Ancient Seafarers & the Birth of Greek Mythology and Christian Mythology
Written or recited some 2700 years ago, The Iliad--an epic saga during the Bronze Age that vaunts glory-thirsty Achaean plunderers who raped and razed Troy, then a rich seaport in Asia Minor--had been kept alive through orality until the Greeks developed their writing system and later survived in manuscript forms.
Homer presumably gave voice to the heroic epic of The Iliad and The Odyssey during the advent of Classical Antiquity. The flourish of the Hellenistic civilization reaching from Central Asia to the western end of the Mediterranean sea, yet, quickly waned when Alexander the Great died young. The Roman Empire (27 BC-AD 395) dominated the power vacuum left by the young conqueror king's death and later the Byzantine Empire (AD 395-1453) kept the embers of the Hellenistic arts and literature alive.
In 1453, the Ottomans' conquest of Constantinople (the capital of the Byzantine Empire, formerly called Alexandria, and now called Istanbul) ended Christian Europe's control over Asia Minor. Following the fall of the Byzantine Empire, refugees--including scholars--from Constantinople settled in various Italians city-states. They also brought with them knowledge of the Ancient classics and precious manuscripts, including the first extant copy of The Iliad.
Even though the fall of the Byzantine Empire cost Europe its access to eastward trade and became the source of persistent conflict against and fear of the Islamic Sultanate, Europe started to consume voraciously the previously lost arts, philosophy, and literature of Classical antiquity. Waking up from the Dark Ages, Europe was ready and eager to revive the imagination and creativity of the ancient Greeks, which prompted the cultural revolution we now call The Renaissance (the rebirth).
The printing press, Johannes Gutenberg's 1450 invention, helped propagate ideas and texts: finally in 1488, the very first Italian translation of The Iliad was published in Florence, Italy. The renewed fascination and appreciation of Greco-Roman mythology are palpable even in the religious text written by Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare freely intermingled Greek mythology and religious allusions to the Bible in his plays and poetry.
The map above-posted depicts how both Greek mythology and Christian mythology were conceived in the East and were appropriated by the Christian West as the two pillars that support the western civilization.
In Medias Res (meaning “in the midst of things” in Latin) is the practice of beginning an epic or other narrative by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events; the narrative then goes directly forward, and exposition of earlier events is supplied by flashbacks.
Aristia is a scene in the dramatic conventions of epic poetry as in the Iliad, where a hero in battle has his finest
moment (aristos = "best").
An epic simile, aka a Homeric simile, is a lengthy, detailed simile that often takes the form of "as . . . so ~." There are some 200 epic similes in The Iliad and according to the Homeric scholar Peter Jones, Homeric similes "are miraculous, redirecting the reader's attention in the most unexpected ways and suffusing the poem with vividness, pathos and humour."
Book 1: "The Rage of Achilles" (Pride and Rage)
Setting: the ninth year of the Trojan War; within the Achaean encampment
Homer begins his epic poem with an apostrophe to the goddess Muse, imploring her to sing how Achilles' rage brings destruction to the Achaeans. Using an apostrophe, the rhapsode (a storyteller of an epic poem) first commands the attention of his audience; at the same time, this rhetorical convention of invoking a higher authority (deity, Muse) helps endow Homer with credibility and authenticity.
Why does the Archer God point his arrow at the Achaeans?
How many days does Apollo's scourge against the Achaeans last?
Before delivering his divine message, what guarantee does Calchas secure from Achilles?
Why is Achilles enraged at Agamemnon?
What does Thetis ask Zeus in favor of her son?
Why does Hera take sides with the Trojans?
Book 2: "The Great Gathering of Armies" (the catalog of the army)
Why does Zeus send "a murderous dream" (7) to Agamemnon?
Before attacking Troy for the decisive victory, what doss Agamemnon propose to do to boost the Achaeans' morale?
When the rank and file of the Achaeans rush to their ships, who dissuade them from fleeing?
Book 3: "Helen Reviews the Champions"
What does Homer achieve by giving voice to the heroic qualities of the Argives through Priam and Helen?
What is Homer's attitude toward Helen, who was a willing partner in crime that eventually razed the city of Troy? You may use the following excerpt in developing Helen's characterization.
I know them all by heart, and I could tell their names . . .
but two I cannot find, and they're captains of the armies,
Castor breaker of horses and the hardy boxer Polydeuces,
My blood brothers. Mother bore them both. Perhaps
they never crossed over from Lacedaemon's lovely hills
or come they did, sailing here in the deep-sea ships,
but now they refuse to join the men in battle,
dreading the scorn, the curses hurled at me . . . (281-8)
What is the speaker's attitude toward Paris?
