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Wild animals in the Iliad November 6, 2008

Posted by Jenny in classical studies, Homer, literature, nature.
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My kind once lived in GreeceAs the Achaians fought desperately on the shore beside their ships, wielding their spears against furious advances by the Trojans, Zeus decided from his perch on Mount Ida that the Achaians must retreat.  Ajax, the big man, slow-witted but brave, glared at the raging Trojans.  He was “like a dun lion from a stable yard / driven by hounds and farmhands: all night long / they watch and will not let him take his prey, / his chosen fat one.  Prowling, craving meat, / he cannot make a breakthrough.”*

These words from the Iliad do not speak of a lion as a symbol abstracted from its surroundings, but a real-life lion, a nuisance to the farmers of the day.  Not until the second century A.D. would lions be gone from Europe and the Middle East.

All through the Iliad, the poet we call Homer used small luminous scenes of everyday life to describe aspects of the battle.  The troops turned out “thick as bees / that issue from some crevice in a rock face, / endlessly pouring forth, to make a cluster / and swarm on blooms of summer here and there, / glinting and droning, bright in busy air.”  Soldiers could be “timorous as greenwood deer, light fare / for jackals, leopards, wolves….”  An army gathers “Like a dark cloud / a shepherd from a hilltop sees, a storm, a gloom over the ocean, traveling shoreward / under the west wind; distant from his eyes / more black than pitch it seems, though far at sea, / with lightning squalls driven along its front.”

These extended similes run parallel to the events of the battle, and in them we see a world of woodcutters in mountain glens, hunters with dogs who encounter a “whiskered lion” as they chase a wild stag, boys and girls harvesting grapes in woven baskets, “while on a resonant harp a boy among them / played a tune of longing, singing low / with delicate voice a summer dirge….”

Poseidon lived here in golden glimmering chambers

Poseidon lived here in golden glimmering chambers

The “tumbling clamorous whispering sea” washes the shores of the islands and nourishes these lives.  This “cold, fish-breeding sea” is roofed over with “pure space,” the realm of the ideal that seems a foreseeing of Plato: “As when in heaven / principal stars shine out around the moon / when the night sky is limpid, with no wind, / and all the lookout points, headlands, and mountain / clearings are distinctly seen, as though / pure space had broken through, downward from heaven, / and all the stars are out, and in his heart / the shepherd sings….”

*Translation by Robert Fitzgerald.

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