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The Mythological Background of Homer's Iliad
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Suggested Background Reading

The Trojan War pitted a loose alliance of independent Greek kings against the city of *Troy (in what today is northwest Turkey) and her allies in Asia Minor. It is said to have begun with an insult to the goddess Eris ("Strife" or "Discord"). When the Greek hero *Peleus married the minor sea-goddess *Thetis, all of the gods were invited to the wedding except Eris. Angry at this, she placed on the banquet table a golden apple inscribed with the words: "For the fairest." Immediately strife broke out between the various goddesses at the wedding, all of whom claimed the apple for themselves. (Today we still refer to the *Apple of Discord: does this story remind you of any other famous apples?) Three goddesses were determined to have the best claim: *Hera, sister and wife of *Zeus, queen of the gods, goddess of marriages, and a force to reckon with; *Athena, daughter of Zeus, a powerful warrior goddess associated with wisdom and skilled crafts; *Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, goddess of sexual passion. (For more on the Greek gods, see the section of The Gods below.) None of the male gods was willing to judge between these three so they decided to give the job to a mortal. The goddesses were led by the messenger god *Hermes down to Mt. Ida (near Troy) where the handsome young Trojan prince *Paris (also known as Alexander), son of the Trojan king *Priam and his wife *Hecuba, was tending a flock of sheep. (What was a prince doing tending sheep? There was a romantic myth to explain this, but the real reason seems to be that we are dealing with a Greek adaptation of an ancient near eastern myth about a mother goddess and her young male consort.) As we will find, the ancient Greeks are highly competitive, placing more emphasis on success than on means: the three goddesses immediately set about bribing the judge. The queenly Hera offered Paris royal power over Asia and Europe, the martial Athena promised him military prowess and fame, while Aphrodite offered him *Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris immediately chose the last (perhaps he'd been out with the flocks a bit too long) and, with Aphrodite's help, sailed off to Greece, accompanied by the Trojan hero Aeneas. His destination was *Sparta (in the *Peloponnese: see map 2 in The World of Athens), where Helen was married to *Menelaus, king of Sparta and brother to the powerful *Agamemnon, king of neighboring *Mycenae. Paris stayed at Sparta as Menelaus' guest until Menelaus was forced to leave on business, whereupon Paris promptly made off with his host's wife. This act is known as the *Rape of Helen.

[The term "rape" comes from the Latin rapio which means "to seize." Originally, then, "rape" referred to abduction or kidnapping, although sexual violation — actual or intended — was also implied. In Greek myth, Homeric epic, and Greek thought in general, women are viewed as passive objects who yield to seduction or sexual violation without resistance and become the submissive partners of whatever male holds them in his power. [FN 1] (Note, e.g., the curiously ambiguous portrayal of Helen in the Iliad as both passive victim and, in her own words, slut.) It is generally assumed of men, on the other hand, that they will seize any opportunity for sex that comes along: it is the business of the male in charge of a woman (her kyrios ["master"], usually her husband, father, brother, or son) to guard her carefully against possible seduction or assault.]

The rape of Helen was an offense against the guest-host relationship and against Zeus Xenios, who oversaw this relationship. [The Greeks not only worshipped a number of gods (polytheism) but attributed to each god a variety of spheres of influence or jurisdictions: thus Zeus in his role as supervisor of the guest-host relationship was distinguished from, e.g., Zeus in his role as protector of suppliants (Zeus Hikesios) or as a chthonic deity associated with the spirits of the dead (Zeus Meilichios).] In violating Menelaus' hospitality, Paris had in effect slighted Zeus, not a good thing to do. Moreover, he had won the hatred of Hera and Athena by awarding Aphrodite the prize for beauty. (You will find that the gods of Homer are less concerned with abstract justice than with their own honor and with saving face: see the Homeric Gods page.)

