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Homer's Iliad

Christopher Mackie

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith, and joining me today is Professor Christopher Mackie. He's the director of the Research Centre for Greek Studies and also the head of School of Historical and European Studies. Thank you for joining me, Chris.

Christopher Mackie:

Welcome, Matt.

Matt Smith:

In this podcast, you're here today to talk to me about a bit of Greek mythology and Homer's Iliad. Now, for those people who aren't familiar with the Iliad, can you tell us a bit about it and also about its author, Homer?

Christopher Mackie:

Well, the Iliad is one of two poems that tradition tells us are by Homer. The other one is the Odyssey. These are epic poems that date perhaps to about, the Iliad they say comes to us from about 700 B.C. and the Odyssey a little bit later. The Iliad deals with a number of weeks of the Trojan War with the principal hero as Achilles. It doesn't try to deal with the whole Trojan War, just a very short period in the war, focusing very much on Achilles and his heroic moment, so to speak. The Odyssey deals with the journey of Odysseus back from Troy to Ithaca in the Ionian Islands.

The Iliad is about 16,000 lines. And I think the Odyssey is about 12,000 lines. And these are poems that come to us in some mystery and uncertainty. About Homer virtually nothing is known. There are all sorts of stories about him, that he may have come from what is now the west of Turkey or a Greek island called Chios. But basically, it's quite unclear who he was, where he came from or whether in fact, some people would say he didn't exist at all. It's a combination of poetic sources and there was no one individual called Homer. He's a very mysterious individual.

Matt Smith:

These works, they have come from a time when it was very early within the course of actually taking these stories down. But they actually existed in oral tradition before that. Is that right?

Christopher Mackie:

That's right. If there was a Trojan War, it was probably fought about 1200, 1150 B.C. And as I mentioned, Homer's dates are about 700 B.C. That's a pretty good guess of when the poems come into the current form. So, you've obviously got a gap of about 400 or 500 years. And in that time, you've got an oral poetic tradition that worked.

You can imagine possibly hundreds of poets in the Greek world telling these kinds of stories, not just about the Trojan War but about other heroes, other wars. Homer comes to us at the very end of that tradition. And he must have been a magnificent poet because somehow, his poetic copra have survived. So, he must have made a really special impact on that world in 700 B.C. or thereabouts.

Matt Smith:

I suppose the poems as well would be very significant because they would tell a lot about Greek culture at that time.

Christopher Mackie:

The Iliad is almost certainly the earliest surviving work of European literature. You can't go back any further than Homer. One of the things I like to do is to explore the Homeric poems and try to deduce what the corpus of Greek mythology was before the Homeric poems, you know, what did Homer do with the corpus of method he found and so forth.

But, yes, it tells us a lot about the world before him, if you like. But the nature of oral poetry is to change and embellish, for a poet to put his own spin on the stories that he had passed down to him. So, if there was a Trojan War, it was probably very different from the Trojan War that we get in Homer's Iliad because there has been 400 or 500 years of storytelling to change the story in all sorts of ways where poets put their own sort of spin and stamp on it.

Matt Smith:

But where's the line between fact and fiction? I mean, we know that the Iliad can't all be fact. There are a lot of guards in there to start with. But there has also been the aspect of they thought it was mostly fiction, but then they found the city of Troy. Where do you think the line ends? And what about it do you think could maybe be true?

Christopher Mackie:

I, for one, am perfectly comfortable with the idea that there was a Trojan War. The excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the last part of the 19th Century and the work done since seem to suggest that the site that we identify as Troy today is most likely the Troy of Homer. And I, for one, have no problem with the notion that there was a Trojan War.

We know from the study of other epic poems such as the Song of Roland in the French division, it's one good example, that not only the poets embellish actual events but they do so in an astonishing way. For instance, the Trojan War is meant to be 10 years in length. The site of Troy is not that big. It might well have been a one-day conflict. But what happens is the poets really transform that and embellish it in all sorts of ways.

And so, it ceases to have any reality or it ceases to link to reality very closely at all. If there was a war at Troy, my feeling is it was probably fought over trade because when you look at where Troy is, it's right on the Dardanelles, right on the shipping lines. And that's a good place to be economically. It probably wasn't fought over Helen of Troy. It was probably fought over some more basic event.

Matt Smith:

If you want to look at it from that aspect, it does make it kind of sound like Iliad is like a major epic action movie of today that might be loosely based on fact.

Christopher Mackie:

Yeah, that's right. When you put your finger on one important point, I've often said to most students that the Iliad is a very visual work. And Greek mythology is incredibly visual. And when you're reading the Iliad or if indeed you're listening to the Iliad, you can visualize the scenes with astonishing clarity. And there's a sense that it's right there before you.

