Homer | Classical Wisdom Weekly

Skip to Content

Category Archives: Homer

[post_grid id="10043"]

Homer’s Real Story: The Truth Behind the ‘Iliad’

by June 18, 2021

Written by John Martin, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
For the nearly three millennia since the Iliad’s creation, its grand story remains undiscovered. Homer’s masterpiece was a brilliant exercise in telling a new kind of story while letting his listening audience think that they were hearing another (more familiar, more easily accessible) one. 
The blind poet, as antiquity knew him to be, created a beautiful and powerful work which pleased mortal audiences. But Homer’s Real Story was created for the gods, and meant to be one which only the gods could understand.
Homer and His Guide (1874) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The Iliads prologue invokes, not a Muse, but an unnamed “goddess”(1.1; see footnote (1) note below). Close scrutiny informs us that Homer himself, with only the most limited help from the Muses, created this imaginative fantasy. In devising his own alternative mythology, Homer the storyteller placed himself at the level of the gods.
The Real Iliad decisively departs from the traditional story of the Judgment of Paris, the ten-year war for Helen, and the Trojan (wooden) Horse. In its place, it offers a far better story that deconstructs and debunks mortal warriors, the gods who make or take sides in wars, and the glory men (supposedly) seek in battle. The great war poem is, in essence, epically antiwar.
In piecing together the Iliad‘s web of secret plans, hidden motives, and discarding post-Homeric corruptions to the text, we discover an Iliad which is not a prelude to Achilles’ glorious early death and the Fall of Troy, but the opposite. Zeus, the greatest of gods, uses the Trojan War as a theater in which to discredit war among mortals. 
In a cosmos of venal, self-seeking gods, Homer’s Zeus finally emerges as a picture of what true divinity must be like, and why it is worthy to rule mortals, and be worshipped by them.
Throughout the work, the great hero Achilles has a choice between a Short Life, in which he dies at Troy and wins imperishable renown, and a Long Life, in which he goes home and his renown is lost (9.410-5). 
Painting of the Gods in the Iliad
Athena counseling Achilles in “Achilles’ Wrath” by Michel Martin Drolling
The main subject of the poem is how he makes this choice. From the outset, Achilles is unwilling to fight under Agamemnon’s leadership, instead wanting to lead the army himself. His intentions go awry with the death of his beloved companion Patroclus. However, the glory of avenging Patroclus by killing Hector (only possible with Athena’s considerable help) does not satisfy Achilles. 
In an ending concealed in the text, towards which the entire story has been leading, Homer’s own words will tell us how Achilles, as supplicated by Priam, chooses the Long Life and goes home. 
The Greek army, unwilling to fight without its greatest warrior, leaves also, sparing peaceful, horse-taming TroyZeus’ favorite city (4.44-9). The failure of Agamemnon’s great military expedition gives the world a badly-needed lesson in the futility and folly of warfare. Perhaps that will put an end to so many unnecessary deaths, which make humans, in Zeus’ sympathetic view, the most wretched of mortal creatures (17.443-7). 
In telling this alternative tale, Homer offers a devastating indictment of the traditional gods of Greek mythology who, supposedly, caused the Trojan War and all the misery to which it led.
To illustrate how the Real Story is told, let us revisit two well-known scenes: [1] Athena orders Achilles not to kill Agamemnon, and promises compensation (1.172-222); [2] Zeus shakes Olympus with his nod, promising to fulfill Thetis’ request that he honor Achilles by helping the Trojans in battle (1.493-567).
[1] Agamemnon threatens to take Achilles’ prize, a woman called Briseis. Achilles begins to draw his sword to kill Agamemnon. Athena appears, sent by Hera, “who both equally in her heart loved and cared for [Achilles and Agamemnon]” (1.195f). 