To add to Paris' troubles, the various suitors of Helen had sworn an oath that they would honor the rights of whatever man won her hand in marriage and would band together to punish anyone who infringed upon those rights. As the most powerful of the various Greek kings, Agamemnon assumed charge of the expedition that was formed to win Helen back and punish the Trojans.

Various stories were told of the early stages of the expedition. [For example, some of the heroes attempted to avoid going at all: the cunning *Odysseus pretended to be insane; *Achilles (the son of Peleus and Thetis and the greatest of all the Greek heroes) was disguised as a girl and hidden on the island of Scyrus. The first expedition failed when the Greeks landed in Mysia (south of Troy) by mistake and attacked the kingdom of Telephus, thinking it Troy.] Most of these tales are not dealt with specifically in the Homeric poems but many of them were recounted in the so-called *Epic Cycle, a series of shorter epics designed to fill in the parts of the Trojan saga omitted by Homer. We have only the barest fragments of these poems, which post-date Homer but which contained a good deal of material that must have been familiar to Homer's audience.

The most important of these stories involves the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter *Iphigenia, which goes as follows. The (second) expedition against Troy began with the Greek forces gathering at Aulis (on the east coast of Boeotia, facing the island of Euboea: see map 2 in The World of Athens). While there, Agamemnon in some way insulted the virginal huntress goddess *Artemis (the traditions vary). In her anger, Artemis sent adverse winds to keep the Greek fleet from sailing. [FN 2] The prophet *Calchas finally revealed to Agamemnon that the only way to appease Artemis' anger was to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon sent word to his wife *Clytemnestra that Iphigenia was to be married to Achilles as the condition upon which the latter would join the expedition. When Iphigenia arrived, however, she was slaughtered at the altar of Artemis. Clytemnestra later got her revenge: when Agamemnon returned home after the war she led him into his bath and, when he was naked and helpless in the tub, wrapped a large towel around him and hacked him to death.

[Part of Clytemnestra's anger was due to the fact that, in addition to having butchered their daughter, Agamemnon had brought the Trojan princess *Cassandra back with him to be his concubine. Cassandra was a prophetess who had been given her prophetic powers by the god *Apollo. Apollo had granted her these powers on the agreement that she would sleep with him, but Cassandra did not fulfill her part of the deal (a clear exception to the general rule of feminine passivity mentioned above). In his anger, Apollo cursed Cassandra: she would foretell the future accurately but no one would believe or understand her. Today people tend to misuse her name as if it referred to someone who is always gloomily predicting disaster: Cassandra was always correct in her predictions, but no one would listen to her.]

See below on possible echoes of the Myth of Iphigenia in the Iliad.

Calchas' advice worked and the Greeks sailed to Troy (with various other adventures along the way). When the Iliad opens, the Greeks have been besieging Troy unsuccessfully for ten years. The poem tells of a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles — the foremost fighter of the Greeks — that leads Achilles to sit out the battle, resulting in a series of Trojan successes. Achilles refuses to reenter the battle but is eventually compelled to provide some assistance to the Greeks or risk seeing the entire expedition wiped out. Accordingly, he sends his friend *Patroclus into battle in his place, only to have him killed at the hands of the Trojan hero *Hector, the most noble of Priam's sons and leader of the Trojan forces. Achilles falls into a rage and goes on a killing spree, slaughtering Trojans by the dozens until eventually he kills Hector in single combat. The poem ends with the burial of Patroclus and the ransoming of Hector's body by his elderly father Priam.

