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Thread: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and 'Origin Texts'

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    The Iliad, The Odyssey, and 'Origin Texts'

    I've just read The Iliad and The Odyssey (Robert Fitzgerald translations) and have been really surprised by how much of their influence I can see around me in Western culture, especially literature. I would like to read more about how these texts or similar 'origin texts' have or have not shaped the West. Am I even right to think of them as 'origin texts' of the Roman/Western world? Does the West look and behave the way it does today because so much of its culture is influenced by these texts, or do these texts look the way they do because the seeds of the West had already taken shape in Ancient Greece and that's how it looked? What are the East's origin texts? Do I just think they are important and see their influence everywhere because the world I live in is also the one they influenced, albeit a far smaller world in actuality than I might think..

    I am an adult learner studying and reading in my limited free time. Don't assume I've read much! Opinions and recommendations for further reading equally much appreciated.

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    MANICHAEAN MANICHAEAN's Avatar
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    Hi scotttw.

    If you trawl back in the General Literature Section, I and others wrote quite a bit on this in a thread titled "Aspects of Homer."

    Here is the start of it.

    ASPECTS OF HOMER.

    In a sad sense, of the personality of Homer, the generally attributed writer of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," those great epic poems which were the common heritage of all Greeks, we have little knowledge.

    Tradition pictures him as blind and old. Seven cities claimed to be his birthplace. Probably he lived in the ninth century BC, since the particular stages of social life which he portrays probably belong to that era. Beyond this, a lot is conjecture. The poems were not written down till a later date, when their authorship was already a matter of tradition; and when what we may call the canon of the text of the epics was laid down in the sixth century BC, it may be readily supposed that they were not in the exact form which the master-poet himself had given them.

    Of the "Iliad," it suffices to say that it relates events immediately preceding the fall of Troy, at the close of the tenth year of the siege undertaken by the Greeks on account of the abduction of Helen from Menelaus by Paris.

    Let us examine the Illiad first of all.

    Achilles' anger with Agamemnon is the main theme of Homer’s “Iliad” which recounts the last year of the Trojan War, during which Achilles first withdraws from battle and then, enraged by the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus, brings the Greeks the body of Troy’s greatest warrior, Hector.

    One cannot but be impressed by, not so much the influence, as of motivational factors in the story of the Illiad, We have already mentioned the abduction of Helen. Then, in the tenth year of the Greek campaign against Troy, we have Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, forced to give up his concubine Chryseis to appease Apollo and put an end to a plague sent by the god among the Greeks. In return for this, Agamemnon demands another hero’s war-prize – namely, Achilles’ concubine, Briseis. Very much a case of “cherche la femme.”

    Furious to be dishonored in such a way, Achilles withdraws from battle, even asking his mother, the sea goddess Thetis to convince Zeus to help the Trojans, so that Agamemnon and the Greeks recognize promptly the severity of the loss of their greatest warrior.

    Zeus nods in agreement and, pretty soon, the Trojans manage to successfully drive the Greeks towards their ships. Agamemnon realizes his mistake and sends Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix to Achilles’ tent with an apology and a promise of many fine gifts. Achilles accepts neither: educated by his mother that he is destined to either die at Troy as a glorious warrior or live a long life in obscurity at home, he informs Agamemnon’s embassy that he has now chosen the latter.

    Fearing ultimate defeat, Patroclus asks Achilles for his armor and, disguised as his treasured friend, he leads a successful attack against the Trojans.

    However, taken by the moment, he goes a step too far and is subsequently killed by the fearless Trojan prince, Hector.

    Enraged by his friend’s death, Achilles rejoins the battle and, adorned with new armor made by Hephaestus, he tracks down Hector and kills him in a face to face duel. Still burning with anger, Achilles drags Hector’s lifeless body with his chariot for eleven days straight, until the gods intervene and help Priam, Hector’s father, to reach Achilles’ tent and beg for the body of his son. Achilles is moved to tears by this act and agrees to give Priam his son’s body.

    We will come back to further aspects of this tale later.

    But in the meantime, a couple of extracts:

    “Achilles' baneful wrath resound, O goddess, that impos'd
    Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos'd.
    From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
    That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave;
    To all which Jove's will gave effect; from whom strife first begun
    Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis' god-like son.”

    “So Peleus' son, swift-foot Achilles, at his swift ship sate,
    Burning in wrath, nor ever came to councils of estate
    That make men honour'd, never trod the fierce embattled field,
    But kept close, and his lov'd heart pined, what fight and cries could yield,
    Thirsting at all parts to the host.”

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    A good first primer on this that I still have from my LSE days is "The Greeks" by H.D.F. Kitto.

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    A very interesting thread, thank you. I have much more reading to do. The Aeneid next, and then the tragedies. Oh, and Jason.. see you soon.

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    You might also want to read the oldest work of literature, The Enuma Elish AKA Gilgamesh. Sumer was part of Western culture, and that is clear from that early work. If you read the whole Gilgamesh cycle, much od which was written a thousand years later, it is clear that most of the tropes of modern literature have been around for for six thousand years.

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    I think Peter that the Enuma Elish is one of the good starting points in examining the growth of early Western religious thinking; outlining as it does, its interpretation of the creation of the world; comprising a battle between gods focused on the supremacy of Marduk, and the creation of man destined for the service of the Mesopotamian deities,

    One of the interesting questions lies in the numerous parallels that the Enuma Elis contains with passages of the Old Testament. These include: reference to a watery chaos before creation; a separation of the chaos into heaven and earth; different types of waters and their separation; as well as the numerical similarity between the seven tablets and the seven days of creation. It begs the premise, as to if, (or how much), the Old Testament was based on this Mesopotamian work?

    There are of course notable differences as well. These include polytheism vs. monotheism, and the personification of forces and qualities in the Babylonian myth vs an imperative creation by God in the biblical stories; permanence of matter vs. creation out of nothing; and the lack of any real parallel for Marduk's long battles with monsters.

    Regarding the creation of man, there are similarities in the use of dust or clay, but man's purpose is inverted in the two texts. In the Enuma Elis man is created as a servant of gods, whereas in Genesis man is given more latitude. Nevertheless, in both, the dust is infused with "godhood", either through a god's blood in the Enuma Elis, or by being made in God's image in Genesis.

    In the creation of man, Marduk was found to have made man from his blood combined with bone, which brought comparison with Genesis 2:23 ("This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man") whereas the creation of woman required the use of a man's bone.

    As to the seven tablets and seven days of each system, there are some commonalities in order of the creation events: first darkness, then light, the firmament, dry land, and finally man, followed by a period of rest.

    Different theories have been proposed to explain the parallels, including a westward spread of the Mesopotamian myth to other cultures such as the Hebrews. This seems feasible as the Hebrews would have been influenced by Mesopotamian culture during their Babylonian captivity.

    Finally, the Enuma Elis elaborated the interconnections between the divine and inert matter, while the aim of Genesis in the Old Testament was to state the supremacy of the Hebrew God Yahweh Elohim over all creation and all other deities.

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    Thanks PeterL. I do have the Epic of Gilgamesh on my shelf but haven't read it for a long time. You remind me these things go back much farther than we often think, probably further than we have any remaining evidence of in fact.

    More about the Enuma Elish can be found at he wikipedia page Manichaean quoted from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/En%C5%ABma_Eli%C5%A1 - a very interesting read!

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