The Originality of Homer and Other Traditional Myths

Posted: April 18, 2019 in Uncategorized

What are we doing in IT1?

Here’s a quick review of today’s lesson for anyone who might want a summary like the one I wrote the other day about Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Ethics.

What I tried to point out in class today is how decidedly non-metaphysical the archaic Greek gods were. They were anything but Aristotle’s unary, self-identical, non-contradictory, unchanging, fully actualized and active, rational, and immaterial Creator, or Unmoved Mover. Rather, the Homeric gods were plural, embodied, passionate, self-contradictory, mercurial, etc. If there was any classical Greek principle or virtue of which the Homeric gods knew nothing, it would have been the famous ‘golden mean’. The archaic Greek gods were not moderate but excessive beings.

This polytheistic and plural view of the gods radically alters not only our understanding of them, but also whatever expectations we could plausibly entertain with regard to the humans depicted in The Illiad. This is because, as Jean-Pierre Vernant agues, rather than understanding the Homeric gods as anthropomorphic (derived from human nature), it is best to understand the bodies of Homeric heroes as ‘theomorphic’ (based on the bodies of the Olympian gods). Homeric (i.e., pre-Socratic) emotions, motives, and actions are anything but consistent and rational. While Homeric characters may undergo various modifications, some quite extreme, none of the various ‘characters’ in the Illiad – if we can even justifiably consider them characters – shows any of the well-defined identity or progressive development for which we may have been trained to look when reading literature. These warriors don’t go on any sort of “hero’s journey”.

On a higher level, this insight into the nature of the Homeric gods alters not only how we view the plot and characters in The Illiad, but also how we understand the very form of the book itself. We have received The Illiad, in tamed condition, heavily processed and (re)constituted by the librarians of Alexandria. The story, as we now have it, may well show numerous signs of rational formal design. But once we remove from the text, with the help of Knox and Heller-Roazen, the major Alexandrian insertions, the epic suddenly appears to us for what it originally was before Aristarchus ‘corrected’ it: WILD.


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