Oddly, Athena restrains Achilles from behind, pulling his hair (1.197f). She says: “Refrain from strife, and do not draw your sword” (1.210) and promises that “three times as many shining gifts will be yours because of this outrage” (1.213f).
This objectifies Briseis to a ridiculous degree. How can shining gifts be a multiple of a woman? And if Agamemnon’s offense to Achilles’ honor is so grave as to justify Achilles’ asking Zeus to help the Trojans, how could a few gifts be expected to compensate him? After all, the ages have seen Achilles’ wrath at Agamemnon as arising from his nearly-irreparable offense to his honor.
Hera cares for the two warriors equally. Does Athena? Why does she speak only to Achilles? Why doesn’t she cool things down by also telling Agamemnon not to take Briseis?
Iliadic Athena is neither a goddess of war, nor of wisdom. She pulls Achilles’ hair, like a shy teen-ager, because she is in love with him. She saves Agamemnon, yet perpetuates, instead of calms, their Quarrel. Why? Because she is jealous of Briseis, and wants Achilles to lose her. 
Athena, attributed to Rembrandt, 17th century
Athena will appear, throughout the Iliad, as something like a virgin teenager. She is looking for a mortal man to deify, a man with a savagery comparable to her own, and she will make a mess of every major assignment given to her. The next time Hera needs something from Achilles, she will send Zeus’ messenger Iris (18.165ff).
And should we note that Achilles obeys Athena’s command to put up his sword, but disobeys her primary directive, which is to refrain from strife. Because Agamemnon has seized Briseis, Achilles can take the strife with Agamemnon right up to Zeus. Athena, in saving Agamemnon’s life, has also saved Achilles’ wrath. And without her blunder, there is no Iliad.
Athena, although selfish and inept, does know something about warriors. She obviously believes that losing Briseis should not be a cause of great wrath at Agamemnon (see footnote (2) below). But if losing Briseis is not sufficient reason for the Wrath, then what is? By this early point in the narrative, we should already have realized that Achilles is also angry about something else of much greater importance. The other scene of importance, [2], will shed some light on that.
[2] Thetis heads for Zeus’ house (1.426f), in order to supplicate him. Evidently seeking privacy, she meets him on the topmost peak of Olympus. Thetis clasps Zeus’s knees, and Zeus, although worried about trouble with Hera, agrees to help the Trojans. He seals his assent with a nod, and “made great Olympus vibrate.”

“Zeus’ nod is one of the most ‘sublime’ images of the poem, a moment of extraordinary divine action which emphasizes the gulf between us and the powers that control us” writes Richard Hunter in The Measure of Homer (The Measure of Homer (2018), page 56).
Then Zeus tells Thetis: “But now go back again, lest Hera notice you.”  It turns out that Hera has noticed, and confronts Zeus, greatly angering him.
Paradox: If Zeus wanted to avoid Hera’s notice, why did he nod in such a manner as to shake Olympus, which Hera could not fail to notice? (Zeus’ other two nods do not have external effects, 8.245f, 17.209-12.) Resolution: Anti-war Zeus hates what he has agreed to do (and has only agreed because he owes Thetis a favor: 1.393-406). Olympus’ trembling is unanticipated and involuntary on his part. It is a divine shudder. (Later, Hera shudders on her throne, and Olympus trembles sympathetically, 8.198f.) 
Achilles' mother Thetis
Achilles’ mother Thetis, with Zeus
The power is not in the nod, but in Zeus’ repugnance at committing to a battle in a war that he would like to end. And, whatever Agamemnon may have done to Achilles, the shudder marks Thetis and Achilles as completely in the wrong.
The Iliad proceeds in this manner, and we must follow it, line by line, scene by scene, from first to last, to uncover its deep story, which the ages have missed.
Homer’s masterpiece has long held a lofty place at the pinnacle of ancient Greek and Roman literature. What would the world have been like if Homer’s Real Story—his antiwar message—had been understood? Readers who grasp the Real Story will be left wondering how it could have alternately shaped literature, culture, and even history in the ages to come. 
Footnote (1): The Iliad has a very different way of invoking the Muses (2.684 and elsewhere) and they are only consulted regarding matters of simple fact, as “…who were the leaders and chiefs of the Danaans” (2.687). The full line 1.1 reveals that the goddess is Thetis; Homer’s (notably unusual) Prologue is not an invocation, since the Poet does not pray to the goddess.
Footnote (2): Aias, the Greeks’ second best warrior, agrees; see 9.628-42.
Note: All citations from the Iliad are translations by the author.
About the author: John D. Martin holds a PhD in economics and three other degrees from the University of Chicago. He first read Homer as an undergraduate in 1961. Homer’s Iliad: The Real Story is a labor of nine years, constant and continuous, and was completed at the start of the tenth. It will be published this summer with the help of AuthorHouse. The work is a line-by-line commentary, with translations supplied by the author.

