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Homer

Among the functions of the Iliad is to preserve the names of those who fought valiantly in the Trojan war, and thereby to give to them the eternal glory they had earned. So it is intriguing to come across this passage, in the middle of book 17.

Around the corpse they kept pressing hard
With sharp spears and killing each other.
Some Greek would say from his bronze mask:

“Friends, there’s no point in returning
To the hollow ships. It would be better
For the black earth to swallow us here
If we’re going to let the Trojans haul him
Back to the city and win all the glory.

Or some Trojan would say:

“Friends, even if we’re all fated to die
By this body, don’t take a step back.

These words would lift everyone’s strength.” (17.424-35, tr. Lombardo)

The corpse is that of Patroclus. Hector has killed him and stripped him of Achilles’ armor (which he was wearing). The Greeks and Trojans are now fighting to gain possession of his body. On both sides, we see the soldiers rallying themselves with the thought that glory is worth the price of death, and that shame is a fate worse than death.

What is curious is that these speeches are anonymous, spoken by “some Greek” and “some Trojan.” Why? For one thing, this allows the poet to suggest that many soldiers give speeches along these lines. But the reason, I think, goes deeper. There is a basic tension in the Iliad. It is, on the one hand, a story about a relatively small number of central heroes, flanked by a few more minor characters noteworthy enough to be named. Yet, on the other hand, it is also a story of war, of a fight between large masses composed of individuals who cannot all be named and honored.

In making these speeches anonymous, the poet seems to acknowledge this tension, to acknowledge that, for most of those seeking glory in war (at least glory of the sort the poets can offer), they will fail, whether or not they survive. They will remain anonymous, recognized only by the actions typical of “some Greek” or “some Trojan.”

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In Book 12 of the Iliad, as the Asius and his troops storm a Greek wall, soldiers on the wall throw stones to repel them. Homer describes it as follows:

……………………The stones fell like snow

Down to the ground, falling, falling, like flakes
A cold wind from the shadowy clouds
Drives thick and fast upon the bountiful earth.
(12.162-65; tr. Lombardo)

This is an astonishing simile, and provides insight into the general manner in which Homer’s similes operate. Though they begin from a conspicuous, generally visual similarity, they gain their power and poignancy from their operation on other levels. In this instance, there are at least four salient movements in the comparison.

The first movement is the obvious similarity that sparks the simile: the stones fall thickly from the wall, like snow. By a natural extension of the simile, we arrive at an implied hyperbole: the stones cover the ground to the point where the earth is invisible. We may likewise imagine the stones thick enough to seriously obscure the Trojan soldiers’ vision.

But this perception of similarity soon gives way, and we are struck by the stark differences between the two scenes. There is something calm and peaceful about the snow-covered earth, however thickly the snow falls. We imagine the earth devoid of action, tranquil—completely unlike the conflict between Trojans and Greeks.

This second movement gives way in turn, however, to the third. We realize that Homer has called attention to the fact that the earth is bountiful. Yet we see it in a snowstorm, in winter, when its productive function is at its lowest point, and we still await the rebirth of spring. Winter, though the most beautiful season, is also the harshest, and its association with death suits it for comparison with war.

But this, too, moves in the opposite direction. Winter is only a temporary cessation of the earth’s productive function. In directing our attention toward that function, Homer invites a contrast with its other function: as the permanent resting place of the dead. The Greek stones render the earth—the bountiful earth—a graveyard.

In the end, the simile does not resolve itself one way or another. The stonestorm is and is not like a snowstorm. The visual similarity provides the opportunity to be struck successively by both sides of the comparison. I might note that, of the four motions described above, I felt only the first two during the regular flow of reading. Only when I stepped back and began to dwell on the tension between those two did the third and fourth reveal themselves. This is one reason why I like Lombardo’s choice to set off Homer’s similes in italics: it encourages one to spend with them the time they require to bloom.

Odysseus, already having suffered much on his long journey back to Ithaca, arrived at Aeaea, the home of the goddess Circe. Here, as everywhere, Odysseus runs into trouble. In this case, it is that Circe turns half of his crew into pigs. But then something strange happens. Odysseus goes to rescue them, relying on the advice of Hermes for how to escape Circe’s tricks. Since he needs Circe to transform the pigs back into humans, this rescue must involve her cooperation. Sheer antagonism, such as saved him from Polyphemus, will not do. What else, then, but to become Circe’s lover? And who would not like to lay with a goddess?

All well and good, only—Odysseus forgets his home. For an entire year. All the sorrow he has endured, attempting to return to Ithaca, the pain he felt on being so close, only to have Aeolus’ winds released by his mutinous crew—all of this forgotten in Circe’s embrace. I find it difficult to forgive. How much sympathy should I invest in Odysseus’ suffering at being kept from his home if he himself forgets it so easily?

But wait, you may say: do you not love Aeneas? For he, too, forgets his destiny in the arms of a woman. True, and true. But the cases are different. Let us leave to the side that my love for Aeneas is complicated. My admiration for him is adulterated. But no matter. The case of Aeneas and the case of Odysseus are different. Odysseus is returning home. Aeneas is venturing forth to make a new home. Odysseus is drawn back to Ithaca by established ties: his wife, his son, his house. Aeneas is impelled to Latium because the gods have decreed it will be so, and perhaps by the promise of a glorious future. (But why not a glorious future in Carthage? Again, because of the gods’ decrees, and because of these alone.)

It is a very different thing to forget the past than to forget the future. Odysseus’ lapse is careless to the point of arrogance. Aeneas’ lapse is human. I, engaged in my own search for a new home (of sorts), know well the uncertainty that attends such a search. I know the sweet voice with which false terrain tempts the seeker. Aeneas errs, but in a manner I can readily forgive. Odysseus, I cannot.