Type of Work
.......The Iliad is an epic poem, a long narrative work about heroic exploits that is elevated in tone and
highly formal in its language. It was composed in ancient Greek and transmitted orally before it was
written down. Many modern translators present the Iliad in prose, making it read like a novel.
.......The Iliad derives the first two syllables of its name from Ilios or Ilion (Greek for Troy) or, alternately,
from Ilium (Latin for Troy). The suffix -ad means related to, concerning, having to do with, or associated
with. Thus, Iliad means a story concerning Troy.
Time of Action: About 3,200 years ago in recorded history's infancy, when humankind's imagination
peopled the known world with great heroes and villains and nature reflected the mood of the gods
inhabiting the mountaintops, the seas, the forests, and the unseen worlds above and below. Homer
fashioned The Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, about 600 years after the war ended. The story is a
mixture of fact, legend, and myth.
Place of Action: The walled city of Troy and the surrounding plains in northwestern Anatolia, a region
that is part of modern-day Turkey. Anatolia is west of Greece (across the Aegean Sea) and north of Egypt
(across the Mediterranean Sea).
.......In archeological digs between 1870 and 1890, German-born American archeologist Heinrich
Schliemann (1822-1890) appeared to prove that the ancient city of Troy was a fact, not a myth, as many
had thought. However, the story of the Trojan War—as passed down to Homer—was a mixture of fact,
legend, and myth.
.......The Iliad ranks as one of the most important and most influential works in world literature in that it
established literary standards and conventions that writers have imitated over the centuries, down to
the present day. It also created archetypes that hundreds of great writers—including Vergil, Dante,
Shakespeare, Stephen Crane, and James Joyce—alluded to when in need of an apt metaphor or simile.
In addition, the Iliad provided a mother lode of information about Greek customs and ideals and about
Greek mythology. The Iliad was a truly remarkable accomplishment. Even though its author had no
similar literary model on which to base his work, he wrote a masterpiece that ranks with the greatest
works of all time. No student of literature can ignore Homer. No writer's education is complete unless
he has read Homer.
.......The meter (rhythmic pattern of syllables) of Homer’s epic poems is dactylic hexameter. A dactyl is a
metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables, as in the words
technical (TEK nik l), allocate (AL oh kate), and harbinger (HAR bin jer). Hexameter is a line containing six
metrical feet. Thus, dactylic hexameter is a scheme containing six dactyls, as in the following line: MAKE me a BEAU ti ful GOWN and a HAT fringed with TASS les of DOWN, good sir. For a full detailed discussion
and explanation of meter and its forms, click here.
The Homeric Epithet
.......One of the hallmarks of the Homeric style is the epithet, a combination of a descriptive phrase and a
noun. An epithet presents a miniature portrait that identifies a person or thing by highlighting a
prominent characteristic of that person or thing. In English, the Homeric epithet usually consists of a
noun modified by a compound adjective, such as the following: fleet-footed Achilles, rosy-fingered
dawn, wine-dark sea, earth-shaking Poseidon, and gray-eyed Athena. The Homeric epithet is an ancient
relative of such later epithets as Richard the Lion-Hearted, Ivan the Terrible, and America the Beautiful.
Homer repeated his epithets often, presumably so the listeners of his recited tales could easily
remember and picture the person or thing each time it was mentioned. In this respect, the Homeric
epithet resembles the leitmotiv of opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The leitmotiv was a
repeated musical theme associated with a character, a group of characters, an emotion, or an idea.
.......Homer established literary practices, rules, or devices that became commonplace in epic poetry
written later. These rules or devices are now known as epic conventions. They include the following:
The invocation of the muse, a goddess. In Greek mythology, there were nine muses, all sisters, who
were believed to inspire poets, historians, flutists, dancers, singers, astronomers, philosophers, and
other thinkers and artists. If one wanted to write a great poem, play a musical instrument with bravado,
or develop a grand scientific or philosophical theory, he would ask for help from a muse. When a poet
asked for help, he was said to be “invoking the muse.” The muse of epic poetry was named Calliope *kuh
LY uh pe].
Telling a story with which readers or listeners are already familiar; they know the characters, the plot,
and the outcome. Most of the great writers of the ancient world—as well as many great writers in later
times, including Shakespeare—frequently told stories already known to the public. Thus, in such stories,
there were no unexpected plot twists, no surprise endings. If this sounds strange to you, the modern
reader and theatergoer, consider that many of the most popular motion pictures today are about stories
already known to the public. Examples are The Passion of the Christ, Titanic, The Ten Commandments,
Troy, Spartacus, Pearl Harbor, and Gettysburg.
Conflict in the celestial realm. Divine beings fight and scheme against one another in the epics of Homer
and Vergil, and they do so in John Milton's Paradise Lost on a grand scale, with Satan and his forces
opposing God and his forces.
Use of epithets. See "Homeric Epithet," above.
Attitude Toward the Afterlife
.......The here and now concerns the Greeks at Troy more than the afterlife, for they generally believe
that the abode of the dead is dark and dismal. Consequently, their main purpose in life is to achieve
immediate rewards and to live for the moment. The idea of a heaven that will requite them for good
deeds, whether on or off the battlefield, is of less importance to them. However, they generally do
revere the gods of Olympus, who take sides in the war. Offending the gods could incur their wrath and
affect the outcome of the war.
Achilles: Temperamental Greek warrior and king of the Myrmidons, who were soldiers from Thessaly in
Greece. Achilles, the protagonist, leads the Myrmidons against the Trojans. He is revered as the greatest
warrior in the world; no man can stand against him. Achilles is the son of Peleus, the former king of the
Myrmidons, and a sea nymph named Thetis.
Agamemnon: Commander-in-chief of the Greek armies and son of Atreus, the king of Mycenae. He
incurs the wrath of his greatest warrior, Achilles, by taking the latter's prize of war, the beautiful Briseis.
Menelaus: King of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon. After his wife, Helen, the most beautiful woman
in the world, was taken by a Trojan named Paris, the Greeks declared war on Troy.
Helen: Wife of Menelaus, paramour of Paris, and the most beautiful woman in the world.
Odysseus (Roman Name, Ulysses): King of Ithaca and brilliant strategist. He is unsurpassed in cunning.
Aias the Great (Roman Name, Ajax the Great): Hulking giant who is second only to Achilles in battlefield
prowess. Many translators of the epic use his Roman name, perhaps because of the force of its
Aias the Lesser (Roman Name, Ajax the Lesser, or the Locrian Ajax): Leader of the Locrian archers on the
Patroclus: Greek warrior and beloved companion of Achilles.
Diomedes: Greek warrior of extraordinary valor and ability.
Calchas: Greek soothsayer who advises Agamemnon.
Nestor: Wise old king who advises Agamemnon.
Diomedes: Powerful Greek warrior.
Idomeneus: King of Crete, who leads a Greek contingent against the Trojans.
Machaon: Greek physician wounded by Paris.
Automedon: Chariot driver for Achilles.
Phoenix: Elderly Greek warrior and trusted friend of Achilles.
Briseis: Beautiful captive of Achilles.
Chryseis: Female captive of Agamemnon. He is forced to give her up.
Eudorus: Myrmidon commander under Achilles.
Neoptolemus: Son of Achilles. He arrives at Troy in the last year of fighting.
Stentor: Greek herald.
Priam: King of Troy.
Hecuba: Wife of Priam and queen of Troy.
Hector: Bravest and most accomplished of the Trojan warriors; son of Priam. Achilles slays him.
Andromache: Hector's noble and dedicated wife.
Astyanax: Son of Hector and Andromache.
Paris: Trojan who took Helen From Menelaus.
Aeneas: Brave and powerful Trojan warrior.
Polydamas: Wise Trojan commander.
Glaucus: Great Trojan warrior.
Dolon: Trojan spy who reconnoiters the Greek camp.
Pandarus: Trojan archer.
Antenor: Advisor to King Priam. He argues that Paris should return Helen to the Greeks, but Paris will not
give her up. Sarpedon: Leader of the Lycian allies on the side the Trojans. He fights bravely but dies at the hands of
Patroclus. Sarpedon was the son of Zeus and Laodameia, a human.
Laocoön: Trojan seer.
Deiphobus: Trojan warrior and son of Priam.
Gorgythion: Trojan warrior and son of Priam. He dies by an arrow meant for Hector.
Cebriones: Chariot driver for Hector.
Helenus: Trojan seer and son of Priam and Hecuba.
Pandarus: Trojan archer.
Euphorbus: Trojan soldier who wounds Patroclus.
