An introduction to The Iliad and The Odyssey

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Hello, this is Caleb Jacobo again with the second lecture in a series that will attempt to give context to some of the great works of literature that I have found to be vital to my studies. I will say it again, I am no expert in literature and I have no degree to speak of, but I am a literature enthusiast and I understand that the journey through great literature is a tough journey to embark on, but I hope that some of these recordings can at least spark your interest enough to read these great works and enjoy them as fully as you can.

So today, we are going to talk a little bit about HOMER and The Iliad and The Odessey. Who Homer was, what the Iliad and Odyssey are and how to approach these amazing works.

So many of you have probably heard of the Iliad and Odyssey from high school or from hollywood, like the movie ‘Troy’ starring Brad Pitt as the eternally young and incredibly strong Achilles, who refuses to fight in the Trojan war out of pride and in the end sacrifices his life for glory.

However you may have been exposed to these awesome classics, they fall short of expressing all the richness and benefit of experiencing these epic poems first hand.

Who was Homer?

[UPDATE Saturday April 5th 2014: Homer as a finished achievement was a product of Ionia; that is, Homeric poems were solidified in there current form in the 6th century BCE at the latest. Also during this century, Greek science, philosophy, and mathematics were born. Confucius, the Buddha, and Zoroaster—if they existed—probably belonged to the same century. It is also questionable if Homer was an expurgator (someone who removes erroneous, vulgar, obscene, or otherwise objectionable material from (a book, for example) before publication*) presumably in order to promote urbane enlightenment, keeping at bay other popular darker elements of popular mysticism. For more information on this, see Bretrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, Book I: Ancient Philosophy, Part I, Chapter 1: The Pre-Socratics.]

Well, it is not clear who Homer was. We think he lived and wrote around 800 bce. He may have been a single man, or Homer may refer to a group of bards of the time. What we do know for sure is that Homer was not the inventor of the stories he composed, he was interpreting and writing them down. We talked a little bit about ‘epic’s already and that they were traditionally presented orally and the bards who would sing, as they say, the poem, and would have to recall the epics from memory.

Homer, if he was a single man, would have performed in this way, in front of aristocrats and their families. He would stand still, there was no performance aspect of the story telling except for the lyre, a and held harp, that the bard would strum while he recited the poem. The epics they would recite would change depending on which bard was singing them and who they were being sung to.

This concept is what confused me the first time I approached the Greek classics and Greek mythology in general. The stories are mutable, because of the oral medium, the stories were known by most everybody, and each bard would be expected to tell the epic with his own ‘spin’ on it.

What are The Iliad and The Odyssey?

So that brings us to what was the Iliad and The Odyssey are. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are epic poems written by Homer, whoever he is, around 800 bce.

The Iliad recalls the heroic deeds of Achilles, who’s hubris, or pride, is his downfall. The Odyssey tells of the heroic deeds of Odysseus and the hardships he encounters on his long journey home.

It is important to remember that a Greek Hero is not necessarily a good guy. In fact most of the time they are childish or cruel. The type of deed is not was makes a hero heroic, it is how great that deed is. If you are the strongest man alive, what you do with your strength is of little concern to Greeks when it comes to appointing their heroes.

The Iliad and the Odyssey both take place in ancient greece, hundreds of years before the epics were written, some time around 1,200 bce. Ancient Greece was not considered “Greece” back then. You simply had a collection of small city-states that shared the same language. So if you look on a map for the greece that existed in the Iliad and Odyssey, you will see a strip of land much smaller than the territory we are dealing with in the epics, which cover a good part of Western Turkey and Russia.

The Iliad is set on the backdrop of the Trojan war, an event that has recently become to seem more than just a myth. You can see pictures of the site they think most likely is Troy online and I will try to put some links on the site for them as well.

The causes of the real Trojan war were probably something boring like oil, or simple expansion, but in Greek Mythology, meaning The Iliad and Odyssey, the Trojan war began over a single woman. Helen of Sparta. The most beautiful woman in the world, who was given to Paris of Troy after he judged Aphrodite the most beautiful goddess in heaven, over Hera, the wife of the almighty Zeus. When Helen was taken from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta, he and his brother Agamemnon combine forces and sail to Troy, which is where modern Iraq is, with 1000 ships and began a siege that would last for ten years. Agamemnon and Menelaus play huge roles in future greek literature and we will talk a lot about them later.

Oddly enough, the Iliad only focuses on a span of around fifty days in the ninth year of the siege of Troy. The majority of the poem is vivid battle scenes with man and immortals and acts of heroic violence. The poem ends with Hector’s death, the brother of Paris, who Achilles straps to his carriage with the belt that Ajax, the second strongest man after Achilles, had given him, and drags his corpse around the walls of Troy and only gives the abused body back to the Trojans when the King of Troy comes himself to beg for his son. Surprising to most, the iconic symbol we think of when we think of Troy, the Trojan horse, never actually appears in the Iliad, and is only hinted at in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey, similarly to the Iliad, starts at the end of a ten year journey with the cunning hero Odysseus. The majority of the action of the poem happens in Odysseus’s telling of his ten year journey to Menelaus, who helps Odysseus finally reach his home of Ithaca. Odysseus’s tale includes encounters with mountainous one-eyed monsters and gorgeous women with incredible power, and is the source of much of what we know about Greek mythology.

One of my favorite stories, and one of the most iconic of the Odyssey, is that of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a great sea beast with several heads, each with razor sharp teeth. Charybdis is a hugh raging whirlpool who sucks you into her gaping mouth. So these are some pretty gnarly beasts. Poor Odysseus is forced to sail his battle ship through a narrow passage with Scylla on one side and Charybdis on the other. I don’t have to give any spoilers for you to have a good idea of what might happen next.

The Odyssey shows a strong contrast in it’s focus from the Iliad. In the Iliad, the importance would seem to be glory and honor and deeds of strength and force. In the Odyssey, the Greeks show a focus more on compromising and intelligently working through problems to find a solution.

It may not seem like a big deal for a story to have different themes, especially ones in the same series. But if you consider that the Iliad and the Odyssey are melting pots for older, oral, mythological stories, and that the organization and presentation chosen by Homer is the way it is, and that the Greeks went to see a play to learn how to live, you might find some interesting messages in the story’s progression.

So this has been a brief introduction to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and I hope I gave you enough information and maybe some insights that can guide you in your exploration of these masterpieces that just happened to be some of our oldest literature.

An Introduction to The Iliad and The Odyssey


Definition from the American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language, 5th Edition.


13 Responses
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      Hey Toronto Raptors Snapback,

      I appreciate you posting to Delicious, and thank you for the kind words, mate.

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