The Iliad and the Odyssey are two of the oldest pieces of Western literature in existence today. They are canons of the west’s literary past even now and have a large following. The stories of both have been repeated countless times and used in cultural references and in making big-budget movies that speak of their pervasive effect. Both of these are believed to be authored by Homer in Greece. His epic poems have become so popular that they have even led to the initiation of Homeric scholarship in various parts of the world.
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The Iliad is the first of the epic poems, describing a part of the Trojan War as it occurred between the people of Troy and the Greeks. The poem is said to be very graphic in terms of the events it describes and the many fights taking place between men and gods as they battle for supremacy which results in many casualties. The central characters are the Greeks Agamemnon and Achilles and the Trojans Paris and Hector. Within the story there are big plots conjured, numerous fights over honor and glory and the signs of eventual victory for the Greeks (Classics Technology Center).
The Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad and builds on the events of the Trojan War described in the first poem. It centers on one of the heroes of the war Odysseus and his long and winding journey home after the Trojan War ended. The story flows that as Odysseus is on his way back, it is considered in the island of Ithaca to which he belongs that he is dead. Thus his wife is being pressured by “the suitors” to take one of them in hand because her husband will never return. All this while Odysseus is at sea facing perils along the way, fighting various demons and creatures in his quest to get to Ithaca. The story brings into it elements from the Iliad as Odysseus is known as a hero of the Trojan War and is recognized for it and his role in the use of the Trojan horse technique (Classics Technology Center).
The author of both these epic poems is said to be Homer, the “blind poet”. Little is known of this creator of these two epic poems but what is believed to be generally accepted is that he was a Greek who used to construct hymns and thus conjured up these two masterful pieces to be sung and orally transferred on (Graziosi 2002, 126). Some scholars believe that the two epic poems themselves were not only written by one person but were actually passed on by an oral tradition down a line of many authors who added and subtracted from it and thus it resulted in the current form of the poems we have today. This has been supported to some extent by an analysis of the structure and use of words in the Iliad and Odyssey which illustrates that the works may contain many formulaic phrases which are largely seen in extempore epic traditions. Sometimes whole verses are seen to be repeated. However, it is believed that Homer may have been one person who compiled the hymns that first formed the works (Graziosi 2002, 126).
The epics are not addressed to any specific person but one can gather that since they talk of the glorious Trojan War which the Greeks won and the voyage of one of the heroes of war who displayed many traits beloved of the Greeks, they are addressed to the Greek population in general. This may be because Homer wanted the generations to remember the deeds of the great so as to learn from them and rejoice at the glory they enjoyed. It is further a lesson to the progeny of what traditions to follow, and to instill in them the Greek love of honor and glory. Since the works take the form of remembrance of events happened previously, it can be concluded that they were composed after the Trojan War and thus it speaks of the glorifying aspects of these epics of Greek virtues and how they were more or less maintained by the Greek heroes. It further magnifies the extent of the victory over the Trojans, as in afterthought, it appears that the enemy will always be vanquished and the victors gain all the spoils.
The Iliad and the Odyssey draw upon some important Greek concepts and values for the times. It uses the word “Nostos” numerous times which is taken as homecoming. This is attached to the concept of coming back to the motherland, but only after the job is completed. The Greeks can not have Nostos until they have sacked Troy and reclaimed the honor of having Helen taken away. Odysseus apparently can not claim Nostos until he overcomes the challenges that he faces. There is also frequent mention of “Kleos” which was the concept of glory (Harvard). This was attained through fighting for what was right and finishing it. It comes through great deeds and often the will to sacrifice personal life through prolonged struggle if necessary because glory or “Kleos” immortalized a person (Harvard). This, along with Nostos, can be very closely linked with the knightly concept of chivalry. The search for honor and glory over wealth and what seems prudent is basically the same as what the knights of Western Europe pursued later on. It can be said that these events described relating to the Trojan War and the return of Odysseus laid the foundation of the values that were to be espoused later on in the West considering that these two epics were much quoted and learned by wise men and the stories told repeatedly, forming much of the basis of following literature.
The Iliad and the Odyssey can be said to be fairly typical for their genre. They are both epic traditions transferred on by oral recitation by bards and sung through the ages until they were recorded in the Greek alphabet. Since there was no way to write before the introduction of the alphabet to the Greeks, such oral tradition was really the only way to transfer on the memory of great deeds and glorious times and impart a lesson. This is further supported by the research among other traveling singers in different parts of the world who wander about singing lengthy composed works which are frequently passed on from generation to generation (Lord 1960, 97). What is not typical however about the two epics is their relative importance and fame. This is why it is said sometimes that the Greek alphabet was formulated to write and record the two works of Homer.
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Classics Technology Center, “Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey.” Classics Technology Center. Web.
Graziosi, Barbara. Inventing Homer:The Early Reception of Epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Harvard, “The Concept of the Hero.” Harvard at Home. Web.
Lord, Albert. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.