Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, depicts the prominent conflict between the Achaeans and the Trojans. The Iliad and The Odyssey have become staples in universal literature and the foundation of Greek culture to many. In both works, Homer implicitly celebrates the role he plays as a performer and conduit from the Gods “who have their homes on Olympos” (75,18), giving rise to a question I repeatedly asked myself: “Why does Homer invoke the assistance of Gods and Muses in The Iliad to aid his poetry?”. The exploration of the impact and function of the “blessed” (84,339) and yet “blameworthy” (121,164) Gods and Muses in the two poems is necessary to thoroughly disentangle the complexity of the matter.
Immediately, we can consider the openings of The Iliad and The Odyssey in that respective order. Homer invokes the muse in the first line of The Iliad,“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus/ and its devastation”(75,1), putting forward the notion that he isn’t just telling us a story but instead channelling divine forces. Similarly, in the opening of The Odyssey, Homer prays to the Muses “tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy”(105,2), and therefore uses the Gods to inform the readers of Odysseus’ situation. Homer is conscious that he wants to sing the Wrath of Achilles however he clearly requires the Muses’ help to give him entree into this unspeakably long tale at the perfect moment. I imagine that Homer employs the Muses to embed a starting point for the exploration of the general setting in his epic poems; however, they essentially execute the poems and unfold stories of the individual character’s to the readers. These introductory invocations serve to place the specific themes studied in the poems, such as ‘rage and hubris’ and ‘the glorification versus the critique of war’, enclosed by a broader framework aided by the desire and ability of the Gods and Muses. One can illustrate this as Homer revealing that the Gods spend their time writing the epic poems and that he only serves as the mouthpiece or performer, which is why it surprises me how much this technique has lionized Homer’s role and status.
The most extensive exhibition of Homer’s invocations is the ten lines introducing the famously debated ‘catalogue of ships’ in The Iliad, where“Twenty-nine Greek contingents, totaling 1,186 ships are listed, with the description spiraling outward from Boeotia in central Greece” (525,496). Homer emphasizes the magnitude of the host in a sequence of similes, “Like the multitudinous nations of swarming insects who drive hither and thither about the stalls of the sheepfold in the season of spring when the milk splashes in the milk pails” (105,469), and then suggests to list the names of the chiefs. What seems most interesting about the scene is not so much the inspiration for colorful and exiting language, nor the conversation surrounding the origins and poetics of the catalogue, but rather that he explicitly stops and invokes the Muses to help him with this unsettling task: “Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos. For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things, […] Who then of those were the chief men and the lords of the Danaäns? I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them, not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had a voice never to be broken and a heart of bronze within me, not unless the Muses of Olympia, […] remembered all those who came beneath Ilion.” (105,484).
The repetition of Homer’s requests of the Muses only signify the importance of the aid and assistance he receives, however I do not believe the invocation is simply a demand for knowledge, but also his own unique fabrication of ‘recusatio’, a dissent to give a complete demonstration of intricate matters. This interpretation is supported by the scene in The Odyssey where Helen of Troy tells Telemachus a story about his father: “I cannot tell you all the challenges steadfast Odysseus has undergone. But I will tell you what that brave man did at Troy, when the Achaeans were in trouble.” (159,240).We can clearly see this unusual need to be selective, which would indicate that without Muses, we would never have these Homeric poems. Although this scene demonstrates Homer’s need for the Muses and Gods to aid his craft, it does not tell us why he needs them. Why does Homer depend on the Muses? Who are they and does he use them to extend responsibility?
Perhaps by becoming this blind bard through the help of the Muses, he is able to better tell the story of Troy in different narratives, without the fear of failure. One can also infer that the function of the Muses is not solely for instruction but also selection; it’s possible that the through the oral tradition at which The Iliad is assumed to have been preformed, the Muses’ role was to cut down the story to practicable, important figures.