Classics Club — The Iliad

I’m not actually all that far behind on my reading for the Classics Club book challenge — I’m just behind on blogging about the books. Right now, I’m halfway through Anna Karenina, and I recently finished Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Iliad. Since I also have to write about The Iliad for the high school curriculum I’m building (which my brother is trying out this year), that’s the one I wanted to talk about today.

Usually, I like to read something about the author’s history and the time period framing their writings when I explore a piece of classic literature. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about Homer. There’s even debate about whether or not he’s the one who wrote down the epic poems he (probably) composed. The introduction to the Robert Fagles translation seems to lean toward Homer writing his own poems down once the art of writing was reintroduced to Greece, though it’s all “pure speculation.” I suppose in some way the mystery surrounding these texts makes them even more intriguing.

Having once been told by a nihilistic classmate that nothing original has been written since Homer, I was rather curious to finally read The Iliad. While I can’t say I agree with him, it’s not hard to see The Iliad‘s influence on modern literature, and when I get around to reading The Odyssey (also on my Classics list) I’m sure I’ll notice even more themes that show up in modern plot and characterization.

What intrigued me most, though, was the portrayal of women in The Iliad. Though several women have lengthy passages of dialogue (including Helen and Hector’s wife Andromache), and goddesses play a huge role in the plot, they’re all show in some kind of captivity to men. No matter how strong of a character Andromache is, once she loses Hector she has no social position and no hope of avoiding slavery. Paris stole Helen, and she makes no secret of how badly that has affected her and how little she respects him. Other female characters, like Briseis, are already captives in the Achaean camp. Even the goddesses are under Zeus’s power, and his threats toward Hera starting in Book 1 portray an eyebrow-raising level of domestic abuse on Olympus.

The intriguing part is that Homer doesn’t give the impression that this portrayal of women is entirely okay. He does imply it’s “normal” for that time period, but he takes great care to show the womens’ side of the story more than one might expect in a poem mainly about the wars of gods and men. We see goddesses scheming to get around restrictions of the gods. We get plenty of dialogue from Helen, showing that ten years haven’t simply turned her into a submissive or entirely complicit captive even though her inner turmoil is ignored by both Aphrodite and Paris. Even Briseis — the captive Agamemnon steals from Achilles — has a chance to give her side of the story and make sure no one forgets that she (and by extension the other female captives mentioned as spoils of war or offered as prizes at Patroclus’ funeral games) is a human being.

It makes me miss having University access to databases full of scholarly journals — I’d love to read what people who have the time/resources to study these characters better are writing. I did find one interesting article, though: The Portrayal of Women in the Iliad by S. Farron. He says, “Homer had different attitudes from his characters. He knew that women are complete human beings and constantly emphasized how deep and intense their feelings are.” I’d agree with this writer that Homer was trying to craft real characters, not urge social reform, but it’s still intriguing that he realized women were worth writing well. He treated them as real characters with emotions and thoughts that were relevent to the story, which is more than his male characters did.

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