Zeus (Roman names, Jupiter and Jove): King of the gods, who prefers to remain neutral in the war but
intervenes after a plea for help.
Hera (Roman name, Juno): Queen of the gods, who favors the Greeks.
Athena (Roman name, Minerva): Goddess of wisdom and war, who favors the Greeks.
Poseidon (Roman name, Neptune): God of the sea, who favors the Greeks.
Hephaestus (Roman name, Vulcan): God of the forge, who favors the Greeks.
Aphrodite (Roman name, Venus): Goddess of love and beauty, who sides with the Trojans.
Apollo (or Phoebus Apollo): Highly revered and feared sun god, who sides with the Trojans.
Ares (Roman name, Mars): God of war, who sides with the Trojans.
Artemis (Roman name, Diana): Goddess of archery and hunting, who sides with the Trojans.
Hades (Roman Name, Pluto): God of the Underworld.
Hermes (Roman Name, Mercury): Messenger god. He guides Priam to Achilles' tent to ransom the body
Thetis: Sea nymph who is the mother of Achilles.
Iris: Messenger goddess.
Theme 1:.The wrath of Achilles. The main focus of the Iliad is the anger of the Greek warrior Achilles and
the revenge he seeks against those who wrong him, including the general of the Greek armies,
Agamemnon, and the Trojan warriors.
Theme 2:.Glory and honor are everything. The war begins because a Trojan offended Greek honor by
absconding with the wife of a Greek king. The war continues—for fully 10 years—in part because the
combatants seek glory on the battlefield. In this respect, the combatants are like modern athletes,
actors, and politicians who compete for Heisman Trophies, Academy Awards, and votes. Achilles
withdraws from battle on a point of honor; King Priam reclaims his son's body for the same reason.
Theme 3:.Revenge. The Greeks seek revenge against the Trojans because one of the latter has taken the
wife of a Greek king. Chryses and Apollo seek revenge because Agamemnon has defied them. Achilles
seeks revenge against Agamemnon because the latter has insulted him. Later, after he reenters the
battle, Achilles seeks revenge against the Trojans in general—and Hector in particular—for the death of
Theme 4:.Persistence pays. For 10 years, the Greeks fight a foreign war. Although they long for their
families, although they have lost many men, they refuse to abandon the battlefield. Ultimately, their
pertinacity enables them to gain the upper hand, setting the stage for ultimate victory.
Theme 5:.Women play important roles in motivating action and shaping the future. Helen is the
immediate cause of the Trojan War. Chryseis is the cause of the rift between Agamemnon and Apollo's priest, Chryseis. Briseis is the cause of the rift between Agamemnon and Achilles. Athena, Aphrodite,
Hera, and the sea-nymph mother of Achilles—Thetis—all affect the action of The Iliad significantly.
Sometimes these goddesses get the better of their male counterparts.
Mythology Background and Plot Summary
.By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......In the ancient Mediterranean world, feminine beauty reaches its zenith in Helen, wife of King
Menelaus of Greece. Her wondrous face and body are without flaw. She is perfect. Even the goddess of
love, Aphrodite, admires her. While Aphrodite competes with other goddesses in a beauty contest—in
which a golden apple is to be awarded as the prize—she bribes the judge, a young Trojan named Paris.
She promises him the most ravishing woman in the world, Helen, if he will select her, Aphrodite, as the
most beautiful goddess. After winning the contest and receiving the coveted golden apple, she tells Paris
about Helen and her incomparable pulchritude. Forthwith, Paris goes to Greece, woos Helen, and
absconds with her to Troy, a walled city in Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey).
.......The elopement is an affront to all the Greeks. How dare an upstart Trojan invade their land! How
dare he steal the wife of one of their kings! Which Greek family would be next to fall victim to a Trojan
machination? Infuriated, King Menelaus and his friends assemble a mighty army that includes the finest
warriors in the land. Together, they cross the sea in one thousand ships to make war against Troy and
win back their pride—and Helen. But the war drags on and on. Weeks become months. Months become
years. Years become a decade. It is in fact in the tenth year of the war that Homer picks up the thread of
the story and spins his tale, focusing on a crisis in the Greek ranks in which the greatest soldier in
history, Achilles, decides to withdraw from battle and allow his fellow Greeks to fend for themselves. It
is Achilles who is the central figure in The Iliad.
.......Homer begins with a one-paragraph invocation requesting the Muse (a goddess) to inspire him in
the telling of his tale. Such an invocation was a convention in classical literature, notably in epics, from
the time of Homer onward.
.......Ten years have passed since the Greek armies arrived in Asia minor to lay waste Troy and win back
their honor. Yet in all those years, neither side has gained enough advantage to force a surrender. The
Greeks remain encamped outside the walls of the city, their nighttime fires mocking the glittering
firmament while their generals plot stratagems and their warriors hone weapons.
.......Among the Greek leaders, bloodstained and hardened to war, are Agamemnon, the commander-in-
chief; Menelaus, king of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon; Odysseus, king of Ithaca and a military
genius of unparalleled cunning; and Aias the Great, a giant warrior of colossal strength. With sword and
spear, with rocks and fists, the Greeks have fought the Trojans—led by the godlike Hector, their
mightiest warrior, and Aeneas, a war machine second only to Hector on the Trojan side—to a standoff.
In time, the Greeks believe, they will prevail. They have right on their side, after all. But even more
important, they have Achilles. He is the greatest warrior ever to walk the earth—fierce, unrelenting,
unconquerable. When Achilles fights, enemies cower in terror and rivers run with blood. No man can
stand against him. Not Hector. Not an army of Hectors. .......But, alas, in the tenth year of the great war, Achilles refuses to fight after Agamemnon insults him.
No one can offend the great Achilles with impunity. Not even Agamemnon, general of generals, who can
whisper a command that ten thousand will obey. The rift between them opens after Agamemnon and
Achilles capture two maidens while raiding the region around Troy. Agamemnon’s prize is Chryseis, the
daughter of a priest of the god Apollo. For Achilles, there is the beautiful Briseis, who becomes his slave
.......When Chryses, the father of Chryseis, offers a ransom for his daughter, Agamemnon refuses it.
Chryses then invokes his patron, Apollo, for aid, and the sun god sends a pestilence upon the Greeks.
Many soldiers die before Agamemnon learns the cause of their deaths from the soothsayer Calchas.
Unable to wage war against disease, Agamemnon reluctantly surrenders Chryseis to her father.
.......Unfortunately for the Greeks, the headstrong king then orders his men to seize Briseis as a
replacement for his lost prize. Achilles is outraged. But rather than venting his wrath with his mighty
sword, he retires from battle, vowing never again to fight for his countrymen. On his behalf, his mother,
the sea nymph Thetis, importunes Zeus, king of the gods, to turn the tide of war in favor of the Trojans.
Such a reversal would be fitting punishment for Agamemnon. But Zeus is reluctant to intervene in the
war, for the other gods of Olympus have taken sides, actively meddling in daily combat. For him to
support one army over the other would be to foment celestial discord. Among the deities favoring the
Trojans are Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, and Artemis. On the side of the Greeks are Athena, Poseidon, and
Hera—the wife of Zeus. There would be hell-raising in the heavens if Zeus shows partiality. In particular,
his wife’s scolding tongue would wag without surcease. But Zeus is Zeus, god of thunder and lightning. In
the end, he well knows, he can do as he pleases. Swayed by the pleas of Thetis, he confers his benisons
on the Trojans.
.......However, when the next battle rages, the Greeks—fired with Promethean defiance and succored by
their gods—fight like madmen. True, their right arm, Achilles, is absent; but their left arm becomes a
scythe that reaps a harvest of Trojans. Aias and Diomedes are especially magnificent. Only intervention
by the Trojans’ Olympian supporters save them from massacre. Alas, however, when the Trojans
regroup for the next fight, Zeus infuses new power into Hector’s sinews. After Hector bids a tender
goodbye to his wife, Andromache, and little boy, Astyanax, he leads a fierce charge that drives the
Greeks all the way back to within sight of the shoreline, where they had started ten years before. Not a
few Greeks, including Agamemnon, are ready to board their ships and set sail for home. Such has been
the fury of the Hector-led onslaught.
.......Then Nestor, a wise old king of three score and ten, advises Agamemnon to make peace with
Achilles. The proud commander, now repentant and fully acknowledging his unjust treatment of
Achilles, accepts the advice and pledges to restore Briseis to Achilles. When representatives of
Agamemnon meet with lordly Achilles, the great warrior is idly passing time with the person he loves
most in the world, his friend Patroclus, a distinguished warrior in his own right. Told that all wrongs
against him will be righted, Achilles—still smoldering with anger—spurns the peace-making overture.
