LIT 520: The Epics of Homer
Instructor: Jayson Grieser
Spring 2020 (January 13-April 17, 2020)
The aim of this course is to immerse the student into the world of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. Through close readings of the primary texts in translation, students will sit at the feet of the “father of Western literature.” They will also be encouraged to form their own judgments about the meaning of the epics, what the scholars say, and the value of Homer today. In a seminar format, either in the classroom or in an on-line forum, students will debate the perennial questions and insights of these beloved and formative poems.
Why read Homer today? That’s the big question. His epics are influential to be sure, but also demanding. Reading Homer and teaching Homer are large undertakings. Is Homer still worth the effort and research? In an age of social media, can we disengage ourselves to engage with this ancient bard in such a way that his Achilles and Odysseus will have something to say to us in the modern world? Can we as non-Greek speakers even come to terms with this imposing giant of literature? By the end of the course, students should be able to answer these questions for themselves and in the affirmative.
The student should be able to discuss, answer, or comment on the following, demonstrating his own mastery of the primary narratives and independent thought about the scholarship.
- The Iliad and Odyssey as comparative and complementary works. (A) One gives us the first tragedy, the other, the first comedy. One is centered round a hero in war the other, a hero at a time of relative peace. How do the two epics overlap in theme and narrative and when do they diverge? (B) What evidence is there that these epics were written by the same author?
- The Homeric epics as history and poetry. (A) Did these events really happen? What can be proved by historical evidence? (B) Situate Homer’s epics in relation to the Greek Dark Age and the philosophical revolution of Socrates. (C) Where did the action take place? Know the geography of the two epics. (D) Who originally sang them and how? Where did the episodes come from? How were they transmitted? Who wrote them down?
- Narrative structure. (A) What is the structure of each epic? What books might be blocked together? (B) What are the key moments on which the plots turn? (C) Summarize the story of each, including the main events and themes. (D) How does the narrative of each epic unfold? How are the narrative styles similar? How different?
- The Hero. (A) What makes Achilles a hero? (You might include Achilles as leader, warrior, friend, lover, son of Thetis, man of rage, man of human sympathy, subject of Zeus.) (B) What is the character of Odysseus? How is his heroism similar to Achilles’? How different? (C) What must he accomplish to fulfill his heroic mission? Compare and contrast it to Achilles’ life and purpose.
- Women in Homer. (A) What is the place of women in the Iliad? The whole war is for Helen, or is it? Important women in the Iliad: Hector’s wife, Priam’s wife, and the goddesses Thetis and Hera. (B) In the Odyssey, Athena and Penelope. How do they relate to their husbands? To men in general? (C) Could they too be described as heroic?
- The gods in Homer. (A) What are we to make of Homer’s gods? How does Homer characterize the gods? How are they different from men? (B) Are these the gods that the Greeks on the street actually believed in? The philosophers? (C) What do the gods require from men? What do the gods live for? Are they just? (D) Compare and contrast the gods of the epics.
- War and death in Homer. (A)What is Homer’s view of warfare? What is aresteia? (B) What do the epic similes reveal about war in the Iliad? (C) What is the afterlife in each epic? (D) What is Homer’s own view of war?
- Homer’s political significance. (A) What is the polis? (B) What is a king or leader? (C) What hierarchy exists among the men? What codes of honor exists between the men?
- Homer in context. (A) Contrast medieval, Renaissance and contemporary approaches to understanding Homer’s epics. (B) Historically how were these epics taught? When did they begin to fall out of favor and why? (C) What’s the state of Homer and secondary education today? (D) Is it helpful to characterize Homer as a historians or rhetorician or as the “father of Western literature.”
- Teaching Homer. (A) Should we teach both epics comparatively? What sorts of assignments would make the teaching of the epic successful? What would you avoid? What would you want students to take away from these epics? (B) How might these texts teach the contemporary student about the following: politics, gender politics, narrative, poetic device, leadership, cultural transmission, the Greek polis, the Greek attitude toward war and peace, men and woman, courage, friendship, personal worth, human value, sex, marriage, religion? Which of these topics would you bring into your lesson plan and why?