The Iliad and the Odyssey

The two most important texts of the ancient Greeks were the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, the story of Odysseus's journey home and the adventures he has along the way.

Originally, these stories developed as oral tradition and were meant to be shared among a group of people by a storyteller, usually after a large meal.

Around 800 BC, when the Dark Ages were ending and the Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Greeks, the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey began to be written down.

Many people, even in ancient times, considered the author of these two epics to be a man named Homer, a blind storyteller who lived around 800 BC. The truth is that the word Homer come from the Greek word meaning storyteller. There wasn't one single Homer, but generations of storytellers from the late Bronze Age of Greece that told the same epics, but with many different variations.

The Iliad

In the Iliad, the Greeks and Trojans are fighting at the city of Troy. The prince of Troy, Paris, has stolen away Helen, the daughter of Zeus and queen of Sparta. The Greeks are led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae, who is an arrogant leader that wants to destroy Troy. The greatest of all Greek warriors, and the main character of the Iliad is Achilles. Achilles is also a king, coming from the area of Phthia in Greece. Achilles is famous among Greeks and Trojans for his speed and deadly fighting skills.

The actual story of the Iliad begins with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon. Agamemnon is forced to give back one of his prizes, a captured Trojan girl, and so he takes Achilles's prize girl to make up for his loss. Achilles refuses to fight after such unfair treatment, and without him the Greeks start losing, badly.

Later, Achilles's best friend Patroclus begs Achilles to let him use his armor to scare the Trojans and help the Greeks win again. When Patroclus goes into battle in Achilles's armor, Greeks and Trojans both think it's Achilles. The Trojan prince Hector, greatest warrior of Troy, kills Patroclus and thinks that he has killed Achilles. When word of the death of Patroclus reaches Achilles, he goes into a murderous rage! He plows through the Trojan army like a lawnmower and kills every Trojan he sees, though he really wants to kill Hector. At one most, he even fights a river when that river is angry at Achilles for clogging it with so many dead Trojans.

Hector and Achilles meet outside of the walls of Troy, with the entire royal family watching, including Hector's father, King Priam, and the two warriors engage in single combat. The fighting is intense, but Achilles kills Hector. He then proceeds to drag Hector's dead body around the city of Troy three times to get his revenge.

After a few nights, King Priam sneaks into the Greek camp and meets privately with Achilles. He begs Achilles to return the body of Hector so the King can give his son a proper burial. Achilles agrees because King Priam reminds him of his own father, and he learns to let go of his rage.

At the end of the Iliad, the city of Troy still stands, although both Greeks and Trojans know that the gods have destined for Troy to fall.

Later myths speak about the Trojan horse and the Greek destruction of the city of Troy.

On this ancient vase, you can see the Greek soldiers hiding inside of the legendary Trojan Horse

Here's what the beginning of the Iliad would have sounded like in the original Greek:

Here is a scene from the movie Troy in which Hector and Achilles fight in front of the walls of Troy. Warning/Spoiler Alert: it shows Hector dying. Notice that when Hector dies, the Trojans know that this means their city will be defeated.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey is the journey home of the Greek king of Ithaka, Odysseus. Because he angers Poseidon by blinding the Cyclops, Poseidon's son, his journey is long and difficult.

Finally, I want to share with you my favorite translation of both the Iliad and the Odyssey from Stanley Lombardo. These are the translations that I read from during class:

The Iliad translated by Stanley Lombardo

The Odyssey translated by Stanley Lombardo