The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer – Structural Aspects
Iliad and Odyssey are epic poems, and while the authorship remains disputed, both poems are generally attributed to Homer (Myrsiades, 1987, 1). Iliad follows Achilles and tells the story of the ten-year Trojan War, and the taking of Troy by a group of other Greek cities after Paris kidnaps Hellen from the brother of the Greek king, Agamemnon. On the other hand, Odyssey is a poem about the ten-year journey of king Odysseus back to his home in Ithaca after the end of Trojan war, and the many battles and misfortunes he has to face and overcome in the process. This essay focuses on what we can learn about the Greek society in terms of politics, religion, economy, and technology during the early Archaic period by reading the two works. From the onset, the archaic period is defined as the period in Greek history from the beginning of the 8th century to the beginning of the 5th century BC (Shapiro, 2007, p. 1). Thus, the early archaic period is taken to mean the 8th century BC, which is the period these poems are likely to have been composed (Fox, 2008, 13). The essay is divided into four main sections, including what we can learn about the politics, religion, economy and technology of the time.
One of the most notable lessons from the poems is what they tell us about the politics of archaic Greece. This includes the leadership style and division of the political regions, relationships between different regions as well as methods of dispute resolution between opposing political groups.
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Firstly, the poems tell of the political leadership style of the period. In book 1 of Iliad, the story opens in the tenth year of the war, and several characters are introduced, including Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus. All of them are kings of their respective territories. Agamemnon is the king of Achaians, Achilles is the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and Odysseus is king of Ithaca (Powell, 2004, 9-17). In the Odyssey, most of these characters are mentioned again, and other kings and kingdoms are also named an example of which is Alcinous, king of Cyclopes (Homer, 4-5). These examples show that kings who ruled their autonomous kingdoms governed the society of Greece during the 8th century BC. However, the critical difference is that this is in sharp contrast to the later political arrangement in which all of the Greek cities were united under one king, such as during the reign of Alexander the Great, or the modern times, where most countries are headed by presidents (Lendon, 2005, 240).
Secondly, the poems tell of the hostile political relationship between different political groups in the region. Iliad tells of the battle of Troy, but also of the many smaller conflicts that contributed to, or happened separately from the major conflict (Murray and Wyatt, 1999, 98). For instance, in book 2 of Odyssey, Agamemnon is urged by Zeus in a dream to attack Troy (Homer, 1951, 19). Later, while voicing his disagreement with the idea of fighting Troy, Thersites is beaten up by Odysseus (Homer, 1951, 26). In book 22, Achilles, the lead warrior of Achaeans battles Hector, the lead warrior of the Trojans, whom he blames for the death of his friend, Patroclus. According to Murray and Wyatt (1999), the extent of a conflict between Troy and the rest of the Greeks, together with the conflict between different kings and warriors, shows that the Greek society at the time was clearly in total disunity (131). This is especially true considering that the issue that led to the major conflict was arguably not worth the deaths and damage that occurred. Specifically, the main reason that the Trojan war occurred was because of Helen, whose two suitors, Paris and Menelaus, refused to settle for more amicable solutions to their dispute of who should have her.
Thirdly, the role of war and battle in settling the political dispute during the archaic Greek period is spelled out. During this period, it can be argued that war did not happen arbitrarily and without a plan, but was the accepted means of settling disputes where the winner takes all (Mikalson, 1991, 17). Opposing parties were permitted to, and encouraged to declare war, after which terms would be set, teams tagged, allies sought, and war wedged. The outcome of the war would be respected and fair, and parties who were dissatisfied with the result were free to disagree and declare another war to settle the new score. In Iliad, a coalition of the Greek states go to battle against Troy to bring back Hellen, and both parties seem convinced this is the only way (Frobish, 2003, 16). When Achilles hears the news of his friend’s death, he can only find consolation in fighting and killing Hector, the doer of the deed. In book 22 of Odyssey, Odysseus comes home to find more than 100 suitors living in his home and plundering his wealth as they try to win his wife over, thinking he is dead. His first instinct is to wedge war against them, and this idea and its implementation is supported by both his son and servants (Homer, 1975). Notably, this is similar to the practice of war throughout the world for nearly all of the 800 centuries afterward, until the 20th century when global peace talks became a serious theme among warring nations at the end of world war I (Lawrence and Karim, 2008, 377).
