from the author’s ‘Introduction’:



Such is the richness of the Iliad that it would be impossible to explore here all that the epic has to offer – for instance, the depth and subtlety of its characterization, the poem’s narrative power and the brilliance of its similes. Instead I should like to draw attention to just a few of the epic’s central concerns.


the nature of the hero

All great creative artists – and Homer unquestionably ranks among them – go beyond sheer story telling to use narrative to reflect on the nature of their world and their society. So, through the narrative of the fighting at Troy, the Iliad explores the complex nature of the hero, his duties and rewards, his relationship to the gods and the wider society around him – all that goes to make up the heroic code. At the simplest level, the hero is a warrior whom his people reward with material goods and with honour because he fights to protect them; while he, for his part, faces imminent death for the sake of those goods, and honour, and the personal praises that he wins by success in combat. The classic statement of this heroic code is to be found in Iliad Book 12, when the Trojan ally, Sarpedon, from Lykia, says to his comrade, Glaukos:


‘Glaukos, why are we two honoured most of all                                  310
with cuts of meat, wine and the highest place
in Lykia, where they look on us as gods
and grant us erven on the river Xanthos,
good wine farms, ploughlands that bear grain?
So we should meet war’s fire-storm head-on
standing among the Lykian front ranks,
so that our armoured Lykian men may say,
“They’re rich in praise, our chiefs who govern
Lykia; they eat fat sheep, they drink
the choice sweet wine. But great strength too is theirs –                      320
they fight among the Lykian front ranks.”
My friend, if we could shun this war
and be forever ageless and immortal,
I would not then do combat out in front
nor urge you to the fight where men win praise.
But since a thousand spirits of death crowd round
whom no one can escape – come, either we
shall grant some man his prayer or he’ll grant ours.’


the irony of fate


The Iliad has, rightly, been interpreted as a tragic poem. And central to this tragic aspect of the epic is something we might term the ‘irony of fate’. That is to say, the Iliad draws attention again and again to the fact that human beings – however much they seem to know, however well-intentioned – act blindly, in ignorance of their fate. They perform actions and make choices the tragic consequences of which they are unable to foresee. And here, what is true of the Iliad’s minor, even insignificant, figures, is true also of its major heroes . . .


Even favourites of the gods die, ignorant of their patrons’ will:


      Menelaos killed
Skamandrios the hunter, son of Strophios;                                         50
Artemis herself had taught him how
to hunt the game that lurks in mountain
forests. But now neither hunter Artemis
nor all his skill in archery could save him.
. . . . . . .
      Meriones killed Phereklos, the son
of Harmonides, a skilled woodworker,                                                 60
whom Pallas Athene loved beyond the rest.
He built Alexandros his curving ships,
the origin of evil, a scourge on Troy
and on himself, who failed to read the signs.
Meriones caught him as he fled . . .
. . . Screaming, he fell to his knees and died.             (Iliad Book 5.50-68)


Just as this tragic lack of knowledge, this ignorance of the future, afflicts the lesser heroes of the Iliad, so too it ensnares the greatest, Patroklos and Hektor and Akhilleus, and brings about their suffering and death. In the opening lines of the Iliad we hear about the ‘plan of Zeus’ that will cause the deaths of many heroes – it is this plan that gradually unfolds as the epic goes on. And it is because even the major heroes fail to grasp the full extent of Zeus’s plan that each is involved in the tragic irony of fate.

Akhilleus in the Iliad gains the greatest glory possible for a mortal man: the agreement of the chief of the gods, Zeus, to honour him by letting the Akhaians die and the Trojans gain the upper hand. This much Akhilleus knows. But what he does not know is that Zeus’s plan includes the death of his dearest friend, Patroklos – and that once Patroklos dies his own end will follow soon. After Akhilleus, sending Patroklos out to help the failing Akhaians, has prayed to Zeus, the poet comments with laconic power, emphasizing Akhilleus’ fateful ignorance:


