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The Iliad

The Almeida theatre, is currently fulfilling all my dreams. Spectacularly. Unfortunately, they are doing it at a remove of 1450 km. Inspired by the origins of theatre in the Great Dionysia, they are setting up a series of great Greek plays with some devastatingly great actors. The Oresteia, Medea, Bakkhai, and no less than three of Aristophanes' comedies! And a whole lot of related events, one of which caught my eye just as it was beginning: a live reading of The Iliad.

I had more or less resigned myself to the horror of missing out on all of this, what with the 1450 km and all, so when I found out technology could magick them away I seized the opportunity with both hands, and did not put it down for 16 hours. Tor was a little surprised to have to sit through a bloody battle at dinner, and I confess I was possibly not in the right frame of mind to appreciate the funeral games of Patroclus (my heart says Patroclos, but English is a weird language) at one in the morning, but otherwise it was quite wonderful.


Dionysos and the stuff of legends.

I love The Iliad. Have done since I first read it, high on Greek mythology; and I got to love it even more when I revisited it at university, in a more scholarly setting and in the context of other ancient Greek literature. I will admit, however, that I love some bits of The Iliad more than other bits. I'll get back to that. The reason I was so excited to see this take on the text lies in how very true to form it is. I have only ever read this poem, but The Iliad is, at heart, oral literature. We know it dates from around 800BC, and the first manuscript we have is 1800 years younger. In the classical period of Greek Antiquity, it would be recited in public by rhapsodes who knew it by heart (or well enough to improvise their own versions of it, for example at the Panatheneic festival). Hearing The Iliad, rather than reading it, is therefore something I have always wanted to do.

And wonderfully, the Almeida delivered. With a set of readers who could hold my interest while reading the phone book (or Heidegger!), from Rory Kinnear and Hattie Morahan to Ben Whishaw and Mark Gatiss. That alone would have been enough, but in parallel with these stellar performances, there was what can only be described as a total geek-out on Twitter. #Iliad trended in Britain, as everyone watching, lead by @iliadlive (which I recommend for sheer snark), offered running commentary. It was glorious. Songs should be written about it (ideally in dactylic hexameter).

I will tell you why I love The Iliad. First, however, some background. Iliad, from Ilion, the Greek name for Troy. It is not, as the title might suggest, the story of the Trojan War (though that is its setting, nine years into the ten-year war): no, this is a poem about the rage (wrath?) of Achilles:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
(book 1)1
Agamemnon, being generally a terrible man who deserves everything he has coming to him2, is unhappy because he has to give up his slave woman, Chryseis (because her father is a priest and Apollo is bringing plague among the Greek (=Achaean) ships as punishment). Here is Agamemnon's reply when Chryseus (Chryseis' father) tries to ransom his daughter:
The girl—I won't give up the girl. Long before that,
old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
at the loom, forced to share my bed!
(book 1)
Absolutely charming. And, as it often turns out when Agamemnon makes absolute claims about what he will and won't do, false: He is eventually forced to give her up, and in a subsequent tantrum takes Achilles' slave woman, Briseis (whom Achilles has won fair and square after sacking her city and killing her whole family), in her place, thereby hurting Achilles where it counts (his pride). Achilles is all geared to kill Agamemnon; but Athena intervenes and tells him (in a lovely little twist, considering the topic of the poem),
Down from the skies I come to check your rage if only you will yield. (book 1)
Whereupon Achilles calls Agamemnon a coward, a drunkard and a parasite, and swears that he will not fight, even though the Greeks will really, really want him to (a variation on "just you wait"). However, this is not just a story of an epic sulk (see what I did there?): It deals with questions about why you would fight a war and risk dying. And who the enemy is. And how not to get impaled on a bronze spear.

At the heart of this conflict (in a lovely little parallel to the war that surrounds it) is the question of honour. Achilles has not sworn the oath that has sent so many of the Greek kings to Troy3, nor does he have any particular animosity towards the Trojans. He is there solely for his honour, the songs that will be sung about him once he is dead. And he knows he will not survive the war if he fights (his choice is between a short life and great glory, or a long life without it). So a slight to his honour (and the blot on his honour which would come from not reacting to this slight) is serious business. This, then, is not about Briseis (any more than the Trojan war is really about Helena); Achilles, after all, has Patroclus (I will maintain to my dying day that The Iliad is first and foremost a tragic love story). I'll get back to that.