The Cunning Homer: A New Look At The ‘Odyssey’

by June 16, 2021

Written by Alberto Majrani, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Who really killed the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey? A careful reading of the epic poem reveals a myriad of clues left by Homer with a surprising conclusion: Ulysses was not…really Ulysses. He was the expert Achaean archer Philoctetes in disguise! 
With this key, the Homeric poem suddenly assumes a logic and coherence hitherto unsuspected. This explains why Homer continues to praise the art of deception: it is he who has deceived us for three thousand years! And the surprises do not end there: all the apparent inconsistencies of the Iliad and the Odyssey that have plagued students and teachers for generations, known as the “Homeric Question”, now fall effortlessly in place. The ancient texts finally agree with historical and archaeological data, fully revealing the genius of their author.
It’s a strange story, that of Ulysses. Is it possible that the King of Ithaca stayed away for twenty years, missing his homeland, abandoning a beautiful nymph who would make him immortal, only to return to a wife no longer young after a dangerous solo crossing?
And when he does return, nobody recognizes him, not even his father or his own wife, so he kills all the pretenders threatening to provoke a bloody revolution, and finally, when he would have every right to a little peace and quiet, he decides to sail away in secret, leaving everyone baffled! All right, yes, it is a mythological tale, but it is not very…logical!
The Sirens in the Odyssey
Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper
And what if Ulysses was not actually…Ulysses? Let’s examine the hypothesis that the son of Ulysses, Telemachus, had hired a mercenary to interpret Ulysses and to slaughter of the suitors asking the hand of his mother Penelope: the same Telemachus would then cast a poet to tell a fantastic story that could justify all the years of his father’s absence. All this in order to free the royal palace of all the suitors eating them out of house and home — not to mention that if someone had married his mother, Telemachus would have lost his right of succession to the kingdom. 
In fact, Penelope was of noble birth, being the daughter of the powerful King Ikarios, while Ulysses was an “upstart” tradesman familiar with piracy and looting, activities which, at that time, were not clearly defined. The claimants themselves were plotting to get rid of him, and he had to anticipate them as soon as possible.
Who was this mercenary? Can you imagine? Think about it…it is suggested to us by Ulysses himself…when he is in the land of the Phaeacians. Ulysses claims to be the best of the Achaeans in archery, immediately after Philoctetes!
As for Philoctetes, who was he? Maybe someone remembers him thanks to the amusing cartoon “Hercules”, produced by Disney in 1997 in which the script writers got a bit too carried away by the need to invent a fun story. They changed the events and roles of various mythological characters. It’s best, then, to refer to Classical sources. 
Philoctetes, by Jean Germain Drouais
The Iliad tells us that Philoctetes was the head of a contingent of the Achaeans headed to the Trojan War. However, he was bitten in the foot by a snake, a serious wound that became infected and forced his teammates to abandon him on the island of Lemnos. As Sophocles recounts in his play Philoctetes, according to a prophecy, Troy would fall only with the help of Hercules’ weapons. Philoctetes had been a pupil of Hercules and had inherited his bow and arrows, so after being cured by the Achaean doctor Machaon, Philoctetes kills Paris, decisively contributing to the defeat of the Trojans.
Of course! The mercenary was Philoctetes! That explains a lot: he had known Ulysses for some time—that lent itself well to interpret him– he also was a “family friend” and therefore may have been more willing to risk his life in such a dangerous undertaking. He was an extremely skilled archer, requiring a level of training that Ulysses could not have maintained after so many years at sea. 
That is assuming, of course, that Ulysses was really equipped with this skill: as the Iliad recounts, Ulysses never uses the bow, even during the games in honor of Patroclus, in which he won wrestling and running competitions. And when he finally does have a bow in hand—borrowed from the young warrior Meriones—all he does with it is whip horses!  
Note also that Homer does not say that Philoctetes was abandoned on Lemnos on Ulysses’ orders: this is the work of subsequent mythographers and repeated by Sophocles, who reworked the old myths to build on his story–not very different from the authors of Disney. So there is no reason to think that Philoctetes was harboring resentment against Ulysses or his family members.
The youth of Ithaca would not have recognized Philoctetes, but some elderly people might, so it was necessary to leave the island as soon as  his mission against the suitors was accomplished. He had been seriously wounded in the foot by a snake, which would have left him with some obvious lameness. In fact, Homer, without saying so openly, does everything to make us understand that the mysterious stranger limps: he walks slowly, leaning on a cane, is likened to the god Hephaestus, who is lame too. There are many strange references to “feet”, for example the old nurse who recognizes “Ulysses” by his knee injury caused by a wild boar (which is never mentioned either in the Iliad or the rest of the Odyssey, in which the legs of the runner Ulysses are absolutely perfect), a recognition that comes just as she washes his feet. Perhaps it had more to do with the foot than the knee! 
But Philoctetes was not content with his substantial reward— i.e., all the precious objects Telemachus loaded on his ship when he sailed off—he aspired to eternal glory! And since he could not reveal the deception, he was lauded as one of “the best of the archers Achaean” by the great “Ulysses” himself. 
That same “Ulysses” even alludes — in the poem dedicated to him — that there was someone better than him in the art of archery. His words are something of a Freudian slip, a kind of “Message in a Bottle” launched to posterity, as if to say: “he who has ears to hear, let him hear!”. Homer has left a host of similar messages throughout the poem that guide us through the actual course of the action.
Polyphemus cave
Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus: Jacob Jordaens, 1635.
As for the real Ulysses, he had probably died long before, killed in battle or drowned at sea. This can be deduced from the fact that, throughout the Odyssey, the idea that the hero is now deceased is repeated several times. What about the fact that at some point Ulysses descends into the underworld? Or the episode in which his name is Nobody, so the cyclops Polyphemus will repeat that Nobody blinds him, No one kills him? Other messages in bottles, which.. no one, so far, had taken literally! 
And again, does it not appear very suspect the extraordinary coincidence in time, that Ulysses would return to Ithaca after two decades, and within hours his son is landing on the same beach, located on the opposite side to the main port? 
Also, what should we infer from traditional biographies which say Homer was blind? It could be that the poet was looking for a justification for not recognizing he who passed himself off as Ulysses?
Let’s reconstruct  the affair, let’s imagine how could it have taken place in reality. There is a power vacuum in Ithaca; the king left for decades and never came back. The suitors are plotting to eliminate Telemachus and take over the kingdom, so he sets sail with a ship full of precious objects to hire a mercenary (Philoctetes already means “the one who loves to possess”). Philoctetes comes and performs the massacre with the help of the most faithful servants, whom, as the swineherd Eumaeus and the cowherd Philoetius take the trouble of informing us, will be adequately rewarded 
The fake Ulysses cannot stay there pretending nothing had happened, because sooner or later someone will recognize him. So he sails off again, leaving Telemachus the kingdom… and they all lived happily ever after. 
The Odyssey is not just a fairy tale for overgrown children, but an intricate maze filled with ingenious references that will inevitably escape those who do not study it closely. Quandoque dormitat bonus Homerus–“Even good old Homer nods,” Horace proclaimed– but maybe Homer was a lot more awake than we thought!  
This article is based off a new book by Alberto Majrani titled L’ASTUTO OMERO e il geniale inganno dell’Odissea (The CUNNING HOMER – Ulysses, Nobody, Philoctetes and The Ingenious Deception Of The Odyssey) which addresses the Homeric question. As of April 2021, the book is available only in Italian. To request the complete 428-page pdf ebook, which includes 280 images at the price of Euro 6,28, send an email to [email protected] Publishers, journalists, University professors are provided a FREE copy of ebook. The paper book costs 28 euros + shipping (weight 1300 grams). More info on Internet https://cunninghomer.blogspot.com/ (in English) or https://astutoomero.blogspot.com/ (in Italian)

