There is a popular ancient story about a contest between Homer and Hesiod, imagined from the contest recounted by Hesiod in Works and Days. In it, both poets choose their best passages from their works -Hesiod chooses his section on the rising of the Pleiades constellation from Works and Days. Ultimately, the round of aristocratic judges chooses Hesiod as the superior poet over Homer because they are determining which poems will be of more value to the masses in the polis. It is determined that Hesiod’s practical advice on farming, astronomy, and wealth will be more beneficial than Homer’s tales of War and Return. Even in his day, Pausanias recounts a story of seeing Hesiod’s winning tripod on display at Mt. Helicon for travelers to see.
However, other imagined sources suggest that Hesiod must have performed his other poem, on the genesis of the gods, called Theogony. Unlike in the Works and Days, wherein Hesiod (or “he who emits the voice”) speaks directly to Perses (or the “destroyer”) and in doing so speaks to the common citizen of the polis, in the Theogony the voice is directed toward an explicitly more aristocratic audience. This is evidenced by his rebuke of power-hungry kings in the former poem, but praise of strong kingly leadership in the latter poem.
In contrast to the book of Genesis, the Theogony is a considerably different account. In Genesis the birth of the earth and living things is brought by about by the single booming voice of God. However, in Hesiod the primal being is Chaos and Gaia, and the cosmos is filled with struggle and strife between the gods. The world is without order before anything else. Take, for instance, the revolt of Cronus (Zeus’s father) against his father Uranos. He castrates his father, throwing his severed testicles into the ocean giving birth to Aphrodite who floated and arrived on the island of Cyprus.
Chaos, earth, Tartarus, and Eros are all primal things in existence. Next, black Night comes from Chaos Erebus (the “darkness” of the underworld), and out of Night and Erebus comes Aether and Daylight. Earth gives birth to the mountains and seas, sleeps with Uranos and gives birth to the Oceans and eleven other children, including Cronus. Earth gives birth to the Cyclopses. Earth also gives birth to the vengeful Furies.
Cronus and Rhea become one and give birth to the gods, including Zeus. However Cronus is afriad of being overtaken so he swallows his children, much to the sadness of Rhea. Earth feeds to Cronus a stone wrapped like a baby but it is not Zeus, and he throws them up and Zeus overtakes Cronus. Zeus makes Atlas stand at the ends of the earth with the sky on his head and the earth on his shoulders, releases Pandora, and punishes Prometheus in chains by making an eagle eat his liver each day, later released by Heracles. Zeus tames the itans in Tartarus. The poem ends as it began, with a plea to the muses, only this time to sing of the mortal humans.
For this reading I used the Daryl Hine translation.
In both the Iliad and the Odyssey we encounter vengeance exacted by the protagonists.
In the Iliad, a poem explicitly about the “rage” or “wrath” of Achilles, we discover the rage that follows from the sorrow for the death of a loved one. In Books XV and XVI, the beloved companion, Patroclus, is killed by Hector of Troy who strips the beautiful armor of Achilles from his body. The Trojans proceed to defile and abuse the body of Patroclus. Upon hearing this news, Achilles is overcome with grief and sorrow, soon followed by rage -a desire to exact revenge upon Hector. His motives are guided by a will for requital. He longs to inflict an equal or greater amount of suffering on Hector. As a warrior, Achilles knows only vengeance, not justice. He is not governed by laws, or nomos, but rather justice belongs to the stronger man. Notably, the victory in the war to conquer Troy does not go to “swift-footed” Achilles, but instead to “long-enduring” Odysseus who devises the famous wooden horse plot to bring destruction to Troy.
However, in the Odyssey we discover vengeance of a similar kind. After 20 long years, Odysseus returns home from his ventures to rocky Ithaca where a cohort of suitors live in his palace, eat his food, and bathe themselves in excess and luxury hoping to court Penelope, his wife. Although, like Achilles, Odysseus is furious with rage, he cloaks himself in disguise as an old beggar. He tells false tales of his adventures:
but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth” (Book XIX 235-236)
Even to his close comrades and loyal supporters, he remains disguised. Revealing oneself is dangerous, threatening to elude the enduring qualities of the king of Ithaca. Even to his own wife, Odysseus’s identity stays hidden until the opportune moment of revelation when he violently destroys the suitors in a bloodbath.
Unlike Achilles, Odysseus has tact. His guile separates him from the wrathful warrior, who is left vulnerable by his exposed heel. Odysseus, on the other hand, is careful not to risk his enduring name by leaving any part of his plot open to exposure. Unlike in the Iliad, where the audience feels sorrow for the death of Hector as well as Patroclus, in the Odyssey we are gratified by the revenge exacted on the suitors. The Homeric decision to introduce the audience to both sides of the Trojan war, taking us both behind the walls of Priam and also into the tents of the Achaeans, is characteristically different from the one-sided poem about “a man” that is revealed in the Odyssey. We are given a clear hero in the Odyssey, like Orestes in in his triumphant return, Odysseus reclaims his throne and exacts his vengeance.
