Homer and I go way back — all the way to the summer before my senior year in high school, when one evening a week I would drive to Dorchester and translate the Odyssey while dripping sweat onto the ancient text.
I’ve lost all my knowledge of ancient Greek in the intervening years, but I feel the need to reacquaint myself with Homer every once in a while. Most recently, I listened to an audio version of the Iliad narrated by Dan Stevens. Listening to this ancient epic while fighting traffic on Interstate 93 isn’t perhaps the ideal way of encountering Homer, but it’s the best I can do nowadays. A few brief comments:
- Dan Stevens is pretty good! He obviously made the right career decision by quitting Downton Abbey for the lucrative business of narrating epic poems.
- It’s amazing how modern some of the narrative structure is — for example, Homer needs a scene that shows Hector’s wife Andromache mourning his death. But the sceone won’t work unless he has a previous scene establishing their love. And that’s exactly what he has–a set up, and then a while later, the payoff.
- On the other hand, he must have been absent the day his MFA program went over the rules for naming characters. The Iliad, of course, features two major characters with the same name: Ajax. So Homer has to put his Homeric epithets into overdrive to ensure that we know which one he’s talking about. (Someone mentioned to me that some people point to this as evidence that these were real people–even back then, no one would be stupid enough to give two made-up characters the same name.) Also, of course, multiple characters have more than one name. Thanks a lot! Generally, although not always, the alternative name is just a patronymic; even so, this doesn’t help us follow the action. Similarly, Homer doesn’t bother to call the Greeks “Greeks”; instead they are Argives or Achaeans or Danaans. (And Troy is randomly referred to as Ilion.) That is also really helpful.
- The gods are hugely present in the Iliad, and are generally speaking much more entertaining than our current crop of deities. The Zeus/Hera squabbling never gets old. Here is a photo of grey-eyed Athena from the Museum of Fine Arts:
- On the other hand, I have never been happy with how much the gods motivate the action. It’s never the case the one side does well because somebody has a good plan; or, if he does have a plan, it’s because a god put him in mind of it. This is the sort of thing that Julian Jaynes points to in everyone’s favorite book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, as evidence that back in those days people weren’t conscious in the way we are today; instead, they heard voices in their minds that they interpreted as being the gods.
- Finally, after all these years, I still prefer the Odyssey to the Iliad. I ultimately find the incessant battle scenes repetitive and a bit exhausting. Along with the rest of the Argives and Achaeans and Danaans, I just want Achilles to get over himself and come back and win the damn war.