His wrath is unquenchable. However, Patroclus, unable to brook the Trojan onslaught against his
countrymen, borrows the armor of Achilles and, at the next opportunity, enters the battle disguised as
.......The stratagem works for a while as Patroclus chops and hacks his way through the Trojan ranks. But
eventually Hector’s spear fells brave Patroclus with no small help from meddlesome Apollo. The Trojan
hero celebrates the kill with an audacious coup de grâce: He removes and puts on Achilles’ armor.
Grievously saddened by the death of his friend and outraged at the brazen behavior of Hector, wrathful
Achilles—with a new suit of armor forged in Olympus by Hephaestus at the behest of Achilles' mother,
Thetis—agrees to rejoin the fight at long last.
.......The next day, Achilles rules the battlefield with death and destruction, cutting a swath of terror
through enemy ranks. Trojan blood mulches the fields. Limbs lie helter-skelter, broken and crooked, as fodder for diving raptors. Terrified, the Trojans flee to the safety of Troy and its high walls—all of them,
that is, except Hector. Foolishly, out of his deep sense of honor and responsibility as protector of Troy,
he stands his ground. In a fairy tale about a noble hero with an adoring wife and son, Hector would
surely have won the day against a vengeful, all-devouring foe. His compatriots—and the gallery of sons
and daughters and wives peering down from the Trojan bulwarks—would surely have crowned him king.
But in the brutal world of Achilles—whose ability to disembowel and decapitate is a virtue—Hector
suffers a humiliating death. After Achilles chases and catches him, he easily slays him, then straps his
carcass to his chariot and drags him around the walls of Troy. Patroclus has been avenged, the Greeks
have reclaimed battlefield supremacy, and victory seems imminent.
.......However, old Priam, the king of Troy and the father of Hector, shows that Trojan valor has not died
with Hector. At great risk to himself, he crosses the battlefield in a chariot and presents himself to
Achilles to claim the body of his son. But there is no anger in Priam's heart. He understands the ways of
wars and warriors. He knows that Achilles, the greatest of the Greek soldiers, had no choice but to kill
his son, the greatest of the Trojan warriors. Humbly, Priam embraces Achilles and gives him his hand.
Deeply moved, Achilles welcomes Priam and orders an attendant to prepare Hector's body. To spare
Priam the shock of seeing the grossly disfigured corpse, Achilles orders the attendant to cloak it. Troy
mourns Hector for nine days, then burns his body and puts the remains in a golden urn that is buried in
a modest grave.
.......(The Iliad ends here. Homer's audience was aware of the outcome of the war: the defeat and
destruction of Troy by the Greeks. When Troy fell, so did Achilles—from the wound of arrow shot by
Paris and guided by the god Apollo. In his other great epic, the Odyssey, Homer tells the story of the
Greek hero Odysseus on his harrowing sea voyage home from Troy.)
Essay Topics and Discussion Questions
Compare/Contrast Achilles and Hector
.......Achilles and Hector are alike in some ways but different in many others. For example, each is the
greatest warrior of his army—Achilles, the Greek champion, and Hector, the Trojan champion. In
addition, both exhibit human flaws—Achilles, vengeful rage, and Hector, impetuosity, as when he
persuades Trojan warriors to leave the safety of Troy's walls shortly before Achilles returns to battle.
However, they are unlike in many ways. Whereas Hector is a loving family man, Achilles has no wife or
children. He seeks only one thing: battlefield glory. Write an informative essay or hold a discussion that
compares and contrasts Achilles and Hector. Consider their personalities, their motivations, their
intelligence, their leadership qualities, their relationships and standing with those around them, their
skills as soldiers, their physical characteristics, and their moral and ethical values.
.......Is the central conflict of the Iliad an internal or external one—that is, does the epic concern itself
more with a conflict inside a person (or persons) or more with a conflict outside of a person (or persons)
him, such as the war?
Character You Admire or Despise .......Which character do you most admire? Which character do you least admire? Is your selection based
on qualities the character shares with you or on qualities of the character that you would like to have
but lack? Overall, what does your choice say about your own personality and characteristics?
The Role of Women
Investigate and report on the role of women in ancient Mediterranean society. Does the treatment of
women by Agamemnon, Achilles, Paris, Hector, or any other character reflect the prevailing values of
ancient society in Greece and nearby lands?
The Trojan War
.......How much of the Trojan War, as presented by Homer, is fact and how much legend or myth? As a
starting point, look up the name Heinrich Schliemann (or Henry Schliemann) on the Internet or in an
encyclopedia. Schliemann (1822-1890), who changed his first name to Henry after moving from his
native Germany to America, conducted archeological digs in Turkey (the country where the fabled city
was said to be located) in an attempt to prove that Troy really existed. What he found startled the
The Gods of Olympus
.......Encyclopedias and mythology books generally list twelve deities as the chief gods in Greek
mythology and as residents of Mount Olympus. However, two of these important deities spent most of
their time in the domains which they governed, the sea and the underworld. In addition, the Greeks of
one era sometimes differed with the Greeks of another era on who were the most important gods.
Consequently, the list of the favored twelve sometimes changed, omitting one god in favor of another.
.......The Olympian gods were the successors of an earlier dynasty of gods known as Titans. The Titan
ruler, Cronos, believing that one of his children might attempt to overthrow him, swallowed each of
them after his or her birth. However, one child, Zeus, was rescued by his mother and hidden on the
island of Crete. Later, Zeus forced his father to vomit the other children from his stomach. Then, with
the help of his siblings, he overthrew Cronus to become lord of the universe.
.......The names of the chief Olympian deities are listed below. Writers in ancient Greece—such as
Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—used the original Greek names, the English transliteration of which
appears at left in the list. Writers in ancient Rome and its dominions used the Latin version of the
names, the English transliteration of which appears in parentheses.
.......Some English language writers, past and present, use the transliteration of the Greek version;
others prefer the transliteration of the Latin (or Roman) version. For example, William Shakespeare uses
the transliteration of the Latin version in his plays and poems. Instead of referring to the king of the gods
as Zeus (the transliteration of the Greek name), he refers to him as Jupiter and Jove, the transliterations
of the Latin names (Iuppiter and Iovis). Here are the names of the Olympian gods and a brief description
Zeus (Jupiter and Jove): King and protector of the gods and humankind. As ruler of the sky, he made rain
and thunder and wielded lightning bolts. Zeus was the youngest son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea.
Hera (Juno): Queen of the gods and protector of marriage. She was the wife of Zeus and, as the
daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, also his sister. Athena or Pallas Athena (Minerva): Goddess of wisdom and war. She was born fully grown in a suit of
armor, issuing from the forehead of Zeus. The Greeks highly revered her and built many temples in her
Ares (Mars): God of war and the son of Zeus and Hera.
Poseidon (Neptune): God of the sea and brother of Zeus.
Hades (Pluto): God of the underworld and brother of Zeus.
Hephaestus (Vulcan): God of fire and metalwork who built the palaces in which the Olympian gods lived.
He also forged their armor and made their jewelry. He was the son of Zeus and Hera.
Apollo, Phoebus Apollo, or Phoebus (Same as Greek Names): God of prophecy, music, poetry, and
medicine. His alternate name, Phoebus, means brightness, and he was thus also considered the god of
the sun. He was the son of Zeus and Leto, the daughter of Titans. The Greeks highly revered him and
built many temples in his honor. One such temple at Delphi was the site of a famous oracle, the Pythia,
who pronounced prophecies as the mouthpiece of Apollo.
Artemis (Diana): Goddess of the hunt. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto (see Apollo) and the twin
sister of Apollo.
Aphrodite (Venus): Goddess of love and beauty. According to Homer, she was the daughter of Zeus and
Dione, the daughter of a Titan; according to the Greek poet Hesiod, she was born from the foam of the
Hermes (Mercury): Messenger god who wore a winged hat and winged sandals. He was also the god of
science, luck, commerce, and cunning. He was the son of Zeus and Maia, the daughter of a Titan.
Hestia (Vesta): Goddess of the home and hearth and sister of Zeus.
.......Other lists of the major Olympian gods omit Hades in favor of Hebe, a cupbearer of the gods. Still
others rank Dionysus (Roman name, Bacchus), the god of wine and vegetation and a patron of the arts,
as one of the elite twelve.
