The Iliad and the Odyssey: Two Proems Compared

“Rage” is the first word presented to us in the Iliad. The Goddess, not the muse, is commanded to sing of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles. Which Goddess does Homer invoke? We are not given a clear answer, however we can acknowledge that this Goddess remains anonymous, not unlike Odysseus at the outset of the Odyssey.

Achilles’s rage is also tragic -“murderous” and “doomed,” causing the Achaean countless losses. Their deaths are innumerable -how can we then verify the causal relationship between Achilles’s rage and their deaths? We can find textual evidence of at least Patroclus’s death (Book XVI), though we will struggle in establishing a direct link between Achilles’s rage and Patroclus dying. Could it be that Homer was not referring to deaths that occurred at Ilium, nor deaths recounted in the Iliad? If so, we would be led to believe that Homer is referring to deaths that occurred after the war in Troy, perhaps including the many men that died en route home from Troy. The wrath of Achilles is, after all, not credited with winning the war -this victory is given to Odysseus for his crafty plan to infiltrate the strong walls of Ilium. Achilles’s wrath sends many souls hurling down the House of Death, but leaves their bodies for carrion, to decay and be eaten by both “dogs” and “birds.” Although there are many threats of both birds and dogs feeding on bodies, thereby defiling sacred nomos, we are given no examples of this throughout the book -not even Hector’s body that is protected from decay and feeding by a god. In addition, Achilles’s rage is clearly specified as “murderous” -it is not lawful killing, but rather unjust and contra Achaean custom.

Despite all of this, the “will” of Zeus moves toward its end. Zeus’s will is connected to the murderous rage of Achilles, and its unspoken end.

The poet commands the Muse, no longer called Goddess, to arbitrarily begin with the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. Homer asks: What god drove them to fight with such fury? Apollo is identified as the god who causes the rage of Achilles -he drives the fight between “brilliant” Achilles and the “lord of men.” Like Achilles, Apollo is not called exclusively by his name, but rather his status as a son, the son of Zeus and Leto -a stranger to the Olympians, banned by Hera. Additionally, while many are called the son of their father, Apollo is called the son of both father and mother, highlighting his elicit status of birth.

Why does Homer call upon the Goddess, or the Muse, to recall the story? Homer, being  the wily poet of antiquity, is no stranger to concealing himself. By putting the story in another being’s mouth, he removes himself from trial by the public and also creates ambiguity for the authorship of the tale. In putting the text to the rack, shall we put Homer, the Muse, or the characters who speak on trial? Justification for the poets is difficult.

At the close of the proem to the Iliad, we are brought out of a mist, like a great cloud being lifted. We meet the first character -a priest of Apollo, the archer- Chryses, who is the first character to speak in the text as he approaches the fast ships of Achaea to win back his daughter while brandishing high a staff with the leaves of the god Apollo. The primacy of the tragic rage of Achilles and also the priest of Apollo bringing the message of Apollo’s like-minded rage, play well with one another.

Curiously, though the Iliad begins with the rage of Achilles, caused by Apollo, and it concludes with the death and burial of Hector. We are brought both deeply into the Achaean camp, and also far behind the Trojan walls. Therefore the Iliad is not prejudicial, in favor of either Achaea or Troy. It is not a polemic work, but rather a mirror showing both sides.

Let us now turn to the opening of the Odyssey.

“Man” is the first word of the Odyssey, sometimes translated as “a man.” Homer, the poet, commands the Muse to sing of the “man of twists and turns”. Once again, Homer finds ambiguity in authorship by invoking the divine to shroud his tale in a deeper level of secrecy. Notably he beckons the Muse, not the Goddess, to sing. Also Odysseus remains anonymous, his name concealed. His name is not revealed until the end of the proem. Just as with the Muse and Homer, Odysseus confirms his masked nature throughout the tale -he is both “mind” and “no one” when speaking to Polephemus, the Cyclops. This is in direct contrast to Achilles who is called by name, as the son of Peleus, in the opening of the Iliad. Why is Odysseus called the man of twists and turns? Because he is continually driven off course after plundering the heights of Troy.

Odysseus also sees many cities of men and he learns their minds -he is well traveled and curious. He wants knowledge and by venturing out he gains wisdom by seeing the enduring things across the earth, but he also sees also the transient things throughout the cities of men. He also learns their mind, either referring to the minds of men or the mind of the city. Regardless, he is a wanderer but also a knower. He has also suffered many pains and heartsick, by fighting to bring his comrades home – a task we know he fails to accomplish. His story, like the Iliad, is about suffering. However, no one dies a pitiable death in the Iliad -those who find purple death swirling over their eyes die honorably and none are eaten by dogs or birds, whereas in the Odyssey, many men die, such as the suitors or Odysseus’s companions and they are killed unmercifully and sometimes dishonorably. There is a strong case to be made that Homer desires that his audience pay closer attention to Odysseus’s story than Achilles’s. For Odysseus, not Achilles, is given the opportunity to present his own song. While both face a choice: Achilles must decide whether to return home and live a long life or become a hero, or honorably divine, by killing Hector and thereby dying in Troy. Achilles’s choice is dictated by fate, a force beyond good and evil. His decision does not come from his mind with concern for the good of the Achaeans, but rather from his unrelenting passions. Odysseus, on the other hand, must make a choice to become like a god and live forever with Calypso on her island and in her cave, or return home. He chooses a fatal mortal life -one of death and suffering. Indeed, the Olympians have chosen this fate for him, too, as Zeus sends winged Hermes down to bring the message to Calypso to release Odysseus. Odysseus’s choice comes from his will to live and to know the great cities and men’s minds. He is wily and cunning, a man of many devices, yet he struggles politically to lead. His ventures and knowledge pose a threat to the city. He is unable to persuade Achilles in Book IX of the Iliad. His presence is nearly forgotten at home on Ithaca. His son does not know who his father is. Upon returning to Ithaca, he goes disguised and unrecognized, even by his own father. Only his dog Argo knows his master. After killing significant numbers of his own population, namely the suitors, as well as people in his own house, one has to wonder whether or not it would have been just for Odysseus to let his subjects live and begin to rebuild his status as leader or not. Is the killing of the suitors a just act? Odysseus, the man of many places, announces he is returning home but will go out on a “second sailing” soon when he is recognized and unsatisfied with the house of his father.

Returning to the proem, the Muse and Homer, two in one or perhaps one in two, chastise Odysseus’s men who could not be saved because they ate the cattle of the Sun, and the Sungod wiped them from sight. Why does the Muse choose the include the passage about the men eating the cattle of the Sungod? Is it to highlight Odysseus’s escape or his use of force to compel his men? Regardless there is no homecoming for these men, and perhaps for Odysseus either.

The poet beckons the Muse, identifying her as a daughter of Zeus, to begin the story (Odysseus is still anonymous) and to start from wherever she likes, singing for our time. Rather than beginning where Homer had drawn the reader, to the scene of the cattle of the Sungod, the Muse starts years later with Odysseus on Calypso’s island and Telemachus at home. All other men are now home from war, but Odysseus is not free from suffering, and will not be free from trials even when arriving home among his loved ones. The Muse states “every god” took pity on him, except Poseidon. Odysseus’s name is not revealed until the very end of the proem (1.25).

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s