On Reading Homer

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I responded to a mostly online fandango about Oxford no longer requiring Classics majors to read Homer with a cleverly titled post On Not Reading Homer At the time, some takes justifiably interpreted it aselitist while others eventually straw-manned it as a super PC Homerist cancelling Homer. In the middle, some people asked to hear more. And then the world went to hell.

As anyone who reads this blog will know, I have not always talked about my discipline in the kindest fashion. But under the combined force of an era-defining pandemic and the largest political movementin our lifetimes protesting white supremacy and the state-managed killing of Black people, it felt simultaneously small and yet urgent to think about Homer.

Why read Homer if the world is coming to an end? Why teach Homer if the Homeric epics have been instrumentalized as part of colonialism and white supremacy? These are not idle questions. They are the questions that need to be answered if the discipline of Classics to continue in any form at all.

I expressed some of these views early on and was, again rightly, criticized for inserting such navel gazing was taking space away from BIPOC classicists. In the meantime, I have been thinking and working at my own institution (virtually) with Homer always somewhere near. There will never be a time when my voice, embodied as it is in the privilege and experience I bring with me, does not drown out others. I feel a responsibility to think about this and use the space I have to advocate for the change I can. As a Homerist, even if I am not one of great renown, I think it is my duty to think and write critically about my field and to help make space for others.

Why read Homer? I think I made clear some feelings about why reading Homer badly is counterproductive. This may be a surprise, but I do think there is a good reason to read Homer. First, let us get through the reasons people typical give I find disagreeable. I have listed them in my opinion of silliest to most serious. Let me be clear: I think that there is some truth and utility to each of these, but there are challenges too.

Homer by Mattia Preti (1635)

Entertainment: The epics are good stories! This argument is related in part to the aesthetics of literature (although the pleasure of a good yarn is different from the aesthetics I talk about below). Sure, the epics can be riveting, but there are parts that even seasoned readers can find challenging: for example Iliad 13-15, Odyssey 2-4 and 12-16. I suspect that many people who make this argument have not had the challenge of leading students through a whole epic from beginning to end. I also think that many people who make this argument may have not read the epics in their entirety. (P.S. it is perfectly ok to read excerpts).

Homer is historical: I just can’t get on this train. The Homeric epics are no more historical than Arthurian legend. They can give us ideas about the values of the historical peoples who formed their audiences, but even this is not simple: which version of Homer and which audiences at which time radically challenge anything we can say. My favorite formulation about what Homer is vis a vis history belongs to Hans Van Wees who calls the Iliad a “fantasy of the past” (Status Warriors, 1992). Anyone reading this who believes there was an actual Trojan War in some way corresponding to the events of our Iliad will be sorely disappointed by my stance.

As far as I can see it, from Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations to more recent excitement about Hittite names, the importance placed on historical correspondence is almost entirely due to the interest and enthusiasm of the interpreter who desires to make a positivistic identification between some mythical past and material remains. This is not to say that the Homeric epics can’t be useful in talking about the past, but that they have been used almost exclusively to see Ancient Greece in a particular way and have been an obstacle for this reason. Trevor Bryce’s work (e.g. “The Trojan War: Is There Truth behind the Legend? “Near Eastern Archaeology 2002, 65: 182-195) has marshaled a lot of the evidence, concluding in part that even if there is some historical ‘truth’, the creative work of the poems far exceeds and surpasses it (and Bryce is one who relies on the idea of a genius poet). Anyone familiar with the fine work of H. L. Lorimer a half century earlier would reach a similar, even bleaker confusion (Homer and the Monuments, 1950).

 

“I am not contending for the morality of Homer; on the contrary, I think it a book of false glory, tending to inspire immoral and mischievous notions of honor” Thomas Paine

Sculpture of Homer (1886) by Harry Bates, ARA.

It was most excellently set down that a student’s reading should begin with Homer and Vergil, even though one needs a firmer judgment for understanding the virtues of those poets, for there will be time to develop it, since they will not be read just onceQuintilian

Noble Values: Read Homer for the heroes? They are a bunch of amoral shitbags. Perhaps we can learn by reading Homer that oftentimes the people in positions of power are there because they are in it for themselves and they don’t care if all of their people perish. Read the epics: Agamemnon, Achilles, Hektor, Paris, Odysseus all make choices that increase the death toll of their people without increasing their chance of success. One of the real strengths of epic is what I will call below its indeterminacy. The problem with texts of indeterminant meaning is that audiences will disambiguate complexity and choose to take away simply recognizable or facile lessons.