The Abode of the Gods
.......The Olympian gods lived in palaces constructed by Hephaestus on the summit of Mount Olympus,
the highest peak (9,570 feet) in a mountain range between Macedonia and Thessaly near the Aegean
Sea. Mount Olympus is sometimes called Upper Olympus because it lies just north of a lesser peak
(5,210 feet) known as Lower Olympus.
.......Minor goddesses called the Seasons maintained watch at the entranceway of Mount Olympus, a
gate of clouds which opened and closed whenever a god left or returned to Olympus.
.......In their lofty domain, the gods breathed only pure air, or ether. They took their meals in the palace
of Zeus, eating ambrosia to sustain eternal life and drinking a delicious beverage called nectar, served by
Hebe. Near the throne of Zeus sat lesser goddesses known as Muses, who were nine in number. They
regaled the gathering with songs of the gods and of earthly heroes and history. These daughters of Zeus
and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, learned under the tutelage of Apollo.
.......Other lesser gods on Olympus included the following: (1) Eros (Cupid), god of love and son of
Aphrodite who shot arrows that impregnated humans with love. (2) Iris, messenger goddess of Zeus and
Hera who created rainbows when she flew across the sky. (3) Themis, a companion of Zeus who was the
goddess of justice. She holds scales on which she weighs the claims in a suit of law. (4) The Charites, or
Graces, goddesses of joy and beauty. (5) Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punishment. (6) Aidos,
the goddess of conscience......
Influence of Greek Mythology and Characteristics of the Gods
. .......Since ancient times, western literature has lived at the foot of Mount Olympus, the nearly two-mile
high colossus that was believed to be home to important Greek gods. Writers of every age and every
genre have invoked the magic of Olympus to make fire and thunder with words—or to perfume them
with the breath of Venus.
.......The Greek writers Hesiod (born in the 7th or 8th Century B.C.) and Homer (born in the 8th or 9th
Century B.C.) immortalized the Olympian gods—Hesiod in the Theogony and in Works and Days, Homer
in The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Theogony presents a creation myth and a genealogy of the gods, along
with accounts of their exploits. The Works and Days advises farmers how to prosper, through honest toil
and righteous living, without incurring the disfavor of the gods. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of the final
year of the Trojan War, between Greece and Troy, focusing on the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, and
on the machinations of Olympian gods who take sides and attempt to influence the outcome of the war.
The Odyssey narrates the adventures of Odysseus (known as Ulysses to the Romans), a hero of the war
who designed the famous Trojan horse to breach the walls of Troy, on his long sea voyage home after
the war. While sailing home, the Olympian gods alternately help or hinder his progress. The Iliad and
The Odyssey, both epic poems, are among the greatest works in world literature.
.......Every great writer since Hesiod and Homer—including Sophocles, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, Chaucer,
Shakespeare, and Milton—has climbed Olympus to retrieve metaphorical divinities or one of their
qualities to illumine, clarify, or beautify his or her language.
.......Though everlasting and supernal, the gods of Olympus exhibited humanlike behavior. They could be
loving and generous, wise and forbearing. They could also be petty and base, fickle and vile. And, they
could be quick to anger. In Book I of The Iliad, the Olympian god Apollo descends the great mountain in
a rage after the Greek general Agamemnon captures a beautiful maiden and refuses to give her up to
her father, Chryses, a priest of Apollo.
[Apollo] came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his
shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself
down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his
arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his
shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning. (English
translation by.Samuel Butler)
The gods could also be quick to laugh. In Book 8 of The Odyssey, the blacksmith god, Hephaestus
(Vulcan)—a lame and ugly hunchback—fashions an invisible chain to ensnare his beautiful wife,
Aphrodite (Venus), and her inamorato, Ares (Mars), after they rendezvous to make love. In bed, they
become hopelessly entangled in the chain. Hephaestus then invites other gods to look upon his
unfaithful wife and her paramour caught—like wasps in a spider’s web—in his trap.
On this the gods gathered to the house of Vulcan. Earth-encircling Neptune came, and Mercury the
bringer of luck, and King Apollo. . . . Then the givers of all good things stood in the doorway, and the
blessed gods roared with inextinguishable laughter, as they saw how cunning Vulcan had been. . . .
(English translation by Samuel Butler) The Gods
The Gods and the hero
The connection between the fragility of life and the pursuit of greatness is made more poignant by the
presence and intervention of the gods in the Iliad. Their interest and the love they profess to feel for the
mortal characters of the poem raises those characters' achievements to a more elevated level. For it is
not just that they are honoured by their fellow humans, but also by the immortals. However, the fact
that the gods do not need to fear death, are willing to see their favourites killed and to withdraw their
involvement in the conflict, if it threatens their own peace and tranquillity, marks them out as
essentially superior and thus causes us to see the true impotence of the human condition. This is what
Achilles has realised by the end of the poem, when he says to Priam 'this is the fate that the gods have
spun for poor mortal men, that we should live in misery, but they themselves have no sorrows' (24.525-
6). For although they claim to care about certain mortals, the deaths of those same mortals seem to
affect the gods very little. Sarpedon, Patroclus, Hector and Achilles can all lay claim to divine favour, but
it does not prevent their deaths in the poem (or, in Achilles' case, in the near future) and nor does it
bring the immortals prolonged grief on the mortal scale. For, in truth, it is the certainty of early heroic
death that attracts the gods to them. The acknowledgement of the fragility of their lives (in contrast to
the timeless nature of the gods) and the consequent suffering that they undertake is what makes them
heroes and what elevates them above the average human in the eyes of the gods.
The only god that we see who does not fit into such a conception is Thetis, Achilles' mother. She is
important, not only for being the catalyst for the start of the action of the poem, but also because of her
position as an intermediary between the immortal and mortal worlds. Unlike the human characters, she
is able to influence the gods directly; but unlike the gods, she feels real grief at human suffering, most
obviously that of Achilles. For evidence of this, we only need note that when Achilles is most upset or
grief-stricken in Books 1 and 18, his mother comes to comfort him and provides him with important aids
to maintaining his reputation as a hero, namely her petition to Zeus and the divine armour. She
understands her son and makes no real attempt to dissuade him from being what he is, a hero. Yet, at
the same time, she grieves for his fate privately, as we see in her lament to her fellow Nereids (18.52-
The Character of the Gods
The Homeric gods are fascinating because they are not moral exempla. They are not dignified in the way
that we expect. In truth, they are little better morally than the mortal characters, but are simply blessed
with eternal life and superhuman powers. They are an amalgam of the majestic and the ridiculous, the
impersonally powerful and the personally weak. Zeus is the god whose nod shakes Olympus and who
can alter the fortunes of either side in the war, yet he also has to avoid upsetting his domineering wife.
Aphrodite is the goddess whose gift can cause the whole Trojan War, yet who runs crying to her father's
lap when she is injured by Diomedes. Hephaestus can create divine armour of awesome beauty and
strength, yet he is also laughed at by his fellow gods in Book 1, as he bustles around. The power of
Homer's depiction is in the frequent juxtaposition of these scenes. Zeus' fear of Hera's wrath is followed
by his awe-inspiring assent to Thetis' request (Book 1). The wounds dealt by Diomedes to Ares and
Aphrodite, in Book 5, are followed by Apollo's warning to the hero that he should never try to be the
equal of the gods. While Zeus' seduction by Hera in Book 14 is followed by a re-assertion of his power in
Book 15, which sees all the other gods bow to his command. This juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime emphasises the ultimate power of the gods and their
superiority over the mortals whose lives they govern. The contrast is marked throughout. The gods can
disagree, yet they do not concern themselves with loss of face, as the hero must, for their lives are not
limited. It is not important for them to prove themselves before their allotted time runs out. Similarly,
they may enter the battlefield secure in the knowledge that they will not be killed, a situation that
means that they are risking nothing and that consequently they can leave the battlefield without any
questions being asked. The battlefield is an interest and amusement, not a matter of life and death.
Constantly, we are reminded of the frivolous nature of the conflict for the gods, in contrast to its deadly
seriousness for mortals. In Book 1, Zeus and Hera quarrel over Zeus' decision to honour Thetis' request
The action of the Iliad occurs within a very limited timeframe. We do not see the start of the war nor do
we see anything from the first nine years nor do we see Troy fall. Instead, only a few days in the tenth
year are covered, separated from the rest of the war by two periods of nine days at both ends of the
poem - the plague and the preparation of Hector's funeral. However, in the course of relating these few
days, Homer succeeds in producing a poem that is representative of the whole war. The major events
that have occurred prior to the period described are symbolically represented by events within the
period, while those that are to come are foreshadowed or prophesied.
