Homer’s epics were first written down at a curious turning point between two eras, when the Greek Dark Ages gave way to Classical Antiquity. Before the seventh century BCE, there had been no ‘Western literature’, only Western literacy. The earliest Greek writing system – Minoan Linear B – was a bean counter’s tool to make receipts and invoices, not a medium for fiction or poetry. But though most storytellers probably couldn’t read, they weren’t slack in developing their art. The Iliad is long and complex enough to compete with modern novels. Indeed, since it emerged from the mists of oral tradition, it’s inspired a big family of literate authors, from Virgil and Dante to Ezra Pound and Thom Gunn.
Until the twentieth century, we didn’t know much about those mists of oral tradition. Then, in the 1930s, an American linguist named Milman Parry visited rural Yugoslavia, where oral epics were still performed by illiterate singers. Studying their cultures, he hoped to learn how oral poems were composed, how they were taught to the next generation and how much a poem’s text changed between singers and locales. Unfortunately, Parry died from an accidental gunshot wound soon after his return to the US. It took his student Albert Lord many years to continue the research and publish it in a 1960 book, The Singer of Tales.
Parry and Lord made a startling discovery: oral epics weren’t recited from set texts, but rather improvised by the singer during each show. In Lord’s words, ‘An oral poem is not composed for but in performance.’ Traditional bards were therefore much closer to today’s freestyle rappers than to page-poets like Virgil. While they inherited storylines, devices and formulae, each telling of a story was unique and off-the-cuff. The Iliad we have now wasn’t based on a previously used text, but on a specific performance dictated to a scribe.
Even so, it’s a very old story. Since the 1870s, archaeologists have found piling evidence that there was a real Trojan War between Bronze Age Greeks and Hittites. This means that the Iliad had been told and retold for at least five hundred years before a version got written down.
Some parts of Homer only seem like features and not bugs when we consider this oral heritage. Why do the Iliad and the Odyssey both start with the now-hackneyed phrase ‘sing, Muse’? That’s the performer – palms sweaty, vomit on his chiton, mom’s spaghetti – invoking divine aid to bless his improv. After writing had given poets the leisure to save and redraft their work, the ‘sing, Muse’ trope stagnated from a living superstition to an undead cliché.
Such a situation makes special problems for translators. Translation is more than just carrying a text from language to language; it’s also a passage from audience to audience. To its Greek listeners, the Iliad didn’t need footnotes or endnotes. It wasn’t ‘literature’ or a status marker for taste and education. It was popular entertainment, put on at boozy gatherings by MCs whose talent could get them free drinks. That mood is hard to recapture now, even if a translator’s philology is faultless. (Imagine a future where students pore over John Carpenter screenplays in Penguin Classics editions, but no living person has watched The Thing!)
John Dolan’s latest book, The War Nerd Iliad, offers a new approach to this challenge. Dolan is a retired professor and cult author most famous for blogging as ‘the War Nerd’, a curmudgeonly anti-expert who writes war analyses mixed with Swiftian black comedy. Since the early noughties, he’s sparred with right wingers over the legacy of ancient Greek civilisation – rebuffing the suggestion that it had any ‘Western values’ in common with modern America. The early Greeks, he emphasised, lived in a Talibanesque world shaped by endless warring between tribes and clans. Their culture allowed paederasty but frowned on any hetero desire that went beyond reproduction and arranged marriage. ‘Everything about [the Greeks] was alien,’ Dolan wrote in 2005. ‘For example, you know where they kept their coins? In their mouths. Yuk.’
Dolan presents the Iliad as ‘a campfire story, the greatest of all tall tales.’ And in place of the traditional ‘sing, Muse’, he gives a modern equivalent:
I didn’t write this story. I’m just delivering it. Every now and then it has to be repackaged and delivered. It comes from way back, from the gods. You’ll meet them in here. They’re not the gods you might be expecting, though. These are more like The Sopranos.
The War Nerd Iliad sits at the boundary between translation and retelling. Dolan narrates it in his own suburban Californian voice with a chatty, intimate tone that rarely sounds like written English. There is no antiquated language or pompous literary phrasing. Instead of footnotes, Dolan weaves pieces of commentary and analysis into the main text, and finds ways to put complex ideas into idiomatic English. And if his voice infects the story, that at least is how oral tradition was meant to work. The Iliad had countless narrators during the Greek Dark Ages, who each brought their own quirks and flourishes to the performance.