In one of our most famous early responses to myth and Homeric poetry, Plato has his Socrates banish tales of civil strife, children punishing parents, and gods warring with one another. Such tales, Socrates continues, “should not be allowed into the state, even if they were composed with secret meeting or without secret meaning. For a young person is incapable of judging what is allegorical meaning and what is not, but whatever opinions they take up during their young are hard to rinse off and tend to become unchangeable (ὅσας  Ὅμηρος πεποίηκεν οὐ παραδεκτέον εἰς τὴν πόλιν, οὔτ’ ἐν ὑπονοίαις πεποιημένας οὔτε ἄνευ ὑπονοιῶν. Ὁ γὰρ νέος οὐχ οἷός τε κρίνειν ὅτι τε ὑπόνοια καὶ ὃ μή, ἀλλ’ ἃ ἂν τηλικοῦτος ὢν λάβῃ ἐν ταῖς δόξαις δυσέκνιπτά τε καὶ ἀμετάστατα φιλεῖ γίγνεσθαι, Republic 378d-e).

Any sense of this passage must take the purpose of the Republic into consideration: Socrates apostrophizes Homer and asks, “What city was governed better thanks to you?” (λέγε ἡμῖν τίς τῶν πόλεων διὰ σὲ βέλτιον ᾤκησεν, 599e). For the Republic’s Socrates, Homer cannot provide instruction for governing a city any more than he can instill proper morals and opinions in individuals. But this is because, according to Plato, people don’t understand Homeric hyponoia, literally something like “sub-meaning, under-meaning, secret meaning”, translated cleverly in the most recent Loeb edition as simply “deeper meaning” (replacing the older allegorical).

Even today, we often find people claiming that reading the epic can give readers good values. Homer can teach you to be loyal, manly, brave, etc.! The problem with literary exemplification like this is that good examples come with counter-examples and it is often hard to tell the difference. Further, any praising of Homeric epics for positive values needs to acknowledge that they are filled with horror and danger too from Agamemnon’s greed to Odysseus’ murderous vengeance. (In addition, this does not even include the deep structural problems of gender and class.) This is at best a naïve approach to literature: most readers project values onto a text and select what they want to see (or what they avidly don’t want to see). As with most of these points, this argument suffers from a limited sense of what ‘reading’ is and how it works.

The noble values also work the other way. Many have been justifiably moved by Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, written in Nazi-occupied France. She reads the poem with “force” as the “true subject” and moves that the Iliad may be a “historical document” illustrating “force….at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.” Perhaps, intentionally or not, Weil channels Aristotle’s attribution in the Rhetoric that “Alcidamas called the Odyssey a fine mirror for human life”. I do not disagree with Weil about Homer—indeed; this influential essay has done more to show Homer’s depth than much of Homeric scholarship. Nevertheless, I do think that Weil’s context and experience trained her gaze in a particular way. See this passage from the end of the essay:

Weil bit

While I almost giddily agree with Weil’s sentiment on Vergil, I think her take on the Odyssey is less generous and shaped by her identity and the moment of writing. How much sense can an epic of return, survival, and renewed life make when German tanks are rolling down your city’s streets? In a way, Weil’s comments on the Iliad as a mirror for human life also reflect how interpretation works. The way we read a work is a reflection of who we are and what we bring to it.

In the smartest thing in all the Star Wars movies (ok, maybe the only smart thing), the Empire Strikes Back brings us a Luke Skywalker in training, lured into a cave on Dagobah where Yoda tells him the tree is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A servant of evil it is. Into it you must go”. To Luke’s question, “what’s in there”, the Jedi Master responds, “Only what you take with you.” The subsequent scene has Luke taking his light saber in with him and facing an ersatz Darth Vader who turns out to be….himself.

