The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer

Review by John Loofbourow, MD

Translating is a delicate business. When reading a "classic" author, who wrote in a language foreign to the reader, the translation is critical; in fact, the translator is also an author. Every reader is a kind of translator, never passive because words are merely metaphors, symbols which represent something else, whose meaning must be re-created in the mind of the reader. In the Spaniard Unamuno's1 book titled Niebla (mist), the case for the reader is well stated. The central character is a rich but pathetic young man who falls in love with a beautiful woman. She alternately accepts his lavish attentions, and then casts him aside shamelessly. He realizes he is being played for a fool, and decides to commit suicide. But then, reflecting a most Spanish theme, he realizes that he is Suffering for the first time in his life, and is therefore for the first time, Alive; and he doesn't want to die. So he goes to the home of the author, Unamuno, and demands that the plot be altered. This also is a common theme for writers – after a good start, a good story begins to tell itself. Unamuno replies that an author is a creator, all powerful and all knowing; he, and he alone, will decide. Our hero scornfully replies that Unamuno actually will die; and if anyone remembers the author, it will only be because of his creation, who will live on. Further, Unamuno will stay dead, but his creation will grow and change, as his life is reinterpreted by different readers in different countries, different languages, other times.

The first requisite for a reader is to understand the writing, making any translation crucial. Though there are several translations of Homer, I have chosen the Rouse2 translation because he accepts his role as author, and tries to make the humor and color of Homer live again, making it possible for the average reader to follow and enjoy the story in modern English. Even so it is helpful to recall that Homer wrote in ancient Greek, hundreds of years after the events he describes. He wrote for people who were familiar with the various stories and gods of their time. Several hundred years later, Roman authors translated Odysseus, calling him Ulysses. Though most other humans and the lesser gods retain their original names, they used Roman names for the cast of Greek gods who provide comic relief for the tragic tale. Rouse sticks with the Greek names. But perhaps a side-by-side list will help those of us who know the Roman names better:

Greek:                                 Roman:

            Odysseus                                  Ulysses

            Zeus                                          Jupiter/ Jove

            Hera                                          Juno                        Wife of Zeus

            Poseido                                     Neptune                   god of waters

            Hephiastos                                Vulcan                      master smithy for gods, lame

            Aphrodite                                  Venus                       goddess of beauty

            Athena                                       Minerva                   goddess of wisdom

            Hermes                                      Mercury                  messenger for Zeus

            Artemis                                      Diana/ Luna            goddess of the hunt, moon

            Ares                                          Mars                       god of war

            Heracles                                    Hercules                  won immortality for feats of strength

            Apollo                                       Apollo                    god of prophesy, healing, sun

            Cronos                                      Saturn                     titan, father of Zeus

            Dis                                            Pluto                       ruler of Hades

            Eros                                          Cupid                     child of Aphrodite/Hephiastos

            Dionysius                                  Bacchus                  god of wine

            Demeter                                   Ceres                      goddess of Earth

It also helps to have a map and an idea of the Greek view of the world. The earth was a flat disk, crossed from East to West by the Mediterranean (mid-earth), and the Euxine Sea (Persian Gulf). To the East and West of these seas, flowed the River Ocean.

The Hyperboreans lived in the far north, and in the South the Aethiopians, unreachable to mortals. When mortals died, so soon as the flesh was gone, or burned, they left behind their bones and descended to Hades, where their mind and spirit lived on in a phantom body like the original.

The Primal deity, Gaea (Earth), sprung from Chaos, gave birth to Uranus (heaven); with him gave rise to a race of Titans, or giants. Among them were Cronos and Rhea, parents of Zeus who became king of the gods. (Cronos, or time, was accustomed to eat his children so that they would never replace him, but Rhea saved Zeus by feeding her husband a stone in his place, one of many fascinating Greek myths, too long to retell here.) The immortal gods lived on Mount Olympus, in Greece. They had very human failings. Sensual, jealous, demanding, they continually meddled in human affairs (or had affairs with humans), insisted on worship with sacrifice, and quarreled among themselves. Zeus (nearly as powerful as a US President) was a remarkable womanizer. He fathered Ares and Hephaistos with his wife Hera, Epaphus by Io, Minos by Europa, (where he took the form of a bull), Aphrodite by Dione, Apollo and Artemis by Satona, Castor and Pollux by Leda (in the form of a swan), Hermes by Maia, Dionysius by Semele, nine muses by Memory, three graces by Eurynome, Persephone by Demeter, Heracles by Alcmene, and Athena by himself, when she sprang fully grown from his mind. Aside from Earth there were two other lesser dominions in the Greek world ruled by Zeus's brothers who were vomited up by Cronos after an emetic was slipped to him: The Waters, ruled by Poseidon, and Hades, ruled by Dis (Pluto).


1. Unamuno, Miguel de, Spaniard, prolific author of plays, books, essays early in the 20th century. While Cervantes is better known to English speakers, Unamuno is, in my opinion, at least as fine a writer.

2. Rouse, W.H.D. The Iliad: The Odyssey, Signet 1999 (First edition 1937)