Master of Stories: Odysseus in the Kingdom of the Dead

by February 26, 2021

Written by Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Just as the adventures described in Books 9-12 of the Odyssey are often the most-remembered episodes due to their fantastic character, so Odysseusaccount of the underworld is one of his most striking. But did it really” happen? Are we meant to believe that, within the horizon of the poem, Odysseus actually traveled to the underworld—or is he telling another tall tale?

Of all the stories Odysseus tells the Phaeacians, his account of the underworld is the only one to contain an interruption, emphasizing that this is a story being told to an audience. Odysseus pauses to suggest that it may be time to break off story-telling and go to sleep. But King Alcinous urges him to continue: The nights still young, Id say the night is endless. For us in the palace now, its hardly time for sleep. Keep telling us your adventures—they are wonderful.” Odysseus is spinning a yarn to please a king from whom he has much to gain, and the King wants more.

Alcinous prompts Odysseus by asking if he saw any heroes in Hades: But come now, tell me truly: your godlike comrades—did you see any heroes down in the House of Death, any who sailed with you and met their doom at Troy?”  His host and benefactor has indicated a subject he would like to hear about, and Odysseus obliges in style, dropping a great many well-known names to help set the stage.

Odysseus in Hades by Russell Flint

But if this is theater—if Odysseus is not relating something that really” happened—what are we to make of this tale?