The Homeric poems are powerful shapers of perception, but in the end, they contain so much that we come away from them with very different notions of the poem. The Iliad is about force, but it is also about scarcity, anger, desire, love, loyalty and how people value one another. Moreover, it is a prolonged contemplation on when we choose to use force as opposed to when we have to. To pull one melody out of a multi-day symphony is to block out the  majority of the composition as mere sound. We each hear our own Iliad and even these changes over time.

“You want a horse race? There is a fine one in Homer. Go get your book and read through it. You hear them talking about dancing pantomimes? Forget them! The children dance in a more manly way among the Phaiakians. You have there the citharist Phemios and the singer Demodokos. There are plants in Homer which are more delightful to hear of than to see.” Julian

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) – Homer Reciting his Poems

Aesthetics: I have argued elsewhere that an approach to literature and art with a primary focus on aesthetics can be corrupting in encouraging us to think about things and peoples as aesthetic objects too. Our pursuit of pleasure too often neglects to consider how we as interpreters and agents were shaped to experience pleasure by our cultural context.

Now, as someone thoroughly drawn to Epicurus, I cannot say that aesthetics and pleasure are not important, but that that they are symptomatic of both effective works and those that appeal to our weaknesses. There is a circuitous and replicative process in the aesthetic process that enforces traditional normative ideals and dis-incentivizes meaningful change. Therefore, when people say they love the beauty of Homer, I worry that they are selecting and privileging parts of Homer that have been culturally marked as attractive and have shaped their expectations for literature.

 

“Our poets steal from Homer; he spews, saith Aelian, they lick it up,” Robert Burton

Canon: Advocates often imagine that the strongest argument for Homer is that Homer was influential in the “Western Canon” and that you need to be familiar with Homer to appreciate and understand everything that came after. I think that this argument sounds nice, but it overstates the existence of the “Western Canon” (which is relatively recent), ignores the motivations for enforcing it, and radically misunderstands the impact of Homeric epic in the development of European literatures. If one is studying the history of ideas (especially the history of the idea of literature and canons) this “argument” is a good question as a starting point (I.e., how influential was Homer actually on European literatures?) but it is deeply insufficient for building a curriculum.

It is not that Homer was not and has not been important, but that the idea of Homer was far more influential than the epics in their entirety. For most of the history of the reception of the epics, they were read in summary or in part. For most of the history of education in the west, they would be mined for rhetorical excerpts. I think that relatively few readers in the ancient world had access to full texts and that when people talk about Homer in the ancient world we are really mostly talking about the sum total influence of Trojan War narratives and Greek myth on the development of culture and literature. In this category, a myth handbook like that of Apollodorus or Hyginus or the epics of Ovid and Vergil have been much more directly influential on later authors and tradition. The fact is, outside of the Byzantine Empire, Homer was not read that much in Northern and Western Europe prior to German Philhellenism, a period in which Northern philologists did everything they could to try to discredit, ignore, and de-center continuity and authority in Greek culture.

 

And the true bards have been noted for their firm and cheerful temper. Homer lies in sunshine; Chaucer is glad and erect; and Saadi says, ‘It was rumored abroad that I was penitent; but what had I to do with repentance?’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Universalism:  I will not easily dismiss the assertion that the Homeric epics reflect and advance essential ‘truths’ or visions about what it means to be human. I do have structural and intellectual quibbles with this approach, however. First, I wonder about the universal humanistic appeal of a text that denies full humanity to a majority of the human race (all those who are not aristocratic men). This leads into my deeper concern, namely that appeals to universalism can appeal easily to observer effects and selection bias. Whose view of humanity is assumed universal in this approach? Who counts as human in the world projected and received?

Further, I think that universalism assumes a unitary or singular point of view. If this argument is that the Homeric texts are polyvalent and reflect the pluralism of human experience in a multicultural and changing environment, then I can agree. Nevertheless, I think that this is not what people mean. Instead, universalism is too often a series of general bromides ignoring detail and saying more about the interests and assumptions of the interpreter than anything about the text.

