A few days back I ran a twitter poll setting the Iliad against the Odyssey. I figured that the Iliad would win, but I did not expect this to be as close as it was.
If we were to evaluate the popularity of the epics based on their mentions (using the Google ngram function), we would see that a few centuries ago, the Iliad had a pretty impressive lead over the Odyssey.
In the past century the mentions of the epics started to draw closer together. Is this because more people had less experience of war? Is there something more modern or simpler about the Odyssey?
the manuscript tradition for the Iliad is much better–there are more copies surviving from almost every period for which we have evidence. The epics were different enough that Samuel Butler (only partly joking) proposed that the Odyssey was composed by a woman. The epics differences were sensed in antiquity as well. Here’s how Aristotle puts it:
Aristotle, Poetics, 1459b
“for [Homer’s] two poems are complementary in structure, the Iliad being simple in plot and a poem of passion, and the Odyssey complex (it has recognitions throughout) and a poem of character; moreover they surpass all other poems in excellent of language and thought.”
πρῶτος καὶ ἱκανῶς. καὶ γὰρ τῶν ποιημάτων ἑκάτερον συνέστηκεν ἡ μὲν ᾿Ιλιὰς ἁπλοῦν καὶ παθητικόν, ἡ δὲ ᾿Οδύσσεια πεπλεγμένον (ἀναγνώρισις γὰρ διόλου) καὶ ἠθική· πρὸς δὲ τούτοις λέξει καὶ διανοίᾳ πάντα ὑπερβέβληκεν.
To pit one poem against another is, to my mind, to imagine a combat between day and night, land and sea, or life and death. These contrasts can be seen as polar–opposites canceling each other out–or they can be treated as binary where one can only exist because the other is there first. But it may be best not to think of them at all in terms of opposition, but instead as contrastive complements. This works on the level of content:
“This complementarity extends into other areas too. The so-called Monro’s Law states that the Odyssey never refers to any incident recounted in the Iliad, which at the very least strongly suggests that the Odyssey knew of the Iliad and deliberately stayed off its territory. Indeed, at the times when the Odyssey threatens to sing of Iliadic material, the moments are marked as highly problematic.” Barker and Christensen 2013
For all the years I have taught Homer in literature and myth courses, I have emphasized their complementarity in slightly different ways. Sometimes, I follow Aristotle’s emphasis on plots, pointing out that the Iliad ends in a funeral and the Odyssey ends in a wedding, anticipating in turn the plot structures of tragedy and comedy respectively. At other times, I have instead described the Iliad as a poem of death and the Odyssey as a poem of life. The former explores what is (and mostly what isn’t) worth fighting and dying for; the latter helps s understand what we live for and who we are outside of war.
Together, the epics teach how to live and how to die. One is essentially and forever incomplete without the other. But in concert, they reflect on the totality of life. (And I am so bold as to believe that this characteristic is part of why these two epics surpassed all others and survived antiquity: any other epic from their period would have been redundant).
I spent the first decade or more of my study of Homer passionately dedicated to the Iliad. I started working on the Odyssey primarily because I found students responding to it more easily than to the Iliad. I also grew more interested in how that epic engaged with other traditions, specifically those of Thebes and the so-called epic cycle. And then, when writing an introductory book about the epic with my friend Elton Barker, I was forced to think more deeply about the Telemachy and the importance of the reunions in epic’s second half.
But what really changed my relationship with the Odyssey was my own life. When I was writing on the Iliad in the 2000s, we were living a new state of war, sending our soldiers from the west to kill and be killed in a dwindling “coalition of the willing” in the east. The Iliad made sense to me. I used to mock the Odyssey too as that ‘other’ epic.
In 2010-11, I taught that other epic three times. We also welcomed two children into the world and lost my father to a sudden sickness in between. There is nothing like losing a parent and becoming one in the same year to force a reconsideration of life. These years also marked half a decade in Texas and a decade since I left New England. The Odyssey‘s exploration of who we are and nostalgia started to resonate with me like never before.
But I also started to see more in the epic itself. If the Iliad is a raging maelstrom of fire and blood, the Odyssey is a lit fuse which may or may not ever lead to a detonation. If the Iliad is loud and brash and confusing, the Odyssey is so subtle that many of us make the mistake of thinking it is simple. It is extremely sensitive to human mental function, to how we create ourselves through narrative, and to the therapeutic function of stories.