Unlike many retellings, though, The War Nerd Iliad doesn’t set out to bowdlerise or dumb down its subject. It follows Homer’s action very closely – play by play, wound by wound – preserving all of the best insults and worst injuries.
Often, its crisp language brings the brutality of Homer’s world into focus, revealing the horror and warlordism that other translations risk airbrushing with ornateness. The epitome of that horror and warlordism is the book’s vilest mortal, King Agamemnon. In the first chapter, when a Trojan priest named Chryses petitions him to return his captive daughter Chryseis, Agamemnon snaps back:
‘You want to know what will happen to your daughter, old fool? I’ll tell you: She’ll live and die as my slave, my property. She’ll scrub floors all day, and when it’s night, I’ll take her to my couch and bend her over, bend her any way I please! While she’s young, that is. After I’ve used her for a few years, she’ll be too old and ugly to be worth having, and then she’ll carry out the shit-jars every morning and sleep with the pigs, and when she’s old she’ll die one day and be dragged off to where we bury the livestock.’
Many earlier translators made Agamemnon’s speech too decorous, elegant or euphemistic – never quite bringing his thuggish character to life. In Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad, he only states that Chryseis will finish her life ‘going up and down by the loom, and being in my bed as my companion.’ And in Alexander Pope’s eighteenth century version, Agamemnon’s barbarism is muffled by a cloud of florid poetics:
‘Mine is thy daughter, priest, and shall remain;
And prayers, and tears, and bribes, shall plead in vain;
Till time shall rifle every youthful grace,
And age dismiss her from my cold embrace,
In daily labours of the loom employ’d,
Or doom’d to deck the bed she once enjoy’d
Hence then; to Argos shall the maid retire,
Far from her native soil and weeping sire.’
By treating Homer as ‘poetry,’ we risk falling into a subtle trap. Our modern idea of poetry is cerebral and refined, a niche product created by word-nerds for fellow word-nerds to contemplate. The Iliad and Odyssey may technically be ‘poems’, but they’re also full of slapstick, lowbrow humour and grindhouse gore. Given such content, it’s easy to imagine why oral epics were such a hit at feasts and banquets. Even the Roman literati who imitated Homer loved their slapstick. Writing an honours thesis on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I was amazed at how much its Perseus behaved like Bugs Bunny, spouting ready wisecracks as he massacred bumbling enemies. This wasn’t the solemn, Wagnerian heroism that far-righters hoped to draw from antiquity!
In Homer, the comedy goes up all the way to Mount Olympus. None of the Iliad’s gods are truly omnipotent, not even Zeus, the pack alpha. They each make bad decisions, with runaway consequences that collide in a Fargo-like mess. In practice, they’re as blundering, disorganised and corrupt as most human elites, from the Julio-Claudian dynasty to Big Data technocrats. As with human tyrants, though, goofy doesn’t equal harmless. A goofy dictator can still torture and kill. How much more a goofy god!
The ancient world enjoyed polytheistic farces long before Homer. Close to when the real Trojan War was probably raging, the Egyptians produced a hilarious little tale called The Contendings of Horus and Set. Nearly all of its plot consists of pranks and gross-out jokes. In one scene, the goddess Isis masturbates her son-god Horus, then takes his semen and slips it into the lettuce that his rival Set loves to eat. The divine cum later resurfaces from Set’s ear and testifies against him in front of the other gods. It’s material you can’t read with a straight face (or any reaction short of a Beavis-and-Butthead laugh).
The Iliad’s gods – immortal, great and terrible – are nonetheless humanoid enough to suffer comic injuries. Like Looney Toons characters, they cannot be destroyed, but they can still clobber each other everlastingly. In Book 21 of the epic, the pro-Greek gods finally meet the pro-Trojan gods in single combat. Athena chucks a boulder at Ares and knocks him flat while Hera thrashes Artemis with the wood of her own bow.
