Recently I had the pleasure of reading two of history’s greatest epics: Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Ever since I was a kid I always found Greek mythology very intriguing. My earliest exposure ranged from “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Clash of the Titans” to the much more watered-down, Disney-saturated cartoon “Hercules”. More than anything, I found the stories exciting, especially the one about Perseus going to slay the head of Medusa. I realized that Greek mythology laid the groundwork for much of the epic fantasy we see today. Many people are familiar with its characters: Zeus, king of the gods; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Hercules, the son (one of many) of Zeus; Poseidon, the sea god. And many modern cultural references comes from Greek mythology: Achilles heel, cupid’s arrow, the Olympics, and so on. So I decided to dive into the source material by reading the two most famous epics of western literature.
First off, The Iliad and The Odyssey are two completely different books, both in terms of story and style. The Iliad tells the story of the epic battle between the Achaens and the Trojans. The cause: Paris, the Trojan son of King Priam has kidnapped Helen, the Spartan wife of King Menelaus. The war is waged to reclaim her, as well as conquer the stronghold of Troy. This, however, is drawn to a crossroads when two of the Achaean leaders, Achilles and Agamemnon reach a dispute in which Agamemnon is forced to surrender his plunder “prize”, a young maiden, and then demands that Achilles surrender his in compensation. Incensed, Achilles storms away with his army, refusing to fight in the war. And then the battle sets off between the Trojans and the Achaeans, as the gods above intervene, giving force and favor to each of the sides.
The Iliad is one long, drawn out battle. At times it can seem ponderous and overly detailed. You know the name of pretty much everyone killed, and it happens in pretty graphic detail. You also know everything about their family and background, which adds to the tragedy, as many hopeless heroes, Trojan and Achaean, are cut down one by one. However ponderous it may seem, Homer gives an intimate picture into every casualty. These aren’t just soldiers: these are brothers, fathers, and sons. The chaotic nature of battle is shown in the Iliad as, page by page, many men are hacked, split, ripped, and gored in every descriptive way.
One thing I did not realize was how chaotic the gods of Olympus are. Chapter by chapter shows them arguing in council, going down to the battlefield and taking part in the fray, often against each other. In the world of Homer everyone has “God” on their side, so to speak. Team Trojan features Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, and Hermes. Team Greek: Poseidon, Hera, Athena, and Thetis. And ultimately Zeus. But he kind of sits by, like Achilles, and waits for the battle to get really bloody on the side of the Greeks before lending his hand. Ares, the god of war, is pretty much everywhere, taking sides left and right.
While The Iliad focuses strictly on one battle, The Odyssey is about an adventure. Odysseus, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, has been punished and stranded on an island with the goddess Calypso, who wants to keep him there forever. The gods of Olympus relent and decided to let him free, and Odysseus embarks on a journey across land and sea to get back home. Meanwhile, back home, his son Telemachus is holding the fort down while several impulsive suitors make their designs to kill him and marry his mother. And, of course, take over the household. They bear a very Shakespearian resemblance, preceding it by centuries, and we can clearly recognize the influence that Homer has had on future works of literature.
Part of The Odyssey is a story within a story, as our hero, before King Alcinous, recounts the story of his voyage home after the Trojan War. And here is where The Odyssey really distinguishes itself from The Iliad as more of a fantasy/adventure book. Odyssey and his crew travel to many strange places, meeting strange creatures. They encounter Cyclops, Sirens, enchantresses, even the ghosts of the Underworld. The Odyssey is more all-encompassing of Greek mythology, taking you beyond the battlefield and across the islands. Whereas most of the action in the Iliad takes place either on Troy or Mount Olympus, the action moves around more in The Odyssey as we follow Odysseus’s treacherous journey back home against the forces of things both human and inhuman. When Odysseus reaches home, there is still the matter of the suitors, and the goddess Athene disguises him as a beggar. With the help of a swineherd and his son Telemachus, he manages to sneak into his household. After a sporting contest reveals Odysseus as the beggar in disguise (spoilers) practically all hell breaks loose as he and Telemachus slay each of the suitors in graphic detail. Long story short: good guys win. Well, through a little hacking and hanging and dismemberment and ripping out intestines.
I like The Odyssey much more because it tells a journey, which I think is the best kind of story. Much of life is defined by the places you go and people you meet. We see this illustrated in The Odyssey as the hero travels through many perils and obstacles to get back home. We get to see all kinds of magical, frightening creatures along the way. It’s a much more imaginative tale, while The Iliad mainly recounts as a historical, although fictional record. It is chiefly concerned with war: the glories and horrors of it. Which is pretty exciting as a read, but can get long and repetitive after a while, since it names pretty much EVERYONE in the conflict: ________, son of_________, a farmer from the fertile land of ___________, which borders on the _______sea, was slain by _________, son of _________, who comes from the island of ________, and is descended from __________, son of ___________.
This kind of heavy-handed detail is still present at times in The Odyssey, but mostly dispersed. The Iliad throws a lot of information about you, much of which you’ll forget. But it does hit you full force with the tragedy of war. And it doesn’t do it with a complete bias: there is sympathy, both for the Greeks slain, as well as the Trojans. The “hero” who ultimately stands to defend his people in the end is Hector, son of Trojan King Priam, and after his death, we are shown an intimate picture of his wife, now a widow without a husband; his son, now a boy without a father; along with the sadness of the rest of the Trojans as they know their city is about to be conquered.
Both books tell important chapters in Greek mythology and have remained influential in the sphere of western literature. As far as my favorite, I would have to choose the latter of the two. The Odyssey tells more of a story in the traditional sense than The Iliad does. The Odyssey is the tale of a hero’s journey, while The Iliad is the tale of a hero’s stand. Both can be read as an insight into an ancient mythology that, while not still practiced, has laid the groundwork for civilization, religion, philosophy, and the world as we know it.