In Book XVIII of the Iliad, Achilles is distraught. Patroclus has been killed by Hector, and the armor of Achilles has been stripped and stolen by Hector. Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother, travels to the house of Hephaestus to convince him to build a new shield for Achilles so he can return to the battle and exact vengeance on Hector.
Hephaestus, the crippled smith, constructs a massive shield with a silver shield strap and five layers of metal. He creates a “world of gorgeous immortal work” (564). This shield is curious for many reasons. Homer takes great length to describe its contents. It is also the only piece of armor forged by the gods, namely the lame smith, Hephaestus.
Hephaestus begins with the cosmos: the earth, the sky, and the sea -the ancient tripartite division of the known world. He also adds the sun and the moon, along with the constellations such as the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion, the Great Bear (also called the Wagon, always watching the Hunter and alone is denied the plunge into the Ocean’s baths).
Next, Hephaestus moves from the cosmic to the political. He constructs two “noble” cities filled with the mortal men. In one city, two men are feuding over a murder related to a wedding celebration. They press for legal action -a judge to cut the knot, as was customary in the ancient near east. The judge is to be awarded two bars of gold, to encourage the most just verdict.
In the second city, the men are deliberating about whether or not to plunder an enemy city or share the spoils among the people. They enter into conflict the opposing city as Strife and Havoc enter the fight.
Following the two cities, one of law, the other of war, however, both rife with conflict, Hephaestus creates a fallow field being tilled (the “wonder” of Hephaestus’ work), a king’s estate, a thriving vineyard with a young boy plucking his lyre, a collection of animals in herds, a meadow of sheep grazing, young boys and girls courting one another, and, finally, he forges the Ocean’s River. This concludes his forging of the shield, as he places it at the feet of Thetis.
Unlike the other shields or pieces of armor described throughout the poem, the shield of Achilles is sobering, and less ferocious. It’s subject matter is a world unto itself. It covers both the natural world as well as the political. It portrays a cosmos filled with conflict, strife, and envy, as is the nature of the Greeks.
For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.
In Book IX, the “great teller of tales” responds to Alcinous’s request by first revealing his name as Odysseus (paralleling the tale of his venture with Polyphemus). He reminds the Phaeacians of his many troubles and woes after finally revealing his name, he recalls his story:
Upon leaving Ilium, Odysseus and his men were carried by the wind to Ismaras, to the stronghold of the Cicones’ stronghold where they sacked the city and shared the spoils. However, their neighbors came to help and forced Odysseus’s men to flee the island.
Next, they are blown off course to the land of the lotus–eaters. Three men venture inland and mingle with the lotu-eaters who have intention of killing them. The men eat the sweet lotus fruit and forget their desire to return home -Odysseus had to drag them back to the ships, tie them down, and force them home.
Next, the crew smoothly runs into the sands of the island of the Cyclops. This island is savage, there is no farming, but only goat herding that takes place. Probed mainly by curiosity and intrigue to understand the giant men, Odysseus takes a group further inland into the cave of Polyphemus where they become trapped and he notices them by the light of the fire and begins to eat two at a time until on the third day Odysseus falsely reveals his name to be “Nobody.” He puts Polyphemus to sleep with wine and then gauges his eye with a scalding rod. He and his men, who can’t move the boulder at the cave entrance, escape undeneath the ribs of the sheep the next day. On leaving in his ship, Odysseus shouts taunts back to Polyphemus and reveals his true name to the giant, who then prays to Poseidon, his father, for either Odysseus’s death, or otherwise long and painful journey back home with the death of his comrades.
In Book X, Odyyseus recounts his story of Aeolian islands and Aeolus who harnesses the winds. He gives Odysseus a bag of the winds and releases the West Wind to send them home. On the way Home the men become curious and open the bag letting loose all the winds causing a squall. Odysseus says:
“And I woke up with a start, my spirit churning-
should I leap over the side and drown at one or
grit my teeth and bear it, stay among the living?
I bore it all, held firm, hiding my face…” (Book X 55-58)
Next, Odysseus is blown back to Aeolus who turns him away as cursed immeditately. They row on to the land of the Lastrygonians, led by Antiphates, who trap the men and skewer them to eat (giants). Odysseus quickly cuts the ropes of his ship and orders the men to flee.