In antiquity, traditions of allegory were extremely influential among various approaches to the epics. Among these, one of my favorite readings of the epics as complements frames one as a narrative concerned with the development and excellence of the body and the other about the virtues of the mind.
Pseudo-Plutarch, De Homero 31–32
“Of these poems, the Iliad features the acts of the Greeks and the Barbarians over the abduction of Helen, especially the valor demonstrated by Achilles in that war; the Odyssey details Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War and how much he endured wandering during his nostos and how he avenged himself on those plotting against him in his home. From these summaries it is clear that the Iliad is really about the bravery of the body while the Odyssey concerns the nobility of the soul.
It is not right to fault the poet if he does not only present virtues in his poem, but includes as well weaknesses of spirit, pains, pleasures, fears and desires. For it is necessary that the poet show not just noble characters but weak ones too—without these unexpected accomplishments do not appear—from all of these it is possible that an audience will choose the better ones.”
ὧν ἡ μὲν ᾿Ιλιὰς ἔχει τὰς ἐν ᾿Ιλίῳ πράξεις ῾Ελλήνων τε καὶ βαρβάρων διὰ τὴν ῾Ελένης ἁρπαγὴν καὶ μάλιστα τὴν ᾿Αχιλλέως ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ τούτῳ διαδειχθεῖσαν ἀλκήν, ἡ δὲ ᾿Οδύσσεια τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως ἀνακομιδὴν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα ἀπὸ τοῦ Τρωικοῦ πολέμου καὶ ὅσα πλανώμενος ἐν τῷ νόστῳ ὑπέμεινε καὶ ὅπως τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας τῷ οἴκῳ αὐτοῦ ἐτιμωρήσατο. ἐξ ὧν δῆλός ἐστι παριστὰς διὰ μὲν τῆς ᾿Ιλιάδος ἀνδρείαν σώματος, διὰ δὲ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας ψυχῆς γενναιότητα.
Εἰ δὲ μὴ μόνον ἀρετὰς ἀλλὰ καὶ κακίας ψυχῆς ἐν ταῖς ποιήσεσι παρίστησι, λύπας τε καὶ χαρὰς καὶ φόβους καὶ ἐπιθυμίας, οὐ χρὴ αἰτιᾶσθαι τὸν ποιητήν· <ποιητὴν> γὰρ ὄντα δεῖ μιμεῖσθαι οὐ μόνον τὰ χρηστὰ ἤθη ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ φαῦλα (ἄνευ γὰρ τούτων παράδοξοι πράξεις οὐ συνίστανται), ὧν ἀκούοντα ἔνεστιν αἱρεῖσθαι τὰ βελτίω.
Of course, not all contrasts made between the two epics were positive. (Pseudo)-Longinus believed that the differences in the poem were results of the senility of the Iliad poet as he turned to the Odyssey.
From (Ps.) Longinus On the Sublime, 9.11-13
“Nevertheless, all through the Odyssey, which must be examined for many reasons, Homer reveals that as great inspiration fades away, storytelling becomes the dominant attribute of old age. For it is clear in many ways that this epic was composed second. Throughout the Odyssey we find episodes modeled on scenes from the Iliad, and, by Zeus, he apportions his heroes grief and misery as if these tales were long already known. The Odyssey is nothing other than an epilogue to the Iliad:
There lies fierce Ajax; here lies Achilles
There likes Patroklos, an advisor equal to the gods,
There lies my own dear son. (Od. 3.109-111)
The cause of this fact, I imagine, is that when the Iliad was being written at the peak of his strength, Homer imbued the whole work with dramatic power and action; when he was composing the Odyssey, however, he made it more of a narrative, as appropriate for old age. For this reason, you can compare the Odyssey’s Homer to a setting sun: the magnitude remains without its power. Since, in it, he no longer preserves the same power of the Iliad, that overwhelming consistency which never ebbs, nor the same rush of changing experiences, the variety and reality of it, packed full with things from true experience. It is as if the Ocean were to withdraw into itself, quietly watching its own measure. What remains for us is the retreating tide of Homer’s genius, his wandering in storytelling and unbelievable things. When I claim this, I am not forgetting the storms in the Odyssey and the events placed near the Kyklopes and elsewhere—I am indicating old age, but it is still Homer’s old age. And, yet, the mythical overpowers in every one of these scenes.”