So he spoke in prayer; counsellor Zeus heard him
but granted part, refused the other part –
granted his friend should drive war from the ships,
refused his safe return back from the fight.             (Iliad Book 16.249-52)


Akhilleus’ comrade, too, dies because of his own fatal lack of foreknowledge. When Patroklos begs Akhilleus to send him into battle, the poet says:


So he begged him – poor fool, it was his own
evil death and doom for which he begged.                (Iliad Book 16.46-7)


And again, as Patroklos approaches the final encounter that will bring about his death:



pursued the Lykians and Trojans – poor, deluded
fool. If he had listened to Akhilleus
he’d have escaped dark death’s evil destiny.            (Iliad Book 16.684-7)


As for Hektor, the irony of fate overshadows him too, so that he meets his end because he has only a partial, tragically flawed understanding of the plan of Zeus. In the central books of the Iliad Hektor is aware that Zeus is granting him praises and glory, allowing him to drive the Akhaians across the plain, right back to their huts and ships. Convinced that he may finally defeat the enemy, and even kill Akhilleus, he blindly refuses to listen to the advice of his wise counsellor, Poulydamas, not to keep the Trojans out on the plain. After the Trojans approve Hektor’s speech, the poet comments:


Fools! for Athene took away their wits;
Hektor’s bad proposal made them cheer
but not the good advice of Poulydamas.                    (Iliad Book 18.311-13)


Hektor is, of course, deluded. What he fails to understand is that his glory is only conditional and temporary, simply part of Zeus’s plan to honour Akhilleus. In the end, this lack of understanding leads him to stay outside the town gates when all the other Trojans have fled inside, and to face up to Akhilleus, and to die.

What the Iliad shows us, then, is that mortals struggle in darkness, unable to know or to predict the moment of their death. As the poet expresses it in Book 16 when Patroklos goes to meet his destiny, ‘always Zeus’s mind is stronger than men’s minds’ (Iliad Book 16.688).

However, although they can never attain the omniscience of a Zeus, the greatest heroes, Hektor and Akhilleus (and this is a sign of their greatness) are able sometimes to rise to an almost godlike clarity of understanding. Once his comrade, Patroklos, has died and Akhilleus decides to return to battle, he acts with full knowledge of the consequences of his decision. Having embraced his heroic destiny of a short but glory-filled life, Akhilleus fights knowing now that his own death will come soon. Even as he seems to act with great savagery, as when he kills the sons of Priam, Akhilleus’ actions are redeemed and lent a tragic dimension by this foreknowledge. Thus, as he is about dispatch Lykaon, Akhilleus says to him with pitiless clarity:


‘So, friend, you die too – why moan about it?
Patroklos died, a far better man than you.
And look at me, how fine and strong I am
– my father noble, my mother a goddess –
yet, for me too, death and strong fate loom;
there will be a dawn,midday, or afternoon
when some man will take my life in battle
with a spear-cast, or arrow from the bowstring.’     (Iliad Book 21.106-13)


This lucidity of understanding is part of what makes Akhilleus the greatest of the Akhaian heroes.

Hektor, too, though a lesser hero, begins and ends his career with true understanding of the destiny of his town and people. Early in the Iliad, speaking to his wife, Andromakhë, Hektor says:


‘But in my heart and mind I know this well:
the day is coming when the town ofTroy
will fall, with Priam, and Priam’s impis.’                   (Iliad Book 6.447-9)


Troywill fall and he will die. For a long while during the fighting on the plain, Hektor forgets this, allowing himself to believe that he and the Trojans may defeat their enemy. But when at last he finds himself all alone outside the walls of the town, face to face with a vengeful Akhilleus, deserted by his comrade and abandoned by the gods, then:


In his heart Hektor knew the truth, and said:
‘Ah! So the gods were calling me to death:
I thought Deïphobos was here, but he’s
inside the walls – Athene has deceived me.
Now evil death is not far off, but close.                                                 300
No escape. This must, long since, have been the plan
of Zeus and of Apollo, who earlier
protected me. But now my fate has come.
I won’t die ingloriously, without a fight,
but doing a great deed, praised by men to come.’   (Iliad Book 22.296-305)


