At my college, we are deeply devoted to the Western Canon, and as a result, I am on my fourth or fifth re-reading of Homer’s Iliad for a class as a senior. Most of these classes are within my major, and a lot of the information is recycled, yet there are always new things to learn and say.
I’m sure that nothing I have to say here is new or earth-shattering, and the reason why I am writing a blog post about it is so that I can pursue my thoughts on the readings more effectively. I can do my homework and write blog posts all at once, which is a very happy arrangement.
The more I study, the more I am realizing that my brain is very strongly wired towards breaking down the structures of things. I tend not to spend much time on minute details, but what I am good at is finding the underlying patterns and rhythms of narratives. All of my best research papers have been those that I have dedicated to excavating the structures and substructures of a narrative passage, which is something I find endlessly fascinating.
I believe that the human mind subconsciously segregates things into patterns, and especially in work like the Iliad, which was supposed to be memorized. And patterns in the narrative make it so much easier to remember, and more enjoyable for the audience.
In Iliad 1, we begin of course with the narrative about Achilles and the grievances he has with Agamemnon over the war prizes, i.e. beautiful captive women. Agamemnon is forced to return his woman Chryseis, or else be severely punished by Apollo who sends plagues and arrows upon the Greeks. Agamemnon then takes Achilles’ prize, Briseis.
After a long, protracted scene of speeches, and Achilles losing his temper, we see Achilles speaking to his mother, the nymph Thetis. Achilles asks her to tell Zeus to give him honor and recognition, since he already knows that he is doomed to die young. Thetis then goes to Olympus to ask Zeus to grant Achilles’ request. Zeus assents to her request, which puts him into strife with his wife Hera.
After a confrontation with Hera, there is now strife on Olympus, which is ironically soothed by Hephaestus, who speaks to Hera and convinces her to lay her grievances aside. The book ends on a peaceful note, with a party on Mt. Olympus, with all the other gods laughing at Hephaestus in his attempts to appease everyone.
Homer juxtaposes the world of men and the world of the gods. Beginning with the world of men, they start out in relative peace but Homer soon describes the cause of Achilles’ great rage, and the narrative shows their degeneration into strife. The world of the gods begins in relative strife and ends in peace. Thetis is the narrative bridge between the two worlds.
The priest of Apollo, Chryse, and the god Hephaestus correspond in their purpose as agents of strife and peace respectively. Chryse, in his prayer to Apollo, is ultimately the cause of the strife amongst the Greeks, while Hephaestus in calming Hera was the agent of peace among the gods.
The structure of the narrative is essentially this:
- The Argives have relative peace/the dividing of the war spoils
- Chryse invokes Apollo/Apollo’s punishment/Agamemnon returns Chryseis to her father. Agamemnon takes Achilles’ prize, causing Achilles’ fatal anger.
- Speeches/disagreement/strife among the Argives
- Achilles/Thetis (which occurs at roughly the midpoint of the narrative)
- Speeches/disagreement/strife between Hera and Zeus and the gods in general
- Hephaestus calms Hera.
- The narrative ends with the party of the gods, laughing at their agent of peace, Hephaestus.
The underlying symmetry is interesting, and extremely helpful for remembering the progression of the narrative. And it is, of course, a brilliant way to open the poem.