Beginning the Iliad and Ilium

 This is the first thing I ever memorized in Ancient Greek (Iliad 1.1–7)

Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ ᾿Αχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς ῎Αϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
᾿Ατρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος ᾿Αχιλλεύς.

“Goddess, sing the rage of Pelias’ son Achilles,
Destructive, how it gave the Achaeans endless pain
And send many brave souls of heroes to Hades—
And it made them food for the dogs
And all the birds as Zeus plan was being fulfilled.
Start from when those two first diverged in strife,
The lord of men Atreus’ son and godly Achilles.”

Compare The Beginning of Dan Simmons’ Ilium:


Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they may have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.

Oh, and sing of me, O Muse, poor born-again-against-his-will Hockenberry—poor dead Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., Hockenbush to his friends, to friends long since turned to dust on a world long since left behind. Sing of my rage, yes, of my rage, O Muse, small and insignificant though that rage may be when measured against the anger of the immortal gods, or when compared to the wrath of the god-killer, Achilles.

On second thought, O Muse, sing of nothing to me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. Not one little bit.

This continues throughout the first part of chapter 1, culminating in a memorable dismissal: “Fuck all these heroes and the wooden chariots they rode in on.”

Other Iliads

The manuscript traditions of the Iliad provide in addition to the well-known 9 line proem, a few shorter, alternate beginnings:

“An Iliad which appears to be ancient, called Apellicon’s, has this proem:

I sing of the Muses and Apollo, known for his bow…

This is recorded by Nikanôr and Crates in his Critical Notes on the Text of the Iliad. Aristoxenus in the first book of his Praxidamanteia says that some had as the first lines:

Tell me now Muses who have Olympian Homes

How rage and anger overtook Peleus’ son

And also the shining son of Leto. For the king was enraged…”

ἡ δὲ δοκοῦσα ἀρχαία ᾿Ιλιάς, λεγομένη δὲ ᾿Απελλικῶνος, προοίμιον ἔχει τοῦτο·

Μούσας ἀείδω καὶ ᾿Απόλλωνα κλυτότοξον

ὡς καὶ Νικάνωρ μέμνηται καὶ Κράτης ἐν τοῖς διορθωτικοῖς. ᾿Αριστόξενος
δ’ ἐν α′ Πραξιδαμαντείων φησὶν κατά τινας ἔχειν·

῎Εσπετε νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι ᾿Ολύμπια δώματ’ ἔχουσαι,
ὅππως δὴ μῆνίς τε χόλος θ’ ἕλε Πηλεΐωνα,
Λητοῦς τ’ ἀγλαὸν υἱόν· ὁ γὰρ βασιλῆι χολωθείς.

Obviously, these variant beginnings don’t signal a different poem, but they do set up the audience in different ways. The latter variants especially point to a greater emphasis (perhaps) on Apollo.

This information is crammed in the critical apparatus of Allen’s edition of the Iliad (1931):Allen Iliad 1

It is also to be found in West’s more recent edition (1998):

West Iliad 1

3 thoughts on “Beginning the Iliad and Ilium

  1. The Simmons proem is grating, and calls to mind much of what I find unappealing in contemporary fiction. The Homer (and the variants!) are as fresh and beautiful as ever!

  2. Thanks for this. I am inspired to check out Simmons’ work. If I understand correctly, then, there are other openings besides the “menin aeide thea”? Were they alternates that were not considered the true poetry of Homer? or were they contemporaneous with Homer and the poet chose his most powerful opening in contrast to them?
    I read somewhere that in Odyssey Homer creates in Penelope a character in direct contrast to most other depictions of her at the time. Generally she is shown as unfaithful to the man of twists and turns. It would come as no surprise, then, that Homer would have written an opening to Iliad that was contrasting other similar poems.

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