So Hektor dies gloriously, fully grasping the truth of his situation, rising again at the end to the level of great hero.


from Iliad Book 1 :


Muse, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Akhilleus,
deadly rage that brought the Akhaians endless pain,
that hurled down to Hades many strong souls
of heroes and made their bodies meat for dogs
and vultures, fulfilling the plan of Zeus,
ever since the day that those two quarreled –
inkosi Agamemnon and godlike Akhilleus.
      Which god made them clash in strife? The son
of Zeus and Leto. Angry with the chief,
he drove plague on the impis – people died                                         10
because Atreus’ son dishonoured the priest,
Khryses. He came to the Akhaian ships
to free his daughter, offering rich ransom,
holding in his hands Apollo’s ribbons
around a golden staff, and begged the Akhaians,
above all Atreus’ two sons, their leaders:
‘Sons of Atreus, all well-greaved Akhaians,
may the Olympian gods grant that you sack
the town of Priam and come safely home.
Take this ransom and release my daughter;                                        20
respect Apollo the Archer, Zeus’s son.’
      The other Akhaians shouted their assent:
he should respect the priest and take the splendid ransom.
This failed to please the heart of Agamemnon;
he harshly dismissed Khryses, saying roughly:
‘Kehla, don’t let me find you hanging
around the ships, now or in the future –
the god’s staff and ribbons won’t protect you.
I will not release her – before that, she’ll grow old
in my home, in Argos, far from her native land,                                   30
working the loom and servicing my bed.
Go! don’t annoy me and put yourself in danger.’
      He spoke. The old man trembled and obeyed . . .


from Iliad Book 3 :


Helen knew the goddess by her graceful neck,
desirable breasts and flashing eyes;
she stood amazed and spoke to her by name:
‘For god’s sake! Why try to talk me round like this?
Do you want to send me off to some                                                   400
more distant town in Maeonia or Phrygia
where there’s some favourite man of yours?
Menelaos has beaten godlike Paris
and wants to take my hateful self off home –
is that the reason you’re here making trouble?
Go, sit with Paris, don’t pretend to be
a god, never go back to Olympos,
but still protect and sympathize with him
until he makes you his wife – or servant-girl!
But I will not go to him to warm his bed;                                             410
I’d be ashamed, all the Trojan women
would blame me – my heart’s already full of pain.’
      In a fury, Aphrodite said:
‘Woman, don’t make me leave you in my anger.
My hatred may be worse than my strange love:
if I make the Trojans and Akhaians
fight again, you’ll meet a painful end.’
      So she spoke, and Helen was afraid.
Veiled with her bright dress, she went in silence,
unseen by the women; the goddess led the way.                                 420
      When they reached the house of Alexandros,
the servants at once returned to their own tasks,
while Helen entered his high-ceilinged bedroom.
Laughter-loving Aphrodite brought a chair
– god though she was – and set it next to Paris.
Helen, daughter of Zeus, sat down on the chair.
She said with scorn, not looking at her husband:
‘Back from the front, I see – I wish you’d died there
slain by a stronger man, my first husband!
You used to boast that you were stronger,                                           430
a better spearman than warlike Menelaos –
well then, challenge warlike Menelaos
to single combat once again . . . But no,
I shall not let you; don’t fight Menelaos
man to man, don’t duel with him; that would be
foolish, you might go down beneath his spear.’


 from Iliad Book 5 :


      So saying, grey-eyed Athene went away,
while Diomedes returned to the front line.
Though he’d been keen before to fight
the Trojans, now his force was trebled.
As a lion that a shepherd in the veld
wounds as it clears the boma – he does not
kill it, but only makes its fury greater;
irresistible, it ranges through the kraals,                                             140
panicking the sheep; now their bodies lie
heaped, as the lion in its fury leaves the fold –
so Diomedes raged against the Trojans,
killing Hypeiron and Astynoös.
He struck one above the nipple with his spear,
and hit the other on the collar-bone
slicing away the shoulder with his sword.


