shaped traditional material into an inspired masterpiece which "... revealed the Hellenic people to itself in the lucid and clear nobility and beauty of an uplifting of life and an artistic sense of the humanity and divinity of man." (Sri Aurobindo — The Future Poetry)
The Homeric epics were composed between 900-700 BC. These poems describe legendary events that in all likelihood can be traced to real historical struggles for control of the waterway leading from the Aegean Sea through the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Such skirmishes would have taken place as early as 1200 BC — many years before Homer told his tale to Greek audiences. It is obvious that the Greeks of Homer's time were familiar with his stories, their heroes
and the outcome of their adventures. Surely Homer was a rhapsodist. These were wandering bards or minstrels who were the historians, entertainers and at their best — the mythmakers of their time. These minstrels travelled from village to village singing of recent legendary events, and of the doings of heroes, gods, and goddesses
Modern scholars have studied the living oral tradition in Eastern Europe and have come to the conclusion that stories like the Iliad were probably first told aloud following a basic story line, but freely improvised according to the capacity of the individual bard. The oral storyteller is apt to have a stock of story-telling formulas ready in his memory. Such formulas abound in Homer and are called epithets. These are short descriptive phrases which are used repeatedly by the poet. For example: the sea in Homer's epics is always 'wine dark' and the goddess Athene is always 'gray-eyed.' This technique is characteristic of Homer's epic style and has a unifying effect on the story. Besides that, it may also help the story-teller by giving him a breathing space during which he can inwardly prepare the next portion of the tale.
Homer was first of all a great story teller. His descriptions "seem poetic to us; yet they are of an inexpressible naturalness, though delineated with a purity and intimacy never equalled. Even the strangest and most fantastic of the described occurrences have an inevitable naturalness. The ancients represent life itself; we commonly describe its effects." (Goethe) His story is one of epic proportions. He gave a hitherto unknown power of word and structure to the epic form. Homer was the first to imagine a hero whose spirit would triumph amid self-destruction. He expresses an attitude that came later to be known as typically Greek: that what is most worth having in Life can often be had only at the peril of life itself. "Beauty, like glory, must be sought though the price be tears and destruction. Is not this thought at the very center of the Trojan War? For its hero Achilles, the very perfection of Greek chivalry, was given precisely this choice by the gods. They offered him a long life with mediocrity or glory with an early death" (H.D.F Kitto — The Greeks)
What is an epic?
An epic or heroic poem is a work that is characterised by being a long, narrative poem on a great and serious subject, one that is told
in an elevated style, and is centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, nation, or the human race. Most traditional epics are shaped by a literary artist who uses historical and legendary materials which have been developed in the oral traditions of his nation, usually during a period of expansion and warfare. In an epic often the hero performs super human deeds in which super-physical powers (the gods) are involved. The setting of an epic is vast and the actions that occur within that setting are of great (and even cosmic) importance.
Notes on Ilion: a modern poem
A selection from a modern rendering of a portion of the story of the siege of Troy demonstrates that Homer's contribution to western civilization is still vibrant in its impact on the modern sensibility. Sri Aurobindo's poem, Ilion, gives a lucid poetic description of the powers at work behind the curtain of history and proposes some suggestions about the historical meaning of this particular power struggle between men of conflicting cultures and values. He reveals that Hellas will rise to power, but that it, too, will eventually fall and make way for other races who will take their turn in leading man's evolutionary march. In this passage Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, encourages his fellow gods to set aside their sentiments in the face of the suffering that war inevitably causes and to remember their unwavering aim: to work out the Divine Will on the lower planes of manifestation.
"Now too from earth and her children voices of anger and weeping
Beat at our thrones: 'tis the grief and the wrath of fate-stricken creatures.
Mortals struggling with destiny, hearts that are slaves to their sorrow.
We unmoved by the cry will fulfill our unvarying purpose.
Troy shall fall at last and the ancient ages shall perish.
You who are lovers of Ilion turn from the moans of her people.
Chase from your hearts their prayers, blow back from your nostrils the incense,
Let not one nation resist by its glory the good of the ages.
Twilight thickens over man and he moves to his winter of darkness.
Troy that displaced with her force and her arms the luminous ancients,
Sinks in her turn by the ruder strength of the half-savage Achaians. They to the Hellene shall yield and the Hellene fall by the Roman. Rome too shall not endure, but by strengths ill-shaped shall be broken,
Nations formed in the ice and mist, confused and crude-hearted. So shall the darker and ruder always prevail o'er the brilliant Till in its turn to a ruder and darker it falls and is shattered. So shall mankind make speed to destroy what was mighty creating."
