Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 6

Greek Mythology and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Before ending, the myths and legends described by Homer in Iliad and Odyssey bear some investigation.

The stories of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were originally communicated through word of mouth by travelling bards. They were collected by Homer (and possibly altered to fit into Homer’s own sense of the story). While a brief synopsis of each will be given here, I also encourage you to read these two epics. They have been an inspiration in culture and literature since their original telling, over 2,500 years ago.

Iliad

Homer’s Iliad begins near the end of the Trojan War. The Achaeans (or Greeks) are battling the Trojans. A priest of Apollo offers Agamemnon, the king of the Achaeans, vast wealth in exchange for Agamemnon to return his daughter Chryseis. Agamemnon refuses.

The priest then prays to Apollo for help and guidance and the god, a patron of Troy, sends forth a plague into the Greek camp which claims many lives. This plague continues for the space of nine days, until Achilles, hero of the Greeks and leader of the legendary Myrmidons, demands that Agamemnon return the girl to her father and end the plague.

While Agamemnon agrees to return Chryseis, he takes Briseis, a captive of Achilles, as recompense. Achilles is enraged and from that point refuses to fight. He also orders his Myrmidons to stand down. They threaten to leave the battle and the beach near Troy altogether. Meanwhile, Odysseus returns Chryseis to her father, thus ending the plague on the Greeks.

Mutinous, Achilles bids his mother Thetis, a goddess of the sea, to beseech Zeus and ask him to fight on the side of the Trojans. He does this in order to either convince Agamemnon to appreciate how much he needs Achilles and his Myrmidons, or bring a swifter end to the war. Zeus agrees, and the tide is turned.

Agamemnon has a dream that night, sent by Zeus, instructing him to attack the city walls. Upon his awakening, Agamemnon decided to test the morale of his soldiers by telling them all to head home. With the recent plague and the refusal of Achilles and his Myrmidons to fight, the soldiers were very nearly routed. It was only by the intervention of Athena, through the mouth and actions of Odysseus that the Greeks remained. He challenged and killed a discontented soldier for airing his grievances about the continued combat.

Word of the Greeks’ pending attack reaches Priam (king of Troy) who then sets his own men out to the battlefield. As the armies approached each other, Paris, the prince of Troy and man who had stolen Helen from the Greek Minelaus, the act which purportedly started the war, (see previous chapter’s section regarding Paris and the three goddesses), offered to fight a duel with the vastly superior warrior Minelaus to decide the victor of the war. Paris was no match for Minelaus, but was spared by Aphrodite before he could be killed.

At the intervention of Zeus, an arrow takes flight and wounds Minelaus, thus breaking the temporary truce and rejoining the battle. One of the great warriors on the side of the Greeks is Diomedes. He kills many soldiers, including Pandaros, the man who released the arrow wounding Minelaus. Aphrodite intervenes, but is wounded by Diomedes. Apollo then comes forth and warns Diomedes against battling against the gods, but the latter is not dissuaded.

The gods of Olympus were split in regard to their support of the armies, and Diomedes wounds yet another deity, Ares, who shrieks out in a very un-war-god-like cry (see above section on Ares).

After rallying his forces, Hector (brother of Paris and prince of Troy) reenters the city to bid the people toward prayer and sacrifice. He returns to the battle and confronts Ajax, a mighty Greek warrior. The two fight to a stalemate as the sun goes down.

The next day, the two armies agree to a day’s peace so that they can burn their dead. The Greeks also erect a wall for protection. Paris refuses to return Helen over the protestation of many of the Trojans. He offers instead to return a treasure he had stolen and much of his own riches, but this offer is in vain.

Upon the next morning, the gods are forbidden by Zeus to interfere in the battle. The Trojans are victorious on the day and drive the Greeks back to their encampment. The sun goes down and prevents the Trojans from assailing the walls, so instead, they camp on the field.

Meanwhile, Agamemnon is ready to do whatever necessary to convince Achilles to return to the battle. He sends two heralds along with the Greek warriors Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax who also bear gifts to Achilles. The Myrmidon warrior refuses to return to battle unless the Trojans breach the Greek walls and attack their camps and ships with fire.