In Book 2, we are treated to a catalogue of the ships and peoples who are contesting the war. This
catalogue and the descriptions of the preparations of the two sides for battle would be more fitting at
the start of the war, and yet Homer has seamlessly managed to fit them into the structure of a poem
that details the events of the tenth year of that war, without any loss of coherence. Similarly, when
Helen stands with Priam at the walls of Troy in Book 3 and points out the great Achaean heroes, it is a
scene we would have expected to have occurred long before now. In both cases, the poet represents
events that naturally took place in the early days of the war and fits them into the present situation. He
contextualises the few days that he is covering.
In Book 3, we are also shown the duel between Paris and Menelaus, which is representative of the start
of the conflict. Paris constantly challenges the best of the Achaeans to oppose him in single combat.
Menelaus accepts and the two characters whose personal quarrel has resulted in the war find
themselves face to face. Menelaus has the better of the contest and is on the point of killing Paris, when
the latter is suddenly rescued by Aphrodite, the goddess whose gift to him started the whole affair. She
transports him to his room and forces Helen, against her will, to return there and sleep with him.
Therefore, we see in this episode an echo of the war's origin. We see Paris the aggressor, ill-equipped to
deal with the consequences of his actions; Menelaus the victim, wronged by one of the gods of the
victory that should have been his; Aphrodite, the meddlesome goddess, whose allegiance to Paris and
his marriage to Helen brings frustration to Menelaus and his fellow Achaean and; and Helen who is
reluctant to be with Paris and is conscious of her own guilt.
As far as future events after the end of the poem are concerned, the fall of Troy and the death of
Achilles are constantly foreshadowed within it. In Book 2 (300ff.), Odysseus reminds the Achaeans of the
prophecy of Calchas at Aulis that they would sack Troy in the tenth year of the war. On a divine level,
Zeus makes it clear throughout that the city is fated to fall and that any success for the Trojans is only
short-lived, while symbolically, the destruction of Hector represents the city's own destruction. Having
heard in Book 6 that Hector alone is defending the city, the poet makes a pointed remark when
describing the reaction of the Trojan people to the mutilation of their hero's body. After relating how
lamentation filled the city, he notes that, 'it was as if all lofty Troy were burning utterly in fire', thus
unequivocally connecting Hector's death to the now- inevitable fall of the city.
As for the death of Achilles, as soon as he re-enters the fray, we know, as indeed he does, that he will
die shortly. The fact that this does not occur within the poem does not matter, since the fact and manner of his death have already been made clear. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles' cries of grief
reach his mother Thetis' ears. Briefly, she laments her own misfortune in raising a son who will never
now return to his father's home, but will die on the plains of Troy. She then goes to him and finds that
he is intent on killing Hector, despite knowing that such a course of action will lead inevitably to his
death. For he has always been aware of the prophecy that he would either die young and gloriously, or
old and unknown. Here, when reminded by his mother of his predicament, he clearly states his choice -
'then let me die directly' (18.98).
Further clarity is added to the manner of his death when his horse Xanthus, briefly blessed with the
power of human speech, prophesies that he will be 'brought down in battle by a god and a man'
(19.417). The final piece of information is provided by Hector in his prophecy as he dies. Apollo will be
the god, Paris the man and the location will be the Scaean gates (22.359ff.). We are given, therefore, a
The Problems of Heroism
To see the Iliad, as many have done, as a straightforward glorification of war and the role of the hero is
to neglect many of the complex aspects of the poem and to overlook the fact that its most heroic
character ends the poem utterly disillusioned at his own, and his fellow men's, position within the
cosmos. On the other hand, to see it as a damning indictment of war and its consequences is to
misunderstand the world of Homer and the demands made upon individuals within that world. We
must, therefore, find some middle ground between these two polarised views. The question that the
poem poses and which the more reflective of the leading players battle with is 'what is it to be a hero?'.
Acceptance of the heroic code
The choice that Achilles is given explicitly and which is emphasised throughout the poem is the choice
that implicitly every heroic character has to face, namely between a life that is short yet glorious and a
life that is long yet obscure. That Achilles, in Books 1 and 9, questions whether his exertions are worth
their results is not a rejection of the heroic code per se, but rather a situational dilemma. It is not that he
is averse to the heroic lifestyle, which demands that he risk his own life in the pursuit of glory, but that
he feels that he is not being rewarded sufficiently. Agamemnon is disrespecting him by threatening to
confiscate the gifts and prizes that he has won, the material possessions by which his heroism is
manifestly proven. In addition, he is dishonouring him in front of his fellow Achaeans by insulting him in
such a way. Heroism in Homer is all about proving oneself to be better than anyone else, yet
Agamemnon is seeking to outdo him through his rank rather than through his capabilities as a warrior
and hence as a hero. To Achilles, a world in which the pay-off for being a hero is not fully realised is a
world in which it is not worth being a hero.
Achilles' great speech to Priam in Book 24 (518-551), which has similarly been held up as proof of his
rejection of the heroic code, is again no such thing. Certainly, Achilles is pained by the events that have
led him to realise that his father Peleus will never see him again and that Priam is in a parallel situation
with respect to Hector, but he never suggests that things might have been different. He accepts that this
is the hero's lot and that endless grieving is of no use. Men must simply learn to endure the harsh
realities of a life which requires heroes to be heroes in a world governed by divine and ultimately
Individual versus Society The difficulty for all the great heroes is in squaring the requirement to be better than anybody else with
the need to protect their own people. The hero does not exist in isolation. Heroic status is conferred on
him by the people who benefit from his acts of heroism. The requirements of the hero are succintly
stated by Sarpedon when he urges on his fellow Lycian king, Glaucus (12.310-328). In order to justify the
privileges they receive in peacetime, the two men must prove themselves in war. It is they who must
provide the lead and perform the deeds that win the day. Problems arise, however, when the hero's
character, which requires that sometimes he overreach himself to bring glory to himself or to avoid
being shamed, brings disaster upon those he is supposed to be protecting. Agamemnon, in order not to
lose face in front of the Achaean army, succeeds in insulting their greatest warrior with disastrous
consequences. Achilles initially takes umbrage in Book 1 and then refuses to accept Agamemnon's offers
of reconciliation via the embassy in Book 9, feeling that his honour has been irreparably damaged, and
sees his best friend die the next day. Patroclus, seeking to gain greater personal glory, ignores Achilles'
instruction to return to his hut after he has driven back the Trojans from the Achaean ships, and is
subsequently killed. Hector rejects the advice of Poulydamas, in Book 18, to return to Troy that night,
rather than camping on the plain, and sees the Trojans slaughtered the next day by the returning
Achilles. He then refuses the pleas of his family and fellow citizens to retreat inside the walls of Troy,
when Achilles is set on single combat, and consequently is slain, a death which, symbolically, marks the
fall of Troy itself.
In all these cases, the hero is given the opportunity to relinquish his heroic position by the more
pragmatic advice of another party. Every time he rejects it, in order to add to, or at least not detract
from, his glory. Every time the consequence of that decision is fatal. And yet, if any of the heroes had
decided upon the more pragmatic course of action, they would have abrogated their duty as heroes,
which requires them Character List
including captive women in the Achaean encampment. Homer calls the Greeks "Achaeans." They are
also referred to as Argives, Danaans, and Thessalians.
Prince of Phthia. Leader of the Myrmidon contingent. Son of Peleus and Thetis. He is the central
character of the Iliad. He is by far the greatest warrior involved in the Trojan War. On the battlefield, he
is unstoppable, able to rout whole armies single-handedly. Dealing with his rage is the central action of
the epic; he sacrifices many of his allies to his pride, refusing to fight because of an insult to his honor.
His movement from rage to grief and wrath and finally to recognition is the heart of the Iliad.
Son of Menoetius. Beloved companion of Achilles. Patroclus is Achilles henchman, reared in the house
of Peleus, Achilles' father. As a child, he killed a man in anger, and in his exile he was taken in by Peleus.
Achilles and Patroclus have been inseparable since boyhood. Patroclus is compassionate as well as
fierce; when Achilles will not fight, it is Patroclus who attempts to save his comrades from certain death.
He is killed by Hector, and his death brings Achilles back to battle.
King of Mycenae. Son of Atreus. Brother of Menelaus. Commander-in-chief of the Achaean forces. As
the high king of the Achaeans, Agamemnon feels the burden of responsibility most strongly. He is at
times torn by indecision, and at other times he is a stubborn and monstrously proud man. His insult to
Achilles' honor is an outrage, and he is never able to bring himself to give Achilles the true apology that
will bring the great warrior back to battle. But his majesty is recognizable, and his attacks of indecision
show how seriously he takes his role as ruler.