So, I often suggest to students that it has a sort of a cinematic quality. And the cinema has never been very far from the Greek myths and from Homer, in particular. I mean, there's a whole heap of films, not just sword-and-sandal-type films but other films. And this is because the Greek myths are some of the most creative and astonishing narratives that we have in our tradition. And so, they're being picked up by directors and writers since the cinema began, really.

Matt Smith:

Is there a big crossover between the sort of themes that go through the Iliad and the Odyssey? And do you think that modern cinema and culture have a lot to owe to these sort of beginnings?

Christopher Mackie:

Well, I do. I once did some work on the early superhero comics of people, Superman and Batman, in the late 1930s. And I know from my own researches that the early comic book writers used to draw on the myths. Not that they would try to make Heracles into the new Superman or whatever, but it was a way of giving some authenticity to the new genre of comic books. And you'll see all sorts of overlaps the way that, for instance, Superman comes from another planet. And that has all sorts of resonance with the divine birth myth associated with Heracles and with Achilles and so forth.

I read a paper once called Men of Darkness, arguing that Batman and Odysseus have much in common because they both flourish in the dark when they're in confined spaces and so forth. Odysseus in particular is inside the belly of the wooden horse. He's a bit of a confinement figure. And Batman is another one who comes to his own in the dark. So, there are all sorts of overlaps between the superheroes and the heroes of Greek myth, some of them consciously appropriated, some of them not.

Matt Smith:

How much do you think we still have to learn from poems that have been studied so much and are so well known?

Christopher Mackie:

Every generation has its new take on Greek literature. I mean, I think Homer is just a great joy to work on the Iliad and Greek mythology more generally, in my case, particularly Homer. I feel very privileged and lucky to have the opportunity to spend so much of my time working on these poems because every time you read them, it's quite astonishing how much new comes into your vision. And I'm still writing papers and things. I was writing one this morning. So, it is incredible how much you can pick up. They are classics insofar as every time you read them, you do pick up something new. And they are very long so there are a lot of opportunity to work your way into new aspects and new thoughts on these poems.

Matt Smith:

I understand that it has been translated into English a few times. Do you work with different English translations? Is there one that you prefer? Or have you ever worked with the Greek?

Christopher Mackie:

I suppose I've read the Iliad in particular in Greek half a dozen times. My degrees were in the original languages. But obviously, with teachers in a modern university, there aren't so many ancient Greek students. But there are quite large classes of people studying Homer and Greek mythology. We teach them in translation, of course, for the most part. Sometimes, it's said that more people are reading the Greek classics now than there have ever been. But they're reading them in translation, not in the original Greek, as they might have done 200 years ago.

I have always liked, as far as teaching Homer is concerned in translation classes, one by Richmond Lattimore in Chicago, just called the Iliad of Homer. But there are more many good translations of Homer. Lots and lots of people have made the attempt. There are Penguin copies. There are Harvard copies. I've always enjoyed the Lattimore. It's quite astonishing. You can go to a particular line number in the Greek and then look at that same line number in his English translation; they will be identical. That is a very hard thing for a translator to do. So, it's an excellent translation.

Matt Smith:

I've heard of reading the translation kind of equated to watching a movie and relying just on the subtitles, that you're a bit lost.

Christopher Mackie:

I haven't heard that one. But definitely, reading Homer in the original Greek is a wonderful experience. There is just nothing quite like it. It's still magnificent to read it in English. But if you have the time and the opportunity to read it in the original Greek, it is a magnificent thing to do, not that difficult.

As far as ancient Greek goes, I know ancient Greek is a very difficult language. There is no question about that. But Homeric Greek is not that difficult because there are so many repetitions because the oral poets used to learn lines and passages and phrases off by heart. And they would use them all away through the poem. And so, it isn't a case. So, if you're reading Aeschylus or Euripides and so forth, you don't get the same level of repetition there. You can with Homeric Greek get to a pretty decent speed once you've been doing it for long.

Matt Smith:

What is your favourite part of the Iliad?

Christopher Mackie:

My favourite part of the Iliad is Book 24, where Priam goes down to get his son Hector's body back. It's the only kind of journey in the Iliad. David Malouf originally wrote a book called Ransom, which is drawn from a kind of adaptation of that particular book. I think I'm particularly interested in that book because it has all the hallmarks of a journey to the underworld. He descends down into the darkness, gets the body back and brings the body back.

So, it's sort of akin to what the shaman does and same sort of idea of the saint and renewal and rebirth and so forth. So, it's an astonishing book in the poem. By the way, there were no books in Homer's original poem. They made the books, the 24 books, later. But I often use Book 24 if I'm just reciting one book to a class of students because it's so rich and so interesting.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University Podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Professor Christopher Mackie, thank you for your time today.

Christopher Mackie:

Thanks, Matt.

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