How does Aphrodite manipulate Helen to join Paris in bed?
Book 4: "The Truce Erupts in War"
Achilles has butchered the Trojans for the past nine years and now our of spite sits idly while his fellow Archaeans are slaughtered by the Trojans. On the other hand, the Olympians play intrigues and favoritism, which prolong the war beyond nine years. In your opinion, who are the worst warmongers in this never-ending epic narrative?
Book 5: "Diomedes Fights the Gods"
While Achilles sabotages the war, who fills his shoes?
Which Olympian aids Diomedes and how does this immortal guides Diomedes in the battlefield?
Which Olympian saves Aeneas from a certain death?
Single out one scene in which Homer describes a chariot race and analyze the passage (an example of an aristia).
Book 6: "Hector Returns to Troy"
What does Helenus instruct Hector to do when the latter returns to Troy?
In what ways does Homer's attitude towards Hector and Paris differ?
Why does Hector hector Paris who has been idling the palace?
In what ways does the family dynamics of Hector-Andromache differ from those of Helen-Paris?
Book 7 and Book 8: "Ajax Duels with Hector" and "The Tide of Battle Turns"
Hector, the firstborn son of King Priam and the leader of the Trojan alliances, controls the tides of battles in these books. What specific actions does he take against the Achaeans?
Using close reading, analyze the following excerpt and develop a characterization of Hector.
seeing the best of all Achaeans fill your ranks,
let one whose nerve impels him to fight with me
come striding from your lines, a lone champion
pitted against Prince Hector. Here are the terms
that I set forth--Let Zeus look down, my witness!
If that man takes my life with his sharp bronze blade,
he will strip my gear and haul it back to his ships.
But give my body to friends to carry home again,
so Trojan men and Trojan women can do me honor
with fitting rites of fire once I am dead.
But if I kill him and Apollo grants me glory,
I'll strip his gear and haul it back to sacred Troy
and hang it high on the deadly Archer's temple walls.
But not his body: I'll hand it back to the decked ships,
so the long-haired Achaeans can give him full rites
and heap his barrow high by the broad Hellespont.
And someday one will say, one of the men to come,
steering his oar-swept ship across the wine-dark sea,
'There's the mound of a man who died in the old days,
one of the brave whom glorious Hector killed.'
So they will say, someday, and my fame will never die." (Book 7: 85-105)
There are two Ajaxes in The Iliad, Alex the great and Alex the lesser. What does the "great and little Ajax" (Ajax the lesser) give to Hector when their duel ends? What does Hector give Ajax?
Which alliances are winning the war at this point and why?
Book 9: "The Embassy to Achilles"
What does Agamemnon proffer to Achilles on the condition of the latter's return to the battlefield?
In addition to the proffered gifts, what does Agamemnon propose to give to Achilles once they return to Achaea?
Why does Phoenix stay with Achilles when the other envoys return to Agamemnon?
What is the object lesson that Phoenix tries to convey to Achilles by citing Meleager's story?
Book 10: "Marauding through the Night"
What is the difference between Agamemnon's leadership and Menelaus's?
Before embarking on the reconnaissance, what preparations do Diomedes and Odysseus go through?
What do Diomedes and Odysseus do with the information they extract from Dolon?
Why do you think the narrator repeatedly uses the epithet "tactician" to refer to Odysseus?
Book 11: "Agamemnon's Day of Glory" (aristia)
Using a bullet-point list, deliver a minute-long oral presentation of the sequence of the events that unfold in this book.
Read out loud lines 555-678; afterwards, analyze the ways in which the speaker uses similes in describing the glory and terror of war.
Despite Agamemnon's feats, many Achaeans are injured at the hands of Hector and Paris: Diomedes, Odysseus, and Machaon among others. Why do you think the speaker takes pains over describing the rescue and cure that they receive from their comrades?
What game plan does Nestor suggest to Patroclus?
Book 12: "The Trojans Storm the Rampart"
Using a bullet-point list, deliver a minute-long oral presentation of the sequence of the events that unfold in this book.
Who is the first Lycian (Trojan) commander that breaches the Achaean rampart?
The speaker flash-forwards to the tenth year of the Trojan war in lines 15-40. According to the speaker, what would happen to the seaside rampart the Achaeans built once the war in Ilium ended?
How does Polydamas interpret the bird sign? How does Hector's interpretation differ from Ploydamas's?