The story of the underworld can be seen as an expression of the hopes, fears, and doubts of a man who has been away from home for a very long time. These feelings are the material around which Odysseus builds his story. The driving themes are laid out when he questions his mother in the underworld:

But tell me about yourself and spare me nothing. What form of death overcame you, what laid you low, some long slow illness? Or did Artemis showering arrows come with her painless shafts and bring you down? Tell me of father, tell of the son I left behind: do my royal rights still lie in their safekeeping? Or does some stranger hold the throne by now because men think that Ill come home no more? Please, tell me about my wife, her turn of mind, her thoughts…still standing fast beside our son, still guarding our great estates, secure as ever now? Or has she wed some other countryman at last, the finest prince among them?(Odyssey XI.193-205)

Odysseus attempting to embrace the ghost of his mother in the Underworld, by Jan Styka, 1901

Anyone in Odysseus’ shoes would wonder if their aged parents were still living. The other concerns, also very natural, are reflected not only in these questions, but also in his conversations with the other shades. These concerns can be characterized as follows:

1) The faithfulness of his wife

2) The fortunes of his son

3) The honor of his house.

In the underworld, Odysseus is first confronted with a great crowd of wives and daughters of princes, whom he interviews one by one, reflecting his anxiety for the purity and success of the household. These women represent the theme of womanhood—some are faithful, some treacherous (unfaithfulness to the marriage bed receives much attention).

His conversations with dead heroes reflect the same anxiety. Agamemnon tells the awful story of how he and his men were slaughtered through the machinations of a treacherous wife and the lover she took in his absence.

But Odysseus reassures himself about Penelopes character using Agamemnons voice: Not that you, Odysseus will be murdered by your wife. Shes much too steady, her feelings run too deep, Icariusdaughter Penelope, that wise woman.”  Yet doubt still remains, as is evident the circumspect way he deals with her upon his homecoming.

Agamemnon also enquires about his son, Orestes. Odysseus must be wondering what kind of man his own son Telemachus has become, and how he is faring. Odysseuswords about Orestes could just as truly be spoken of his own son: I know nothing, whether hes dead or alive.” Achilles also asks after the fortunes of his son. In Odysseuss response we may see his hopes for Telemachus—that he will take his place among great men, proficient in feats of war and good counsel.

The Shade of Tiresias Appearing to Odysseus during the Sacrifice (Book XI of the Odyssey), by Johann Heinrich Füssli (c. 1780-85)

Achilles brings up another concern likely to resonate with Odysseus: the honor of his father and house without him there to defend them. Odysseus has already asked his mother about such things, and in Achillescomments we catch a glimpse of the thoughts of a son who returned to find his father abused and the honor of his house diminished: Oh to arrive at fathers house—the man I was, for one brief day—Id make my fury and my hands, invincible hands, a thing of terror to all those men who abuse the king with force and wrest away his honor!”

The story of Odysseusjourney to the underworld underlines our common humanity and the ever-lasting value of classical works. Thousands of years after its composition, readers can still identify with the hopes and fears of the hero of the Odyssey.

The Story before the Story of the Iliad

by April 26, 2019

A good story grows like a tree, upwards, seeking the sun and light. Its heavy branches, though substantial on their own, become stronger and more intriguing as plots and characters entangle. Additionally, deep below the bark and greenery, a parallel network of criss crossing roots holds up the story for all to see. The grander the legend, the larger and more intricate its backstory.

A tale on the scale of The Iliad, therefore, has an astounding myth to proceed it.

To know the roots of Homer’s epic poetry, one must dig very deep into Greek mythology… all the way to the first king of Gods and the ruler of Titans, Cronus. Despite his many attempts to prevent it, Cronus was eventually overthrown by his son, Zeus. In the process, Zeus was warned that one day he too would be replaced, just like his father.

At the same time another prophecy emerged, suggesting that the son of Thetis, a sea-nymph with whom Zeus was enamored, would become greater than his father. Zeus, therefore, ordered that Thetis should be betrothed to an elderly human king, Peleus son of Aiakos.

Judgement of Paris

The judgement of Paris

And so there was a wedding, attended by all the glorious gods and goddesses, except one. Eris, the goddess of Discord was not allowed in, for fear she would cause her usual irreparable damage. Her discordance, however, was not to be limited by a gate. Upon her dismissal, she threw a golden apple into the festivities. On it was inscribed the following: καλλίστῃ, meaning “To the fairest”.

Naturally three gorgeous goddesses claimed ownership. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all assumed that they were the most beautiful. The other gods and men, however, smartly chose to remove themselves from the decision making process, including Zeus himself. No one wanted to incur the wrath of the other two. Instead the unenviable task was placed on the shoulders of one Trojan prince, a man named Paris. The poor fellow was unable to make a decision and so the goddesses, keen on winning, resorted to offering bribes.

Wisdom and great skill in battle were Athena’s promised rewards.

Hera tried to lure Paris with power and control over all of Asia.

Aphrodite, however, used the best bait of all: The most beautiful woman in the world would be in love with Paris if he nominated the goddess as owner of the golden apple.