The war, however, continued. After a series of further battles (which involved the appearance of the exotic Trojan allies Memnon, king of the Ethiopeans, and Penthesileia, queen of the amazons, whom Achilles killed, falling in love with her even as he did so), Achilles was killed by an arrow shot by Paris (aided by the pro-Trojan Apollo). Troy fell at last due to the cunning of Odysseus who (at the prompting of Athena) devised the deception of the Trojan horse. There are a number of gruesome acts of retribution after the city is sacked (in addition to the usual horrors of the adult males being killed, the women and children being taken as slaves, and the city being burned to the ground): Cassandra is raped by the lesser Ajax in Athena's temple; Hector's son *Astyanax is thrown off the walls of Troy by Odysseus to ensure that Hector's line will never rise again; Priam's youngest daughter Polyxena is sacrificed at Achilles' tomb; in her grief, Hecuba is transformed into fiery-eyed dog. Partially because of these outrages, many of the Greeks suffer a series of disasters attempting to get home. Most notable are the adventures of Odysseus, whose ten-year struggle to return to Ithaca and regain control of his kingdom is the subject of the other Homeric epic, the *Odyssey.

[For illustrations from ancient art of various episodes associated with the Trojan War, see Robin Mitchell-Boyask's Images of the Trojan War Myth.]

Read Iliad, Book 1.

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Homer and the Myth of the Trojan War. The curious thing to note in reading the Iliad is the amount that Homer leaves out. The Iliad is a massive poem, yet it deals with what would seem to be a relatively insignificant event, omitting the exciting stories concerning the beginning of the war and its conclusion. We pick up with the Greeks having been at Troy for ten years: the judgment of Paris, the rape of Helen, the gathering of the Greek forces, the early mishaps that attended the expedition are all omitted. When the poem ends, Patroclus and Hector are dead, but Achilles is alive and Troy has yet to fall: no amazon queens, no wooden horse, nothing regarding the series of events that followed the conclusion of the war. The poets of the Epic Cycle seem to have been little more than verse storytellers, filling their short works with incident, variety, exciting action, romance, and exotic color; Homer's interest clearly lies elsewhere. One of the key questions that confronts a reader of the poem today is that of why Homer would ignore all of this exciting material and instead choose such a curiously inconsequential episode in the midst of the war as the subject for his lengthy poem.

Homer places further restrictions on his tale by avoiding references to events or plot elements that are overly gruesome or fantastic. The Iliad teems with detailed descriptions of death in battle: the poet seems to take a professional interest in the types of wounds inflicted and the details of individual deaths. In that sense it is an exceedingly gory poem. But the poet tends to avoid reference to those parts of the mythic tradition that involve excessively gruesome or inhumane elements. (We have seen one example already: the slaughter of Iphigenia at the altar of Artemis is never mentioned.) To the degree that the poet does admit such elements (as in Achilles' rampage in the latter books of the poem) he does so for a purpose. The same holds true for elements of fantasy. The Iliad scarcely presents the world as Homer's audience knew it: gods are constantly popping down to address the heroes in person or to intervene in the action, the heroes perform deeds that no ordinary human could achieve, there are a number of surrealistic episodes (e.g., Achilles' talking horses at the end of Book 19). Yet the poet of the Iliad does seem consciously to suppress those parts of the tradition that would call into question the essential humanity of his heroes or reduce his story to an escapist fantasy. The best example (although somewhat problematic) is provided by the poem's main hero, Achilles. Probably the best known story associated with Achilles today is that of his "Achilles heel" — the myth that his mother Thetis dipped him in the river Styx in order to render him invulnerable, but that, in holding him by the heel, she left that one part of him untreated and therefore vulnerable. This myth seems to post-date the Iliad, [FN 3]; it is utterly alien to the world of Homer, where the one stark reality that binds all of the heroes together is the fact of their mortality. As with incidents of brutality, fantastic elements are employed by the poet with great reserve and for particular effect.