During the night, Diomedes and Odysseus kill a Trojan warrior and generally cause mayhem among the camps of the Trojan allies. When morning comes, Hector leads the charge against the Greeks. He is begged not to proceed by Polydamas, an oracle, but the prince continues onward.

Zeus, who had continued to prohibit the gods from interference, is lured to sleep by Hera so that Poseidon can intervene on the side of the Greeks. Upon waking, Zeus sends forth Apollo on the side of the Trojans to sway the tide of the battle back in the favor of the Trojans. Unfortunately for the Trojans, they reach the ships and cause Achilles to send his friend Patroclus into battle wearing his armor to rally the Greek soldiers.

The tide of the battle is again turned, and Patroclus kills one of the Trojan heroes, sending the Trojans into retreat. He pursues the Trojans back to the city walls and is confronted by Apollo himself. Patroclus is killed by Hector, thinking the warrior to be Achilles. Hector takes the armor of Achilles as his own and chaos breaks out.

The news of his slain friend is enough to enrage Achilles. He swears vengeance on the prince of Troy and he stands at the gate of the Grecian walls and, inspired by Athena, thunders in rage at the Trojan army. The Trojans are terrified by the presence of Achilles and in the cacophony, the Greeks are able to retrieve the body of Patroclus, and they bring his remains back to their camp.

New armor is fashioned by Hephaestus, and Achilles dons the gifts, ready to avenge his friend by killing the Trojan prince Hector. The next morning comes, and Agamemnon again offers Achilles gifts, including the return of Briseis, but Achilles has only one thing on his mind: his revenge on Hector.

Though Achilles is aware that he is destined to die young, and is even warned by his horse of his own coming death, the warrior drives his chariot into battle. He slaughters the Trojans before him and, splitting off about half of the Trojan forces, proceeds to slaughter this entire group. He is confronted by the river god Skamandros, who is upset that Achilles had littered his waters with so many dead Trojans. The god is driven back, however and Achilles returns to battle.

The gods, having been released by Zeus from their bonds of non-interference, rejoin the battle. Achilles is tricked by the god Apollo and led away from the mass of the Trojan forces as they retreat into the city. Only Hector remains outside the city walls.

Despite his initial urge to stand and fight, as Achilles draws closer, Hector begins to run around the walls of Troy, trying to evade the hero. He runs until Athena intervenes, fooling the prince into facing Achilles. The battle doesn’t last long.

Achilles ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags the prince’s corpse back to the Greek camp. Despite being visited in a dream by his friend Patroclus who urges Achilles to bury Hector and allow the usual honors to fall to the slain prince, Achilles continues to desecrate the body by riding it around the funeral pyre of Patroclus.

Having had enough of this, Zeus sends Hermes to bring Priam to the tent of Achilles. Though initially confused by the Trojan king’s presence, Priam’s pleas compel Achilles to release Hector’s body to the king. It is with the funeral of Hector that Homer’s Iliad comes to an end.

Odyssey

The chronology of Iliad and Odyssey skips a number of years and a few important events which bear a mention albeit brief here. The city of Troy would fall to the Greek soldiers after Odysseus hatched a cunning plan during the funeral games for Hector, son of Priam.

The idea was to build a great wooden horse and present it as if it were a gift to the Trojans, honoring the god Poseidon. The Trojans brought the horse through their gate and into the city. Now unhindered, the Greeks only needed to wait until nightfall to spring from inside the horse and overtake the city.

The plan worked nearly to perfection; however, Paris, the one who caused the war and who cowered before Minelaus, shot Achilles through the heel with a poisoned arrow, killing him. Alternatively, one version of the story has Paris stabbing Achilles in the back while the latter was being married to Polyxena, one of Priam’s daughters. Either way, Paris’s slaying of Achilles never bears him any honor, and Achilles goes to his grave having never been defeated in battle.

Homer’s Odyssey begins ten years since the end of the Trojan War and Odysseus has yet to return to his native Ithaca where he is king. The Odyssey is told, quite often, through the use of flashbacks. When the text begins, he is actually near the end of his journey, but the text reveals the ins and outs of his travels and tribulations.

