The Iliad translated by Emily Wilson

Introducing her translation of The Iliad, Emily Wilson gets right to the heart of the matter. “The beautiful word minunthadios, ‘short-lived,’ is used of both Achilles and Hector, and applies to all of us. We die too soon, and there is no adequate recompense for the terrible, inevitable loss of life. Yet through poetry, the words, actions, and feelings of some long-ago brief lives may be remembered even three thousand years later.” (p. xi) The story of The Iliad is one of wrath, of folly, of stubbornness, and also of valor, of love, of devotion, and further still of the fickleness of the gods’ favor and the inevitability of fate. Through all of that, it is a story of fighting and killing, and the bitter loss that each death means. Wilson’s translation of Homer’s epic shows all of these facets brilliantly to a modern reader, without losing sight of the distance to Iron Age Greece.

The Iliad by Emily Wilson

Her introduction provides context for a modern reader experiencing the poem. For example, The Iliad is just part of a much larger set of legends and stories concerning the Trojan War. Ancient audiences would have known them, and understood The Iliad as telling one part of a greater tale in particular detail.

We know about many of [the other stories] from quotations and summaries of lost texts, such as the Cypria, the Little Iliad, and the Aethiopis, all non-Homeric epics about Trojan legends. Numerous ancient poets, dramatists, and visual artists recycled and reinvented this rich body of myth. And yet almost none of these stories appears directly in The Iliad. The poem avoids all of the obvious highlights of the traditional story, including the Wooden Horse. It does not start at the beginning—with the Judgment of Paris, the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the abduction of Helen, or the muster of ships at Aulis—or end with the fall of the city. Instead, the action takes place over a few days in the last year of the war—neither the beginning nor the end. A brief and ostensibly trivial episode—a squabble between two Greek commanders—becomes the subject of a monumental twenty-four-book epic. (p. xviii)

The ten years of the Trojan War, for anyone who would like a refresher, began when Paris abused Greek traditions of hospitality, and carried off Helen, the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta who had been Paris’ host. The stories differ on whether or not Helen was willing. Menelaus gathered allies who sailed to Troy, also known as Ilium, to regain Helen. Paris and the Trojans likewise gathered allies to fend off the attacks of fellow Greeks. Wilson adds, “The Iliad eschews the obvious way for Greeks to tell the Trojan War story: as a conflict between “us” and “them.” The Trojans are not dishonest foreigners, despite the fact that the Paris abducted his host’s wife.” (p. xviii) Throughout The Iliad the Greek gods bestow their favors to one side or the other. Some gods, notably Zeus, change sides more than once, as if all of the fighting were merely an interesting spectacle. Eventually Troy will fall, but as Wilson notes above, that happens after the end of The Iliad.

Introducing the poem, Wilson sketches not only what is known about the historical city of Troy but also the overall body of legends of the Trojan War. That brings her to the question of “Who and when was Homer?” which she also discussed at length in her introduction to The Odyssey. She writes about the transition from an oral tradition to a more or less fixed text, and notes that The Iliad continued to be performed even after it was written down, and while some sections may have been added later, “we do not have evidence of the kind of wholesale alterations in plot and characterization that we might expect if the poem were being reinvented without the use of a script. We do not know of an Iliad in which Hector kills Achilles, or an Iliad in which Patroclus survives.” (p. xix)

Bringing the world of the Trojan War into clearer focus for modern readers, Wilson writes about narrative techniques in oral epics, about what is known about conflicts and the norms of war in the Iron Age Aegean, about how concepts of honor shaped people’s actions, about how all were thought to be subject to fate. And she returns to the heart of the matter: “At the center of The Iliad is the mortal human body. The poem focuses especially on the bodies of strong men at the height of their physical power, in all their glorious beauty and all their terrible vulnerability.” (p. xliii) These men’s strengths are pitted against other men, with intent to kill. “Life is a temporary connection between body parts, which can all too easily be undone. Death is often described as unknotting or untying.” (p. xlv) And it happens again and again and again throughout The Iliad. The soul descends to Hades, never to return. Though that is the end, “An elite warrior hopes, above all, to be remembered, in tales that will survive among the people in the future … The dead remain alive for future generations, through physical memorials, like burial mounds, and in the singing of tales, like The Iliad itself.