 from Iliad Book 14 :


      Quickly Hera came to Gargaron, the peak
of lofty Ida, where cloudy Zeus saw her,
and as he saw, desire veiled his mind
as much as when they first made love together
and went to bed, out of their parents’ way.
Standing there, he spoke to her by name:
‘Hera, what has brought you from Olympos?
I see no chariot-team to bring you here.’
      Deceitfully, the goddess Hera answered:                                       300
‘I’m off to visit the ends of fertile earth,
Ocean, source of the gods, and mama Tethys
who raised and nurtured me in their home.
I want to see them and resolve their endless
fighting; for a long time now they have not slept
together or made love, anger fills their hearts.
My team is standing in moist Ida’s foothills
ready to bear me over land and sea;
it’s for your sake I’ve come here from Olympos,
so you won’t be cross if I go to the home                                            310
of Ocean, and his deep streams, without asking.’
      Zeus who gathers cloud answered her, saying:
‘Hera, put off your trip until tomorrow –
let us go and enjoy ourselves in bed.
Never has such desire for a goddess
or woman overwhelmed my heart like this –
not even when I wanted Ixion’s wife,
who bore Peirithoös, godlike in the indaba;
or Danaë, with her lovely ankles,
who bore Perseus, most famous among men;                                      320
or glorious Europa, Phoinix’s daughter,
who bore Minos and godlike Rhadamanthys;
or even Semelë, or Alkmenë,
who bore a son, strong-minded Herakles,
while Semelë bore Dionysos;
or goddess Demeter, with the lovely hair;
or famous Leto, or even yourself –
as now I feel desire and lust for you.’
      Deceitfully, the goddess Hera answered:
‘Dread son of Kronos, what a thing to say!                                          330
If, as you wish, we bed down and make love
on Ida’s peak, we’d be visible to all –
what if one of the everlasting gods
saw us in bed, and went and told the others?
I could not get up from where I lay
and go to your house – that would be a scandal!
But if your heart is really set on this,
you have a bedroom that my son
Hephaistos built, joining doors and door-posts –
let’s go there, since bed is what you want.’                                         340
      Zeus who gathers cloud answered her, saying:
‘Hera, don’t worry that any god or man
will see – I’ll hide us in a golden cloud
so thick it’ll be opaque to Helios,
whose piercing rays make all things visible.’
      So saying, Kronos’s son embraced his wife,
and under them the holy earth put out
fresh grass, dewy lotus, crocus, dense soft
hyacinth, that raised them above the  ground.
There they lay wrapped in a lovely golden                                           350
cloud that gave off sparkling drops of dew.


 from Iliad Book 18 :


      First he made the great strong shield, all covered
with decoration, and threw a flashing triple
rim around it, adding a silver strap.                                                     480
There were five circles on the shield – each
with many scenes, made by his skilled craftsmanship.
      He created the earth, and sky, and sea,
the unwearying sun and waxing moon,
all the constellations that wreathe heaven,
the Pleiades and Hyades, mighty Orion
and the Bear, called by men ‘The Wagon’,
that turns in one place, watching for Orion,
and alone has never bathed in Ocean’s stream.
      He made two lovely towns of mortal men.                                     490
In one were marriages and feasting, brides
led by blazing torchlight from their chambers
through the town, as loud wedding-songs rang out.
Young men whirled in the dance, with flutes and lyres
echoing, while in their doorways women stood
and watched, filled with wonder at the scene.
But citizens thronged the kgotla, where a dispute
arose – two men quarreling over blood-price
for a dead man: one swore he’d pay the price
in full, showing it to the people; the other refused                                500
to take it; then both agreed to arbitration.
Supporters were shouting for both sides,
while heralds held them back; the elders sat
on polished stones in the sacred circle,
grasping the heralds’ sceptres in their hands;
each gave out his judgement, one by one.
Two talents of gold lay in the centre,
to reward that man who gave the straightest judgement.
      Around the other town two impis camped
in shining armour, divided in their plans                                               510
whether to sack the town outright or accept
half of the possessions it contained. 


