The Iliad Introduction
In A Nutshell
You know what blows? When you're fighting a dude in a battle and he gets swept away by a vengeful god so you don't get to murder him personally.
Oh—that's never happened to you? Seriously? Okay: how about this: when you're killing so many people in a river that the river itself gets angry with you and starts chasing you?
You can't relate to that either? Well, what about when the goddess of love is trying to trick you by disguising herself as an old woman but is too vain to disguise her perfect, youthful bosom and you think "What kind of idiot do you think I am, Aphrodite?"
These are all occurrences in the Iliad, which has a completely undeserved reputation as being stuffy. It's not. It's old, yes, but the content of the Iliad is 50% carnage and 50% Greek gods being so bored of their fancy-shmancy existence on Mt. Olympus that they just start making trouble.
It's hallucinatory. It's bizarre. It's uber-gory. And yes, yes—it's also one of the most famous epic poems ever written, by one of the most epic poets who ever lived.
So what's going on in this poem? Mayhem. Paris steals another man's wife, and the Greeks and Trojans go to war. We meet up with everyone when the war has been raging for ten whole years, and everyone is more than a little punch-drunk and acting badly.
And we mean everyone—famous heroes like Achilles are insane with blood-lust. Agamemnon is throwing his weight around. Hector is ignoring omens (a big no-no in mythology). And the gods are drugging each other, seducing each other, moping about lackluster offerings from the mortals, and basically presiding over this bloody battle as if it were a game of foosball.
First making its appearance in scroll-format around the 8th century B.C.E., the Iliad is the earliest known work of European literature. How did this happen? The fact is that, even though the Iliad stands at the beginning of one tradition— the written tradition—it also comes at the end of an entirely different tradition. One way of thinking about Homer's Iliad is as a survivor of a form of purely oral poetry passed down from generation to generation without ever being written down.
Except, of course, nobody knows anything about who Homer was—though, of course, there are plenty of theories. But no matter what your theory about the author is, one fact that everyone agrees on is the true genius and artistry of the Homeric poems.
And everyone agrees that the whacked-out madness that is the Iliad is eloquent, disturbing, transcendent and completely bonkers.
Why Should I Care?
Why should you care? Oh, you mean, besides the fact that the Iliad is pretty much the most famous work of fiction ever written? And besides the fact that it's one of the two or three foundational texts for all of western culture (right up there with the Bible and, um… yeah, let’s go with one of the two foundational texts)?
If that doesn't satisfy you, Shmoopers, maybe this will: the Iliad is the basis of—and the model for—every kind of war narrative, action movie, superhero comic, and adventure saga that has come after it. That’s right, people, we’re looking at the zero point right here.
You want large scale clashing armies? You’ve come to the right place. Even matched duels or obviously unmatched duels? Check out the long one-on-one combat descriptions, or that crazy nonsense between Paris and Menelaus. Spy thriller? Odysseus’s nighttime raid totally fits the bill. Nail-biting special ops missions? The Trojan Horse ruse has your name written all over it. Swords-and-sorcerers magic adventure? Try anything with the gods busting in on the action, like, say, that whole Laocoon fiasco. Snakes—yikes.
In short, anything exciting you’ve ever seen or heard or read started right here.
But that’s not all. Not only does the Iliad put the act into action, but it puts the philosophy in there, too. This isn’t just a reductive Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys bit of disposable nothing. Instead, what’s behind all that fighting is a whole lot of thinking about what the fighting means.
For instance, why fight at all? Why not just sit around and wait for the war to end or for death or whatever else is coming down the pike? Or for another example, just how much is one man’s honor worth? Worth upsetting a king’s plans? Yeah, probably. Leading to the deaths of a lot of others? Um… maybe not. See what we mean?
Through question after question, through fight after fight, the Iliad is slowly working out the ethics of war, the morals of individuals, and how our individual humanity fits into the greater social fabric.
But, you know, with a lot of awesome gore and people totally getting stabbed through the eyeballs and stuff.