A lot of home-time gave me a lot of insights into the classics. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are my favourites. They’re the reason I took up English Literature major at college. They’re books that keep you on edge and make you look up at the sky and wonder what it must’ve been like to live in those times. They make you sit up at night and think about who Achilles was, if such a person really existed, and how Odysseus must’ve felt so far away from home lost to the seas. No one writes such tales today.
If you look up at the themes of Iliad and Odyssey, they’re universal. Iliad is on the hero’s anger, destiny and powerlessness. Achilles had severe authority issues. There is nothing worse than having to obey a foolish commander when you could do so much better. But Achilles was emotional and sensitive though he acted all tough. He played the lyre and wept to his mother, Thetis. Heroes cry too. I like the way Homer brings out the physical, emotional and spiritual of a man in a particular situation. When Priam asked him for the body of his son, he was reminded of his father Peleus and wept once again. On the other hand, Homer reveals what the thirst for ambition and glory could lead you too. Achilles doesn’t listen to his mother, goes against his commander, prohibits others taking his glory and single-handedly depletes half of the Trojan army – all for his own interests. He wanted to be remembered. He wanted immortality. And well, his decision was right, if you ask me. If he had taken the other choice and remained home, I won’t be writing about him today.
Homer went for the theme of ‘nostos’ or homecoming in Odyssey. Imagine being separated from your family for 20 years. And that too, in war. While Odysseus is being tossed and churned by the ocean, his wife is being forced to remarry. The neighbouring princes all line up for the vast kingdom of Odysseus and his wife. They plan to ambush and kill his young son. Odysseus has lots of opportunities along the way. Calypso offers to make him immortal. The witch-goddess Circe falls desperately in love with him. He could have ruled over the Phaeacians and married princess Nausicaa. I’m sure Achilles would have grabbed up any of those. But not Odyssues. He is a man who loves home and the hearth. He gives up everything to return. The theme of vengeance is striking. Both Achilles and Odysseus are shown as taking vengeance – Homer believes it is right and a hero ought to do it. Showing the other cheek ain’t getting you paid. The moral principles of Homer are not exactly what you can follow today, but they are firm and I believe, they’re right. You have got to protect yours in any way possible.
Iliad and Odyssey were actually ‘songs’, meant to be sung with a harp or lyre for entertainment in the past. Can you imagine singing a song that has more than 24 books and 15,000 lines of verse? No way…but that makes it so cool! The lines of Homer are so powerful even in translation and grasp the imagination of the reader straight away. Trust me, I have been reading for my entire life, and no book has come close to Iliad and Odyssey. No writer alive today has that capacity to communicate with the reader. It’s as though Homer’s right there in front of you telling the tale. And the way the epics are written…you can see the heroes fight and feel their agony. It’s a pity there’s such less info on who Homer really was and that all the other works by him were destroyed. Let me give some examples of Homer’s sentences: “Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another”… “Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.” – both these lines are from Iliad. “Of all the creatures that breathe and move upon earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.” … “A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” – these are from Odyssey. Have you ever read lines like these in any contemporary text?
While we are all at home, it’s a good time to read these beautiful works. ebooks are available for free. Click here for Iliad and Odyssey full books in translation. You can also go through my slides for Iliad here.
These books will be around 500 pages but you won’t notice you’re reading once you get the hang of it. Your souls will benefit. If you do decide to read them, just read them. Don’t go for summaries and notes. That just spoils the beauty of it. It’s so much better even if you understand few pages. Homer’s style is so amazing that we can get to the meaning after we read a few pages. He also indirectly explains who Athena or Calypso is without using a glossary or footnotes. That’s another amazing style of Homer. The plot goes straight to your heart. Speaking of which, what better way to nourish the seat of all passions than by reading the greatest classics of the world?