Next, Odysseus sends his men inward at the island of Circe. All go in to hail the witch, except Eurlochus who senses a trap -he stays behind and watches as she turns them all into pigs and he returns to warn Odysseus at the ships. Odysseus ventures into her palace, much to the chagrin of the mutinous Eurylochus, and is given a gift from Hermes to prevent being turned into swine by Circe. She is amazed that he resists her spell. They eat and drink together with the crew until she instructs him to go forth to the land of the dead and consult Tiresias, the seer.
In Book XI, Odysseus ventures to the HouseoftheDead.They beach the ship, Odysseus with companions Perimedes and Eurylochus, and he makes a libation to the nations of the dead. Terror gripped him. First, his companion Elpenor who was not buried in the earth but left at Circe’s palace, approached Odysseus. He begs Odysseus to return to return and burn his corpse, which Odysseus vows to do.
Next he sees his mother, Anticleia, and it fills him with pity. Odysseus then sees Tiresias, the blind prophet, who drinks blood and tells hime that a god will make his journey home difficult. He tells him to not do harm to the sacred cattle of Helios, otherwise he may not make it home. Next, Odysseus’s mother drinks the blood and is relieved to converse again with her son. She died over longing for Odysseus to return home. Odysseus is unable to grab hold of her shade, though he tries three times – her ghostly shade is always “dissolving like a dream” (Book XI, 237).
Odysseus sees a long line of royal women, but he forbids them to drink the blood: Tyro, Antiope, Alcmena, Megara, Epicaste (other of Oedipus), Chloris, Leda, Iphimedeia, Phaedra, Procris, Ariadne, Clymene, Maera, Erphyle…
The night gets late and Alcinous interrupts Odysseus to offer him to stay and also wondering if he saw any heroes in the house of the dead.
Continuing, he sees Agamemnon who describes his gruesome betrayal/death as barbarism by his traiterous wife and he advises Odysseus neer to reveal the whole truth to his wife. Agamemnon does not know wheree his son Orestes is either. Next, Odysseus sees Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax.
Odysseus praises Achilles power over the house of the dead, to which Achilles responds:
“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man-
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive-
than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (Book XI 556-558).
This passage is clearly mirrored by John Milton’s in his later proposition in Paradise Lost. Achilles then asks about his son and his father, Peleus. Odysseus tells of the sack of Troy to Achilles, who died before the end of the war. The giant Ajax, however, refuses to respond to Odysseus’s call. Angry, he skulks off toward Erebus, or “darkness.” Odysseus also sees Minos golden scceptre decreeing justice over the dead, Orion the hunter with his club, Tityus the son of the earth with the two vultures eating his liver, Tantalus who tries to drink water but it always disappears and tries to eat fruit -pomegranites, pears, and apples- but as soon as he would strain for them they be blown up into the lowering dark clouds, Sisyphus grappling his monstrous boulder and heaving it upward only to tumblr back down again. He speaks with Heracles as crowds of the dead scatter before him. Heracles speaks to him and compares his exploits, such as the venture to the house of the dead, to Heracles’s own. Odysseus says nothing to him. The hordes of the dead begin to surround Odysseus and he returns in fear to his ship.
In Book XII, Odysseus tells of leaving the Oceean River and head east to where Dawn rises the sun. They return to Circe’s island to retrieve the body promised to Elpenor. They eat with Circe and she explains to Odysseus the path he has ahead of him. Upon passing the Sirens, Odysseus ties himself to the mast and stuffs ears of the crew with beeswax. He, alone, needed to hear their tantalizing song.
Next they encounter ScyllaandCharybdis andOdysseus disobeys Circe advice and arms himself for battle with them. From this enounter we get several popular idioms such as “between Scylla and Charybdis” or “between a rock and a hard place.” Odysseus chooses to pass by Scylla (the craggy monster) and risk losing some crewmen, rather than lose the entire ship by passing close to to Charybdis (the whirlpool).
Upon passage they arrive at the island of Helios, lord Hyperion. Odysseus warns the men, but Eurylochus wades inward with mutiny on his mind. Odysseus loses the argument to the many who wish to venture inward. They rest for three days and again Odysseus warns them that Helios sees and hears all things. Ater one month, their rations run dry and Odysseus prays to the gods to find safe passage home. He falls asleep and his men, particularly Eurylochus, convinces the men to kill the cattle because dying of hunger is the wrost way to pass. Without a leader guiding the people, be they Moses, Jesus, Odysseus, or another, the masses conduct monstrous acts. Helios threatens to Zeus that he will only light the house of the dead unless Odysseus’s men are punished -Odysseus steps back to say that he heard this from Calypso who heard it from Hermes.
Odysseus is sent railing back through Charybdis, though narrowly missing the vortex, and he floats along for ten days to Ogygia, Calypso’s island. Odysseus ends his tale here as a he refuses to tell a clear story twice.
For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.