The Homeric Muses

In the Homeric epics the invocations of the muse contain a duality of themes and values. The Iliad asserts the value of glory in war while the Odyssey speaks of the value of perseverance in conditions of hardship. The narratives are set either side of the Trojan war making them not just thematically but temporally contrasting. The themes and resulting values of these epics no doubt reflect the relatively violent time that was antiquity.

Wrath—sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles,
that inflicted woes without number upon the Achaeans,
hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors
and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs,
for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished;
sing from when they two first stood in conflict—
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.1

The Iliad follows the structure of describing it’s plot ahead of time through it’s invocation of the muse. This is done in a non-linear fashion which jumps back narratively to ‘begin’ the poem (“when they two first stood in conflict”). This structure is shared by the Odyssey and allows the epics to more fully establish their values and themes by being explicit in this immediate way leaving the reader, or listener (as would have been common for the Homeric epics), in no doubt as to the central plot. The invocations do not give everything away but do leave us with lingering suggestions of the values underlying the parables to follow.

Wrath,2 the driving force behind the Achilles, our hero. In a later epoch wrath would become a deadly sin however Homeric eyes view this emotive state as not necessarily a virtue but certainly not incongruent to virtue. The value structure of the invocation is that of a righteous violence to ultimately serve the personal will of Zeus, the highest of the divinities. Homeric descriptions often describe: “without number” an evocation of lush poetics, beyond an entirely analytical mental framework.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.3

Odysseus is thrown from the slipstream of Achilles’ wrath into his journey. Homer’s Odyssey has a less brutal central thread in comparison with the Iliad. Although Odysseus’ story will still be one of intense “struggling” his war being fought against the distance to his destination. The Odyssey sets a more open tone with it’s theme of travel, not only geographically but also mentally. Unlike the Iliad the central events will not be primary those of violence but of learning from the experiences of difficult travel. The Odyssey suggests the civilized side of Homeric value in contrast to the Iliad’s brutality. Both invocations suggest that both glory and suffering come primarily from the personal interest of a God from the Greek pantheon, this implies a normative behaviour despite the undulating wills of unseen divinities which run the show.

The Homeric poems, like many of the later Christian epics, also revolve around matters of eschatology. We hear of both the “hurling” of the fallen in the Trojan war to Hades and the taking away of the “homecoming” of Odysseus’ companions. The Homeric view on subjects of death are strongly deterministic and willed by unseen divine forces. An important aspect of the Homeric worldview to note is that all dead, regardless of earthly status or ethics, end up in the same place: Hades. This has an obvious difference with the Christian worldview which has a duality of eschatological destinies beyond earthly life.


The above forms part of the research for a book (Forthcoming Late 2021). A polemic on the topic of ‘free will’, utilizing the unorthodox sources of epic poetry. Subscribe for free essays and updates:

1

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Caroline Alexander. Penguin Random House, 2017. Book 1, 1-7.

2

Commonly translated as "rage" or "anger" also.

3

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. HarperCollins, 1967. Book 1, 1-10.