U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Readings in Western Culture: The Iliad (Part I)

Editor's Note

In the Western Culture program at Stanford, most reading sections spent just one week on the Iliad – there’s just not much time in the quarter system to linger long over long works.   We read selected chapters – about half of the work, overall.  For this series of posts, I’m rereading the whole text – a time-consuming but deeply rewarding endeavor.  So I’m going to break these posts up into a mini-series within the series.  Below is the first post on The Iliad. –LDB

The “Western literary canon” begins with men fighting one another over who shall possess a beautiful woman.  I’m talking about Briseis, of course, the war-prize of Achilles, claimed from him by Agamemnon, because Agamemnon had to surrender his war prize, the daughter of Chryses, priest of Apollo.  Her aged father had come out from Troy bearing the symbol of his priesthood in order to ransom his daughter, and Agamemnon had to swallow his own pride and surrender the girl, lest Apollo continue to visit a punishing plague upon the Achaeans.  Perhaps to salve his own ego’s injury, to shore up again his slightly diminished standing as a leader before his own men, Agamemnon then demanded of Achilles his own war-prize to replace the girl Agamemnon was compelled to release.  For this high-handed injustice, Achilles refused to fight any more on the side of the Achaians against the Trojans.

That’s where the Iliad starts, anyhow:  wrath, the wrath of Achilles, a wrath whose consequences were so disastrous for the Achaians, and for Achilles himself, that it takes all the help of the Muses for Homer to sing it.

The larger story of which the Iliad is but one part starts before that, of course, with Alexandros (Paris), son of Priam, stealing away Menelaos’s wife Helen after he had been Menelaos’s guest.  To avenge this grave transgression against the laws of hospitality and against his own honor, Menelaos and his brother Agamemnon summoned “a thousand ships” to sail from Attica and wage war on the city of the Trojans, so that Menelaos might wreak his revenge and return home with his prized – or, at least, his prize — bride.  It turned out to be a ten-year war, and the Iliad starts near the end – as is the way with all mortals and our works.

…why ask of my generation?
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one gernation of men will grow while another
dies.  (VI, 145-150)

Or, to put it in more modern terms, “As sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives.”

Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre, “Le Rapt d’Europa” * Dallas Museum of Art *

That was the soap-opera of choice in my freshman dorm, and even that was an education of sorts for me, since I had been reared on the same-but-different dramas of (the fictional) Genoa City, where Jill Foster and Katherine Chancellor and Nikki Newman waged merciless war on each other for decades over whose husband was leaving whom to sleep with whom, while Jack Abbott feuded with Victor Newman over whose wife or lover was leaving whom to sleep with whom, and whose business would be forced into failure in order to be seized by his arch-rival.  That is the fictive universe of The Young and the Restless, a CBS soap my grandmother watched religiously during the cannery off-season, after which she would post-game the goings-on with her sister.  It was from one of the mid-1970s plotlines of Young and the Restless that I first encountered the term “rape.”  I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I knew it meant something awful and shameful, and so, of course, I asked, “What does ‘rape’ mean?”

“It’s just dirty talk,” they said. “It’s not something you need to worry about.”

It’s an interesting problem to worry about when thinking about the foundational stories of the Western literary tradition (assuming, for the moment, that this construct is some coherent and actually existing thing.)  Indeed, it’s a problem to ponder when thinking about the foundations of Western historiography: what does rape mean?

After invoking Clio, our great Muse, and delivering his prefatory remarks about the reasons for writing history – that the deeds of great men may not be forgotten – here’s how Herodotus begins his account:

According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoenicians began to quarrel. This people, who had formerly dwelt on the shores of the Erythraean Sea, having migrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the parts which they now inhabit, began at once, they say, to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria. They landed at many places on the coast, and among the rest at Argos, which was then preeminent above all the states included now under the common name of Hellas. Here they exposed their merchandise, and traded with the natives for five or six days; at the end of which time, when almost everything was sold, there came down to the beach a number of women, and among them the daughter of the king, who was, they say, agreeing in this with the Greeks, Io, the child of Inachus. The women were standing by the stern of the ship intent upon their purchases, when the Phoenicians, with a general shout, rushed upon them. The greater part made their escape, but some were seized and carried off. Io herself was among the captives. The Phoenicians put the women on board their vessel, and set sail for Egypt. Thus did Io pass into Egypt, according to the Persian story, which differs widely from the Phoenician: and thus commenced, according to their authors, the series of outrages.

At a later period, certain Greeks, with whose name they are unacquainted, but who would probably be Cretans, made a landing at Tyre, on the Phoenician coast, and bore off the king’s daughter, Europe. In this they only retaliated; but afterwards the Greeks, they say, were guilty of a second violence. They manned a ship of war, and sailed to Aea, a city of Colchis, on the river Phasis; from whence, after despatching the rest of the business on which they had come, they carried off Medea, the daughter of the king of the land. The monarch sent a herald into Greece to demand reparation of the wrong, and the restitution of his child; but the Greeks made answer that, having received no reparation of the wrong done them in the seizure of Io the Argive, they should give none in this instance.