Book 13: "Battling for the Ships" (Zeus steps back; Poseidon as Calchas inspires the two Ajaxes; a hand-to-hand combat ensues and the victors strip the armor off the fallen; Menelaus taunts the Trojans)
Analyze the diction and imagery used in the epic simile in lines 164-173.
Read carefully lines 713-738. What does the indignant Menelaus charge the Trojans for?
What counsel does Polydamas provide Hector?
Book 14: "Hera Outflanks Zeus" (Hera recruits Aphrodite and Sleep; Zeus sleeps: Poseidon backs the Archaeans; Ajax delivers a stupefying blow to Hector)
What counsel do Odysseus and Diomedes provide Agamemnon?
What are the means with which Hera recruits Aphrodite's and Sleep's succor?
Read lines 187-235 and compare Hera's enrobing process and Agamemnon's combat preparation (Book 11. lines 17-52). In what ways do you think Hera's amorous attire is comparable to Agamemnon's battle armor?
Beginning with the discord of the golden apple, there is a clear causal relationship between sexual lust and battlefield gore. Why do you think gory battle scenes (especially of the eyeballs, lines 569-594) are coupled with the pastoral scene of lovemaking (413-418)?
Book 15: "The Achaean Armies at Bay"
Book 16: "Patroclus Fights and Dies"
Book 17: "Menelaus' Finest Hour"
Analyze the epic simile in lines 60-68. What do you think the speaker intends to achieve using this simile?
How do the numerous matches between Ajax and Hector prepare the reader for the ultimate battle Achilles will wage against Hector?
Book 18: "The Shield of Achilles"
The immortal smith, Hephaestus responds to Thetis' request by forging an elaborate shield for Achilles. Why do you think the speaker takes such pains with the description of the shield, which has vivid scenes of all facets of ancient Greek life and culture?
Even though the speaker seems to imbue more life and vivacity to battle scenes (what is known as aristia), there are some descriptions and epic similes that deliver emotional appeals (pathos). Single out an example of pathos and illustrate how it captures the humanity of the people who suffer loss and grief.
Book 19: "The Champion Arms for Battle"
What role does Odysseus play in mediating Agamemnon's reconciliation with Achilles?
Book 20: "Olympian Gods in Arms"
Many Homeric heroes were born with their destiny already spelled out, and Aeneas was born to be a great Trojan leader even after the fall of Troy. And yet, Poseidon at the behest of Hera had to rescue Aeneas from Achilles. How do human agency and divine intervention affect destiny in the ancient Greek belief system?
Book 21: "Achilles Fights the River"
Book 22: "The Death of Hector" (Achilles's aristia)
How does Athena abet Achilles to defeat Hector?
What or who creates the strongest emotional appeal in Book 22?
Book 23: "Funeral Games for Patroclus"
What did you find out about the ancient Greek funerary rituals? What symbolic rites does Achilles prepare for Patroclus' funeral?
The funeral games that Achilles sponsors resemble the ancient Olympic games. What strikes you as interesting about these games and the way they are played?
How is skill different from cunning and trickeries?
Book 24: "Achilles and Priam"
In your opinion, does Achilles grow as a character? If so, what specific acts or behaviors demonstrate his maturity?
Denied of the better known, more exciting sequence of events such as the Trojan Horse, the fall of Troy, and Achilles' death, the reader may feel this epic tale ends abruptly and anti-climactically. However, Homer provides a sense of balance and ironic fulfillment by beginning Book 1 with an old priest Chryses supplicating for the return of his kidnapped daughter and culminating the epic narrative with the paternalistic Priam, king of Troy, supplicating Achilles for the return of Hector's body. Why do you think Homer bookends the endless heroic exploits with the pathos of father's love for the child?
Xenia is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality--the generosity and courtesy shown to guests in both material and non-material forms (such as gift giving, feast, protection, or shelter). Both Hellenistic world and Hebraic world believed in extending hospitality to strangers, who in their view might be gods or angels in disguise. Why don't you check how the concept of xenia shapes the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 19?
Odysseus embodies the idea of xenia so thoroughly that he without qualms raids, steals, and rapes if his host does not exhibit xenia. Today, those who extend hospitality and good will to strangers are celebrated as good hosts whereas xenophobic "Karens" are mocked as racist.
Nostos is another ancient Greek concept that denotes an intense longing for home and homecoming. The word "nostalgia" comes from this Greek word. It takes ten long years for Odysseus to return to Ithaca even though Homer portrays the last three years of the physical journey, the odyssey of Odysseus and his son Telemachus--think how intense his homesickness might be!