Back at home, his wife Penelope is constantly beset by one-hundred and eight different suitors. These men believe Odysseus to be dead, and are quick to pounce on the opportunity for free food, drink, and the chance to possibly become king of Ithaca.

Penelope, while she despises the suitors, is bound by convention to feed these vultures. She refuses to take one as her husband, but can’t turn them away either.

Much of the first books which make up Homer’s Odyssey involve Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope. Athena, Odysseus’s greatest ally disguises herself and tells Telemachus to search for information about his father’s fate. Athena also approaches Zeus around this time, conveniently when Poseidon is not around. She would further help the young man by securing a ship for him (disguised as Telemachus himself). She would also stand at his side while the young prince conferred with the townspeople about what should be done with the suitors.

Poseidon’s hatred of Odysseus is one of the main themes, and certainly the main cause of the warrior and his men being so lost in their travels. The reasons behind this begin with Poseidon’s siding with the Trojans in the war, and the false offering to the god in the form of the Trojan horse. However, this would only be the beginning of the sea god’s hatred of Odysseus.

Telemachus would travel by ship to visit Nestor, one of the Greek warriors in the war against Troy, often considered to be the most respectable of the Greek warriors. He then travelled to Sparta and inquired of Minelaus and Helen (who had finally returned with her husband, thus rendering the Trojan War a needless conflict over a spousal affair). They told him that his father was most recently known to have been held captive on an island by the nymph Calypso.

Now the story shifts its focus to settle on Odysseus himself. Odysseus is indeed entangled by the nymph Calypso who, having fallen in love with him, keeps him stranded on her island for the space of seven years. It’s only when Hermes, intervenes that Calypso finally releases Odysseus. She gives him supplies as Odysseus builds a raft for himself.

Poseidon, still angered with Odysseus, sinks Odysseus’s craft. Luckily, Odysseus had his share of allies throughout his plight, and he is obscured by the sea nymph Ino. He swims to shore, but has not only lost his craft, but his clothing as well.

He wakes on the shore, roused by the sounds of women laughing with each other. He comes out of the forest and discovers the princess Nausicaa and her maids washing their clothes in the sea. The servants flee in fear, but Odysseus beseeches Nausicaa to help him. She takes Odysseus in, giving him clothing and shelter.

While a guest of Nausicaa and the house of Scherie (the island upon which he had landed), a bard recounts two tales, one of the quarrel of Achilles and Odysseus, and the other about an affair involving Ares and Aphrodite. Odysseus, who at this point hadn’t shared his identity with his hosts, asked the bard to recount the first tale. He exposes his identity by not being able to contain his emotions at the bard’s words. It is from this point that Odysseus recounts his travels after the end of the Trojan War.

He began his trip home with twelve ships, carrying all of his men. They raided the city of Ismaros in Cicones. While Odysseus insisted that they leave quickly after dividing up the women and plunder, the men refused. The Cicones attacked the next morning, killing many of Odysseus’s men. He and his remaining forces were able to escape, but they had their casualties.

Odysseus and his men would then come across lotus-eaters, lazy people who did nothing but eat lotus. The lotus-eaters didn’t harm Odysseus or his men, but gave some of them lotuses to eat. The men who ate them no longer wanted to return home, rather, they stayed behind to gorge themselves with lotus.

Odysseus and his remaining men were then imprisoned by the Cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus was eventually able to free himself by blinding the Cyclops, but made the mistake of telling Polyphemus his name. The Cyclops then entreated his father Poseidon (of course it had to be Poseidon).

Now filled with renewed rage toward Odysseus and his men, Poseidon put a curse upon Odysseus that he should wander the seas for the space of a decade.

Odysseus briefly came upon a hint of good fortune when they stayed with the master of the winds, a being named Aeolus. The master gave Odysseus a bag which contained the north, south and east winds. The ships came just in sight of Ithaca and everything was going well until one night while Odysseus was asleep, his men greedily opened the bag, thinking it to be treasure, and released all of the winds contained within. The resulting storm would carry the ships backward, far away from Ithaca. They found Aeolus again, but he refused to help them further.