At any rate, Achilles is miffed. Achilles, as it happens, is also the son of Thetis4, a goddess who once saved Zeus and is therefore in a position to ask for favours. Which she does.
Zeus, Father Zeus! If I ever served you well
among the deathless gods with a word or action,
bring this prayer to pass: honor my son Achilles!—
doomed to the shortest life of any man on earth.
And now the lord of men Agamemnon has disgraced him,
seizes and keeps his prize, tears her away himself. But you—
exalt him, Olympian Zeus: your urgings rule the world!
Come, grant the Trojans victory after victory
till the Achaean armies pay my dear son back,
building higher the honor he deserves!
(book 1)
And Zeus acquiesces, even though he is rightfully apprehensive about his domestic peace (as Hera favours the Greeks).
Disaster. You will drive me into war with Hera.
She will provoke me, she with her shrill abuse.
(book 1)
Poor Zeus. And him such a good husband and all. It breaks your heart.

Prompted by dreams sent by Zeus, Agamemnon decides to attack Troy the following day, and opens with a classic piece of rousing speechmaking which include the words
Cut and run! Sail home to the fatherland we love!
We'll never take the broad streets of Troy.
(book 2)
And when, bafflingly, his men are not inspired, he shouts at them for a bit about how unfair it is that people do not treat him as the human incarnation of Zeus. (Agamemnon is not my favourite person ever.) Happily (for those of us who like lengthy pieces of epic poetry), Odysseus is on hand with some actual rhetorical skill, and convinces them to go on fighting with a hefty flashback to a prophecy which foreshadows events beyond the end of the book. Consider this item #1 on the list of why I love The Iliad: It is not just an account of Achilles sitting in his tents while the Greeks are slaughtered in battle after battle; rather, that serves as the skeleton on which you can find reference upon reference to the Greek legends and mythology that surrounds it.

Which leads me to what is perhaps the most impressive thing in all the history of literature: The Catalogue of Ships:
Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus!
You are goddesses, you are everywhere, you know all things-
all we hear is the distant ring of glory, we know nothing-
who were the captains of Achaea? Who were the kings?
The catalogue consists of a series of names of captains and kings, where they come from and how many ships they brought. Simon Goldhill read this part, which is impressive enough, as it consists mainly of lines like these:
And the men who lived around Percote and Practios,
men who settled Sestos, Abydos and gleaming Arisbe:
Asius son of Hyrtacus led them on, captain of armies,
Hyrtacus' offspring Asius-hulking, fiery stallions
bore him in from Arisbe, from the Selleis River.
Hippothous led the Pelasgian tribes of spearmen,
fighters who worked Larissa's dark rich plowland.
Hippothous and Pylaeus, tested soldier, led them on,
both sons of Pelasgian Lethus, Teutamus' scion.
(book 2)
But one thing is reading all of that without stumbling on a single name (not to mention without falling into a monotonous drone), quite another is knowing it by heart, especially as it goes on for about 265 lines. Epic, as they say. And until yesterday, I have only ever thought of this sequence as a feat of memory. A properly impressive feat of memory. But I realised it may have had another function in an oral performance:
So originally Greeks would have heard their own city names and tribe names here. 'Anyone in the house from PLEURON? PLEURON? YEAH!' #iliad
— The Iliad (@IliadLive) August 14, 2015
There is also a catalogue of Trojans, and all is then set for a proper battle. Just before the two armies clash, however, the bloodshed is prevented (or at least postponed:
Now closer, closing, front to front in the onset
till Paris sprang from the Trojan forward ranks,
a challenger, lithe, magnificent as a god,
the skin of a leopard slung across his shoulders,
a reflex bow at his back and battle-sword at hip
and brandishing two sharp spears tipped in bronze
he strode forth, challenging all the Argive best
to fight him face-to-face in mortal combat.
(book 3)
Paris, who is to blame for the whole sorry mess, is rather more of a lover than a fighter, however; and when Menelaus (the wronged husband of Helena) responds (enthusiastically), he immediately regrets his challenge, prompting a speech from Hector (glorious Hector! -- I'll get back to that) which is characteristic in its ... candour:
Paris, appalling Paris! Our prince of beauty-
mad for women, you lure them all to ruin!
Would to god you'd never been born, died unwed.
That's all I'd ask. Better that way by far
than to have you strutting here, an outrage-
a mockery in the eyes of all our enemies. Why,
the long-haired Achaeans must be roaring with laughter!
(...[more scorn])
You...
curse to your father, your city and all your people,
a joy to our enemies, rank disgrace to yourself!
(book 3)
So Paris must fight Menelaus. Fortunately (for lovers of lengthy epics and Paris, both), Aphrodite is rather fond of Paris5, and just as Menelaus is about to skewer him, she pops him away to his bedchamber, where Hector will later find him
polishing, fondling his splendid battle-gear,
his shield and breastplate, turning over and over
his long curved bow.
(book 6)
I'll say no more about it.