δείκνυσι δ’ ὅμως διὰ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας (καὶ γὰρ ταῦτα πολλῶν ἕνεκα προσεπιθεωρητέον), ὅτι μεγάλης φύσεως ὑποφερομένης ἤδη ἴδιόν ἐστιν ἐν γήρᾳ τὸ φιλόμυθον. δῆλος γὰρ ἐκ πολλῶν τε ἄλλων συντεθεικὼς ταύτην δευτέραν τὴν ὑπόθεσιν, ἀτὰρ δὴ κἀκ τοῦ λείψανα τῶν ᾿Ιλιακῶν παθημάτων διὰ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας
ὡς ἐπεισόδιά τινα [τοῦ Τρωικοῦ πολέμου] προσεπεισφέρειν, καὶ νὴ Δί’ ἐκ τοῦ τὰς ὀλοφύρσεις καὶ τοὺς οἴκτους ὡς πάλαι που προεγνωσμένοις τοῖς ἥρωσιν ἐνταῦθα προσαποδιδόναι. οὐ γὰρ ἀλλ’ ἢ τῆς ᾿Ιλιάδος ἐπίλογός ἐστιν ἡ ᾿Οδύσσεια·
ἔνθα μὲν Αἴας κεῖται ἀρήιος, ἔνθα δ’ ᾿Αχιλλεύς,
ἔνθα δὲ Πάτροκλος, θεόφιν μήστωρ ἀτάλαντος·
ἔνθα δ’ ἐμὸς φίλος υἱός.
ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς αὐτῆς αἰτίας, οἶμαι, τῆς μὲν ᾿Ιλιάδος γραφομένης ἐν ἀκμῇ πνεύματος ὅλον τὸ σωμάτιον δραματικὸν ὑπεστήσατο καὶ ἐναγώνιον, τῆς δὲ ᾿Οδυσσείας τὸ πλέον διηγηματικόν, ὅπερ ἴδιον γήρως. ὅθεν ἐν τῇ ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ παρεικάσαι τις ἂν καταδυομένῳ τὸν ῞Ομηρον ἡλίῳ, οὗ δίχα τῆς σφοδρότητος παραμένει τὸ μέγεθος. οὐ γὰρ ἔτι τοῖς ᾿Ιλιακοῖς ἐκείνοις ποιήμασιν ἴσον ἐνταῦθα σῴζει τὸν τόνον, οὐδ’ ἐξωμαλισμένα τὰ ὕψη καὶ ἱζήματα μηδαμοῦ λαμβάνοντα, οὐδὲ τὴν πρόχυσιν ὁμοίαν τῶν ἐπαλλήλων παθῶν, οὐδὲ τὸ ἀγχίστροφον καὶ πολιτικὸν καὶ ταῖς ἐκ τῆς
ἀληθείας φαντασίαις καταπεπυκνωμένον· ἀλλ’ οἷον ὑποχωροῦντος εἰς ἑαυτὸν᾿Ωκεανοῦ καὶ περὶ τὰ ἴδια μέτρα †ἐρημουμένου τὸ λοιπὸν φαίνονται τοῦ μεγέθους ἀμπώτιδες κἀν τοῖς μυθώδεσι καὶ ἀπίστοις πλάνος. λέγων δὲ ταῦτ’ οὐκ ἐπιλέλησμαι τῶν ἐν τῇ ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ χειμώνων καὶ τῶν περὶ τὸν Κύκλωπα καί τινων ἄλλων, ἀλλὰ γῆρας διηγοῦμαι, γῆρας δ’ ὅμως ῾Ομήρου· πλὴν ἐν ἅπασι τούτοις ἑξῆς τοῦ πρακτικοῦ κρατεῖ τὸ μυθικόν.
I think Longinus is on to something here. But rather than being a sign of senility, the Odyssey‘s differences are indications of maturity. I don’t mean ‘mature’ as a sign of greater progress, necessarily; but I mean that the Odyssey is a poem that appeals more to those who have lived more in life, who have, like its hero, “suffered much on the seas and learned the minds of many people”.
So, if I had to save only 1, I would save the Odyssey, not because it is better than or superior to the Iliad but because its existence presupposes the existence of the other. And, one is, for better or worse, currently more meaningful to me.