King of Ithaca. Son of Laertes. Beloved of Athena, Odysseus is the shrewd counselor and skilled
diplomat. He is cunning and loyal, supporting and spurring Agamemnon when the commander-in-chief
Also known as Telamonian Ajax. Son of Telamon. Commander of the contingent from Salamis. A giant of
a man, Great Ajax is the embodiment of the good soldier and second-greatest of the Achaean warriors.
Although he does not drive back whole armies as Achilles, Hector, and Diomedes do, he is a nearly
insurmountable bulwark against advancing troops. Halting the enemy advance is his specialty. When he
and Little Ajax are grouped together, they are called the Aeantes.
Also known as Oilean Ajax. Son of Oileus. Commander of the contingent from Locris. Swift of foot, Little
Ajax is a great warrior in his own right. He comes quickly when called on by hard-pressed allies. He and
Great Ajax work well together as a team. When he and Great Ajax are referred to as a pair, they are
called the Aeantes.
King of the Nelians. Son of Neleus. Nestor is the oldest of the Achaean kings. He is still courageous and
surprisingly strong, but in terms of battle prowess his best days are behind him. He is an important
counselor to Agamemnon. He often tells long stories about the exploits of his youth.
King of Lacedaemon. Son of Atreus. Brother of Agamemnon. Husband of Helen. Often in his brother's
shadow, Menelaus is still a strong warrior and at times an effective leader. The abduction of his wife
Helen is the cause of the Trojan War.
Diomedes Prince of Argos. Son of Tydeus. Never one to shrink from a fight, Diomedes cries out for battle whenever
the possibility of withdrawal is mentioned. He is given great strength by Athena in Book 5, and
slaughters countless Trojans. He also accompanies Odysseus during the night raids of Book 10.
Son of Amyntor. He is an old mentor of Achilles, beloved by the great warrior. He relates the story of
Meleager, hoping to win Achilles over in the embassy of Book 9, but he does not succeed in persuading
Achilles to return to battle.
Son of Nestor. In Book 18, Antilochus is the man on whom falls the hard task of telling Achilles that
Patroclus has been killed.
Son of Deucalion. Leader of the Cretan contingent. He and Meriones lead a staunch counterattack on
the left side of the battlefield in Book 13. Even at Hector's high tide, Idomenus and Meriones manage to
make the Trojans pay a heavy price in lives.
Son of Molos. He is Idomenus' comrade and second-in-command. See Idomenus, above.
Bastard son of Telamon. Half-brother of Great Ajax. Teucer is one of the most skilled of the Achaean
Son of Thestor. He is a great prophet. He correctly diagnoses the cause of the plague in Book 1.
One of the Myrmidons. He is an esteemed comrade and charioteer of Patroclus and Achilles.
Son of Asclepius. Co-commander, with his brother, of the Thessalians who hail from Tricca and Oechalia.
Machaon is the greatest of the Achaean healers.
Daughter of Briseus. Captive woman in the Achaean camp. Given to Achilles as a prize for valor. When
Agamemnon retracts the gift, the insult to Achilles honor is the cause of his rage.
Daughter of Chryses. Captive of Agamemnon. When Agamemnon refuses her father's ransom, Apollo
brings plague on the Achaeans.
TROJANS and their Allies
Troy is also referred to as Ilium.
Prince of Troy. Son of Priam and Hecuba. Husband of Andromache. Greatest of the Trojan warriors, he is
the champion of his people. He is a civilized man, more suited to peacetime than to war. When he slays
Patroclus, he brings Achilles back into battle. Hector, in turn, is killed by Achilles.
Son of Anchises and Aphrodite. Leader of those Trojans called Dardanians. A great Trojan champion, he
is watched over by the gods to ensure that he survives. He is destined to be the ruler of the Trojans who
survive the war.
King of Troy. Son of Laomedon. Father of Hector, Paris, and many other Trojan heroes. An old man with
no appetite for war, Priam watches the battles from the ramparts of Troy. He ransoms Hector's body at
the end of the epic.
Helen Daughter of Zeus. Wife of Menelaus. Consort of Paris. Paris' abduction of Helen is the cause of the
Trojan War. Nine years later, she is wracked by remorse for the havoc she has caused. At times, she is
full of disdain for her new husband Paris.
Also called Alexander. Prince of Troy. Son of Priam. Husband of Helen. His choice of Aphrodite in the
beauty contest of the goddesses wins him Helen. Helen's abduction causes the Trojan War. Paris is a
strong fighter, but he has little appetite for battle. His greatest skills remain those of the bedroom.
Daughter of Eetion. Wife of Hector. Andromache correctly fears that her husband will die at Achilles'
hands. Achilles has already killed her father and all of her brothers. Her speeches are often heart-
rending, as she mourns her dead loved ones and worries about the fate of her infant son.
Queen of Troy. Daughter of Dymas. Wife of Priam. Mother of Hector. Hecuba fears for the fate of her
husband when he goes to ransom Hector's body. Earlier, she watched from the ramparts with horror as
Achilles desecrated the corpse of her most beloved son.
One of the commanders of the Lycians. Son of Zeus. Sarpedon is one of the greatest men among the
Trojan allies. He is killed by Patroclus, and his death reveals an interesting aspect of the Homeric vision
One of the commanders of the Lycians. Son of Hippolochus. Glaucos is a good friend of Sarpedon, and
works hard to avenge his death. In Book 6, he and Diomedes exchange information about their
respective heritages, and they realize that their families have a history of friendship. They vow not to
harm each other, though they fight on opposite sides in the war.
Son of Panthous. Commander of a Trojan contingent. Polydamas is a great counselor, providing Hector
with wise advice that Hector does not always follow. Hector's rejection of Polydamas' counsel late in the
epic ultimately leads to Hector's death.
Son of Panthous and Phrontis. After Apollo has stunned, stripped, and disarmed Patroclus, Euphorbus
wounds him. He, in turn, is killed by Menelaus.
Son of Antenor. His brave decision to face Achilles, even though he has no chance of winning, buys his
people enough time to withdraw behind the city walls. His life is spared thanks to Apollo.
Priest of Apollo. Father of Chryseis. Agamemnon's rejection of Chryses' offer to give ransom for his
daughter leads to plague among the Achaean troops.
King of the gods. Son of Cronus and Rhea. Brother and husband of Hera. Father of the Olympian gods
and many mortals, including Sarpedon. Zeus is the strongest of the gods, lord of the sky and wielder of
the lightning bolt. He is the governor the universe, deciding the destinies of men, but he must
sometimes act in accordance with fate.
Hera Queen of the gods. Daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Sister and wife of Zeus. Jealous, scheming, and
powerful, Hera hates the Trojans fiercely and works for their destruction. She cannot overpower Zeus,
but she can outwit him.
Also known as Pallas Athena and Tritogenia. Daughter of Zeus. Goddess of war, wisdom, and crafts. She
is a tireless defender of the Achaeans, and she bears strong hatred for Troy. She has a special affection
for Odysseus, whose wiliness makes him her favorite among mortals.
Daughter of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea. Wife of Peleus. Mother of Achilles. Zeus and Hephaestus
are both indebted to her, and she calls in on the debts on behalf of her son. Through her mortal son, she
suffers, and she is able to foresee all of the calamities that will befall him.
Son of Zeus and Leto. God of archery and music, Apollo is a great champion of the Trojans. He bears no
great love for Achilles, and foils Achilles on several occasions. He also makes possible the brutal and
unfair killing of Patroclus.
Daughter of Zeus and Leto. Goddess of archery and the hunt, she favors the Trojans but not with the
vigor of her brother.
Son of Cronus and Rhea. Brother of Hera, Hades, and Zeus. A powerful god, Poseidon is lord of the sea
and earthquakes. Because of a wrong done to him by Laomedon, Priam's father, Poseidon hates the
Trojans and sides with the Achaeans throughout the war.
Daughter of Zeus and Dione. Mother of Aeneas. Goddess of love. Helen and Paris are among her
favorites, and Aphrodite fights on the side of Troy. Of little use on the battlefield, in her own realm she
reigns supreme. Hera uses a token of her power to overcome Zeus himself.
Son of Zeus and Hera. Crippled smith of the gods, lord of the forge and fire. In Book 18, he makes
Achilles his new magnificent armor and shield. He rescues Achilles from the river god Xanthus in Book
Son of Zeus and Hera. Bloodthirsty god of war, more frenzied (but also less powerful) than his half-sister
Athena. He is a protector of the Trojans.