Meanwhile, Menelaus is stalking the field trying to find out where Paris disappeared to, and Athena (not a friend to Trojans) persuades the Trojan Pandarus to be an idiot and break the truce in what seems to me to be a stellar insight into the inner workings of idiot egocentrics everywhere. War it is.

There is a hefty number of people running about whose parentage is half devine. Case in point: Aeneas, who is so cool he will later get his very own spin-off fan-fiction in the shape of Vergil's Aeneid. He is the son of Aphrodite, who swoops in to rescue him and is wounded by Diomedes (who is really, really enthusiastic about this war thing) in the process. Aphrodite is not happy about this. At all.
The son of Tydeus stabbed me,
Diomedes, that overweening, insolent—all because
I was bearing off my son from the fighting. Aeneas—
dearest to me of all the men alive. Look down!
It's no longer ghastly war for Troy and Achaea-
now, I tell you, the Argives fight the gods!
(book 5)
The involvement of the gods (which we can call item #2 on my list of why I love The Iliad) leads to some lovely moments of general commentary, like when Athena describes Ares (the god of war) as
the maniac,
born for disaster, double-dealing, lying two-faced god
(book 5)6
which is as fair a description of war as you'll find, I suspect. I will not go into the details of the battle(s). Let me instead rush to item #3 on my list of wonderfulness: The portrayal of the Trojans.

This is a Greek epic, and it is an epic on war. As such, you might expect it to be heavily biased in favour of the Greek heroes. But just as there are gods who support either side, the poem itself is at pains to show the Trojans as people. There is Priam and the various glimpses behind the walls of Troy, but my favourite example is Hector, the greatest fighter among the Trojans, the killer of Patroclus (and therefore, one would think, prime material for vilification). In one of the finest scenes of the poem, he is shown as both a loving husband and father (quite apart from his already established position as a glorious warrior with a flashing helmet).
In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son—but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror-
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods
(book 6)
The scene between Hector and Andromache is also notable as a way of showing the precarious position of those that surround the heroes; the Trojans are not fighting purely for the sake of honour. The poem's emphasis on the humanity of both sides in the conflict is present throughout, but perhaps most poignantly in this passage, which takes place as the fighting pauses:
In silence
they piled the corpses on the pyre, their hearts breaking,
burned them down to ash and returned to sacred Troy.
And just so on the other side Achaean men-at-arms
piled the corpses on the pyre, their hearts breaking,
burned them down to ash and returned to the hollow ships.
(book 7)
This repetition is terribly effective. And affecting. And balanced.

Skipping ahead past the fighting (which involves a lot of graphic spraying of intestines, blood and brains and some seriously suggestive phrases, like
The shaft of a good-for-nothing coward's got no point
but mine's got heft and edge.
(book 11))
we arrive at item #4 on my list: the similes. Homeric similes are special. And lengthy. And glorious. Generally they will start with the word "as" and then tell a short story painting a vivid image (frequently involving a "when"), followed by a "so" to carry this impression onto the events in the text. Among the shorter ones, this:
They held tight as a working widow holds the scales,
painstakingly grips the beam and lifts the weight
and the wool together, balancing both sides even,
struggling to win a grim subsistence for her children.
So powerful armies drew their battle line dead even
(book 12)
How often are armies compared to poor single mothers?

