Review: “Iliad” and “Odyssey” by Homer

For the love of books

Homer, a man from Ancient Greece, is still considered one of the greatest forerunners of poetry.  His Odyssey and Iliad are deemed masterpieces of literature, both examples of poetic excellence to writers of all centuries.  However, every reader must self-determine what exactly is so excellent in these epics that they have been remembered and imitated.  Is it Homer’s complex composition of the poems themselves, his unforgettable characters, his interpretation of Greek mythology and religion, or the fact that the deeds illustrated in the Odyssey and the Iliad make a diverse gallery of human (and “divine”) vices?

The content of the Odyssey and the Iliad (the retelling of numerous Greek myths) make them closely interrelated; after all, the Iliad is more or less a prequel to the Odyssey (N.B. both poems begin famously in media res within their respective storylines).  A typical scenario is unveiled in the Iliad’s first book—two conceited, willful men are arguing about a woman.  It is interesting how Homer (whoever he really was) described his main characters with such realism and also emphasized at the same time how weak humans are, including the imperfect Greek deities.  On one hand, he denotes the popular Greek heroes with pomp and circumstance according to general admiration of such figures in the narrative concerning the siege of Troy.  On the other hand, he boldly criticizes the behavior of men like Achilles and Agamemnon, two Greek warriors who only display bravery, i.e. killing speed, on the battlefield but otherwise act like spoiled competitors.

Moreover, the Trojans seem to be sympathized with in the Iliad, especially noble Hector.  Homer quickly makes it evident that the abduction of Helen was merely an excuse for the Greeks to wage war against Troy, a desirable spoil in case of victory.  Furthermore, the Iliad and the Odyssey share the scrutiny of themes like human and “divine” motives, free will, hubris, and imperfection.  While the Iliad is basically an account of graphic and gory battle scenes, the Odyssey focuses its attention on the exploits of one man, Odysseus.

Detailing his ten-year voyage home, Odysseus is a very complicated hero.  Like his Greek comrades, he is man whom it is hard to judge.  His character is shockingly immoral: he displays his vanity, his selfish nature, and his foolishness on more than one occasion, and all his faults get him and his men into trouble.  Moreover, his infidelity to his very loyal wife Penelope is outrageous when their behaviors are contrasted in the story.  In fact, everything Homer describes sounds so familiar aside from mythical monsters, perhaps because there is no difference between men of ancient times and modern men.  Homer’s two poems also share straightforward insight and blatant discernment of human nature; Homer never shirks from discussing the gods’ or men’s actions for what they were, never softening the extent of their consequences.

While the Iliad and the Odyssey are decidedly lengthy and sometimes tedious in light of many characters and settings, they still are noteworthy critiques of Greek mythology and the ancient world, a retelling of humanity’s history (fictional or not) of vices and how humans never seem to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes.

Original review: Part 1: In honor of National Poetry Month—Homer; Part 2: In honor of National Poetry Month—Homer, Examiner.com

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