 

“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.” Leonardo Bruni 

Homer is unique and different! This assertion introduces some inextricable problems about defining difference. In some forms, I find this argument somewhat convincing but probably not in the same way that many others do. I think that the polyvocal, oral-derived, multilocal background of the Homeric epics renders their tone, perspective, language, and impact both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything I have ever read. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be teleological: ‘Homer’ is positioned as a unitary and foundational genius whose DNA has spread majestically throughout the artwork of later generations.

The difference between what we actually have in the Homeric epics and what we find in later generations can help us unlearn what we think we know about literary traditions. This argument makes me nervous in general because it runs the risk of merely repeating the damaging “Greek Miracle” nonsense. But it is also an argumentum ex silentio. I don’t know that other works we lost were any less unique and different.

I think we are also conditioned by the tradition and our received aesthetics to see unique difference here only and not to look for it or see it in traditional poetry elsewhere, the epics of India, the philosophy and poetry of China and oral traditions in the Middle East and Africa. Instead, what I want to emphasize is that the Homeric epics developed through and because of the Rationalizing Revolution and contributed to it in turn. I will return to this more below, but my point is that history and cultural context were formative in the epics’ development. And, in turn, they contributed to a shifting in the cultures that hosted them.

While I don’t agree with all he says about Homer, Adam Nicolson puts it well when he summarized Homer as “Multiple in origins, multiple in manner and multiple in meaning, Homer in this light both knows the deep past and moves beyond it (2014, Why Homer Matters).

 

“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.” George Bernard Shaw

Why read Homer? 1: Homer is Multivocal and Multicultural

The biggest problem with what most people say about Homer is that it is based on a ‘modern’ view of Homer that projects upon the past post-Christian and post-Renaissance notions of authorship, genius, and identity on a past tradition. This is probably not the best place and time to talk about what Homer is, but it is worth a few sentences to say what Homer isn’t.

Homer was not an individual who wrote two epics. The epics we have are the process of a long period of formation in different linguistic groups over different regions over a long time in a performance context in which audience participation and response was significant in shaping the contents, interests, and tones of the poems. I think two good places to start reading about this are Nagy’s Homer’s Text and Language, Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics, and Graeme Bird’s Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad.

The poems we have, moreover, reached the shapes we have during a period when the people who told their stories were engaged with the local pluri-vocality of their own amalgam culture and the multicultural influence of the migratory and trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. The ritual, religious, linguistic, narrative, and artistic traditions of Archaic Greece were indisputably influence by Ancient Africa (including but not exclusively Egypt) and the Ancient Near East. They were also likely influenced by innumerable lost stories and languages of cultures from around the Mediterranean who stories have been lost to time.

In addition, the epics came much closer to the form we have them during the period we call the ‘Rationalizing Revolution’ which was defined by philosophers/scientists coming from the Greek states of Asia Minor and moving west under political pressure (Persian expansion?). It was no accident that these thinkers hailed for so long as originating geniuses came out of cosmopolitan, multicultural cities: where do we think they got their ideas from?

We too often treat Homer as being suddenly ex novo and sui generis. Instead, the Homeric epics we have come at the end of a long process of differentiation and integration. They are unique insofar as they were uniquely successful in surviving the past. Accepting them as standard is falling into the trap epic sets for us: part of epic style is to assume its own supremacy and superiority. We know from mythography, that Homeric detail is often out there on its own and in service of its own ends. (Elton Barker and I talk a lot about this and how to interpret Homer in our recent Homer’s Thebes.)

 

“If the works of Homer are, to letters and to human learning, what the early books of Scripture are to the entire Bible and to the spiritual life of man; if in them lie the beginnings of the intellectual life of the world, then we must still recollect that that life, to be rightly understood, should be studied in its beginnings. There we may see in simple forms what afterwards grew complex, and in clear light what afterwards became obscure; and there we obtain starting-points, from which to measure progress and decay along all the lines upon which our nature moves.” William Gladstone

Antonio Zucchi (1726-1796) – Homer Crowned as Poet Laureate

Why Read Homer 2: Transformation  

There’s a lot more to say and there’s not a Homerist alive who won’t take issue with the way I have framed some of this. The real reason I think people should read Homer is that the process of doing so—especially with other people—is transformative. How and why this transformation happens is a little involved, so I am about to get really annoying. But, to put it simply, Homeric epic refuses to give its audiences simple answers and forces us to think deeply, if we do it right.