Zeus grants vitory after victory to the Trojans, and Hera thinks enough is enough. She decides to seduce her husband (who is, incidentally, also her brother) and put him to sleep. It is probably in Zeus' favour that Hera has a decided agenda, however; I suspect she would, somehow, be able to resist his attempt at talking her into bed:
Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal woman
flooded my pounding heart and overwhelmed me so.
Not even then, when I made love to Ixion's wife
who bore me Pirithous, rival to all the gods in wisdom . . .
not when I loved Acrisius' daughter Danae—marvelous ankles—
and Perseus sprang to life and excelled all men alive . . .
not when I stormed Europa, far-famed Phoenix' daughter
who bore me Minos and Rhadamanthys grand as gods . . .
not even Semele, not even Alcmena queen of Thebes
who bore me a son, that lionheart, that Heracles,
and Semele bore Dionysus, ecstasy, joy to mankind—
not when I loved Demeter, queen of the lustrous braids—
not when I bedded Leto ripe for glory—
(book 14)
Nothing says sexy times quite like listing all the people with whom you've cheated on your spouse.7 And then (and then!) Zeus reveals his wicked, evil plan. He will give glory after glory to the Torjans until the Greeks suffer terribly, following which Achilles
will launch his comrade Patroclus into action
and glorious Hector will cut him down with a spear
in front of Troy, once Patroclus has slaughtered
whole battalions of strong young fighting men
and among them all, my shining son Sarpedon.
But then—enraged for Patroclus—
brilliant Achilles will bring Prince Hector down.
(book 15)
You must, at this point imagine me tearing my hair out shouting "no! don't do it!" at the loud-thundering Zeus. You see, in all my readings of The Iliad there are only really two people I would really, really like to see survive: Patroclus and Hector (alright, and Andromache). The rest can burn.

I said I think of The Iliad as one of the great love stories -- no less so for being a love story constructed almost entirely around the loss (in fact, let's make Patroclus/Achilles item #5 on my list), which makes book 16 all the more heartbreaking. It starts earlier, of course: Already in book 11, Nestor points out to Patroclus that if Achilles won't fight, he can still save a lot of Greeks by simply donning Achilles' armour. And that, eventually, becomes the plan. It is classic tragedy at work, really: Achilles, hero, driven by his pride, lays the ground for the circumstances leading to the loss of the man he loves above all others. And to drive the point home, he sends him off with the heartrending
Once you have whipped the enemy from the fleet
you must come back, Patroclus.
(book 16)
and even as Achilles prays for the safety of his friend, Zeus sticks to his plans, damn him:
"But once he repels the roaring onslaught from the ships
let him come back to me and our fast fleet—unharmed—
with all my armor round him, all our comrades
fighting around my friend!"so Achilles prayed
and Zeus in all his wisdom heard those prayers.
One prayer the Father granted, the other he denied:
Patroclus would drive the onslaught off the ships—
that much Zeus granted, true,
but denied him safe and sound return from battle.
(book 16)
Patroclus has what you might call a field day (something I tend to skirt over in my perception of him as an innocent victim of war).

me: patroclus is a perfect innocent angel i love him
#iliad : PATROCLUS VICIOUSLY STABBED. BLOOD EVERYWHERE
me: perfect innocent angel

— Sophie Houghton (@Sophia_Houghton) August 14, 2015
Field days end, however. This time, it is all down to Apollo, that utter shit, who uses his divine powers to shove Patroclus in the back and knock his helmet off. At which point Hector steps in with the killing blow. And this is when the earlier glimpse of Hector as human pays off, because on the field he is not an altogether nice man, and lacking book 6 you might be inclined to resent him. Especially when you then get Achilles' gradual movement from ignorance to realisation of his friend's death:
Achilles never feared
his friend was dead—he must be still alive,
pressing on to the very gates, but he'd come back.
(book 17)
Dear gods, don't bring to pass the grief that haunts my heart—
the prophecy that mother revealed to me one time . . .
she said the best of the Myrmidons—while I lived—
would fall at Trojan hands and leave the light of day.
And now he's dead, I know it.
(book 18)
But now, Patroclus,
since I will follow you underneath the ground,
I shall not bury you, no, not till I drag back here
the gear and head of Hector, who slaughtered you,
my friend, greathearted friend.
(book 18)
It is striking how "the wrath of Achilles" (or rage, or anger, or however you would translate it) serves as a theme, not just in the conflict with Agamemnon, but still in his reaction to Patroclus' death. The anger changes tone and focus, but it still dominates events.

Achilles, however, is faced with a problem: He is all set to kill Hector, but Hector has his armour (stealing the armour or the fallen is popular pass-time in The Iliad). Thetis, however, has a solution: She hastens to Hephaestus, the god of smiths and artisans, who also owes her a favour, because
Thetis saved my life
when the mortal pain came on me after my great fall,
thanks to my mother's will, that brazen bitch,
she wanted to hide me-because I was a cripple.
(book 18)
(Hephaestus is not a great fan of his mother, understandably, as she threw him down from Olympus when he was born.) He therefore does not hesitate to provide Thetis' son with the most amazingly splendid armour ever seen. The description of the shield of Achilles (call that my item #6) is a famous example of ekphrasis (the literary description of a work of art), a skill to be exhibited much like the catalogue at the poem's opening. But it is more than that: It follows the slaughter of Patroclus (and the subsequent fight over his body), and precedes Achilles' violent revenge. And in between these battles, it offers a depiction of Greek life, mostly at peace. A reality check, perhaps. Ben Whishaw read it beautifully (there was, perhaps, a tendency among some readers to get carried away by the intensity of events, and to shout and rave as heads rolled; Whishaw was as wonderfully calm).