The men set onward again, finally coming to the island of the Laestrygonians, a cannibalistic tribe. Odysseus’s ship was the only one who didn’t enter the harbor, and was thus the only one spared from complete destruction.

He would later run across the witch and goddess Circe. Having been warned about Circe by Hermes, Odysseus took a drug called moly which prevented what was about to happen to half of his men from happening to him. As the men ate and drank, they were turned into pigs. When Odysseus was able to resist the magic, Circe agreed to return his men to their original form provided that Odysseus would love her. They stayed on this island for a year, until Circe finally gave Odysseus the knowledge of how to contact the dead for guidance.

Odysseus traveled to an island on the western edge of the world and came across many spirits, including a crewman named Elpenor who asked Odysseus to find and bury his body. Odysseus agreed and was then visited by a prophet named Tiresias. Tiresias instructed Odysseus on how to return home without losing all of his men (not eating the sun god’s flocks), and informed him that he had angered Poseidon by blinding his myopic son. He also came across Achilles, Agamemnon, Heracles, Minos, Orion, and other characters. He is eventually beset by innumerable souls from the underworld asking of news of their relatives. He retreats and leaves the island.

He returned to the island of Circe, who instructed them on the final stages of their journey. They sailed past the island of the sirens, women whose voices so entranced sailors that they steered their ships into the rocks. All of the men with the exception of Odysseus plugged their ears with bee’s wax.

Next they sailed between the whirlpool Charybdis and the six-headed monster Scylla. Many of his men were lost, but Odysseus and his remaining companions made it through to safety. They would land on the island where the sun god’s cattle resided. While Odysseus was asleep, all of his men chased down, slaughtered and ate the cattle. Upon their departure, the ships were wrecked, and all but Odysseus (the only one who hadn’t partaken in the offense toward Helios) were killed.

He would come ashore the island of Calypso. The nymph fell quickly and deeply in love with Odysseus and forced him to remain with her until Zeus (via Hermes) demanded that he be released seven years after landing on the island; thus bringing the guests of Nausicaa up to speed.

The attendants of the party quickly agreed to help Odysseus get home. They set forth while Odysseus was sleeping and delivered him to a harbor in Ithaca where he goes on to find his own slave’s quarters. Athena disguised Odysseus that he might view with anonymity the state of his house and kingdom. The slave, a swineherd named Eurnaeus, took him in and fed him.

After regaling the local farmers with a false tale about his disguised self, Odysseus comes across his own son Telemachus who had just returned from Sparta, narrowly evading an ambush by the suitors of Penelope. He discloses his identity to his son and the two set out to kill the suitors.

While in the house, being patched up, one of the maids washing his feet recognizes Odysseus’s scar and runs off to tell the lady of the house. Athena intervenes, causing Penelope to be deaf to the woman’s words.

Athena again intercedes by telling Penelope the following day to hold a competition where whosoever of the suitors could string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads could have her hand in marriage.

Odysseus joins the contest himself and is the only one capable of stringing the bow. He easily fires an arrow through the axe heads and along with his son, Athena, Eurnaeus and a cowherd he slaughters the suitors. They also hang a dozen maids who had slept with the suitors or deceived Penelope, along with a goatherd who had ridiculed Odysseus.

He finally reveals his identity to Penelope. She is at first skeptical, but when she tests him about what kind of bed they shared, he tells her accurately that it surrounds a living olive tree.

The next day, he meets with Laertes, his father, who only accepts that it’s really Odysseus after the latter faithfully recounts the orchard which the former had gifted him. The story isn’t quite over yet though, as the parents of the suitors set forth to take revenge on Odysseus. In her final intervention of the tale, Athena comes forth as Mentor (the disguise she had used while Telemachus was beseeching the people before his journey to Sparta) and causes them to forget their anger. Thus, the Odyssey is complete.

These large and profoundly beautiful volumes can be summed up, but hardly done justice outside of their own text. Their inclusion here is necessary, as is their inclusion in any text about Greek mythology, however, I again encourage you to read these phenomenal works for yourself.

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