Note: the hubris of the title is due to the series editor, not to the author.

EXCERPT from Chapter 3: The Quarrel, the Dream, and the Catalogue of Ships [Iliad I, II]

Section 1: READING TO WRITE. The Iliad is the first of the two Homeric epics, earlier both in its composition and in the events of its narrative chronology. Whereas the Iliad’s action covers a two-week period during the ninth year of the decade-long Trojan War, the Odyssey is one of several poems about the homecoming (in Greek, the nostos) of one of the victorious Greek heroes, Odysseus. So Iliad I is the first of the first; in it, some issues are presented more directly than anywhere else in the poem. In the opening line we are shown the principle on which epic poetry operates: an immortal female principle—called Thea (“Goddess”) in the first line of the Iliad; but Mousa (“Muse”) in the first line of the Odyssey—tells the poet what to say. Though we might expect the omniscience of the Goddess to be based on a strictly magical sort of power, according to Iliad II the Muses know all by virtue of their having been present when the narrated events occurred. This is why they can recite, through the poet, the amazingly detailed “Catalogue of Ships” (the phrase does not occur in the poem and is, like most of the names for Homeric episodes mentioned in this book, a scholarly convention) with neither error nor loss of audience interest. As Aristotle pointed out, the Iliad begins in medias res, “in the middle of things,” rather than at the beginning of the Trojan War. This means that the poem’s first movement must be rich in exposition, and so we get the encapsulated story of Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon, involving Chrises the Priest of Apollo, his daughter Chryseis, Achilles’ “bride” Briseis, the prophet Calchas, and the God Apollo. 

Be sure you understand the mechanics of Homer’s plot, but be equally careful to avoid merely summarizing that plot in your paper. Some plot summary is usually necessary, but you must resist the temptation to fill your available space with an uncritical recounting of the poem’s action. The best that could yield would be a competent and accurate list of events, not an analysis based on insight. Some professors give such papers failing grades; most give them C’s or B’s. To put the matter somewhat Homerically, making an entire essay out of mere plot-summary will never teach you how to analyze a text, even if it were somehow to get you an A or even a hundred A’s. Grades are a socio-economic lubricant, nothing more; they have nothing to do with getting what is available to you in a college course, namely knowledge, skill, and wisdom (generally achieved in that order, since each takes longer than the previous). Skill is what you are pursuing here.

Be aware that if the writing assignment is fairly open, most students will choose to write essays about the beginning of the book, in the mistaken belief that it is possible to do so effectively without reading the entire book. So if you choose to focus your essay on this region of the text, be sure to make it clear that you’re familiar with the book as a whole, as well. Your professor may be grading a stack of papers, half of which are about diverse passages from Iliad II through XXIV, while the other half are on the first book of the Iliad. Make your paper stand out from these by presenting Book I in the context of the whole book. Since the subject of Book I, as of Book IX, is Achilles’ first and lesser wrath, you might accomplish this by making a comparison to the greater wrath which forms the subject of the poem’s final six books. Many more suggestions follow.

Let’s begin with a close reading of an important passage, namely II, 484-493:

Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos.

For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things,

and we have heard only the rumor of it and know nothing.

Who then of those were the chief men, lords of the Danaans?

I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them,

not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had

a voice never to be broken and a heart of bronze within me,

not unless the Muses of Olympia, daughters

of Zeus of the aegis, remembered all those who came beneath Ilion.

The first thing to notice is that this passage from the middle of Book II gives substance and detail to the invocation at the opening of Book I. Here we are being told that the Muses have eyewitness knowledge, whereas human beings (like the poet, and his recital-performing successors, the rhapsodes, and their audience) only have aural information secondhand. Poetic knowledge is mere hearsay, but it is the best hearsay there is. As for real knowledge, the Greek language is unmistakably clear about its deep-seated connection between seeing and knowing. In his tragedy of Oedipus, Sophocles made much of this verbal fact, and it is in the study of that text that most of us learn this: in Greek, an important verb for “I see” becomes synonymous with “I know” when it is put into the “perfect tense,” the tense where the action of the verb has been finished and thus brought to perfection: “I have seen” and “I know” are expressed by the same form, oida. Note also the language of scarcity and abundance in our quoted passage: “not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths…” Scarcity and abundance will be a governing motif through the entire poem, especially since the Trojan War is one giant piracy expedition sustained by an ongoing series of lesser raids on nearby towns: “I have stormed from my ships twelve cities / of men, and by land eleven more through the generous Troad [the vast plain surrounding Troy]” says Achilles in Book IX. There we even see this same logical operator from the passage quoted above: “Not if he [Agamemnon] gave me ten times as much, and twenty times over…” (IX, 379); in other words, even if the scarce thing were abundant, it would make little difference.

The passage is also about the difference between mortals and the Gods. They have abundant eyewitness knowledge; we have scarce hearsay. They also have abundant immortal life, whereas the Iliad shows human beings dying like the insects or withering leaves to which the poet compares us. That links this passage to others in which the difference between gods and humans comes into focus, such as Iliad V, 127: “I have taken away the mist from your eyes, that before now / was there, so that you may well recognize the god and the mortal.” Athena says this to Diomedes in order to prevent him from suffering the fate that overtakes Patroclus in Book XVI, namely the hubris of fighting directly against a God on the battlefield. Notice that she has taken away a “mist” that was preventing Diomedes from seeing through the disguises of the Gods, and that this mist is not peculiar to this man or these circumstances. The implication of the passage is that the Gods have at all times misted the eyes of mortal people as part of our chronic condition. Presumably, we cannot see the Gods now (in 730 BCE with Homer’s original Dark Age audience, or in the 21st Century) because they have left this mist in place. Observe that the motif of the Divine as the disabler of the human is deeply traditional. It appears in the Judaic tradition in Genesis, where the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge inflicts mortality and scarcity on Adam and Eve; it also appears closer to Homer, in Plato’s Symposium, where the Gods punish humanity by splitting us in half (giving us our current form), making us weaker and slower and full of yearning for that split-off partner whom we can only regain in sexual love.