Homeric Iliad 1.1–67

Apollo, Golden Bronze, (200CE) Louvre
Apollo, Golden Bronze, (200CE) Louvre

A guest post by Kevin McGrath

Greetings everyone and welcome to Hour 25. What I would like to do today is to view briefly the first sixty-seven lines of Scroll 1 of the Homeric Iliad and then, prompted by you, to reread some of those lines and images more closely.

As you well know the first word of the poem, mēnis, indicates ‘anger’, as both Greg and Lenny have so carefully discussed. This first word establishes a tone or mode for the complete work as anger is exchanged through an economy of metaphors with violence, death, grief, lamentation, and ultimately with kleos itself as the final price of an heroic life: that is, the poetic medium of this narrative song. There is a literal currency in action here, a system wherein a series of exchanges occurs.

The first image of the poem is that of dogs and birds consuming the bodies of deceased heroes: that is the first picture which the audience receives; and let us remember that all audience reception is audial for it is the acoustic which creates the visual. Then comes the reference to the Will of Zeus—what in fact a speech act, in fact just a nod of the head at 528—that is generated by Achilles via his mother Thetis which establishes the anger of Achilles as the foundation of the epic narrative: it is Zeus who implements the force of this anger as narrative.

So far, in these first five lines of proem, the poets have been addressing and impelling the Muse in a general fashion; in terms of cinema studies it is as if the camera were high and aerial and panning across the plain supplying the audience with an almost conceptual overview of the field. Then, in line six, the poets—or later editors—focus their lens a little more acutely and request that the Muse begins to sing at an exact point: where two men are quarrelling. The indication is that they are angry, and these two are Agamemnon and Achilles; their mutual wrath is not really depicted until line 148 however, not in real time.

For now, at line 9, the poem commences with the Muse responding and opening the song and the first word here is Letous, ‘the son of Leto’ or Apollo. It is appropriate that the Muse begins with the name—a metronym—of the leader of the Muses, the deity of intellectual vision, prophecy, and of musical poetry: Apollo, son of Leto.

The Muse however, tells of another duo and their mutual anger: Apollo is angry at Agamemnon and so causes a plague, referring back to the bodies of the deceased heroes in line 3. What the Muse is actually doing though is reversing time and describing how it was that Agamemnon and Achilles entered into furious contention. In terms of cinema studies, this would be called a flashback, and the poem only enters into the actual present of the song at line 59 when Achilles first speaks: that is the present-time opening of the work.

The Muse starts with an account of how a priest of Apollo, Kryses, arrives at the Greek camp in order to ransom his captive daughter; and here we have the first offer of material exchange for he brings wealth by which to pay for this young woman. Remember, the culture of the epic is not only preliterate but it is also premonetary, there is no writing and no money, and the movement of women—Helen, Kryseis, and Briseis—and the consequent death of heroes in martial contest due to these women are what activate this economy of metaphors which we mentioned earlier.

Kryses is the first figured voice in the poem—after that of the original poet who is performing and the voice of the Muse who is speaking through the poet—and the poets dramatise this mimetically, assuming the nuance of emotion and of drama. Agamemnon of course tensely rejects his offer. Later, it is Kryses who is said to be the first character to become angry—Achilles at line 380 so informs his mother—and the priest through a speech act, or rather a truth act, transmits this anger to Apollo, who invisibly descends—he is the deity of musical poetry and so his features are unspeakable—and begins to destroy the Greeks.

For nine days the Achaeans are struck down by the epidemic arrows of Apollo and then Achilles speaks to Agamemnon and the poem moves from the past and the form of flashback into the epic present. The sequence of voices so far has been: poet, Muse, priest, king, and now hero; the poet and Muse of course being imitative of all subsequent voices.

The poet addresses the Muse, then Kryses speaks to Agamemnon and then calls upon Apollo; next, Achilles speaks to Agamemnon. This is the doubling or near fugal pattern by which the poem first develops.

I hope that you see how a slow reading of the epic allows us to understand what is happening in terms of narrative process and the nature of its sequence, in terms of individual voice and emotion, and in terms of specific metaphorical imagery. These three dimensions allow us as close readers to comprehend what it is that the poets are actually accomplishing with their work; I stress the term work here, as a human activity that creates value, value that is then derived if not amplified by entering into a system or series of exchanges. That initial word mēnis is the hypothetical source of this verbal economy, generating all subsequent worth or valence within the epic and—as we first observed—establishing the reality of kleos itself; an object that later in time is actually to become a commodity, something—which in classical times—is to be bought and sold with money.

It is as if we—as readers—were viewing the score of a symphonic performance: we can read the notes and observe which instruments are being played and their particular measure, but without hearing the orchestra perform the piece we do not really know how the symphony would sound or how the conductor and musicians would enact the work. Close reading attempts to reform—empirically, through the labor of inference—such a material experience.

There are many other important—and especially metaphorical—details in these first sixty-seven lines that can illuminate the poetics, narrative manner, and drive of this heroic epic, but let us pause now and see what you have noted in your own close reading of these opening words. Join me in the forum.

Kevin McGrath

Kevin McGrath is an Associate of the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. His research centers on the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, and he has published four works on this topic: The Sanskrit HeroStriJaya, and Heroic Krsna, and is presently concluding a study of epic kingship and preliteracy. McGrath is Poet in Residence at Lowell House and his most recent publications are Eroica and Supernaturewhich are both I-books. He does fieldwork in the Kacch of Western Gujarat, studying kinship, landscape, and migration. The hero as a figure for humanistic analysis is the focus of much of McGrath’s scholarly work, particularly as expressed in the poetry of Bronze Age preliterate and premonetary culture.

Image credits

Featured image: Tiepolo: The Rage of Achilles, Wikipedia Commons

Photo of Apollo: Kosmos Society