My introductory anecdote
A highlight of my post-secondary education occurred one January evening during my second year. The course was Ancient Epic in Translation, and it was the last day that my class studied Homer’s The Iliad. The professor recited a passage from near the end of the Homeric war classic.
To set the stage – grieving Trojan king Priam sneaks into the camp of the Greek hero Achilles to beg for the body of his slain son. Pity-filled Achilles replies with the following, as read by my professor that icy winter’s night:
Poor man, how much you have bourne – pain to break the spirit!
What daring brought you down to the ships, all alone,
To face the glance of the man who killed your sons,
So many fine brave boys? You have a heart of iron.
Come, please, sit down on this chair here . . .
Let us pit our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
Rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
Live on to bear such torments – the gods live free of sorrows.
There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus’s halls
And hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
The jars of Zeus: holding all our blessings and miseries, the proportion of what we get depending on Zeus’s whims. The classroom was dark. It was quiet. My professor’s voice resonated with a lyrical quality. Each line had a set meter and rhythm, the proper beats to a line when heard aloud.
Plus, he read the passage in ancient Greek.
Fighting the Trojan War… in Montreal
So, what reminded me of this academic episode? Enter public radio. In February 2018, CBC’s As It Happens aired a story about a McGill University professor, Lynn Kozak, performing The Iliad in a downtown Montreal bar, one hour per week. This piqued my interest. Take a peek for your interest: Previously On… The Iliad (link opens in a new tab).
I watched the first few of these videos, knowing that the epic came from an ancient oral tradition. In my course, we touched upon the work of Milman Parry and his studies of the Yugoslavian oral poets in the 1930s. His theories lent credence to idea that the common name descriptors in The Iliad were a device for the ancient poets to keep a proper poetic meter when speaking, yet without relying on rote memorization. For example, Achilles was variously defined as “swift-footed Achilles,” “Achilles son of Peleus,” “Lion-hearted Achilles,” etc. The poet popped in stock epitaphs as s/he saw fit to maintain the rhythm of the line. (I’ve always liked the oft-repeated “rosy-fingered dawn” and “dawn with rosy fingers.”)
Watching the footage of Professor Kozak performing in Montreal, I noticed them using their own stock phrases I didn’t think were in Homer, presumably to aid Kozak’s memorization and to fill in pauses that may have interfered with their rhythm. I took particular note of their frequent use of “… and so that’s what he said.” Seeing the static words on a page come to life was fascinating, particularly when Kozak reacted to and riffed off their audience, used humour and tasteful profanity, employed props and seemed to ad-lib as appropriate. (In the first installment they played beer pong when describing the episode when Agamemnon dishonours Apollo’s priest).
Troy, to Montreal, to me
Don’t get me wrong – the poem as written on the page (and translated into English, of course) is one of the great gifts of the world. Just check out this passage from Book VI as an example:
… shining Hector reached down
for his son – but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror –
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him….
This simple (written) passage about a baby being frightened by his father’s helmet, and his parents laughing lovingly, to me underscores the depth and humanity of this war poem.
However, the CBC story and episodes of Previously On… The Iliad brought me back to that snowy January evening when I remember walking home feeling connected to the ancient Greeks, as much as a suburban Canadian can, through the words recited by my professor. So what am I saying? That The Iliad works better as a book on tape? Well, not quite. It’s not just the listening. It’s the reaction of the audience. It’s the poet reading the room. It’s the regret that no one had the capacity to film an ancient poet on the top of his/her game on a January evening in ancient Greece in, say, 783 BC who just killed it with the best recital ever. Maybe it was the excellent wine, dark as the sea. Maybe the muses decided that that night would be the magical one. And I bet the townsfolk talked about it for years. Lost to history.
Now if only The Iliad had some of them fun monsters that populate Homer’s sequel The Odyssey (cyclopses, anyone?)….
Quotes from The Iliad are from the translation by Robert Fagles, 1990 edition. Featured image on the main page is a bust of Thucydides, taken by the author at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 2018. Greek text is a scan from the author’s University notes from Epic In Translation, University of Waterloo, Winter 1996, R. Fowler Professor. Image at the top of this page is Ajax carrying Achilles, scanned from Michael Grant’s The Rise of The Greeks, 1987 edition. YouTube screen capture taken by the author from this site.