In contrast to most ancient cultures, the Greeks had two war gods. Athena (the Iliads most sympathetic deity) represented brains, strategy and judicious warfare. Her arch-enemy Ares was a god of bloodlust, atrocities, rape and destruction, a ‘man-plague’ who rode a chariot smeared with gore. This Ares isn’t the mannerly David Thewlis villain from Wonder Woman, but a murderous lummox with no redeeming features. It’s a joy, then, to see him trounced by Athena several times. His first, and funniest, defeat comes when Athena guides her champion Diomedes to spear him in the crotch. Blubbering, he retreats back to Olympus, and Dolan stretches out the scene’s irony:
Ares has gone to demand justice from Zeus. Which Zeus, and the rest of the gods, find very amusing. Ares? Wanting justice? Ares, who presided over every massacre and rape since the beginning of the world, and enjoyed every second of them?
And now he wants justice – justice! After getting stabbed… by a woman… his own sister! It’s a great moment for the whole family – they just can’t stop laughing. As Ares approaches, squelching with his hands over his wet, bleeding groin, Zeus draws out the pleasure, pretending not to know what happened: ‘Well, Ares, what seems to be the problem? And please, don’t drip on my fine marble floor.’
That crotch wound was too much for many translators. Samuel Butler, a very astute Late Victorian classicist, was compelled to keep it clean, with the spear striking Ares’s ‘fair flesh’ where ‘his under-girdle went round him.’
Dolan, to his great credit, doesn’t forget the terror that lurks beside the farce. His retelling is at its most inventive when it pictures the supernatural devastation that the gods can wreak. Some invention is necessary. The Iliad text we’ve inherited is rather terse in its descriptions of divine wrath. It mentions Apollo’s plague arrows and Zeus’s lightning, but doesn’t dwell on them in the same luscious detail as its mid-battle similes. So, for the benefit of our CGI-hungry culture, Dolan has to expand and improvise. This is his cinematic rendering of Zeus’s air-strike on the Greeks:
The battlefield is a strobe-lit horror. Compared to the flashes of blue-white electric light from Zeus’s lightning, daylight seems like a moonless night. The men are all blinded, frozen in place waiting to be fried alive. Lightning bolts sprout like a forest of white trees, appearing and vanishing in an instant. And at the foot of every one of those trees is a dead Greek, smoking like a bee carbonized with a magnifying glass.
Apollo’s plague at the start of the epic gives retellers another gap to fill. Although the plague lasts nine days, the Iliad quickly skims over it, only noting that Apollo tormented the Greeks by killing their mules and dogs first, then working up the ranks. Dolan doesn’t miss that cruel touch. ‘If there’s one thing these little kings love more than their mules, it’s their dogs,’ he writes.
Soon, we see the plague’s full effect:
The Greek cowering under his sheep hide feels something like a flea bite, a pinprick… and a day later, his corpse greets his slaves, covered in puke and piss and shit, cold as yesterday’s roast.
The same putrid imagery drips and squelches throughout The War Nerd Iliad’s human-on-human battle scenes:
The chariot bounces over corpses, and the blood and juices splash up, marking the wheels, even the sides of the cart. Bodies pop like gourds, foul gases squirt out with the bile.
Ajax sees Hektor coming, but in his madness it’s the wheels, not the driver. In terror, he sees them rolling over corpses, some fresh, others rotten, green and black. He watches bellies burst as Hektor’s wheels roll over them, plopping open like dumplings full of pus and shit. He can hear men screaming as loudly as if they were an inch from his face. He can see men with bone wounds, the most painful of all, rolling around screaming like seals.
These similes are all Dolan’s, but their style isn’t far from the gallows humour of the original. To be sure, The War Nerd Iliad also preserves Homer’s grizzliest comparisons, like the moment one Trojan gets speared in the face:
[His face] breaks like a clay bowl. His eyes pop out and roll in the dust, as the Greeks laugh and cheer, pointing at the eyes, shouting, ‘You dropped a couple of eggs!’
With each food simile comes a grim reminder of how quickly human beings can become inanimate matter. For gods, slapstick is pain. For mortals, it’s death.
The Iliad gives us antiquity at its rawest and weirdest. It fascinates us without making us too nostalgic for the brutal age that inspired it. Its deaths are (in turn) gruesome, scary, silly, ironic, tragic, funny and sickening, but never dulce or decorum.
Dolan’s retelling is a worthy attempt to demystify this ancient story and perhaps rekindle some ember of its campfire spirit.
Image: Diomedes Wounds Aphrodite – Arthur Fitger