Again, to Nicolson: he concludes that Homer matters…”because Homer…understands what mortals do not….That is his value a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief and turbulence of a universe in which there is no final authority” (2014, 244). I think that this is partly right, that the epics hold out the Siren call of knowledge, but that there is something much more important here. Homer offers up a mirror to life for us to inspect but it is a fragmented funhouse mirror in a nightmare.

We get partial pieces of information about greatness and loss about nobility and ugliness and are repeatedly told nothing about which paths we should choose. Again, Nicolson is right that Homer “provides no answers” but his closing recourse to poetic rhetorical questions misses the opportunity to articulate the significance both of why Homer provides no answers and of how the origins of Homeric poetry make it necessary for the poems to be this way. The Homeric epics are dialogic and aporetic and in these functions they teach us not what to do but how to think about what we do as communities.

Before I talk about the poems as dialogues and proto-philosophical experiences leading to states of aporia, let me just return to their origins for a moment. I think that the sophisticated, even therapeutic nature, of the poems is likely a historical accident of the demands of the performance context rather than some testament to the genius of the poems. In this, I do not deny the impression of genius or the magnitude of these epics’ monumental impact over time, but rather that their character was a product of environment rather than intention (an argument for a different space, I believe).

Homeric poetry is what others have already called dialogic, as Anna Bonifazi describes dialogism, following Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis, is when texts show a “a multiplicity and stratification of voices” or, to use Bakhtin’s words, a “plurality of consciousnesses” ( Bakhtin 1984:81). Homeric poetry, as Egbert Bakker has described it is intensely dialogic because of its development over time in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences over time (2006b). In addition, some of my favorite modern scholars who write on Homer like John Peradotto  (who also calls it heteroglossia, 1990, 53-58) foreground the multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dialogism. This is part of what makes Homeric poetry feels different: it channels untold numbers of voices for an equally unknown number of ears.

Such characteristics make it necessary that Homeric poetry will show empathy and understanding to multiple perspectives while refusing to take sides or give clear answers. Earlier literary theorists like William Empson struggled to describe the power of ambiguity or what someone else might call indeterminacy as the most potent of poetic forces. Whereas modern theorists debate the source of indeterminacy in reception or creation (i.e. is it authorially intended or created in reader response), Homeric indeterminacy is part of the poetic tradition from the level of utterance all the way through structure.

Now, I just mixed and rendered equivalent three terms that many literary theorists would prefer to keep separate: dialogism, the quality of multivocality in a text; ambiguity, when a text can have multiple meanings at once; and indeterminacy, when multiplicity of meaning cannot be disambiguated even to certain options. Rather than seeing these descriptions as overlapping, I think they help to identify different ways in which the multiplicity of Homeric meaning can translate into polysemy, multiple meanings at different times and for different audiences. As with the example of Simone Weil above, we bring our own experiences and eras to bear on the epics; but we as interpreters can also change while reading, because of reading, or over time when we return to a poem with new life experience.

In addition, the multi-vocal nature of the epics helps us to understand that despite their structural misogyny, classism, and latent justification for slavery, they still offer moments of deep empathy and understanding for those out of power: Andromache’s speeches about her son; similes about men struggling over scarce land; the almost lost image of the mill-working enslaved woman, desperate and exhausted. Eumaios is apostrophized by the narrator to a similar effect—just as the Homeric epics stand apart from most other war narratives in expecting their audiences to see the shared humanity of the Trojans, so too are they deeply sensitive to different positions in life.

The danger of this is its very intoxication, however. Andromache’s lamentations distract from the silence of all the other Trojan women; Eumaios’ valorization obscures his suffering and total surrender of agency; and the mill-woman’s prayer recenters Odysseus’ vengeance and leaves us wondering if despite all her trials, she still might be one of the women brutally hanged after cleaning up their dead lovers’ corpses.

But the different types of polysemy I mention above also help to produce what I think is one of the most important functions of Homeric poetry, the creation of aporia. Most people who know what aporia is will associate it with the early Platonic dialogues. Aporia—literally, “pathlessness”—is that state reached after the end of a dialogue like the Lysis when Socrates announces that despite their philosophical turnings they still do not know what friendship is. Such a moment emphasizes process over product and directs the audience to go back to the beginning and think the whole thing through again.