Thetis, meanwhile, is perhaps not the most empathetic character:
She found her beloved son lying facedown,
embracing Patroclus' body, sobbing, wailing ...
"My child, leave your friend to lie there dead—
we must, though it breaks our hearts . . .
The will of the gods has crushed him once for all.
But here, Achilles, accept this glorious armor, look
(book 19)
Paraphrased: The love of your life may be dead, but look: Bling!

Achilles takes the armour, however, and kills a lot of Trojans. Angrily. Faced with a Trojan who begs for mercy (one of Priam's 50 children, though, as he hastens to point out, not the son of Hecuba and therefore only Hector's half brother) he replies.
Before Patroclus met his day of destiny, true,
it warmed my heart a bit to spare some Trojans:
droves I took alive and auctioned off as slaves.
But now not a single Trojan flees his death,
not one the gods hand over to me before your gates,
none of all the Trojans, sons of Priam least of all!
Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
(book 21)
A wonderful turn of phrase, and I love how Achilles spoils it by continuing with
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am? (book 21)
leading up to the same point. He then goes on to attack a river (which manifests itself in fightable form because it is upset that Achilles has basically plugged it with dead bodies), and eventually he finds Hector. And kills Hector. And drags Hector's dead body behind his chariot in an attempt to deface his body. Achilles is angry. Quite understandably. But as we have been given leave by the poem to love both Patroclos and Hector, Achilles' anger also becomes a terrifying, sad event in itself.

One might almost think Zeus speaks for the reader, when he says that
Unbearable — a man I love, hunted round his own city walls
and right before my eyes. My heart grieves for Hector.
(book 22)
but as he continues, it turns out he speaks only for himself:
Hector who burned so many oxen in my honor, rich cuts,
now on the rugged crests of Ida, now on Ilium's heights.
(book 22)
Zeus is just unhappy that there will be fewer juicy steaks in his future. Andromache does better:
Now you go down
to the House of Death, the dark depths of the earth,
and leave me here to waste away in grief, a widow
lost in the royal halls—and the boy only a baby,
the son we bore together, you and I so doomed.
(book 22)8
In fact, the grief of Andromache and Achilles serve as perfect counterpoints. These are the people left behind, and that, more than the deaths of Patroclus and Hector, is what serves to illustrate the cost of war. And then, to wreak utter havoc with my heart, Patroclus' ghost visits Achilles (as he has yet to be buried, he cannot find peace):
Oh give me your hand—I beg you with my tears!
Never, never again shall I return from Hades
once you have given me the soothing rites of fire.
Never again will you and I, alive and breathing,
huddle side-by-side, apart from loyal comrades,
making plans together—never . . . Grim death,
that death assigned from the day that I was born
has spread its hateful jaws to take me down.
And you too,
your fate awaits you too, godlike as you are, Achilles—
to die in battle beneath the proud rich Trojans' walls!
But one thing more. A last request—grant it, please.
Never bury my bones apart from yours, Achilles,
let them lie together
...
And the swift runner Achilles reassured him warmly:
"Why have you returned to me here, dear brother, friend?
Why tell me of all that I must do? I'll do it all.
I will obey you, your demands. Oh come closer!
Throw our arms around each other, just for a moment—
take some joy in the tears that numb the heart!"
In the same, breath he stretched his loving arms
but could not seize him, no, the ghost slipped underground
like a wisp of smoke . . . with a high thin cry.
(book 23)
Twitter, of course, found it hilarious that Achilles
turned and twisted, side to side,
he longed for Patroclus' manhood, his gallant heart
(book 24)
but by then I was far too unhappy to find solace in innuendo (much as it entertained me during the earlier battle scenes).9

And to cap it all off, King Priam (ruler of Troy and father of Hector) comes alone into the Greek camp in order to beg Achilles for his son's body, so that it can be buried.
The majestic king of Troy slipped past the rest
and kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees
and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands
that had slaughtered Priam's many sons in battle.
(book 24)
And finally, finally, Achilles is done being angry. Which is why the poem ends with Hector's funeral,
And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses. (book 24)
not the death of Achilles (who will be shot in his heel (his one vulnerable spot) by a poisoned arrow directed by Apollo, that bastard), nor the fall of Troy (sneaky Odysseus, wooden horse and all).