In a more personal Translator’s Note, she discusses how she came to make some of the key choices a translation requires. As with her Odyssey, she chose iambic pentameter rather than trying to cast English into Homer’s original meter. “[O]nly iambic pentameter could echo a centuries-long poetic tradition in English, just as the original’s dactylic hexameter echoes a centuries-long poetic tradition in Greek.” (p. lxv) In contrast to her Odyssey, she chose not to complete the poem in the same number of lines. Here are some important aspects she kept in mind as she made the many thousands of choices that go into a full translation:

The poem’s nuanced representation of war required constant care and attention. The Iliad aestheticizes and glorifies violence, and any reader or listener ought to understand the excitement and joy of holding a weapon and plunging it into the soft flesh of an enemy. At the same time, we should feel equally clearly how it feels to be the victim in that encounter, to watch the darkness cover your eyes for the last time. (p. lxv)

The poem’s story, and its intense emotional and poetic power, always takes precedence over any ethical, political, or personal lessons that readers may want to take from The Iliad. Evaluative language risks connoting specifically modern schemes of value. (p. lxvii)

The dangers of anachronism always needed to be balanced against an equally pressing danger: that archaicizing or unidiomatic English risks suggesting that The Iliad is both more alien and more simplistic in its values than it really is. I wrestled constantly with the delicate balance whereby the slaughter that is central to the epic is presented as both glorious and terrible. The horror and grief of war is imagined in ways that are quite unmodern … I hoped the translation could, like the original, suggest compassionate understanding of the tensions and fault lines within the competitive, hierarchical, aggressive societies it evokes. (p. lxvii)

How did she do? Well, Wilson’s Iliad is at least the third, probably the fourth, and possibly the fifth Iliad that I have tried to read. I had never previously made it past the first book, and I finished this Iliad in less than three weeks’ time. I probably would have finished it even faster, but the gorgeous hardback edition is not well suited to reading on the train during commuting times. I was compelled by the images of gods and men, and god-like men, quarreling, feasting and fighting on the plains between the upturned ships and the impenetrable walls of Troy.

By the end, my greatest feeling was pity. So many lives lost, so many men fallen to the ground, never to arise. Homer gives brief stories of many of the dead: who had raised them, sent them to Troy, who would grieve forever that they did not return. This is quite a contrast to The Odyssey. Everyone in the other epic is more or less in service to Odysseus’ story. But while Hector and Achilles are the main characters of The Iliad, Homer’s presentation of the details of the others’ lives gave me a sense that each of their tales could have been told in their own tragic epics; they just hadn’t happened to be captured in the poetic tradition. For a time, I thought to say that there were no NPCs in The Iliad. But no, there are many thousands of nameless Trojans, nameless Greeks, nameless captive women, filling the camp, charging in waves, following the god-like men into deadly danger. Nevertheless, there’s something to that thought, that the named men who fell to the blows of greater heroes were each worthy of remembering, that but for a trick of fate they might have been epic heroes themselves, that they will be missed and mourned. Here is one, longer than many, but also taken more or less at random from Book 11, “Wounds,” when the Greek and Trojan armies re-engage.

Now tell me, Muses, dwellers on Olympus,
who first came face to face with Agamemnon?
Was it a Trojan, or a glorious ally?
It was Iphidamas, Antenor’s son,
a strong and mighty man, who had been raised
in fertile Thrace, the motherland of flocks.
Cisses took care of him when he was young
inside his house—he was his grandfather,
the father of the beautiful Theano.
But when the boy had reached the age to fight
for glory, Cisses tried to keep him him,
and gave him his own daughter as his bride.
But from the marriage chamber he set forth
with twelve curved ships at his command, to seek
renown in battle with the Greeks. He left
his steady ships in Percote and marched
on foot to Troy. Now he came face to face
with Agamemnon, son of Atreus.
As they approached each other, Agamemnon
attacked but missed—his spear went veering sideways,
Iphidamas struck Agamemnon’s belt
under the breastplate and with confidence
in his strong arm, he pressed in hard, but failed
to pierce the shining belt. His spear-tip bent
like lead against the silver. Agamemnon
grabbed the spear from his hand, fierce as a lion,
and with his sword, chopped off his head and killed him.
So there he fell and slept the sleep of bronze.
This poor man came to help his countrymen,
and died a long way from his wife, his bride,
and never lived to benefit from her,
despite the marriage gifts he paid for her.
He had already brought a hundred cattle,
and vowed a thousand other animals,
mixed flocks of sheep and goats. His herds were countless.
But Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
slaughtered him … (11.286–322)

