Saturday, June 22, 2013

Homer (ca 750 BC)

Life. We know too little about a person as important to the history of Olympia as Homer. Tradition says he was born in Smyrna on the west coast of Anatolia about 190 miles (300 km) south of the ruins of Troy. Blind as an adult, he lived by celebrating the tales of Troy in song to entertain and educate the courts of the many small kingdoms scattered around the Aegean. Around 750 BC an anonymous scribe used the Greek alphabet, just emerging at that time, to write down Homer’s tales to entertain and educate us.

Iliad. Homer’s first tale is called the Iliad because it concerns Ilion: another name for Troy. In 1194 BC (Eratosthenes), Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of Menelaus king of Sparta, left with Paris, prince of Troy, to live with Paris in his city. A thousand ships stuffed with Greek warriors crossed the Aegean to bring her back.

Chapters 1-9. The Iliad opens in the Greek camp by the sea. The Greek siege of Troy has dragged on for ten long years. Still no Helen. Agamemnon—king of Mycenae, leader of the Greeks, and brother of Menelaus—steals a female captive named Briseis from his best warrior Achilles. Achilles refuses to fight any longer for Agamemnon and retires to his tent. In his absence, the Greeks begin to lose ground to the Trojans. As the situation worsens Agamemnon apologizes to Achilles, and offers to return Briseis, but Achilles angrily refuses to change his mind.

Chapters 10-17. Soon Hector, prince of Troy and brother of Paris, takes the battle right up to the Greek ships. Several major Greek warriors, including Odysseus king of Ithaca, receive wounds. Patroclus, close friend of Achilles, begs Achilles to let him lead his men back into the fight. Achilles agrees. Patroclus puts on the armor of Achilles, charges into the battle, rallies the Greeks, but is killed by Hector outside the gates of Troy.

Chapters 18-24. Horrified and raging, Achilles returns to the battle and slaughters many Trojans. After killing Hector in single combat, he drags the body behind his chariot for all the Trojans to see before returning to his tent with it. A humble Priam, king of Troy, begs Achilles for the body of his son. Achilles mourns the horrors of war with Priam then lets him leave with Hector’s body in peace.

Odyssey. Odyssey first meant the journey of Odysseus and now applies to any challenging journey. Homer’s Odyssey begins in the tenth and last year of the journey of Odysseus from the battlefield of Troy to his home on the island of Ithaca.

Chapters 1-4. Penelope, wife of Odysseus and queen of Ithaca, suffers from the attentions of over 100 aggressive suitors. Telemachus, son of Odysseus, leaves Ithaca to search for his long-lost father.

Chapters 5-12. Odysseus escapes from the nymph Calypso and shares the stories of his adventures with a king who offers him hospitality. He tells of the land of the Lotus-eaters, the cave of the Cyclops, Circe changing his men into pigs, visiting the shade of Achilles in Hades, and of Sirens, Scylla and Charibdis, and Calypso.

Chapters 13-24. Odysseus returns with Telemachus to Ithaca, confronts and kills the suitors, reveals his true identity to Penelope and his father, and with Athena’s intervention rules Ithaca again as king.

Homer sang of Troy in 750 even though the Trojan War had ended over 400 years earlier. Homer, then, was a restorative poet; that is, he celebrated a golden age thought to lie in the distant past. He understood it as a better age than his own. In the past, the gods had mingled more freely with mortals and to them were born demigods, like Helen, Achilles, and Odysseus, who were heroes. In the past, oligarchs were noble. What's more, ordinary people recognized their betters and knew their place.

Every citizen in classical Athens knew the stories of Homer. Homer also inspired Alexander of Macedon who campaigned carrying a copy of the Iliad with notes by Aristotle. Alexander even stopped at the tomb of Achilles in Troy to honor his hero before conquering the Persian empire with his example of glory in mind.

The Iliad and Odyssey are second only to the Bible in their impact on the civilizations of Olympia. For centuries they have inspired literature and art, including painters like Rembrandt, and continue to do so today. We rightly continue to remember these stories by Homer.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.