from Iliad Book 24 :


Great Priam came in, unseen by them, stood near,
then clasped Akhilleus’ knees and kissed his hands,
those dread, murderous hands that slew his many sons.
As when strong frenzy takes a man who kills                                        480
in his native land then flees abroad
to a rich man’s home, and those who see him gaze
in wonder – so Akhilleus wondered at godlike Priam,
and the others wondered, glancing at each other.
But Priam said to him in supplication:
‘Godlike Akhilleus, think of your own father,
a man like me, on the threshold of old age;
perhaps his neighbours round about now wear
him down, with no one near to ward off harm.
But he rejoices in his heart to hear                                                        490
you are alive, and all his days he hopes
he’ll see his beloved son return from Troy;
but it was my evil fate to father noble
sons in broad Troy none of whom is left.
When the sons of the Akhaians came, I had
fifty sons, nineteen from a single womb,
the rest born to women in my home.
Fierce Ares loosed the limbs of many,
but there was one defender of his town
and people whom you slew as he fought for his land –                            500
Hektor. I’ve come to the Akhaian ships
to ransom him, bringing endless gifts.
Respect the gods, Akhilleus, pity me,
remember your own father; yet I’m more
pitiable than any other mortal –
I’ve had to kiss the hands of my son’s killer.’
      He spoke, stirring desire in Akhilleus
to weep for his own father. He touched the old man’s
hand and gently pushed him back. Both remembered:
Priam, slumped at Akhilleus’ feet, mourned manslaughtering                   510
Hektor, while Akhilleus mourned, first his father,
then Patroklos; their cries rang through the house. 


from the Glossary :


This glossary gives the Standard English meanings of the South African words used in the Iliad translation. I have not always given all meanings of each word, but have concentrated on the sense(s) I have used in the translation.

Abbreviations: Afr. = Afrikaans; Du. = Dutch; Eng. = English; n. = noun; Por. = Portuguese; SA = South African; So. = Sotho; transf. = transferred (sense); Ts. = Tswana; usu. = usually; v. = verb; X. = Xhosa; Z. = Zulu

Pronunciation: I have given an approximate English pronunciation for each word. (The values of vowels and consonants are those outlined at the start of the ‘Major Names in the Iliad’ section below, except that kh in the Glossary pronunciations is equivalent to the ch in Scottish loch.)


amakhosi  ( X. & Z.) ummakáwsi  chiefs and headmen


assegai (Arabic-Berber & SA Eng.) ásseguy  short or long spear,

used for stabbing or throwing


baba  (Z.) búbba  ‘father’, used to address older man

boma  (Swahili & SA Eng.) bóhmah  hedge, often of thorn-

bushes; enclosed space

braai  (Afr.) brý  to roast, grill, esp. barbecue over open fire

breker  (Afr.) breé-uh-kur  tough, destructive or aggressive man

bushveld  (Afr.) búshfelt  thorny, scrubby, bushy countryside


disselboom  (Afr.) díssilboo-um  yoke-pole or single shaft of


dolosse (Afr.) dáwlawse  knuckle-bones of goats or sheep used in

children’s games

donga  (X. & Z.) dáwnga  dry eroded gully

drift  (SA Du.) drift  shallow river-crossing, ford


erf, pl. erven  (Afr.) aírf, aírven  plot(s) of land


igqira  (X.) igkíkha  traditional healer or priest-diviner

impala  (Z.) impáhla  medium-sized SA antelope

impi  (Z.) ímpi   army or regiment of warriors

indaba  (X. & Z.) indáhba  assembly, council meeting, discussion

induna  (X. & Z.) indóona  headman, officer under a chief

inkosi  (X. & Z.) inkáwsi  a chief, ruler; transf., God; respectful form of address to the foregoing

inspan  (Du.) ínspan  yoke or harness draught animals to a vehicle

inyanga  (X. & Z.) inyanga  traditional herbalist-healer



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