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the land of the Achaeans, i.e. Greece. Two distinct territories one in southeast Thessaly and the other
in the northern Peloponneus.
|They were the Greeks of the Heroic Age, who|
|had become, by the time of the siege of Troy, the most powerful of the Greek tribes. They were probably originally central Europeans who came into Greece around 2000 BC and gradually adopted Greek speech and customs. From this tribe descended the kings of Athens, who brought order and power to that city.|
|Achelous:||river in Phyrigia (Asia Minor), east of Troy.|
|Aegean:||sea between Greece and Asia Minor.|
|Agamemnon:||eldest son of Atreus and brother of Menelaus, King of Mycenae and Argos, Agamemnon was the commander in chief of the Greek forces against Troy. On his return to Greece, he was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her paramour Aegisthus; his death was avenged by his children, Electra and Orestes.|
|Trojan, son of Priam.|
|Argives:||alternative name for the Achaeans or Greeks.|
alternative name for Alcimedon, a Myrmidon commander.
|Andromache:||wife of Trojan Prince Hector.|
|Antiphonus:||Trojan, son of Priam.|
|Argos:||another name for mainland Greece.|
|Automedon:||Charioteer of Achilles; he drove the immortal horses Balius and Xanthus given Peleus by Poseidon.|
|Barrow:||a large sepulchral mound; a tumulus.|
|Bird of omen:||to discover the will of the gods, the Greeks consulted oracles who observed the flight of birds.|
|Briseis:||daughter of Briseus, a Lyrnessian from the Troad; she became Achilles' slave-concubine when he sacked her town and killed her husband. She was later taken from Achilles by his king Agamemnon. This act set off the quarrel between the two which forms the central unresolved problem in the Iliad.|
the most beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba;She was loved by Apollo, but deceived him. In retaliation he cursed her with the gift of prophecy, with the hitch that her prophecies would never be believed
|Cauldron:||a large kettle.|
|Centaur:||a member of the race, half man and half horse living in the mountains of Thessaly.|
|Chiron:||centaur renowned for his skill in medicine.|
|Dardanus:||son of Zeus and Electra, the daughter of Atlas; he married the daughter of Teucer and became the ancestor of both the younger and older branches of the royal house of Troy.|
son of Priam and Hecuba, a great Trojan hero.
|Dius:||Trojan, son of Priam.|
athletic events and chariot races held in honor of a deceased man, usually someone who was heroic in battle.
|The Fates:||the three goddesses of destiny who preordain the course and outcome of every human life. They are represented as three old women spinning.|
|Hector:||the eldest son of Priam and Hecuba and mightiest of the Trojan warriors. He was the leader of the Trojan forces during the siege until he was slam by the Greek hero, Achilles.|
|Hecuba:||the chief wife of Priam and mother of nineteen of his fifty sons.|
|Helenus:||Trojan, a son of Priam who was both warrior and prophet.|
|Hellespont:||narrow strait dividing Europe from Asia at the final exit of the waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara; the modern Dardanelles.|
|Hippothous:||Trojan, son of Priam.|
|Ida:||mountain in northwest Asia Minor, southeast of the site of ancient Troy. It was a seat of Zeus. Trojan, herald of Priam.|
|Idaeus:||Trojan, son of Priam.|
|Ilus:||legendary Trojan king, son of Dardanus and ancestor of Priam. He was one of the chief builders of Troy, which was named Ilion after him.|
|Iris:||goddess, messenger of Zeus who travels on a rainbow.|
|Judgment of Paris:||a tale of ancient Greece. According to it, all the
However he was rescued and raised by shepherds and was later accepted by his parents. It was his
abduction of Helen which was the cause of the Trojan War.
Achaean, brother-in-arms of Achilles, killed by Hector.
king of the Myrmidons, father of Achilles by the goddess, Thetis.
|Pergamus:||the citadel of Troy.|
|Phyrigia:||region in Asia Minor east of Troy.|
the false name given by Hermes as his father when in disguise he meets Priam on the way to the Greek camp.
|Priam:||king of Troy, father of Hector and Paris.|
sea-goddess, daughter of Nereus, married to Peleus and by him the mother of the hero Achilles.
|Thrace:||country north of the Aegean and the Hellespont; its inhabitants fought as Trojan allies.|
|Tripod:||a vessel on three legs. Trojan, son of Priam.|
|Troilus:||Trojan, son of Priam.|
|Troy:||This city (also called Troas or Ilios or Ilion or Ilium) was located on the western shore of modern Turkey directly on the trade routes between Greece and the Middle East (see map p. 17). This, strategic location put Troy in a position to levy tolls on all vessels wishing to pass through the Hellespont to trade in the Black Sea region, a fact that probably accounts for the reputed wealth and power of the Trojans. The archeologists Schliemann and Dorpfeld excavated nine cities on a hill about three miles from the sea. Of these nine cities, Troy VI was destroyed by fire at about the time of the traditional date of the Trojan War (1194-1184 be). It is likely that this is the Troy to which Homer refers.|
the people of Troy. They claimed descent from a legendary hero, Ilus, who founded their city. Myths tell us that two gods helped to fortify the city walls, making it a significant stronghold in the region. The Trojans as we meet them in the Iliad
|are a highly civilized people ruled by a wise and benevolent king.|
|Xanthus:||the divine name given to a river of the Troad which was named Scamander by mortals.|
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The fight over the dead body of Achilles
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The Iliad, Homer (translator: E.V Rieu), Penguin, Baltimore, 1950(1954).
The Iliad, Homer (translator: Robert Fagles), Penguin, New York, 1990.
The Iliad, Homer (translator: Richard Lattimore).
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Ilion, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Pondicherry, India, 1957. Sri Aurobindo and Greece, Amal Kiran, Integral Life Foundation, USA, 1998.