Iliad (c. 800 BCE)


The Iliad is the beginning of the Western Canon of imaginative literature, and we know virtually nothing about its author (we know perhaps a scintilla more than we know about whoever authored, say, The Cloud of Unknowing). But perhaps this is a good thing; as William Gaddis’s elusive Wyatt Gwyon puts it in The Recognitions, “‘What is the artist but the shambles that follows his work around?'” The imagination abounds much more in the lack of information. All we really know is what has come down to us from Herodotus in his Histories, and that the archaic Greek for Homer means “the blind one.”

Being blind, memory in Homer is paramount, much the same as with other visually-impaired masters (Borges and Milton to name two). This, then, tips us off to the possible reason for beginning his epic work with an invocation of the Muse (this wasn’t a convention set down for Homer; he made the standard!). The Muses are the daughters of none other than Mnemosyne (Memory) herself. Thus, it is not Homer the poet who has the power to spin these yarns; it is the offspring of Memory. Roughly 2,500 years later, Jorge Borges would have the same obsession with memory, engendering such masterpieces of short fiction as “Shakespeare’s Memory.”

In addition to memory, as a theme, running throughout The Iliad, there are practical aspects to Memory’s elevation in Homer. Writing did not exist at the time of the inception of Homer’s epics, therefore, as per the oral tradition, they were memorized and recited. Therefore, it was important to make something easy to memorize. Hence, in addition to the stirring events of the plot, we get Homer’s creation of what is now called epic verse: dactylic hexameter (each line consists of six circumscribed metrical units). Try writing 15,693 lines (the length of The Iliad) in hexameter and see if you can reach the heights of creativity that Homer achieved.

Many have pointed out the irony of Achilles’s (lack of) presence—Clifton Fadiman and Alberto Manguel among them. In this great work of the celebrated hero, we see him throw a tantrum and disappear until book 18, and even then we first endure a nearly nihilistic diatribe that recalls Solomon’s lamentations in the book of Ecclesiastes. Yet Achilles is our first great, noble hero, right at the genesis of the Western Canon. Meditating on this gives intriguing insight to the ancient Greeks’ conception of a hero.

The Iliad makes several references to the two skills that were revered at the time: war and debate. War is referred to, in one of Homer’s celebrated epithets, as “the great leveler,” and debate is where “men can make their mark.” Indeed, even a cursory study of Greco-Roman literature will yield this deference for skill in war and debate (i.e. logic, rhetoric).

Unfortunately, this book is one of those that people hear so much about that they feel like they’ve already read it—or, rather, that they don’t need to read it because they’ve already absorbed its basic plot. Typically one will recall the experience of being made to read extracts of it at some point in one’s studies and leave it at that. But it is a book that demands to be re-read, more than twice. One time through is not enough to get a feel for what is really taking place. It is more than just the events of the last leg of a ten-year war; the ancients used this text as their Bible, and there are reasons why.

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