Religion and Fate
Another important aspect of the Greek community revealed through the books is the place of religion and fate of the archaic period. Firstly, the poems reveal that the Greek community believed in the concept of a deity or higher power. This is shown variously, from the beginning of Iliad, when Apollo, the god of light and son of Zeus, is introduced, to the last book of Odyssey, when Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare intervenes to prevent another battle (Homer 1975, 3; Homer 1951, 401). Secondly, by mentioning several gods, the poem shows that the society at the time believed in the concept of polytheism, which is a belief in multiple gods. The Greek gods and the practice of polytheism are evident for both Trojans and Achaeans because both groups believed in Zeus, Hades, Hermes, and Iris. In addition, both groups had their group of gods for different occasions. For instance, the Trojans had Artemis, Aphrodite, Apollo, Leto, Phobos, and Deimos, while Achaeans had Hera, Athena, Poseidon and Thetis.
However, it is critical to note that the relationship between man and these gods were considered very differently than later Greeks considered it. Specifically, in the poems, the gods freely mingle with people and interfere with their politics and culture at will, as shown at the end of Odyssey when Athena decides that there has been enough war and intervenes to prevent an imminent attack on Odysseus (Homer, 1951, 392). At the same time, the gods freely have intercourse both with goddesses and with humans, leading to the birth of more gods and demigods. For example, Alcinous is the grandson of Poseidon. These characters of the gods are unique to Homeric Greece because, in later Greek religion, the gods are elevated to a position where they stop mating, or at least giving birth, and the frequency of their interference in human affairs is limited to special occasions (Mikalson, 1991, 78).
Closely related to religion is the concept of fate in archaic Greece. In terms of fate, the poems show that there is a strong supernatural agency that controls the beginning and the ends of man. Interestingly, the gods seem to divinely know the fate of all men, while the humans get this knowledge from the gods in many ways, including through dreams, oracles, direct dialog with the gods, and kings. A critical point that this shows is that fate is not decided by the gods, or do they have the power to change the course of events destined by fate. On the contrary, both the gods and the people seem to surrender to the dictates of fate equally, an act which is at once and the same time considered heroism and cowardice. For instance, in book 18 of Iliad, it is revealed that Achilles is fated to die young if he kills Hector, and yet at the same time, Hector is fated to die by the hands of Achilles.
In terms of economy, the poems can be used to learn about the status of the wealth of the regions as a whole, as well as an individual of people according to what they owned. Firstly, it emerges quite clearly that both the Greeks and Troy were wealthy nations. There was plenty to eat and drink, and this made it possible for them to raise fine men and horses, who would not only fight but win wars. In fact, the major conflicts in Homeric poems are not over food or water or slaves which would symbolize the need for creating wealth. Rather, they battle for love and honor and revenge (m?nis) and hubris (Frobish, 2003, 24). In Odyssey, Odysseus must fight and kill the men who have tried to seduce his wife, not because they have caused a decline to his wealth, but to restore honor to his home and assert his position as the head of the house. In Iliad, when the Greeks arrive at Troy for war, the Trojans are willing to surrender Helen to avert the war, but they chose to fight for the sake of the pride of Paris, their prince. Similarly, it is Agamemnon’s pride that makes him unwilling to accept gifts and return the bishop’s daughter despite the promise of wealth, and when he does, it is not to gain material wealth but to stop a plague caused by the gods.
Secondly, kings come from families of wealthy people who own vast tracts of lands and servants and slaves. In Odyssey, Odysseus has been away for at least twenty years, ten of them spent fighting in Troy, and ten of them spent wandering in the wilderness. As his son is about 20 years old, this means he left when his wife was pregnant, or when his son was merely an infant, and yet for most of this time. His wife and son were able to entertain 208 guests who lived and ate and drank in the premises as they purported to be asking for her hand in marriage (Lendon, 297). The ability to sustain so many guests for so long is a clear indication of wealth. The same is true for Iliad, where kings offer vast wealth in exchange for favours. This is seen in book 7 when Paris offers not only to return the wealth, he took from the Greeks but also topped it up with more wealth if only to keep Helen.
Notably, as well, wealth is not only in the hands of kings and their families but also in the hands of elites and noblemen such as priests and people with positions of influence. For instance, in Book 1 of Iliad, Chryses offers wealth to the Greek army in return for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by the Greek king, Agamemnon. That this wealth is vast is evident when we are told that most of the Greek army finds it a good offer, although Agamemnon, who has seen equal or more wealth, eventually rejects the offer.
In conclusion, this essay shows that literature provides a means for the audience to learn about the thoughts and concerns of the author through characters and word choices. However, many times, the literature also gives people the opportunity to learn about the society in which the author lived, including the virtues and vices, the customs and culture, as well as the standards of living. Iliad and Odyssey are regarded as two of the most influential pieces of Greek literature in history, not only for having influenced later scholars and the Greek society but also for having painted a picture that many consider to be a vivid description of Greece of old. Through these poems, we get a glimpse of archaic Greece: a wealthy society in which warring kings rule men and women resigned to fate, and in which gods and men are willing to love as much as they are willing to fight.