HOMER / THE ILIAD, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books 1990
An impression when reading The Iliad – an “Asperger type” use of language: Visual, concrete, specific, detailed.
Book Nine / The Embassy to Achilles
My comments in black.
So Ajax and Odysseus made their way at once
where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag, (description of sea waves eroding shoreline or beach; a geomorphological observation)
praying hard to the god who moves and shakes the earth (Poseidon is the destructive force produced by earthquakes)
that they might bring the proud heart of Achilles
round with speed and ease.
Reaching the Myrmidons shelters and her ships, (Myrmidons means Ant Men or Ant Swarm. There are myths as to how the name came about, but as with many myths, they are later concoctions to explain forgotten literal origins. It makes sense that the ant reference is literal – that Achilles’ men behaved like a swarm of ants when attacking – seemingly numberless and in total coordination.
they found him there, delighting his heart now,
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre–
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm —
he won from the spoils when he raised Eetion’s city. (not a generic lyre, but a specific object with its own history)
Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes… (the warrior as artist and poet)
The identity of Homer remains a mystery. Was “he” one poet, several, or a tradition of spoken performances memorized over centuries until The Iliad was written down, possibly in the 8th C. BCE?
I think that The Iliad is a “song” composed by the warriors themselves following a traditional format. Each man sang the events of his day; described what he saw; who was killed and how; by whom, with which weapons, so that individuals took their place within the chaotic context of actual battle. It seems likely that men made up “reports” on the spot, and performed them for the survivors of the day’s battle, as they cooked their evening meal around the bonfires, drank wine and recovered from shock and injury. How else would the battle have been recorded from so many personal viewpoints and physical locations at the same time? These individual “song snap shots” would have been collected and spread around the Greek world by returning warriors and taken to any location where Greeks traveled.
Battlefields are chaotic: any group of men fighting on one front may be totally out of touch with what is going on elsewhere, even with modern communications. The Ancient Greeks had nothing except eyewitness accounts, and indeed the first 250 pages read like a casualty report, unrelenting in the accurate descriptions of each death, the man’s origin, family, and history as a warrior, as well as the “spoils” taken by the killer – Helmets, shields, armor, weapons, horses, chariots. Armies had “helpers” assigned the task of returning loot to the respective camps. Loot was an essential component of a warrior’s reputation, and in The Iliad is accounted for, piece by piece.
Greek vase painting of scenes from the Trojan War. The story sequence is presented as if it’s a slide show.
K5.10 Duel of AJAX & HECTOR Louvre, Paris, Attic Red Figure Shape: Kylix Painter: Signed by Douris Date: ca 485 – 480 BC
It is my impression that The Iliad is composed of literal eye-witness accounts: whoever described the events was there, up close and personal.
The warriors were extremely attached to family, clan, friends and anyone linked through personal history: knowing who was killed or injured during the battle was essential, and would have been reported by messengers or runners who disseminated information around the battlefield and camps. A standard form of report – concise, brief, up to date would have been vital to strategy. Was any of this written down at the time? Probably not: I don’t think there is a single reference to writing.
The effect is like a movie shot by many cameras, including scenes and flashbacks from other films, as if each character carries a portfolio of video clips that become part of his or her identity.
Later in the poem, there is a change of style, a certain inauthenticity of image, that impresses me as someone trying to copy the formula of an eyewitness account, but failing. The literal and comprehensive visual presentation, on-the-spot immediacy and lack of abstract concepts lead me to one conclusion:
The Homeric Greeks were visual thinkers.