In the next generation afterwards, according to the same authorities, Alexander the son of Priam, bearing these events in mind, resolved to procure himself a wife out of Greece by violence, fully persuaded, that as the Greeks had not given satisfaction for their outrages, so neither would he be forced to make any for his. Accordingly he made prize of Helen; upon which the Greeks decided that, before resorting to other measures, they would send envoys to reclaim the princess and require reparation of the wrong. Their demands were met by a reference to the violence which had been offered to Medea, and they were asked with what face they could now require satisfaction, when they had formerly rejected all demands for either reparation or restitution addressed to them.

Hitherto the injuries on either side had been mere acts of common violence; but in what followed the Persians consider that the Greeks were greatly to blame, since before any attack had been made on Europe, they led an army into Asia. Now as for the carrying off of women, it is the deed, they say, of a rogue: but to make a stir about such as are carried off, argues a man a fool. Men of sense care nothing for such women, since it is plain that without their own consent they would never be forced away.

Great works of Western art since the classical period have depicted “The Rape of Europa”—meaning not the sexual violation of her person but the antecedent violation of her volition, by forcibly carrying her away from her home.  Yet, Herodotus suggests to his readers, no woman could really be carried away unless she were willing to go.

That’s a lesson he may have taken (and slightly tweaked) from Homer — who, incidentally, was not “the author” of the Iliad in the sense of being the sole creator of the work, but holds a position in relation to that literary tradition similar to the position that scholars believe Moses holds in relation to the Pentateuch.  Whether or not they were real men who existed at some point in history, the names themselves have become inextricably attached to a written text in its final form.

For Homer portrays Helen of Troy as a woman who shows great love and regard for her “captor’s” family – not so much for Paris/Alexandros himself as for her father-in-law, aged Priam, and her sisters-in-law, and her brother-in-law Hektor, whom she admires for his uprightness of character. She is a Trojan woman now, however much resentment she engenders among the elders of the city.  Her loyalty is to the roof under which she enjoys protection.

But Homer’s Helen is not so simple – not as simple as Herodotus made her out to be.

Homer’s Helen has regrets. Homer’s Helen has a complicated story to tell.

Indeed, Homer depicts her in the very act of telling that story:

Now to Helen of the white arms came a messenger, Iris….
She came on Helen in the chamber; she was weaving a great web,
a red folding robe, and working into it numerous struggles
of Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaians,
struggles that they endured for her sake at the hands of the war god.
  (III, 121, 125-128)

The messenger-goddess, in disguise, entreats Helen to go with her to the ramparts, to watch from the wall, for

“Menelaos the warlike and Alexandros will fight
with long spears against each other for your possession.
You shall be called the wife of the man who wins you.”
(III, 136-138)

The messenger-goddess leaves, and we are left with Helen’s inner musings:

Speaking so the goddess left her in her heart sweet longing
after her husband of time before, and her city and parents.
And at once, wrapping herself about in shimmering garments,
she went forth from the chamber, letting fall a light tear….
(III, 139-142)

Helen’s willingness or unwillingness to go with Menelaos is not the focus here.  The focus here is, it seems, that Helen is unhappy.

But Helen is also at work.  She is working on a “great web,” something made by weaving.  And what is she weaving?  A garment, a robe – let us say it is a robe for herself to wear, a robe of crimson, not a scarlet letter but a scarlet cape.  She would cover herself head to toe in the story of the struggle to possess her.  But it’s not the story as told by the poets, by Homer – it’s the story she is telling of herself as the prize of men.  Whether or not she has agency anywhere else, she has agency here, in what she can work into the mantle she someday might wear.

There are many ways that women tell their stories, even in the Western literary canon.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. in the Greek Li. class I took we went through the poem word by word; in roughly a month we had made it through three words (Sing goddess the wrath – I didn’t count “the”). The first test was 4 hours long.

  2. Oh, how unfortunate!

    I’m familiar with that style of pedagogy in teaching the classics (it’s 19th century grammar, basically), familiar as well with the sub-genre of higher ed declensionist narratives built upon the idea that an older generation’s method of study/engagement with texts was better/deeper, and the merit of a program of study is measured in its unnecessary difficulty. I suppose that view allows for preening or chest-thumping or one-upmanship in gatherings of the learned — “What, you didn’t spend a month parsing the first three lines of the Iliad? Why, harumphumphumph, how can you consider yourself educated at all!”

    I’m happy to say that wasn’t the style embraced by this introductory survey course in the 80s, nor is it a style in which I am at all invested as a prof in the 2010s. I believe that we who are professional humanists are duty-bound to be humane in our approach to our students as well as our texts.

    I’m reminded here of one of my favorite Spoon River poems, the epitaph of Petit the Poet:

    Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
    Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel—
    Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens—
    But the pine tree makes a symphony thereof.
    Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
    Ballades by the score with the same old thought:
    The snows and the roses of yesterday are vanished;
    And what is love but a rose that fades?
    Life all around me here in the village:
    Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
    Courage, constancy, heroism, failure—
    All in the loom, and oh what patterns!
    Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers—
    Blind to all of it all my life long.
    Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
    Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
    Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics,
    While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines!