From inconsistent similes to debated omens, to interpretive crises like the split assembly and the amnesty at the end of the Odyssey the epics do not only fail to provide us with easy answers, but they produce the conditions for nearly endless debate. Not an interpretation of the epics in two thousand years has decisively argued for Agamemnon or Achilles in Iliad 1; no one has as yet fully unpacked the meaning of the meal shared by Priam and Achilles and the latter’s strange tale of Niobe taking a break from mourning to eat. Will any conversation convince us Odysseus is superior to Achilles or vice versa? Will any group ever agree over the ethics of Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors and his failure to bring his companions home? As Mark Buchan argues in The Limits of Heroism, “…these disasters offer us an invitation to rethink the kind of unreflective assumptions that produced them” (2004, 4).

Homeric epic, like Platonic dialogue, invites its audiences to follow the folly and success of its characters and then to retrace them, to come to a deeper understanding of the conditions that put them in the position to fail. For Platonic dialogue, Laura Candiotto (2015) has argued that the state of aporia itself is transformative, that it forces us to “imagine an otherness” (242) but that this process requires shared or collective emotional and intellectual work. The shared work of interpreting epic with its characters is a kind of extended mind over time. When we read them and discuss them with others, we engage in the transformative process of creating community around the interrogation of the self.

Now, I would be so bold as to say that this last step is possible with many different kinds of art and narrative traditions—the importance of community and group minds in interpretation and the creation of meaning is almost always underappreciated, especially in an aesthetic paradigm that privileges the author as a divine creator and prizes some interpreters as having exclusive access to that providential mind. What makes Homer different from reading Game of Thrones together or spending semesters contemplating Marcel Proust’s associative sense of smell is the depth of interpretive traditions to add to the complexity of the community of meaning and the nature of epic poetry itself. Homeric ambiguity, interdeterminacy, and dialogism provide a capaciousness of time rare in any art form and the essential, irrefutable absence of the author provides the opportunity to think and rethink without that devils’ trap of authorial intention.

The act of judgment is central to epic poetry from lexical through thematic levels. Homeric poetry provides many clues that it privileges the act of interpretation over all else. In addition to the stories, omens, and similes left unexplained throughout both epics, the Iliad presents a fascinating study on the surface of Achilles’ shield:

Homer Il. 18.496-508

“The people where gathered, crowded, in the assembly where a conflict (neîkos)
had arisen: two men were striving over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to give everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds brought the host together; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.”

λαοὶ δ’ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι· ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
ὠρώρει, δύο δ’ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου· ὃ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ’ ἀποδοῦναι
δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὃ δ’ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι·
ἄμφω δ’ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
λαοὶ δ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί·
κήρυκες δ’ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον· οἳ δὲ γέροντες
εἵατ’ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ,
σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ’ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων·
τοῖσιν ἔπειτ’ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
κεῖτο δ’ ἄρ’ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.

Here, we find two parties arguing over an act of interpretation. The reward set out for either side does not go to the combatants but to the interpreters themselves: there is a prize dedicated to whoever can present the most just judgment for the aggrieved parties. The frozen moment of the shield, however, can no more resolve what the best judgement is any more than the poem can decisively tell us to prefer Agamemnon over Achilles in book 1 or whether the suitors’ families were ultimately better off in not trying to kill Odysseus in the final book of his epic. (And there are historical parallels from the Ancient Greek world for privileging judges and interpretation from West Lokris and Chios). The shield anticipates a world of conflict and judgment where people use their intelligence and their shared community to navigate their challenges through interpretation and deliberation.

 

Why Read Homer 3: Allegory

If I dismissed traditions of reading Homer earlier, I did so because the way we read Homer in schools—for facts of the story, for models to apply to later texts, for pleasure—is a recent departure from ancient traditions that beyond the moralizing of Plato saw in the Homeric epics opportunities for enlightenment. And, again, I apologize for the likely alienating tour through some theoretical terms and bibliographies above, but my journey to these conclusions has come from despising Homer in high school to dedicating now half of my life to figure out why I respond so deeply to Homer in Greek.