Almost exactly halfway through the poem, the high-water mark of the Trojans’ advances against the Greeks, Zeus decides that he’s over the Trojans. Homer gives no reason; none is needed. Divine favor has simply gone elsewhere. The Trojans don’t know it, of course, and even if they did know Zeus’ mood at the time, they could reasonably hope for a reversal. The Olympians’ caprices were well known, and are amply demonstrated in The Iliad. There’s no change in this judgment, though, and Troy’s fate is to fall.

When Zeus had brought the Trojans, led by Hector,
up to the Greek ships, he abandoned them
to endless suffering and misery.
He turned his shining eyes away and gazed
towards the country of the Thracian horse-lords,
the warlike Mysians and the Hippemolgi
who live on mare’s milk, and the Abii,
most righteous human beings in the world.
He did not turn to look at Troy at all. (13.1–9)

The Iliad is not all blood and seriousness. There are moments of comic relief. One of the best, for me, was Zeus’ conversation with Hera when she has decided to seduce him so as to divert his attention at a crucial moment in the battle between Greeks and Trojans. Throughout the poem, Zeus is lauded as the most strategic, as a planner and mover of others’ fates through his superior insight. And yet when he tells Hera how much he desires her, here is how he does it:

…but now let us enjoy some time in bed.
Let us make love. Such strong desire has never
suffused my senses or subdued my heart
for any goddess or for any woman
as I feel now for you. Not even when
I lusted for the wife of Ixion,
and got her pregnant with Pirithous,
a councillor as wise as any god.
Not even when I wanted Danae,
the daughter of Acrisius, a woman
with pretty ankles, and I got her pregnant
with Perseus, the best of warriors.
Not even when I lusted for the famous
Europa, child of Phoenix, and I fathered
Minos on her, and gotlike Rhadamanthus.
Not even when I wanted Semele,
or when in Thebes I lusted for Alcmene,
who birthed heroic Heracles, my son—
and Semele gave birth to Dionysus,
the joy of mortals. And not even when
I lusted for the goddess, Queen Demeter,
who has such beautiful, well-braided hair—
not wven when I wanted famous Leto,
not even when I wanted you yourself—
I never wanted anyone before
as much I want you right now… (14.412–437)

How could Hera possibly not be flattered?

Finally, Wilson provides extended endnotes that allow her to parse parts of the poem in greater detail, and occasionally to wax wroth or droll. Here, she discusses an instance of Helen’s self-description:

6.462 … Whenever Helen uses dog imagery of herself, she uses the same oblique (genitive) case that is used here (which says literally, “the brother-in-law of me-dog”); it is therefore possible that she is a “dog” from her in-laws’ perspective rather than her own. Anglophone translators often translate “dog” as “shameless” or, when applied to Helen, “whore” or “slut”; different language is usually chosen when the same word is applied to Agamemnon. (p. 635)

Expanding on a visit to Hephaestus, she allows herself some understatement:

18.463 “twenty tripods”: Wheeled tripods existed in the ninth and eighth centuries, although they usually were made of bronze, not gold, and they usually did not roll themselves automatically. (p. 680)

And in this one, I can’t quite tell if she is being amused or just helpful:

16.404 “the thickest muscle”: The original refers to the leg part in question with skelow, a word that appears in Homer only here … The next line is medically inaccurate: the gluteus maximus is actually the thickest muscle in the human body, but its severing would not result in death. The poet has not said that the victim turned around, so presumably the injury is in the front of the thigh, not the buttock. Homeric death scenes tend to value emotional vividness over anatomical accuracy. (p. 673)

I only occasionally referred back to the notes on this reading, as I wanted to concentrate on experiencing the story as directly as I could. If I re-read The Iliad, which is possible, given how much I enjoyed Wilson’s translation, I will probably look to the notes much more, and I am sure I will profit from her learning and explication.

With Wilson’s translation, I finally found an Iliad that I could read, one that carried me along, one that showed me the great wrath of Achilles and its deadly consequences. Thirty years ago I stood in Aegean winds on the mounds that cover Troy; now I have finally read the great epic of the city.

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