Do you like superhero movies, like Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and The Avengers? Or maybe you can’t wait for the next Star Wars movie, where you’ll get to see people go on dangerous voyages and fight in epic battles in order to fulfill their destinies. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. These kinds of films, TV shows, and poems are extremely popular.
Wait! You’re probably saying: Did I just say poems? I did! Actually superheroes and epics have been around for thousands of years, and the first epics were performed as very long poems! These poems told of dangerous journeys, fantastical monsters, and grand battle scenes. Some of them were as long as chapter books. Heroes had to overcome almost impossible obstacles to fulfill their destinies.
Many cultures, from all over the world, have their own epics. These sagas told people about their history, mythology, and religion in a way that’s exciting and memorable. So memorable in fact, that before there was writing, people would memorize and perform them, and they would be passed down for hundreds of years! Today we’re going to talk about two of the most famous epic poems composed by a poet named Homer.
Homer was a poet and bard in ancient Greece. A bard was a person who recited stories or poems for an audience, often set to music. He composed two of the most famous epic poems in the world: The Iliad and the Odyssey. His life is a bit of a mystery actually. We don’t know exactly when he was born, or exactly where. He was probably born sometime in the 8th century BCE, and somewhere in what is now western Turkey, or a nearby island. At the time, there were many Greek settlements in western Turkey, along the coast of the Mediterranean.
Both The Iliad and The Odyssey talk about events surrounding an ancient war called the Trojan War. The Trojan War in the poems was probably based on a real war, but as you’ll see in a few minutes, the real war was probably nothing like the one in the stories. The first poem, the Iliad talks about the war itself. The Odyssey is the story of King Odysseus’ homecoming after the war. Today we’re going to talk about The Iliad, and in the next episode, we’ll talk about The Odyssey.
The Iliad starts out in the tenth year of the Trojan war. The leader of the Greek forces, Agamemnon, and his best fighter, Achilles are arguing.
You might be wondering, why start the story in the tenth year of the war? Isn’t it important to start at the beginning so people know what’s going on? Well, Homer’s audience, the ancient Greeks, knew these stories. They probably even knew the stories he included in the Iliad, but the excitement would have been in hearing them all put together, maybe with certain details added or certain parts given more attention. But, since you may not know how the war started, I’ll go over that now.
It all starts with an apple. The gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece were celebrating a wedding, and decided not to invite the goddess, Eris. She was angry and decided to trick the revelers. So she threw a golden apple into the party, and said it was a gift “for the fairest.” The goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each thought they deserved the apple. After much arguing, they agreed to let a human named Paris judge which of them was the most beautiful and should get the apple.
All three goddesses tried to gain Paris’s favor by promising him things if he chose them. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, promised him he could marry the most beautiful woman in the world. This was the prize Paris wanted, so Aphrodite won the contest. The most beautiful woman in the world was named Helen. But the BIG problem here was Helen was already married to the king of Sparta. You can imagine how this is going to cause some problems. So Paris and Helen fall in love and when Paris is visiting they escape back to the city of Troy. But Helen’s husband, Menelaus, was very angry that she and Paris left. So what did he do next? He called on all of his friends to help get her back. Many of his friends were powerful kings of other Greek cities and islands. They formed a huge army and headed to Troy to take Helen back from Paris.
Now, if you’re a bit skeptical about the idea that an apple could cause a war, that’s okay. Remember, these stories weren’t just about telling history, they were also about entertaining people and teaching moral lessons. So gods and magical events would often become part of the story over time. It made things more exciting, just like the powers that the heroes of our day have like superpowers or magic.
So, the Iliad starts ten years into this war over Helen! But more importantly, it starts with anger. In fact, the first line of the poem talks about anger:
Sing the anger, oh goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles.
This story starts with an argument between the hero Achilles and the leader of the Greek forces, Agamemnon, over a servant girl Agamemnon took from him. Achilles refuses to fight, and also keeps his army, the Myrmidons, on the sidelines. This is a big problem for the Greeks, because there’s a prophecy that says they cannot win the war without Achilles.
Agamemnon tries all sorts of things to try to get Achilles to rejoin the fighting. He even tells everyone they should just pack up and go home. Maybe he thinks if he threatens to leave, Achilles might not like the idea and finally decide to cooperate. (Have your parents ever tried this on you?) But a few of the other leaders convince everyone they should stay and continue the fight.
Once the armies reach Troy, The Greeks and the Trojans try to settle their differences by having Paris and Menelaus fight one-to-one. After all, it was their argument over Helen that started the whole war. But when it becomes clear Menelaus is going to win, the goddess Aphrodite saves Paris by carrying him back to his house on a cloud.
So the two sides just keep fighting.
Another important character in the Battle for Troy is the warrior, Achilles. A prophecy says that the war can only be won with Achilles help, but Achilles had refused to fight because he was wronged. Eventually, Achilles starts to feel bad about not helping, as he sees his friends struggling and dying around him. So he gives his best friend, Patroclus his armor and tells him to lead his men into battle. Sadly, Patroclus Achilles dies in battle and Achilles regrets his decision to send him instead. Achilles now feels he has no choice but to rejoin the war, that he must avenge his friend’s death.
So Achilles puts on his armor and in anger, avenges his friend’s death but the Trojan War continues on anyway. This poem, called The Iliad, ends with Achilles overcoming his anger and accepting his responsibilities towards his comrades. Eventually, the Greeks do win the war, and Helen returns home with husband, the King Menelaus, but those events aren’t part of The Iliad or The Odyssey. In a way, The Iliad isn’t about the war – how many years it took, why it was fought, or who won. It was about one person, Achilles, learning to overcome his angry feelings and do what his friends and community needed him to do. This is often what makes someone a hero: overcoming their own anger, pride, or fear in order to serve a bigger purpose.
The next episode, we’ll talk about Homer’s other epic poem, The Odyssey. This story is very different from the Iliad. Instead of talking about the war, it talks about one king’s return home. The king’s name is Odysseus, and he’s known for being very crafty and smart. He actually had the idea that led the Greeks to eventually win the Trojan War. His idea was to build a giant, wooden horse, as tall as a building. It was also hollow inside so Greek warriors could hide inside. Then the Greeks told the Trojans they wanted to give them the horse as a gift. Once the horse was inside the city and it was night, the soldiers hidden inside climbed out of a trapdoor and took over the city! Pretty tricky right? This is where we get the term “Trojan horse” for something that looks harmless, but hides a nasty surprise.
Thanks for listening to this episode about The Illiad. Be sure to listen next time for the story about The Odyssey.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Richard Lattimore. University of Chicago Press, 1951
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. Norton & Company, 2020.