Why Does the Iliad Begin with Rage?

D Schol. ad ll 1.1

“Sing the rage..” [People] ask why the poem begins from rage, so ill-famed a word. It does for two reasons. First, so that it might [grab the attention] of that particular portion of the soul and make audiences more ready for the sublime and position us to handle sufferings nobly, since it is about to narrate wars.

A second reason is to make the praises of the Greeks more credible. Since it was about to reveal the Greeks prevailing, it is not seemly to make it more worthy of credibility by failing to make everything contribute positively to their praise.”

 Μῆνιν ἄειδε: ζητοῦσι, διὰ τί ἀπὸ τῆς μήνιδος ἤρξατο, οὕτω δυσφήμου ὀνόματος. διὰ δύο ταῦτα, πρῶτον μέν, ἵν’ ἐκ τοῦ πάθους †ἀποκαταρρεύσῃ† τὸ τοιοῦτο μόριον τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ προσεκτικωτέρους τοὺς ἀκροατὰς ἐπὶ τοῦ μεγέθους ποιήσῃ καὶ προεθίσῃ φέρειν γενναίως ἡμᾶς τὰ πάθη, μέλλων πολέμους ἀπαγγέλλειν· δεύτερον δέ, ἵνα τὰ ἐγκώμια τῶν ῾Ελλήνων πιθανώτερα ποιήσῃ. ἐπεὶ δὲ ἔμελλε νικῶντας ἀποφαίνειν τοὺς ῞Ελληνας, εἰκότως †οὐ κατατρέχει ἀξιοπιστότερον† ἐκ τοῦ μὴ πάντα χαρίζεσθαι τῷ ἐκείνων ἐπαίνῳ. |

 

“It begins with rage, which itself was a summary for the events. Otherwise, [the poet] would have found a tragic introduction for tragedies. For the narration of misfortunes makes us more attentive, just as the best doctor exposes maladies of the spirit and then later applies treatment. So, the Greek anticipates the pleasures near the end.”

ἤρξατο μὲν ἀπὸ μήνιδος, ἐπείπερ αὕτη τοῖς πρακτικοῖς ὑπόθεσις γέγονεν· ἄλλως τε καὶ τραγῳδίαις τραγικὸν ἐξεῦρε προοίμιον· καὶ γὰρ προσεκτικοὺς ἡμᾶς ἡ τῶν ἀτυχημάτων διήγησις ἐργάζεται, καὶ ὡς ἄριστος ἰατρὸς πρῶτον ἀναστέλλων τὰ νοσήματα τῆς ψυχῆς ὕστερον τὴν ἴασιν ἐπάγει. ῾Ελληνικὸν δὲ τὸ πρὸς τέλει τὰς ἡδονὰς ἐπάγειν. |

Menis, “rage” is a big deal in Greek epic and myth thematically. The ancient scholiasts may not have it all figured out. But my first Greek teacher, Lenny Muellner, has some pretty good ideas on this one.

(c. 300 BC) Achilles killing the Ethiopian king Memnon

 

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