HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 9 Cherry Fan
The Wrath of Achilles, The Beauty of
The Iliad and the Epic Cycle
The people of classical antiquity considered the poetry of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, to be their
most important literary works. They were not only brilliant works of literature, they were also the
charter myths of their culture. Every child had to memorize not only the stories but many of the lines
and expressions in the poems also. All classical literature after Homer is filled with allusions to his works.
Yet Homer did not even tell the entire story of the Trojan War. Aristotle discusses his selective
storytelling this way:
"Compared with all other poets Homer may seem divinely inspired. Even with the Trojan War, which has
a beginning and an end, he did not try to dramatize it as a whole. It would have been either too long to
be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of
its episodes. As it is, he takes one part only and uses many episodes from other parts, such as the
Catalogue of Ships and others, with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write
about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with many parts, the authors, for
example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one
tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the
Little Iliad more than eight, e.g., The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging,
The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan
Aristotle, Poetics 1459a-b
The Epic Cycle
The Epic Cycle was a collection of poems that included all the stories of mythology from the beginning of
time until the last events associated with the Trojan War. Different storytellers devoted themselves to
different parts of it. Homer wrote up a series of episodes from the end of the ninth year of the Trojan
War in the Iliad and the Odysseus' return from Troy to Ithaca, the Odyssey. Aristotle explains that Homer
also integrated elements that might properly have belonged to other parts of the story of the Trojan
War, like the Catalogue of Ships (Il. 2), the listing of all the ships in the Achaean fleet and where they
came from. Normally you would expect that sort of information to come in the opening story of the
Trojan War, but Homer puts it in the second book of his account of episodes in the ninth year of the war.
Another example of this is the scene in book three, the teichoskopia ("viewing from the wall"), in which
Helen points out several of the Achaean leaders to the Trojan elders. It is hardly plausible that they did
not come to know them much earlier in the war.
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Aristotle's principal concern is tragedy, so he listed several tragedies derived from episodes in other
parts of the Epic Cycle dealing with the Trojan War that are less thematically unified than Homer's epics.
We actually have the Philoctetes of Sophocles and the Trajan Women of Euripides, although the other
plays Aristotle mentions have perished. Other poets wrote up the epics entitled Cypria and the Little
Iliad; we have enough fragmentary knowledge of them to know roughly what was in them. They
narrated two parts of the Trojan War. You should become familiar with these and some others, such as
the Aethiopis, Destruction of Troy, and Nostoi.
The Cypria obviously has to do with Aphrodite, the goddess of Cyprus. It begins with the wedding of
Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles (cf. Th 1006-7). Since the nymph Thetis was fated to have a son
greater than his father, all the gods were relived to marry her off to a mortal, Peleus, and they attended
the wedding (Il 24.62-3). The only goddess not invited, quite understandably, was Eris ("Strife"). As a
trick, she threw into the midst of the celebration an apple on which she had written "for the most
beautiful". But who was the most beautiful? Three goddesses contended, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite,
and they selected the Trojan prince Paris (also called Alexander) as their judge, which led to the
Judgement of Paris (Il 24.28-30). As his reward for choosing her, Aphrodite gave to Paris Helen, and this
is probably the single act that wins Aphrodite the title of this part of the Epic Cycle. Helen was of course
already married to Menelaus, so she has to be taken to Troy through treachery (Ag 399-401). Menelaus
and his brother Agamemnon, the most powerful king of the Achaeans (or Argives or Danaans, as they
are called), organize a fleet at Aulis to sail to Troy to win Helen back by force.
Homer makes no mention of the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia. In fact, a daughter
Iphianassa - it's probably the same name - is referred to as still living (Il 9.145). But the Cypria appears to
have introduced it as a necessary precondition of the fleet sailing from Aulis to Troy. Euripides wrote a
very compelling on the story, and it becomes an important pretext for Agamemnon's eventual murder at
the hands of his wife. The Roman poet Lucretius referred to the act this way: tantum religio potuit
suadere malorum ("such a great amount of evils could religion impel"). That is, Agamemnon's killing of
his daughter became one of the principal acts of evil ascribed to religion (much as people today blame
religion for the injustice of the Crusades or the Inquisition, or 911).
