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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Iliad

War. What is it good for? Epic poetry! Say it again!


You don't have to search too hard for excitement in the Iliad. Ancient history? Check. Fascinating characters? Check. Violence as graphic as an HBO show? Check.

The Iliad has it all. That means you don't want to spread yourself too thin…or make your focus too narrow. We can turn you into a tour guide, leading your students to the parts of the text that interest them most.

In this guide you will find

  • activities asking students to analyze the language used in the poem, from the similes to the epithets.
  • resources connecting the Iliad to its pals the Odyssey and the Aeneid.
  • modern pop culture connections from Star Trek to Twitter.

And so much more.

Yep, our teaching style is pretty epic.

What's Inside Shmoop's Literature Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring literature to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Students will strengthen their recall abilities of characters' names and qualities in the Iliad, learn how the literary device of epithet is used, and the importance of the device for early epic poetry.

This might be used as a short activity (one class period) or can be used in a more developed form over two class periods.

Materials Needed: Computer or iPod Touch with access to internet and searchable text of the Iliad

Step 1: Introduce the concept of the epithet to your students, and how it is an essential part of poetry that is "oral-formulaic" – a fancy way of saying composed, performed, and handed down orally. For a good definition of these terms, check out M.L. Abrams's Glossary of Literary Terms, or visit Dr. Wheeler's Literary Dictionary. Make sure you differentiate between regular descriptive words and an epithet (there is not much of a cognitive leap between "Beautiful Helen" and "Lustrous-haired Helen").

Step 2: Divide class into teams, depending on access to computers or iPods and the size of your class.

Step 3: Each team accesses a searchable text of the Iliad. These can be found at The Perseus Project. The teams will find and record as many epithets as they can (you may limit the time they have to do this). Make sure they record the epithet as well as the name of the character it applies to. It might also be useful for them to write down where they found it in the text.

Step 4: Begin a war! Set your teams against each other, each side "hurling" epithets at the other. The opposing team must correctly identify the character that each epithet applies to. If the team is correct, they receive a point and may have another epithet flung at them. If they are incorrect, the opposing team can conceal the identity of the character, and then take their turn. As you can see, there are any number of ways you can vary scoring, turn taking, and identification process.

Step 5: As a bonus, you could introduce the idea of the epic "boast" at the beginning of this exercise, and allow the teams to taunt each other (formally, in epic fashion), as the battle progresses. The winning team could also win the right to recite an epic boast over the "body" of their literary victims. Introducing the boast is a fun way to teach two literary devices central to the creation of the Iliad.

Step 6: Lead a discussion about what the epithets tell us about the characters and how they help the composition and structure of the poem.

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: Grades 9 and 10 Reading 2.6, 3.3, 3.4, 3.7, 3.8. Grades 11 and 12 Reading 3.1, 3.4, 3.6, 3.7)

Instructions for Your Students

Prepare for a battle of…epithets. In order to strengthen your recall of character names and traits in the Iliad, you'll compete with your classmates to see who can identify the most characters just by hearing their epithets (descriptive, poetic nicknames).

Step 1: In class, split up into teams, according to your teacher's instructions.

Step 2: Access a text-searchable version of the Iliad on your computer or Touch. Try the ones available at The Perseus Project. Search for a character of your choosing, and record the epithets used to describe him or her. It will also be helpful to write down the book and line number to help you locate the passages again, if you should need to.

Step 3: While you are gathering epithets, look around for some awesome boasts, which are usually quite close by in the battle scenes. This way, you'll be ready to taunt the opposing team, if your teacher gives you the chance.

Step 4: Start a war! "Fling" your most difficult and obscure epithets at the opposing team. It is their job to identify whom the figure of speech refers to. Remember, some epithets apply to more than one character, so be ready for a challenge if the other insists that their alternative is right. The opposing team's turn ends when they give a wrong answer. Now is the time to boast! Beware, though…your team is next.

Step 5: When the war is over, discuss how the epithets do or do not help to identify the characters in the Iliad. Why do you think they are included in the composition of this poem?

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Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    Infographics    
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