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March Books 17) The Iliad, by Homer

I preferred The Iliad somehow to The Odyssey. There is a wider range of characters, a broader range of settings, a continuing tension between the battlefields of Troy and the realm of the gods. Indeed, I found the continuing interference by rival divine authorities in human affairs strongly reminiscent of the Balkan / Levantine instinct for explaining contemporary human politics by conspiracy theory, resorting to unseen, unaccountable forces to explain what is going on.

I'm sorry to say that my inner geek prevailed at one point: I found myself getting quite unreasonably interested in the description of Hephaistos' mechanical devices in Chapter XVIII. Surely these are the earliest examples of robots and androids in fiction? The first description is of his mechanised tripods on wheels:

...τρίποδας γὰρ ἐείκοσι πάντας ἔτευχεν
ἑστάμεναι περὶ τοῖχον ἐϋσταθέος μεγάροιο,
χρύσεα δέ σφ' ὑπὸ κύκλα ἑκάστῳ πυθμένι θῆκεν,
ὄφρά οἱ αὐτόματοι θεῖον δυσαίατ' ἀγῶνα
ἠδ' αὖτις πρὸς δῶμα νεοίατο θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι.

Alexander Pope's translation:

Full twenty tripods for his hall he framed,
That placed on living wheels of massy gold,
(Wondrous to tell,) instinct with spirit roll'd
From place to place, around the bless'd abodes
Self-moved, obedient to the beck of gods:

Samuel Butler's translation:

...he was making twenty tripods that were to stand by the wall of his house, and he set wheels of gold under them all that they might go of their own selves to the assemblies of the gods, and come back again--marvels indeed to see.

William Cowper's translation:

...tripods bright he form'd
Twenty at once, his palace-wall to grace
Ranged in harmonious order. Under each
Two golden wheels he set, on which (a sight
Marvellous!) into council they should roll465
Self-moved, and to his house, self-moved, return.

But it gets better - he has robot women to do his bidding!


ὑπὸ δ' ἀμφίπολοι ῥώοντο ἄνακτι
χρύσειαι ζωῇσι νεήνισιν εἰοικυῖαι.
τῇς ἐν μὲν νόος ἐστὶ μετὰ φρεσίν, ἐν δὲ καὶ αὐδὴ
καὶ σθένος, ἀθανάτων δὲ θεῶν ἄπο ἔργα ἴσασιν.

Alexander Pope's translation:

The monarch's steps two female forms uphold,
That moved and breathed in animated gold;
To whom was voice, and sense, and science given
Of works divine (such wonders are in heaven!)

Samuel Butler's translation:

There were golden handmaids also who worked for him, and were like real young women, with sense and reason, voice also and strength, and all the learning of the immortals.

William Cowper's translation:

Beside the king of fire two golden forms
Majestic mov'd, that serv'd him in the place
Of handmaids; young they seem'd and seem'd alive,
Nor want they intellect, or speech, or force,
Or prompt dexterity by the gods inspir'd.

Non-robot women get rather a raw deal in the Iliad. The quarrel between Achilles and the rest of the Greeks starts with a dispute over who gets to keep the captive women Briseis and Chryseis. In the funeral games for Patroclus, Ajax and Odysseus wrestle for a prize of a woman who is not named but is skilled in all domestic matters. Actually she is the consolation prize for the loser: the winner gets a nice big cauldron. (I am not making this up.) The match is declared a draw and Ajax and Odysseus are told by Achilles to split the prizes, but we are not told how they manage this (and perhaps we are better off not knowing).

Having said which, the goddesses Thetis, Athena, Hera and indeed the Trojan women, Hecuba and Andromache (and to an extent Helen) are all interesting characters in their own rights; as are most of the men, several of whom (this is hardly a spoiler) get horribly killed off during the conflict.

I was fascinated by the continuous tension between praise and horror of combat. It's clear to me that Homer's articulation of the warrior's code of honour lies rhetorically behind an awful lot of subsequent eras' jingoism and exhortation of young men to die stupidly. The battle scenes are pretty gory and get a bit repetitive, but there are moments of real power. Yet at the same time he is clear about the other side: moves towards peace-making are clearly a Good Thing, though torpedoed by human incompetence and divine malice; the last chapter has grieving Priam confronting Achilles over the body of his son Hector.

Anyway, I'm very glad I finally read this.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
watervole
Mar. 25th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
Are you aware of the moving objects used in Ancient Greek theatre? I forget whether they were powered by falling sand or water, but they were pretty impressive and with the correct winding of their internal ropes could even be made to turn corners.
swisstone
Mar. 26th, 2009 08:26 am (UTC)
True, but I doubt Homer knew about them.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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