Consort of Zeus. Mother of Artemis and Apollo. She sides with Troy because her children do.
Son of Zeus. Guide. He escorts Priam safely into the Achaean encampment in Book 24.
Swift goddess messenger of Zeus.
Wife of Tithonus. Goddess of the morning. She is mentioned every time a new day begins in the Iliad.
Sleep personified. He helps Hera to put Zeus out of the action, so that Poseidon can help the Achaeans.
Night personified. More a force of the cosmos than a personality, even Zeus is wary of angering her.
Panic, Rout, Rumor, Hate Homer personifies these forces as deities, although they have no real personalities beyond the forces
they represent. Personifying them is mostly a poetic device. These gods are a constant presence on the
Also called Scamander. River god. He nearly drowns Achilles in Book 21, but he withdraws when
Hephaestus sends fire to combat Xanthus' water.
Centaur. Wise and gentle, he is mentioned as a friend to Achilles back home. Myths portray him as an
important mentor to the young Achilles, and Achilles' mighty spear is a gift from Chiron.
The North and West wind.
The interaction between fate and free will
A complicated theme, the interaction between fate and free will is present in every book of the Iliad. At
times it seems that men have no real freedom. The gods intercede repeatedly, altering events as they
please. But Homer was no determinist, and there is a place in the Iliad for human agency. At key points,
Homer makes it clear that mortals make important choices, and a few times mortals nearly overturn the
dictates of fate itself. Zeus's will determines much of fate, but even he is sometimes subject to a higher
necessity that is never personalized in the Iliad.
Pride is a theme of pivotal importance, not only for the Iliad, but for all of Greek literature. Where pride
in Christianity is a vice paired off against the central Christian virtue of humility, pride to the ancient
Greeks was the source of both ruin and greatness. The central hero of Christianity, Jesus Christ, is the
embodiment of humility. Divine, he suffers humiliation that not even mortals should bear. In contrast, it
is hard to imagine a male heroic Greek hero who is humble; for the Greeks, pride is inextricable from
The pursuit of Glory
Closely linked to the above theme, the pursuit of glory is a consuming occupation for Homeric heroes. A
Homeric hero wins glory by performing great deeds, the memory of which will outlive him. There is no
comforting afterlife in Homer. Shades go down to the gloomy world of Hades. Emphasis is on the deeds
of this life for the sake of this life, and a hero must win glory that will be remembered always by the
living even after he is gone.
The glory of battle and the horror of war
Homer has never been surpassed in his ability to portray both the beauty and horror of war. War brings
out the best in his heroes, as they tap previously unknown reserves of strength, courage, and loyalty.
But war also can bring out the worst in men. The endless carnage and cruelty of the poem dehumanizes
many of the men of the Iliad, and Homer never shirks from depicting the brutality of battle. Although
Homer glorifies warriors, the Iliad is full of an unmistakable love for peace.
In the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, Chryses, a priest of Apollo, attempts to ransom his
daughter from Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaeans, who has taken her captive while on a
raid. When Agamemnon treats him roughly and refuses the ransom, Apollo is angered and brings plague
on the Achaeans. The Achaean prophet Calchas correctly identifies the cause of the problem, and he
suggests giving the girl back with gifts to Apollo. Agamemnon demands that he be compensated for the
loss of the girl, and Achilles, the greatest Achaean warrior, objects. The two men quarrel viciously.
Agamemnon says he will take back Briseis, a captive woman who was given to Achilles as a prize for valor. Horribly dishonored, Achilles returns to his ships and refuses to fight. Agamemnon has Briseis
taken from Achilles, and he returns Chryses' daughter to him. Achilles asks his mother, the goddess
Thetis, to prevail on Zeus, king of the gods, to bring ruin on the Achaeans as long as Achilles does not
fight for them. Zeus is indebted to Thetis, and he grants her request.
With Achilles out of the way, Hector, champion of the Trojans, drives the Achaeans back to their
beached ships. The Achaeans build fortifications, but at the urging of the chieftains Agamemnon sends
and embassy to ask Achilles to return to battle. Agamemnon offers rich prizes, but Achilles refuses the
offer and remains withdrawn from battle.
The Achaean fortifications are breached, and many of the the greatest remaining Achaean warriors are
wounded. Achilles beloved companion, Patroclus, begs Achilles to do something to help their fellow
soldiers. He asks that he be allowed to put on Achilles' armor, so that the Trojans will think that Achilles
has returned. Achilles grants the request, but warns Patroclus to return once he has driven the Trojans
back from the ships. Patroclus drives the Trojans back all the way to their own city walls, but there
Hector kills him with the help of Apollo. Hector strips his armor and puts it on himself, and the Achaeans
barely manage to save Patroclus' body from desecration.
Achilles goes berserk with grief and rage. Thetis warns him that if he kills Hector, he will die soon
afterward. Achilles accepts his own life as the price for revenge. He reconciles himself to Agamemnon,
receives new armor, via his mother, forged by the smith of the gods, Hephaestus. He charges into battle,
slaughtering Trojans left and right, routing the Trojan army almost single-handedly. He meets Hector,
chases him around the city, and kills him easily. He then drags the body from the back of his chariot,
running laps around the city of Troy so that the Trojans can watch as their champion's body is horribly
Achilles returns to the Achaean camp, where he holds magnificent funeral games for Patroclus. He
continues to abuse Hector's corpse. Zeus sends Thetis to tell Achilles that he must accept the ransom
that Priam, king of Troy and father of Hector, will offer in exchange for Hector's body. Priam himself
comes to see Achilles, the man who has slaughtered so many of his sons, and Achilles suddenly is
reminded of his own father‹who, as Priam has, will outlive his most beloved son. He understands what
he has done, and his rage and grief give way to compassion. He returns the body and offers a cease-fire
so that the Trojans can bury Hector. With the word of Achilles as their guarantee, the Trojans take
eleven days to give Hector a proper mourning and funeral. As the epic ends, the future is clear: Achilles
will not live to see the fall of Troy, but the city is doomed nonetheless. All but a handful of her people
will be slaughtered, and the city will be wiped off the face of the earth. Iliad
Genre - Epic
Literary works are divided into various categories called genres in accordance with their characteristic
form and content. The Iliad1 belongs to the genre of epic. An epic is a long poem which tells a story
involving gods, heroes and heroic exploits. Since the epic is by its very nature lengthy, it tends to be
rather loosely organized. Not every episode is absolutely necessary to the main story and digressions are
not uncommon. You will notice how different in this regard is the genre of drama, in which every
episode tends to be essential to the plot and digressions are inappropriate. The events narrated in epic
are drawn from legend rather than invented by the poet and are typically of great significance as in the
case of the Iliad, which relates an important incident centering around the greatest hero of the Greeks in
the Trojan War, the most celebrated war of Greek legend (see Troy for more information on the Trojan
War). The epic poet tends to present his narrative impersonally, not drawing attention to himself except
occasionally, as in the first line of the Iliad when Homer addresses the goddess who is the Muse2 of epic
1The word Iliad means "a poem about Ilion [another name for Troy]."
2In Greek myth a Muse is one of the nine daughters of Zeus, who are goddesses of the arts. See line 604
of the first book of the Iliad.
To learn more about Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War, see Troy.
Reading the Iliad
When you first read the Iliad, the beginning of the poem can present some difficulty because it assumes
a general familiarity with the war between the Trojans and Greeks that most modern readers, unlike the
ancient Greeks, do not possess (see Troy for more information on the Trojan War). You should have no
trouble, however, if you keep a few facts in mind. The war had been occasioned by an offense given
twenty years earlier to Menelaos, the Greek king of Sparta, by the Trojan Prince, Paris (also called
Alexandros). Paris, aided by the goddess Aphrodite, whom he had judged the winner of a beauty contest
over the goddesses Athene and Hera, had stolen Menelaos's wife, Helen. In order to recover Helen,
Menelaos's brother, Agamemnon, the powerful king of Mykenai, had gathered together a large force
that included many prominent Greek warriors, themselves either princes or kings. The greatest of these
was the hero, Achilleus, the central character of the Iliad . The main story of the poem consists of the
experiences of Achilleus within a rather limited period of time (fifty-four days) in the tenth year of the
Another problem you might encounter in your first reading of the poem of the language in which the
story is told. After reading even a small portion of the Iliad one quickly becomes aware of Homer's
distinctive style, which is characterized by the constant repetition of phrases, whole lines and even
whole passages. The name Achilleus is frequently accompanied by the phrase "of the swift feet".3
Apollo is often described as he "who strikes from afar". Speeches are repeatedly introduced by phrases
such as "Then in answer again spoke..." and summed up by "So he spoke". You could no doubt provide
numerous other examples of this stylistic phenomenon. What is most unusual about the recurring
descriptive words applied to the name of a god/goddess,/hero/heroine, or inanimate things is that,
although they are sometimes relevant to their context, they most often are irrelevant and therefore
seemingly unnecessary. For example, it is helpful to the reader to have Agamemnon identified once or twice as "lord of men" and Achilleus called "brilliant" and "of the swift feet", but the frequent repetition
of these descriptive words throughout the poem reveals that their purpose goes beyond identification.
