Tradition and Design in the Iliad

By C. M. Bowra | Go to book overview

II
THE ORIGINS OF THE EPIC

THE Iliad implies a long history. It must have grown from something, but from what? The poet tells us nothing of himself, and we are left to draw our conclusions from analogies and casual references. The best evidence should be in the Iliad itself, but the Iliad says little about poets or poetry. Fortunately the Odyssey is more explicit, and its evidence may be taken as the best that can be found. The Iliad assumes that great doings are subjects fit for song, and Helen says that Zeus has given an evil doom to her and Paris, that in days to come they may be the theme of songs for men ( Z357-8), but the Odyssey tells how such doings came to be made part of poetry. Demodocus sings at the court of Alcinous, and in Ithaca Phemius sings to the suitors. These singers are not amateurs but professionals. They rely on their craft for a living. Their social position, if we may believe Eumaeus, is similar to that of seers, doctors, and craftsmen ( ρ383-4). Demodocus indeed is called a hero ( θ483), and Agamemnon's minstrel was sufficiently important to be put in charge of Clytaemnestra when her husband went to Troy ( γ267-8). But these social claims do not hide the fact that a minstrel's rank was well below that of a chieftain. He belonged to a class dependent on princes for patronage and livelihood. When Odysseus kills the suitors, he lends a merciful ear to Phemius, who claims that he has sung for the suitors under compulsion: they were more numerous and stronger than he, and they kept him with them by force ( χ351-3). But in spite of such humiliations the bard is honoured in his own way. Odysseus tell Alcinous that nothing is better than to listen at a feast to a bard whose voice is like that of the gods ( ι3), and when Alcinous in his turn wants to congratulate Odysseus on the excellence of his narrative, he can find no better praise than by comparing him to an ἀοιδός--with such craft has he told his story ( λ368). Such distribution of compliments may of course be due to the poet's desire to

-27-

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Tradition and Design in the Iliad
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • I - Tradition and Design 1
  • II - The Origins of the Epic 27
  • III - The Hexameter 53
  • IV - Some Primitive Elements 67
  • V - Repetitions and Contradictions 87
  • VI - The Similes 114
  • VII - The Language 129
  • VIII - The Historical Background 156
  • IX - The Characters 192
  • XI - Homer and the Heroic Age 234
  • XII - Homer's Time and Place 251
  • Index 275
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