But perhaps the most difficult thing for a modern reader to accept is the freedom with which Homer treats his material. In the West, the influence of the Bible and, more recently, of historiography, along with the fact that we live in a book culture, leads most readers to look for a single, "true" account of an event. In matters of religion, for example, it is generally assumed that there is an authoritative text that can be consulted and interpreted along lines set out either by secular scholars or by some religious authority. Deviations from this received account are dismissed as untrue or condemned as heresy: a version of the Fall, for example, where it is Adam who tempts Eve would be viewed as a willful distortion. Moreover, our habits as readers lead us to expect consistency: if an author states something on page 234 that contradicts something on page 17, we can flip back in the text and point to the inconsistency. Things are much different in Homer's Greece. Homer operates within an oral culture, where writing is for the most part unknown and is at best viewed as an aide de memoire, with none of the authority that it enjoys in 21st-century Canada. (See the Iliad as Oral Formulaic Poetry page.) Homer and his audience live in a world of varied and often contradictory oral traditions which are in a constant state of flux due to local variations and innovations over time, and that often pay scant attention to consistency. None of these traditions enjoys the permanence or the authority of, say, the Old or the New Testament: there is no fixed text for people to consult and no authority (either secular or religious) charged with guarding the purity of the orthodox tradition. "Literary" composition — whether for Homer or for the Greek tragedians — is largely a matter of selection, as the author chooses which strands of the tradition to follow, which to ignore, and which to suppress or even to subvert by introducing innovations of his/her own. The tendency for all of these "authors" is to create their works through active reflection on the past. Neither Homer nor the tragedians invent new fictions, as would a modern author or playwright; instead, they present their own interpretations of material preserved in the mythopoetic tradition. [At times, however, the innovations that resulted could approach fiction. For example, the poet Stesichorus (fl. early 6th century) presented a version of the Trojan War in which Helen never went to Troy at all but spent the entire time in Egypt; the "Helen" who went to Troy was a wraith sent by Zeus, who caused the war in order to reduce the number of humans on the planet. (One thinks of Fritz Lang's Metropolis!)]

Reading Homer, then, involves distinguishing between those elements of the tradition that he accepts, those that he ignores, and those that he actively rejects (or that have yet to come into circulation, like the story of Achilles' heel). This is a tricky business. We can see, for example, that Homer does not follow (or does not know) the tradition that the suitors of Helen had sworn an oath to aid her husband should anyone violate the latter's spousal rights: Achilles' words at 1.149ff. make no sense if such an oath were the occasion for his coming to Troy. We have already seen that Homer makes no mention of Iphigenia's sacrifice: the reference to Iphianassa (an apparent variant of Iphigenia) at 9.145 (where she is alive and well) might suggest that he knows nothing of the story, but Agamemnon's own words at 1.106ff. have often been thought to prove otherwise. (Reread the account of Iphigenia's sacrifice and Agamemnon's eventual fate [above — Myth of Iphigenia]: how might Agamemnon's words at 1.106ff. strike an audience familiar with that account?) It is often argued that the judgment of Paris is also suppressed by Homer: if this is so, the one reference to it, at 24.25-30, must be a later interpolation. (Here we see another problem: the question of the authenticity of particular passages. Obviously this is not a subject that we will be able explore in any detail.) When reading Homer and the other Greek authors it is important to pay careful attention to the myth as they present it and not to import material from elsewhere without great caution. A common error among modern readers is to assume that "we know x happened" simply because x is mentioned in a modern mythological handbook.

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The Gods. Homer describes a universe governed by the *Olympian gods [FN 4] under the rule of Zeus, king of the gods and "the father of gods and men." The Olympian gods get their name from Mt. Olympus in Thessaly, where in early times they were thought to dwell. (In Homer, however, the gods are usually pictured as living in the upper heavens.) Zeus was not the original ruler of the gods but, according to a succession myth inherited by the Greeks from the Near East, the third in a line of divine monarchs. The myths regarding the origin of the universe and the rise of Zeus to power are recounted by *Hesiod, an epic poet of the late 8th or early 7th century B.C. (usually felt to post-date the poet of the Iliad by perhaps a generation) from Boeotia. Hesiod is a very different epic poet than Homer: he composes in a catalogue style which is thought to be traditional to his region. He is known today for two works: the *Theogony, which tells of the origin of the universe, the birth of the various generations of gods, and, ultimately, Zeus' rise to power as king of the gods, and the *Works and Days, which is a sort of verse farmer's almanac but which opens with a series of observations about the nature of mortal existence and the justice of the gods.