As Robert Lamberton argues in his 1986 Homer the Theologian complexity and opacity of meaning were assumed by ancient audiences and critics. Before Plato took on Homer by taking him out of the Republic, Pythagoreans saw allegory for the body and soul in the Iliad and Odyssey and contributed to interpretive traditions that extended well into the Christian era.

Our literalist and formalist approaches hail back to the scholarly pursuits of Alexandrians (and Hellenistic philologists) who worked in establish authoritative texts. Their insistence on establishing authority stood opposed by the later “Porphyry’s assertion of the existence of numerous valid possibilities in the interpretation of a single text ”…which was by no means evidence of a lack of clearly defined principles of interpretation, but rather a logical consequence of Neoplatonic psychology and epistemology” (Lamberton 1986, 127).

Ancient interpreters who pursued this could be quite adventurous as when Porphyry—as recorded by Stobaeus (i. 44. 60)—explains that the events of book 10 centering around Kirkê are really a coded message about reincarnation and the way the soul’s rebirth in corporeal form is dictated by its relationship to its desires—its ability to balance the rational (to logistikon), the emotional (thumoeides) and physical (or appetitive) desires (epithumêtikon). In this reading, these parts (ta merê) of the soul may be governed—or at least ameliorated—by education and philosophy. For Heraclitus the allegorist, Odysseus’ entire journey was an allegory for our navigation through virtue and vice, a metaphor the Neoplatonist Proclus echoes. The Homeric scholia are filled with records of allegorical meanings and an ancient tradition makes even Paris’ between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite an allegory about human lack of self-control (Lamberton 1986, 2; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 42).

My point in going through this even in brief is that there are ancient traditions of Homeric interpretation which find deep, ethical, psychological, and even mystical meaning in the texts. Classical studies of recent centuries has tended back to what Seneca the Younger calls “that sickness of the Greeks” (Graecorum iste morbus, Brevitate Vitae 13) to focus on pedantic detail over and above a greater search for meaning, seeking in desperation for “Homer’s homeland” (Moral Epistle 88), striving not to “nourish our soul but to sharpen our wit” (ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium, EM. 108). Even Cicero asks “what impact does this ‘grave’ and ‘acute’ stuff have on the pursuit of the highest good?” (ed, quaeso, quid ex ista acuta et gravi refertur ad τέλος? Ep. To Atticus 12.6)

It is fine to read Homer in translation, in summary, or in excerpt. It is fine to read Homer out of curiosity about peoples in the past, to understand the history of our ideas about literature, to think about claims of universal humanism or that literature can give us values and ennoble us. Whatever brings you to Homer, the reason I think you should read the Iliad or the Odyssey is to be transformed by powerful narratives that seek to make you try to understand more of the universe inside and through yourself. I dare say you may not even require teachers to do this, but it does help to have friends to read with you.

3 thoughts on “On Reading Homer

  1. Great. I have the Greek and a friend and I read a translation together (Alexa der). We have been moved by passages for feeling, truthfulness, beauty etc. We have also been aware of ptsd and real war experiences I am surprised by my ability to translate after sixty years of not reading Greek. I still feel the swing of the verse and the sacramental nature of repetition and epithet. Thanks for your honesty and forthrightness.
    Michael Bennett

  2. Why reading Homer? Simply: he’s nice to read. Judging and erasing the Ancient world based on our values ​​seems foolish to me. We too could be wiped out: practically humanity should be so coherent as to wipe out. Ultimately, sorry, leave us Homer !!! Hello!!!

  3. Thank you for the thoughts, in particular the mention of Weil’s essay, which I was unaware of. If I had to boil ‘why to read Homer’ down to a few thoughts: they are indeed good (great!) stories and entertainment, albeit hard to get through sometimes.

    But more importantly, they show us the world as it is, not as we wish it was, and demand we reflect on it. Thucydides has a similar appeal. And indeed, it helps to have friends to read with. I make a social reading app called Bookship, and read both the Iliad and The Odyssey with geographically disbursed friends; if I’d not been reading in a group, not sure I would have finished The Iliad. 🙂

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