Paris accepted.

Meanwhile, the wedded sea-nymph Thetis and her elderly husband bore a child by the name of Achilles. The young boy was given an intriguing destiny. He had the choice to live a long and uneventful life or to die young in glory and live forever in poetry. Achilles would chose the latter.

Thetis wanted her son Achilles to be immortal and invisible and, depending on the version, used different techniques to make this so. One source claimed that she lifted the child by the foot and immersed him in a river which ran to the underworld. Wherever the water touched him, Achilles was made invulnerable, everywhere except where his mother held him… his infamous heel.

While Achilles was growing into a hero-worthy man, Paris was eagerly awaiting his award for crowning Aphrodite the fairest of them all.

The reader may be wondering, who was the magnificent creature that the goddess of beauty promised to the Trojan prince? It was none other than Helen, whose face would eventually launch a thousand ships. Helen was the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and a woman named Leda, who had either been raped or seduced by Zeus when he was in the form of a swan.

Helen, in her radiance, had many suitors, and her father could not decide which one was best… plus those who who were not chosen might retaliate against him.  Eventually one quick witted man came to his rescue, the famous Odysseus. In exchange for support of his own marriage, he offered the following advice: Require all of Helen’s suitors to promise to defend her marriage, regardless who the father chose. The suitors eventually, and with a certain amount of grumbling, swore the required oath.

Finally a man was decided for Helen: Menelaus. The decision was political, as Menelaus had wealth and power and was Agamemnon’s brother. Unfortunately for all, Menelaus then made a huge mistake. He had promised Aphrodite a grand sacrifice of a 100 oxen if he won Helen, a promise promptly forgot after he received his prize. Thus he incurred Aphrodite’s wrath.

Paris, however, did not forget Aphrodite, nor their agreement. He set sail for Greece under the pretense of a diplomatic mission in order to claim Helen. Before entering the palace, the goddess of beauty held up her end and ordered Eros to shoot Helen with his arrow. The moment she set her gaze on Paris, Helen was in love.

Paris didn’t think this kidnapping was really such a big deal. There were plenty of men before him who had stolen women from foreign lands without repercussion. Jason, for instance, took Medea from Colchis, and Heracles captured the Trojan princess Hesione without any issues.

This time, however, was going to be very different.

According to Homer, it didn’t go straight to war. Menelaus first journeyed to Troy to seek a more peaceful solution. When that didn’t work, Menelaus asked Agamemnon to uphold the oath that the Achaean kings and princes had sworn, to defend Helen’s marriage. Emissaries were sent to them all, to gather them in order to retrieve Helen.

Not all of them came willingly.

Odysseus, for instance, feigned madness in order to avoid the war. He tried to sow his fields with salt as proof, but Agamemnon’s man tricked him into revealing his sanity. He placed Odysseus’ infant son in front of the plough’s path, and the father could not fake delusion any more. He turned aside to save his child.

The story before the Iliad

Achilles discovered by Ulysses – by Bray

Achilles, too did not readily join forces. His mother disguised him as a woman so he would not have to go to battle. When Odysseus, Telamonian Ajax, and Achilles’ tutor Phoenix came to fetch him from the island of Skyros, they could not immediately recognise him. Fortunately, they had a plan. The men pretended to be merchants bearing trinkets and weapons. They were then able to spot Achilles out the second he chose to look at the swords and spears rather than bracelets and beads.

The Achean army was almost ready. All of the suitors sent their forces to the city of Aulis, and one by one the commanders with their ships and men arrived. The last one to show up was Achilles, who was at the time only 15 years old.

An omen then occurred. A snake slithered from a sacrificial altar to a sparrow’s nest nearby. It ate the mother and her nine babies and was then converted into stone. Troy, apparently, would fall in the tenth year of war.

And just like that, with the twisting roots embedded, the bud of the story was ready to break through the soil and bloom.

Achilles (The Iliad)

by October 24, 2018

© Dan Lim, 2006 p: 416-863-5115Known From: The Iliad

“If I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me”
-Achilles, From The Iliad

The hero of The Iliad, Achilles is the central character and fiercest warrior in Homer’s epic. He is portrayed as being hot-headed, ferocious, and often filled with grief. Achilles as the mournful warrior is a theme that Homer recounts several times during the course of The Iliad. Combining the nature of a grieving Achilles with his supposed immorality and unrelenting rage on the battlefield makes for a complex and deeply human Greek hero.