The events of the Iliad follows next in the Epic Cycle. It recounts, for instance, how the Achaeans have
just attacked Thebe, the city of Apollo's priest Chryses (1.365). It is also the home of Briseis and of
Andromache, Hector's wife. Many such incidents are recounted in the poem. The events immediately
following the Iliad were recounted in the Aethiopis. Most notable among them is the death of Achilles.
The Little Iliad recounts the suicide of Ajax, who was disappointed not to get Achilles' armor, the
fetching of Philoctetes, and the invention of the wooden horse. Sophocles' tragedies Ajax and
Philoctetes retells these stories, and Homer mentions Philoctetes both in the Iliad (2.720-7) and Odyssey
(8.220). Despite inheriting Heracles' bow, Achaeans realize they needed Philoctetes' archery to win, they
fetched him. He was, however, quite understandably resentful about having been left behind.
The Destruction of Troy was the next part of the Epic Cycle. The Achaeans went quite mad in their
slaughter of the Trojan and destruction of Troy. They desecrated many temples, earning the wrath of
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the gods, and they mistreated their prisoners (Ag 320-50). Euripides' tragedy Trojan Women recounts
some of these events. The Nostoi ("Returns") was the next part of the Epic Cycle. In a sense, the Odyssey,
with the story of Odysseus' return to Ithaca, is one of these stories. Euripides' tragedies Andromache,
Hecuba, and Helen and Aeschylus' Agamemnon are all based on events from the Nostoi.
The Children of Leda
Helen is one of the four children of Leda, the wife (or daughter) of Tyndareus, king of Sparta. The others
are Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, and the Dioskouroi, Kastor and Polydeuces (see Homeric
Hymn 33). By the time of the events in the Iliad, the Dioskouroi have passed away (Il 3.236-44). In some
accounts, like the Homeric Hymn, they appear to become gods, protectors of mariners, and they are
associated with the phenomenon called St. Elmo's Fire. In others, their statues seem ambiguous (Od
We'll have a chance to discuss Clytemnestra in Unit 11. In the Iliad, the focus is on Helen, the daughter
of Zeus, the mortal counterpart of Aphrodite, a sort of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana all wrapped
The Beginning of the Iliad
The Iliad comes out of a traditional of oral poetry, which was handed down over the generations
without written transmission. Homer does not mention himself in the poem. The goddess, the Muse, is
to sing (through him). Scholars argue that in such oral poetry, first lines and even first words play very
important thematic roles by labeling what the entire poem is about. Let's take a close look at the
opening of the poem.
μῆνιν ᾶειδε θεὰ Πηλἵἀδεω Ἀχιλῆος
mênin aeide thea Pêlêïadeô Akhillêos
Anger sing goddess of Peleus' son Achilles
The first word is mênis (in the accusative case: mênin), "anger" or "wrath". That is the central theme of
the entire poem. It's an unsettling theme, and many students dislike the Iliad as a result. But the Greeks
had a different attitude towards such emotions. They recognized such emotions as not only unavoidable
in human culture but also a healthy part of it. A man who didn't get angry when insulted had something
wrong with him. But anger had to have limitations. It had to be directed at the right person, for the right
reason, to the right extent, and for the right duration. The first word of the second line describes
Achilles' anger: it is oulomenen "destructive".
The occasion for Achilles' anger is the strife, quarrel, or contention (eris) between him and Agamemnon.
Strife is a repeated theme in the poem. Note also that the poet asks which of the gods brought the strife
on? The answer is that it was Apollo. As we observe in Unit 4, Apollo is the most important son of Zeus,
in a way a sort of divine counterpart to Achilles. Apollo himself is angered because Agamemnon had
despised, or dishonored, his priest Chryses. Honour (timê) is another big theme of this poem