Apparently there are variant endings which suddenly introduce an Amazon, Penthesilea (who arrives to commit suicide by battle because she is upset about having killed Hippolyta) right at the end, possibly as a segue to a poem that deals with the remainder of the war. The line appeals to me in the way that it emphasises the open nature of the poem, how it opens up into the wider mythic cycle(s). I am quite happy, however with how the poem focuses on just that very short period (in fact, let's make that the final item on my list: its limitation). Less, as Aristotle observed, is definitely more, even in epic poetry.




Notes:
1 I spent some time at the beginning of the live reading trying to figure out which translation they were using. It turned out it was the 1990s Robert Fagles one. I'll be quoting that here, though I am not convinced it is the best. It seems to have a healthy appreciation for alliteration, but a very loose idea of metre (it certainly does not attempt dactylic hexameter).

2 For example, as the fleet was setting out for Troy, he sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. I am not surprised that he arrived home to find his wife (whose former husband he had killed before forcing her to marry him) had taken up with someone else, and that they immediately murdered him in his bath.

3 Before giving the beautiful Helena to any one suitor, her father required them all to 1) not kill him, and 2) come if he should call them to fight for him. Menelaus, who got to marry Helena, is the brother of Agamemnon, who is married to Helena's (half) sister Clytaimnestra (where Helena is the daughter of Zeus and Leda -- through the whole swan thing -- her sister is the daughter of Leda and her husband, Tyndareos). Neither had what you would call altogether happy marriages.

4 She was forcibly married off to Peleus, Achilles' father, because of a prophecy which stated that if she had a son, he would be greater than his father (which is not so good when you are a god and will live forever, especially considering some gods' tendency towards patricide).

5 You will recall that it was Aphrodite who started this whole thing in the first place (well, unless you count Eris, who provided the apple), by promising to provide Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world if he would just say that she was the prettiest of them all. Which is rather silly, because once all contestants are set on bribing the judge, it is not really a beauty contest anymore.

6 There is also the glorious moment later on, when Athena (goddess of wisdom and war) beats up Ares:
Bloody Ares lunged at it now with giant lance
and Athena backed away, her powerful hand hefting
a boulder off the plain, black, jagged, a ton weight
that men in the old days planted there to mark off plowland—
Pallas hurled that boundary-stone at Ares, struck his neck,
loosed his limbs, and down he crashed and out over seven acres
sprawled the enormous god and his mane dragged in the dust,
his armor clashed around him. Athena laughed aloud,
glorying over him, winging insults: "Colossal fool—
it never even occurred to you, not even now
when you matched your strength with mine,
just how much greater I claim to be than you!
(book 21)
I will say nothing about the "giant lance" and keep my thoughts on a gendered subtext to myself.

7 This is of course another example of not-so-oblique references to well known legends, which the original audience would presumably know well.

8 Andromache has reason to be upset, of course: Once Troy falls, their son is thrown to his death from the city walls (in order to keep him from growing up to avenge his father/rebuild Troy), and Andromache herself is forced into slavery as the concubine of Achilles' son (incidentally the man who killed her son) and is eventually murdered by his wife, Hermione, the daughter of Helena and Menelaus.

9 Incidentally, it turns out that The Iliad is of the Shakespeare school of tragedy (or possibly the other way around), where sad and heavy things are counterpointed by a bit of comedy to make it all the more heartwrenching when it swings back to sad and heavy: In the middle of all these deaths and the grieving, there is the sporting interlude of Patroclus' funeral games (which I have spent years skimming quickly, and which I was perhaps too tired to properly appreciate in the live reading, as well).
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Tor,  23.08.15 08:37

I have to say I'm impressed that you actually listened to the whole thing. I only tried to pay attention for about half an hour, and found that somewhat difficult. Although I guess it helps if you've read it, and studied a bit of antique-something-something, so at least some of the names are familiar.

Also, I am of course even more impressed at the people who used to recite this by themselves, back in the day.

And, finally, I find it very cool that the Almeida theatre did this, even if I couldn't be bothered to listen in. It's the principle of the thing, or something.
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