The description of Apollo in 1.213 as the one "who strikes from afar" has some relevance because the
god will send a destructive plague into the Achaian camp by shooting arrows from his silver bow (1.48-
51).4 But there are many more of these repeated descriptions which are totally irrelevant. The Achaian
ships are often called "fast" when they are not in motion. Odysseus is twice called "crafty" in book one
although he engages in no tricks. The sea is referred to as "barren" for no apparent purpose. But even
the relevant epithets5 lose their relevance when they are constantly repeated, as is the case with
Apollo, who continues to be referred to as he "who strikes from afar" throughout the rest of book one
without any connection with the action. The problem is further complicated by the fact that other
epithets are also applied to Apollo such as "King"," Phoibos", "radiant", "beloved of Zeus", "archer",
"who works from afar", etc. with a similar lack of relevance.
3All quotations from the Iliad are from Richmond Lattimore's translation (Chicago: University of Chicago,
4References to the Iliad will be given by the book number (before the period) and line numbers (after
5An epithet is a descriptive word or phrase that is linked with the name of a person or thing. Remember
that you can also consult the Glossary for terms, as well as characters, events and places
To learn more about the epithets of the gods and goddesses, see the Knowledge Builders for all 12
major Greek gods and goddesses.
The reason for the constant repetitions in the Iliad is that Homer composed in an oral style, which
involved the improvisation of poetry without the aid of writing. In order to facilitate the adaptation of
his words to the requirements of the dactylic hexameter, the traditional meter of Greek epic poetry, the
oral poet used stock phrases called formulas, which aided him in filling out various metrical portions of
the line. A character or object in the Iliad generally has a number of epithets of varying metrical size
used in conjunction with it. The reason for this is that sometimes a longer epithet is needed to suit the
meter, while on other occasions a shorter one is needed. For example, in lines 58, 84, 364, 489 of book 1
a metrically longer epithet is required to describe Achilleus; therefore he is referred to as Achilleus "of
the swift feet". But in lines 7 and 292 of the same book a metrically shorter epithet is needed; therefore
he is called "brilliant".
The term formula can also be used in reference to other elements larger than the name plus epithet. A
whole line can be formulaic, such as the line which is regularly employed at the end of a meal:
After they had put away their desire for eating and drinking
Also formulaic are whole passages which are repeated in almost exactly the same language with a
closely corresponding sequence of events, as is evident in the description of a sacrifice and a meal in
1.458-469 and 2.421-432. Messages tend to be repeated or stories retold in almost exactly the same
These repetitions are essential to the oral style of composition. They not only aided the poet in
composing, but also helped the audience, who did not have the benefit of a text, to remember the
details of the story. But if these repeated formulas had been just practical necessities, the Iliad would
not have succeeded as poetry. In addition to their practical purpose, these formulas with their emphasis
on particulars create an indelibly vivid impression of the characters and the Homeric world in general.
Who can forget "swift-footed Achilleus", "fair-cheeked Briseis," "Zeus who gathers the clouds" or "the glancing-eyed Achaians", "the infinite water"? Some formulas have an inherent poetic beauty: "Dawn
with her rosy fingers", "Hera of the white arms", "the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea", etc. The
formulaic line which is often used to describe the death of a hero has a power that survives its many
He fell thunderously and his armor clattered upon him.
You will no doubt find your own favorites in the poem.
Be patient with this oral style of composition; you will soon become used to it. Also, don't be put off by
the great variety of characters and actions. The Iliad is something like a very large painting which
contains crowds of people and many insignificant events but focuses on a central action. These details
are not important individually, but do create an impression of largeness and provide an imposing
background for the main focus of the painting. Confronted for the first time with a poem with a large
cast of characters and the seemingly countless details of the narrative, you might find yourself
somewhat confused. But if you read carefully and are willing to reread, you will find that the main story
of the Iliad is fairly simple and involves a relatively small number of major characters.
The code which governs the conduct of the Homeric heroes is a simple one. The aim of every hero is to
achieve honor, that is, the esteem received from one's peers. Honor is essential to the Homeric heroes,
so much so that life would be meaningless without it. Thus, honor is more important than life itself. As
you will notice in reading the Iliad, when a hero is advised to be careful to avoid a life-threatening
situation in battle, his only choice is to ignore this warning. A hero's honor is determined primarily by his
courage and physical abilities and to a lesser degree by his social status and possessions. The highest
honor can only be won in battle. Here competition was fiercest and the stakes were the greatest. Two
other heroic activities, hunting and athletics, could only win the hero an inferior honor. An even lesser
honor was won by the sole non-physical heroic activity, the giving of advice in council (1.490; 9.443).
Nestor, who is too old to fight, makes a specialty of giving advice since that is the only heroic activity left
to him (1.254-284).
The heroic ideal in the Iliad is sometimes offensive to modern sensibility, but what is required here is not
the reader's approval, but understanding of these heroic values. One can only understand the Iliad, if
one realizes what motivates action in the poem. Indeed, Homeric heroism is savage and merciless. Thus
the hero often finds himself in a pressure-filled kill-or-be-killed situation. Success means survival and
greater honor; failure means death and elimination from the competition for honor. But victory in battle
is not enough in itself; it is ephemeral and can easily be forgotten. Therefore, the victor sought to
acquire a permanent symbol of his victory in the form of the armor of the defeated enemy. As you will
notice, furious battles break out over the corpse as the victor tries to strip the armor and the associates
of the defeated warrior try to prevent it. Occasionally, prizes from the spoils of war are awarded for
valor in battle as in the cases of Chryseis and Briseis, who belong respectively to Agamemnon and
Achilleus. The importance of these captive girls as symbols of honor is evident in the dispute which
arises in Book 1. The Homeric hero is also fiercely individualistic; he is primarily concerned with his own
honor and that of his household,6 which is only an extension of himself. As is particularly true of
Achilleus, the Homeric hero is not likely to be as concerned about his fellow warriors as he is about
himself and the members of his household. Loyalty to the community or city had not yet achieved the
importance it was going to have in later times. 6The household, or oikos, consisted not only of blood relatives, but also of retainers like Phoinix and
Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost
nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves or yield it to others.
The moral pressure which ensures compliance with this heroic code is simply what peers will think and
say. The Homeric hero is supremely concerned with the reaction of his fellow heroes to his actions, since
ultimately it is they alone who can bestow honor. When Hektor's wife urges him not to re-enter the war,
he answers (6.441-443):
...yet I would feel deep shame
before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments,
if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting.
Hektor is not free to walk away from the war. His fear of adverse public opinion forces him to ignore the
pleas of his wife and risk his life for the sake of honor. Therefore, one must fight courageously, whatever
the cost. As Odysseus says (11.408-410):
...I know that it is the cowards who walk out of the fighting,
but if one is to win honour in battle, he must by all means
stand his ground strongly, whether he be struck or strike down another.
The religion of the ancient Greeks was polytheistic7 and consisted of the worship of various gods who
presided over different aspects of the physical world and human experience: Zeus, god of the sky;
Aphrodite, goddess of sex; Ares, god of war, etc. The Greek gods are not spiritual beings but are
anthropomorphic.8 They resemble human beings and tend to act in a human way, displaying all human
emotions, virtues and vices. Their anthropomorphism is further illustrated by the patriarchal
organization of the divine family, which imitates the patriarchy9 of human society. Zeus is the patriarch
of the gods, who demands (but does not always get) the obedience of the other gods. The importance of
both divine and human patriarchy in the Homeric world can be seen in the frequent use of patronymics1
in the Iliad, (e.g., Zeus, son of Kronos; Achilleus, son of Peleus). One of the most important things that
can be said about a god or mortal is the identity of the father.
To learn more about Zeus, the patriarch of the gods, see the Zeus Knowledge Builder.
7'Characterized by the worship of many gods'.
8'Having human characteristics'.
10'A name inherited from a paternal ancestor'. It should be noted that Homer's depiction of the gods in the Iliad is more the re