    Hopefully you were able to revisit the Iliad at a later time and derive something more from it than the memory of surviving a four-hour exam!

  3. Fascinating post L.D. which spurred me to research the Rape of Europa. I vaguely remembered the story from my Bullfinch’s Mythology but was not aware of how many artists had painted the subject: Titian, Pierre, Rembrandt, Jean-Francois de Troy et al. Neither was I aware that the European Union had used Europa as a symbol of pan-Europeanism.
    I’m recalling Auerbach’s Mimesis chapter on Homer. I think it was in Odysseus’ Scar that Auerbach described Homer as a writer of “externalities”, free of any social analysis and a chronicler of the elite, suggesting to me that he (Homer) was a defender of the status quo. He contrasted Homer with biblical writers who represented the subaltern and challenged the powerful. If Auerbach is right, is the Homeric representation of volition a cover for a violation? Is forcibly being carried away a poetic description of physical abuse? Attributing to the woman agency by making her complicit to her own rape has a long ugly history that continues. In other words, does the culture represented by this composite of Homeric writers perhaps inadvertently reflect a subtext unexplored by the writers?

  4. Paul, thanks for this comment. It’s becoming increasingly clear that I had better jump into Mimesis before I get to “a Greek tragedy” in this series. This lacuna in my education cannot stand! But, again, this is exactly what I’d hope for in writing this series — the questions and comments of readers would help me understand how best to incorporate this core material into this history I’m telling. Writing through this list is an experiment of sorts — seems to be working so far, though I don’t know what the end use of these ruminations will be. I guess they’re useful enough for this moment.

    I’m going to hold off on arguing for or against your summary of Auerbach’s reading of Homer until I’ve finished the posts I still plan to write — maybe two more, maybe just one, we’ll see.

    I don’t know that Homer offers a challenge to the powerful — though, in a way he does offer, I think, a challenge to the gods, and an indictment of sorts of the power system at work. At least that’s a possible reading.

    That nexus between volition/violation is kind of a difficult problem in ancient literature (and more modern literature!) generally. Herodotus’s attitude toward captured/stolen women in that introductory section is scornful and contemptuous. Homer’s presentation of women is a little bit more rich, a little bit more nuanced — hardly “enlightened” by more modern standards. But complicated, bringing with it the possibility of transgressive readings. This is especially the case if we pin the Odyssey on “Homer” too. Penelope and Helen are an interesting contrastive pair — both at work at their loom, but working very differently.

    In any case, I appreciate your comment, and I’m not sure I can yet formulate a full answer to your question. But I’ll keep thinking about it. Please do keep reading along; your insights are always welcome.

  5. …Homer — who, incidentally, was not “the author” of the Iliad in the sense of being the sole creator of the work, but holds a position in relation to that literary tradition similar to the position that scholars believe Moses holds in relation to the Pentateuch.

    One difference though is that the Iliad (and Odyssey) were products of an oral tradition — they were designed to be, and were, memorized and recited. The original ‘authors’ of the Iliad wrote nothing down; it was transmitted orally, and only eventually written.

    I had to read the Iliad (and the Odyssey too) in high-school English (the Lattimore trans.) Also vaguely recall writing a paper having something to do with contested questions of Homeric ‘authorship’; Cyrus Gordon’s theory about the common source of Hellenic and Hebraic civilizations got into it too, somehow. This didn’t strike a lasting enough chord to prompt me, once I got to college, to take a course in Classics or ancient Near Eastern civs. (Many of those courses, as one might expect, had language-requirement barriers, but not all of them did.)

    The Stanford list may have been Eurocentric, but it seems to be mostly stuff that the students should have been thanking the authorities for requiring them to read — they were, arguably, lucky compared to, say, students at most of Stanford’s ‘peer’ institutions, which did not (with the exceptions of Columbia, Chicago and maybe one or two others) have a similar sort of required course, at least afaik.

  6. Well, quite a bit of the Pentateuch started out as oral tradition too — though perhaps recited/recounted in different contexts/for different reasons. Or perhaps not — everybody loves a good story around the fire at night.

    But yes, the Iliad had a long life as an oral saga before it was ever written down. As I read through chapter two, which is basically a roll-call of all the Achaeans, I thought about how each warrior, each family, each place mentioned in that roll call must have at some point or another claimed its part in this burgeoning tradition by contributing a few potent, persistent lines and details to the story as it and its reciters traveled and told it.

    And I think the long oral history of the text might account for some of the interstices in the text where you get a glimpse of another way of framing experiences, as with Helen above. Professional storytellers may have been men alone, but all of them had mothers, and mothers are good at bedtime stories. I think in that oral tradition there may be more than a few women’s voices who helped make up “Homer.” But that’s not something I’m equipped to argue with a classicist or a philologist — just something that seems possible.

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