Achilles was supposedly the son of the water goddess, Thetis, and the mortal king Peleus. Achilles’ mother is a recurring character in The Iliad and she attempts to aid her son in numerous ways. While Homer makes no reference to Achilles as an immortal; other variants of the stories, written by the Roman poet Statius, describe how Thetis held her infant son by the heel and dipped him in the river Styx to grant him everlasting life.

Vase painting of the war

Achilles and Hector

As a young man Achilles was reared by the centaur Chiron, who was said to be kind, wise, and knowledgeable in the ways of medicine. While a disciple of Chiron, Achilles fed on the innards of lions and wild swines. In The Imagines, a work written by the Greek poet Philostratus of Athens, Chiron is said to have told the young Achilles:

“For although you have been taught by me thus gently the art of horsemanship, and are suited to such a horse as I, some day you shall ride on Xanthus and Balius; and you shall take many cities and slay many men.”

The prophecy would be fulfilled within the pages of The Iliad. 

Xanthus and Balius were the names of the two horses that would drive Achilles’ chariot into battle. This prediction by Achilles’ teacher would be fulfilled within the pages of The Iliad.

Click the link to read more about Achilles
-The Glory and the Tragedy of Achilles

The Appeal of The Odyssey

by November 16, 2015

By Ben Potter

Even those of you who have only recently taken an interest in the classical world will have a pretty decent idea about what to expect when picking up a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, his blockbuster sequel to the Trojan War epic, the Iliad.


This familiar tale of the eponymous Odysseus taking ten long years to traverse the breadth of Greece, from the ruins of Troy to his home on Ithaca (having already spent ten years fighting the war itself), can be roughly divided into four distinct sections:

Books I-IV deal with the adventures of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

Books V-VIII show Odysseus being released from the clutches of the nymph Calypso, to whom our hero has been a sex-slave for seven years. He then travels to Scheria, home of the noble Phaeacians.

Books IX-XII contain stories told by Odysseus to the Phaeacian king and queen about why it has taken him so long to get home. Here are recounted the most famous stories of Odysseus e.g. Circe turning his men to pigs, the descent into the underworld, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis.

Books XIII-XXIV show Odysseus back on Ithaca going about his heroic business of vanquishing a group of Suitors – uncouth local nobles who have taken up at his court, who are attempting to kill his son and marry his wife, Penelope (and with her take the throne of Ithaca).

So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring? Why does it unquestioningly rank as one of the greatest of all great works and retain a special place in the heart of academics and laymen alike?

Well, there’re plenty of obvious reasons – the very most obvious of which is that it is, of course, a very high quality piece of literature. That aside, there’s also the hugely important historical and cultural significance of the

So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring?

piece. Perhaps no other secular (i.e. non-holy) work has had a greater impact on the world than that of Homer.

Not only do the Homeric texts underpin so much of ancient Greek culture, but they, by proxy, have a similar such influence on Roman, European, and (if somewhat obliquely) New World cultures.

On top of this, the Odyssey can boast a great richness of language and would have been rhythmically (i.e. poetically) pleasing – even if this last aspect is somewhat lost on us today.

So, there’s plenty to shout about in terms of style and significance, but what about substance? What details of plot and character have managed to excite and amaze for the better part of three millennia?

Odysseus and the Cyclops

There are, of course, plenty of (what we would now call) dramatic staples, certainly enough to write a pulse-quickening blurb on the back of the dust-jacket: a sea-tossed hero, a family in danger, seductive femme-fatales, constant peril, fights, races, monsters, romance, sex, blood, noble peasants, evil aristocrats, a flawed hero, a long suffering wife, capricious gods… you can almost picture the cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul tripping over himself in a rush to buy the exclusive rights (despite complaining: “but the name’s no darn good. Odysseus!? Let’s call him… Buster MacNally”).

All this is well and good and certainly lends human interest and spectacular grandeur to the work, but one of the most intriguing things about the epic, one of the things that make its analysis and rereading so rewarding, is much more psychological and cerebral. In the words of eminent Homeric scholar P.V. Jones: “the rich interaction of past and present is one of the great glories of the Odyssey”.

Odysseus in the Underworld

Obviously, being a sequel, the Odyssey harks back to the Iliad and the entire mythology (more like a heroic history to the Greeks) surrounding the Trojan War. In particular, Book XI – the Nekyia (the book of the dead) – gives us a chance to indulge in a veritable smorgasbord of Trojan War heroes who spellbind the audience with their ghoulish cameos.

This retrospective, however, may not tickle everyone’s fancy; indeed it may only pique the interest of Iliad lovers or Greek mythology nerds. Moreover, the fact that Homer’s depictions have become canonised means that the revelations from the lips of the deceased, though of interest, do not create the same wide-eyed wonder in a modern audience as they would have done in antiquity.

