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From the walls of Troy to the beaches of Ithaca: a life with Homer

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The unanimous acceptance of the decisive influence of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Western culture contrasts with the inexhaustible debates that continue to provoke the figure of Homer and the processes associated with the genesis and composition of the works attributed to him. In the list of great specialists who have tried to shed light on these issues is the French Hellenist Jacqueline deRomilly (1913-2010), whose siruela recover, with translation of Susana Prieto Moriyour study Homereoriginally published in 1985 and that in this edition receives the title Walls of Troy, beaches of Ithaca. Homer and the origin of the epic.

The expert, who was a professor of Classical Greek at the universities of Lille and Paris and the first woman to teach at the College de Franceanalyzes the context of creation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, works that represent “both a culmination and a beginning” and that are the result of a long process of cultural transmission. Around the year 800 a. C., the coast of Anatolia is populated by Greeks. It’s a time of civilization recovery of which organized colonization, the rise of trade and the development of a new script are part. In this context were composed the two great epics, which however will not be fixed until the sixth century BC. c.

A centuries-old tradition of oral poetry distilled into two works that acquire a foundational status. The repetitions of epithets, formulas and structures of the Iliad and the Odyssey they constitute a memory of that memorized poetry which is subject to unavoidable limitations. “Coming from oral poetry”, points out the specialist, “the two epics of Homer separate from it to open the doors of kingdom of literature”.

Two opposing schools

The discussions about unity and diversity of the two great works have a long tradition. It is what is known as the “Homeric question”, which she has confronted “analysts” and “unitarians”: for the expert, “a dialogue of the deaf”. What conciliatory synthesis The school of “neoanalysts” emerged, accepting the plurality of Homer’s sources as much as the homogeneity, radical originality and literary height of his works.

And yet the Iliad and the Odyssey are very different: the first deals with a war and pits the protagonists of the two sides against each other, while the second is the story of the return home of one of the combatants. we passed from epic vibe to adventure seduction. And there are obvious differences in treatment and approach in different spheres: social, political, moral, cultural… In the Odysseythe gods they intervene less in human affairs. Is it possible to speak of different authors, of an original Homer and of a school of followers…? Fascinating and endless enigma. The most operative solution, advises the teacher, is to “continue calling Homer” whom we consider to be the author of these two epics.

De Romilly observes that the homeric languagewhich combines forms from different eras, is “a separate language, made for the epic”, for the evocation of an epic world that is unreal and that, embellished by the poet, is populated by superior beings: gods and heroes.

The composition of the two works is, for the specialist, “a miracle of architectural perfection”. It prevails, especially in the Iliadin which Achilles’ anger and subsequent stages of his inner drama set the pace of the story, a powerful unit printing. The action is concentrated in a short time but offers a global perspective of a war that began nine years before. The combats follow one another, with the gods intervening at will, and the fate of the Achaeans and the Trojans is modulated in a singular dynamic of oscillations that is far from being “a fortuitous chain”.

In the Odyssey Different actions take place in different places. The poem “refers to a large number of folk traditions about the adventures of the traveler”. The architecture is different but also powerful, with three main tenses: Telemachus’ restlessness in the first cantos, Ulysses in his relationship with Calypso and the Phaeacians, and the return to Ithaca. And a variety repertoire of tones and procedures, among which is the narration of his adventures by the hero himself. The poet grants the character this responsibility.

Faced with the choral character of the IliadUlysses in the Odysseypoints out the author, “he is not surrounded by heroes or confronted by his peers: he is alone and his adventures take him to the limits of the human world”. A man in combat with his destiny. From this circumstance comes its inexhaustible symbolic flow, which has crossed times, cultures and geographies.

Not only is the role of the gods different in the two epics; There is also an evolution in the conception of heroism

The expert pays attention to the procedures of the homeric poetics. One of them is the sensory, plastic and realistic treatment of the action: we hear the noise of the battle, the clash of weapons, the falling bodies, we see the flames, we breathe the dust. Also noteworthy are the descriptive individualization of the protagonists and the contrasts and dialectics that are established between them. And the ability to suggest associated with emotional background of the characters (especially the female ones, such as Andrómaca and Nausícaa).

The Homeric gods and heroes are analyzed by De Romilly in the final chapters. Not only is the role of the gods different in the two epics; There is also an evolution in the conception of heroism. In the Ulysses of the Odysseyintelligence, audacity and pragmatism prevail over the courage and tragic sense of the heroes of the Iliad, whose excesses (Achilles’ cruelty to Hector’s body…) are condemned in the story. the tragic will recover and overshadow to the heroes of Homer.

The survival, the actuality, the colossal expansion of its echoes are largely due to the fact that Homer goes “to the essential”, to the core of the human conditionwhich allows its readers from different and distant times to feel concerned by the same palpitations and caught in the same concerns.

Jacqueline de Romilly belonged to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and also entered the Académie Française. Translator of ThucydidesHe also published important studies on Aeschylus Y Euripides.

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