Impertinent Questions

Impertinent Questions with James I. Porter

On Homer and the mortals and gods who fill his tales

HUMANITIES, July/August 2008, Volume 29, Number 4

James I. Porter has devoted his career to studying classics. His books explore the birth of tragedy, the role of aesthetics in Greek culture, and Greek and Roman classical traditions. After more than two decades at the University of Michigan, Porter is jumping to the University of California-Irvine this fall, where he will be professor of classics and comparative literature. This summer, he leads a four-week NEH summer seminar on “Homer’s Readers, Ancient and Modern.” We asked Porter to opine on Homer and the mortals and gods who fill his tales.

The Iliad is about the fallout from the “rage of Achilles.” Does Achilles have some anger-management issues?
Definitely. And luckily for everyone, he got some cognitive restructuring in the end.

Why have the Iliad and the Odyssey endured? 
In part because they were great poems. In part thanks to writing technologies (first, the papyrus, then the codex).

Helen of Troy: blond, brunette, or redhead?
Whatever you like (as Sappho would say): She is the ideal fantasy object. Homer never describes her, so you can project onto her any traits you want.

What would Homer have liked his listeners (and now readers) to take away from his tales? 
Like the Sirens in the Odyssey, he wanted to teach and to seduce with his songs.

How many men fit in the Trojan horse? 
We don't actually know. Homer mentions only four chieftains; each probably had a small following. It only took a few men to open the gates of Troy.

After the Trojan War ends, Calypso holds Odysseus hostage for seven years and he sires two children. How hard did he try to escape? 
Where could he go? He was in the middle of the ocean, without comrades or ships, and the gods were against him.

Who is your favorite Homeric character?
I'll take Odysseus. He’s the man of “many turns” and wiles, and utterly restless. His journey never ends.

What is your favorite scene or episode in Homer? 
One of my favorite scenes is from Iliad 9: Achilles playing a lyre by the sea and singing the glory of men. He is an image of a Homeric bard. The irony here is that the lyre is booty he stole from a raid.

Homer is notoriously hard on women. Do any female characters come out looking good? 
On the contrary, most female characters come out looking as good or better than their male counterparts. Think of Helen (the blameless beauty), Andromache (the noble mother and wife), Arete (the wise Phaeacian queen), Nausicaa (innocence embodied), and Penelope (Odysseus’ equal).

The Iliad and the Odyssey were originally performed orally. How did the bards do it without note cards? 
We forget how much memory we've lost due to writing and modern technology. Oral cultures were immense treasure-houses of learning and lore.

Was Homer a real man or a composite of individuals? 
There is no evidence that Homer ever existed, but the question has been debated for two and a half thousand years, thanks to the compelling unity of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Is there a modern equivalent to Homer's epic tales? 
James Joyce’s Ulysses.

What is your favorite adaptation of Homer (e.g., play, movie, mini-series)? 
Certainly not Troy starring Brad Pitt!

If you had to have a Greek god as your patron, who would you choose? 
Hermes. He is the god of in-betweens, thresholds, transitions, travel (wings on the feet), and the psychopomp (he escorts souls to the underworld).

When did you first encounter Homer? 
Probably when I read Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths as an 11-year-old, though I wasn’t aware of the fact.

What are your favorite translations of Homer and why? 
Richmond Lattimore gives the best feel of the original. It is rugged and handsome and unlikely to be surpassed in our day.

Footnote or endnote? 
I love both. I'd like to find a way to make endnotes refer to footnotes.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 
I’ve yet to make it.

What is your favorite language? 
German, because my favorite modern author is Nietzsche.