However, this orgy of nostalgia may only have been part of what Jones was referring to. A much more interesting notion (and here we pick up on the cerebral and psychological aspect) is that books IX-XII are a complete fantasy.

The Plot Twist of The Odyssey

These four books contain the tales told by Odysseus to his regal hosts on the island of Scheria/Phaeacia. However, unlike the other stories in the epic which are told to us by the poet, these tales are directly narrated by Odysseus himself; what is more, all of the characters who shared in these adventures with him (i.e. his crew) have died. Thus, so the theory goes, the Odyssey isn’t merely one of the earliest examples of folklore and epic poetry we have, but may also have given birth to a ‘Kaiser Soze’ style plot-twist.

This idea is given credence as more than merely a literary conspiracy-theory by the nature of the main character, a nature that is defined by the epithets Homer gives him: ‘master of stratagems’, ‘cunning’ and ‘nimble-witted’. Let’s not forget that Odysseus was the man to come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse in the first place; duplicity and lies are part of his make-up… and a noble and heroic part at that.

OdysseusOdysseus and the Sirens

Okay, so maybe we’re happy to accept that our hero could do this, but why would he? Well, the two popular theories are as follows: the first is that he is doing it to enhance his kleos, the ultimate goal for every Homeric hero. Kleos is often loosely translated as ‘reputation’, but more accurately means ‘what people hear about you’. The key point is that it is not necessary for the things heard to be true, only that they are recounted through the ages. Thus, Odysseus has ten unaccounted-for years to fill up with fantastical stories that glorify his name.

N.B. An interesting, if slightly paradoxical, point is that it would not really matter if it became known that Odysseus had lied about his journey between Tory and Scheria, provided that he had managed to trick people into believing what he’d said was true. Either the actions themselves (i.e. defeating the Cyclops, etc.) or the brilliant lies about them are enough to elevate him to legendary hero status.

The other explanation is that the twenty years of war and storm-tossed seas (and whatever else he got up to if the stories he tells King Alcinous were falsified) have left our protagonist with a psychology that’s either inherently mistrustful, or perversely deranged. In other words, either he’s gotten so used to lying to protect himself that doing so has become an instinct, or maybe even a compulsion, or alternately he is suffering from some sort of trauma – perhaps PTSD – and fantastical deceit is one of its manifestations.

N.B. Obviously there was no such label as PTSD in ancient Greece, but, given Homer’s knowledge of war, we can assume he was either a fighter himself, or was in contact with soldiers. Thus, he would have observed the psychological effects of war, even if they had been dismissed as something more basic e.g. mischief from the gods or cowardice.

OdysseusOdysseus fights Penelope’s suitors

This idea of compulsive behavior has its best evidence at the end of the epic after Odysseus has been re-established as king of Ithaca and his identity is commonly known. Known to all, that is, except his ancient father, Laertes, who is pining for his lost, possibly dead, son. Instead of revealing his identity and embracing Laertes, Odysseus claims to be called Eperitos, son of Apheidas, from Alybas. He only actually reveals who he is after his elderly father has some sort of panic attack.

If our hero cannot bring himself to be honest with his own frail father and feels the need to instantly concoct a rather pointless and hurtful falsehood, then surely we must question the authority of everything he says that Homer, as narrator, doesn’t corroborate?

Interestingly, if we do dismiss what Odysseus says to the Phaeacians as a pack of lies, then there is nothing overtly supernatural or otherworldly in the epic. Though gods do appear, speak and act in the present (as opposed to the past) passages of the book, their actions are only an extrapolation or interpretation of physically accountable things i.e. giving somebody strength, making someone more beautiful, planting an idea in someone’s head etc.

So did Homer want us to ask questions about the mental capacity or moral fibre of his hero? Well… possibly, possibly not. However, it does seem likely that the rich texture of the work and psychology of the characters is not something that happened by accident, but was devised by an author who was either instinctively in tune with the nuances of human nature, or the world’s first student of psychology!

It is up to us to put our faith in whatever Odysseus we prefer. If we decide to believe in the one who fabricated all of the weirdest and most wondrous tales from perhaps the most famous story ever told, then we can. If we prefer to take him on face value, then our hero is simply extraordinarily strong, courageous and intelligent. Indeed, he is these three things whichever view we take. However, if we take the former, more psychological, view—then a new and intriguing question comes to the fore, one that could barely be answered in all the pages of all the Odysseys that have ever been published: what exactly was Odysseus up to for those ten, lost years?

Conspiracy theories on a postcard to the usual address!