According to Hesiod's Theogony creation begins with the appearance of a series of primordial gods (Chaos, Erebus, Night, Day), prominent among whom is Gaia, mother earth. Gaia mates with Ouranus (Heaven) to give birth to a series of gods known as the *Titans, the youngest of whom is *Cronus. [FN 5] Ouranus is not a nurturing parent: he presses on Gaia so tightly that her children are trapped within her. At Gaia's prompting, Cronus lies in ambush for Ouranus when the latter comes to sleep with Gaia and castrates him with a sickle. (This story seems intended to account for the separation of earth and sky, but it has roused more than a little interest among Freudians.) Under the rule of Cronus, the Titans enjoy prominence for a number of years until the birth of Zeus. Cronus, it turns out, is no better a father than Ouranus was: he and the goddess *Rheia have a number of children, but Cronus snatches up each one the second they are born and swallows them. His youngest child, Zeus, is rescued by Rheia, who gives Cronus a stone to swallow in his place. Eventually Zeus and his fellow Olympian gods overthrow the Titans in an immense battle with the help of various groups of monsters whom Zeus wins over to his cause. Once on his throne, Zeus must face a series of challenges to his power, most notably the monstrous *Typhoeus (or Typhaon, or Typhon: a fire-breathing dragon whom Gaia produces to get revenge for her children the Titans) and the *Giants, born from the severed genitals of Cronus, who fight another "titanic" battle against the Olympian gods. The Theogony concludes with these monstrous primordial forces vanquished and Zeus safely ensconced on his throne, ruler of a civilized age of peace and culture. [For a translation, see Hesiod's Theogony in the on-line Perseus Project.]

For an account of the early course of human history we must turn to Hesiod's other epic, the Works and Days. There we read the famous myth of the five ages of humanity (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, Iron) — a picture of human history as a process of decline from an early, idyllic paradise to the sordid present (cf. the story of Eden in the Judaeo-Christian tradition). [For a translation, see the lines 109ff. of Hesiod's Works and Days in the on-line Perseus Project.]

See above on the gods' role in causing The Trojan War. On the nature of Homer's gods, see the Homeric Gods page.


[FN 1] The latter also holds true for the popular portrayal of slaves, who are presented as having an emotional attachment and devotion to their masters. [Return to text]

[FN 2] The myth of Artemis' anger and the adverse winds may reflect the peculiar conditions at Aulis. The narrows between the large island of Euboea and the Greek mainland have a detectable current caused by the mild tides of the Mediterranean. The direction of the current changes once or twice each day, according to the direction of the tides. [Return to text]

[FN 3] See, e.g., S. Woodford, The Trojan War in Ancient Art, p. 26. (Cf., however, ill. 88 and 89.) The story is similar in tone to a number of tales that appeared in the Epic Cycle. [Return to text]

[FN 4] The traditional list: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon (god of the sea, horses, and earthquakes), Hades (god of the underworld; the name is also used of the underworld itself), Apollo (god of the bow and the lyre, associated prophecy, poetry, and healing), Artemis (virginal huntress goddess also associated with children and childbirth), Athena, Aphrodite, Hermes (messenger, god of travelers and thieves, conductor of the souls of the dead down to Hades), Iris (a messenger goddess, associated with the rainbow), Hephaestus (the lame smithy god), Hestia (goddess of the hearth). (With the exception of Hestia [one of the Titans, but never fully anthropomorphized], all of the gods listed after Hades are the children of Hera and/or Zeus.) Also important: the grain goddess Demeter and her daughter (by Zeus) Persephone (wife of Hades). [Return to text]

[FN5] Note that Cronus is distinct from chronus (time). [Return to text]

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