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Library display case Queen's College

Images of Epic: Representations of Homer and his Works from the Archive to the Comic Book.

This exhibition explores the various ways that illustrators, printers and artists have represented the Greek poet Homer and his famous poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey; the texts on show stretch from the 1500s to the present day. The Iliad deals with the story of the Trojan War, the war fought by the Greek and Trojan heroes over Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world; and the Odyssey tells the story of one of those war heroes, Odysseus, as he tries to get home and encounters monsters and mayhem along the way.


Thomas Tickell (1685—1740) The First Book of Homer’s Iliad, Translated by Mr Tickell (1715)

Recent scholarship has rejected the idea of one fantastically talented ‘Homer’ as the author of the poems, instead outlining a model of multiple poets working in an oral culture who created these poems over many years, but historically ‘Homer’ was a revered and respected literary figure. He is usually represented as a blind old man, as in the image above, printed on the front cover of Thomas Tickell’s translation of the first book of the Iliad. Tickell was a fellow of Queen’s, and his portrait still hangs in the Hall. 


Homer’s Iliad (1524)

This beautifully printed edition of Homer’s Iliad is open to the first lines of the poem, which famously begins:


μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος…                    Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles,

the son of Peleus…

The Iliad focuses on a few weeks towards the end of the Trojan War when Achilles, the aristos Achaion, the ‘best of the Achaeans’ (Greeks), argues with the commander of the Greek armies, Agamemnon. The beauty and richness of this edition of the poem, seen in the careful printing of the text and the gilded edges of the pages, reflects the esteem that the poem has traditionally been held in: the Iliad and the Odyssey have often been considered to be foundational in the Western canon, and cornerstones of European literature.



Dan Simmons (1948—) Ilium (2003)

This is a modern novel, Ilium, written by the American novelist Dan Simmons. It recasts the story of the Iliad as science fiction, featuring as one of its main characters a twentieth-century classicist who finds himself experiencing the Trojan War as it unfolds again. The front cover, shown here, blends the imagery of the classical world with that of science fiction, setting a Greek-style helmet in front of a field of stars and suns. What this shows is that, despite the magisterial influence of these ancient poems on the last few millennia of our literary culture, modern authors do not necessarily treat them as revered texts that must be preserved intact and pure. They can (and perhaps should?) be reworked to fit a new cultural setting.


Private collection

Ilium by Dan Simmons
Carmina Homerica, Ilias et Odyssea (1820)

Authors old and new have long been fascinated by what exactly the world of the Homeric poems looked like. This edition of the poems (above) includes parallel maps of Troy (‘Troas’) ‘Homerica’ (‘in the time of Homer’) and ‘Hodierna’ (‘today’). The ‘Homerica’ map includes the locations of the Greek camp (‘Graecorum castra’) and the encampments of three major heroes—Ajax, Odysseus, and Achilles—as they are described in the Iliad. By contrast, the ‘Hodierna’ map shows the courses of ancient rivers (‘pons antiq.’) alongside the locations of contemporary villages, for instance the village of Bournabashi in the top left hand corner. These maps are, a little confusingly, upside-down by comparison with modern maps: modern-day Turkey is at the top, and the Hellespont and Europe (marked ‘Thracia’ or ‘Europa’) are at the bottom. These images show the reader where the events of the ancient text happened in relation to the contemporary landscape.



Homeri Odysseia; Batrachomyomachia, Hymni et Epigrammata (1707)

We can see a similar manoeuvre at work in this edition of the Odyssey (below), where the geography of the contemporary Mediterranean is overlaid with Odysseus’ legendary wanderings.  The right hand side of the map, focusing on Greece and the Aegean, mostly shows historical locations such as Boeotia, the Peloponnese and Crete, but the left hand side veers into myth, mapping the monsters that Odysseus meets in his adventures onto the geography of Italy. The Cyclops (a terrifying one-eyed giant) and the Lotus-Eaters (men who have eaten the fruit of the lotus and fallen into a stupor) are both located in Sicily. Circe (a witch who turns Odysseus’ men in pigs) and the Sirens (monsters who lure sailors to their deaths) live off the coast of northern Italy. The lands of Calypso (a nymph) and the Phaeacians (the semi-divine people who eventually ensure Odysseus’ safe homecoming) are in the Ionian Sea.


This book was donated to the library by T W Allen (1862—1931), an influential Homer scholar who was a fellow of Queen’s, and whose editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey are still set texts for undergraduate Classicists today.



John B S Morritt (1772?—1843) A Vindication of Homer and of the Ancient Poets and Historians, Who Have Recorded the Siege and Fall of Troy: In Answer to Two Late Publications of Mr Bryant (1798)

The city of Troy itself is no less a fascination. Writers and artists who visited the contemporary Trojan plain regularly recorded and even drew what they saw there, such as this beautiful image (below), subtitled “Troy from the Source of the Scamander”. The Scamander is the river that flows across the Trojan Plain, and it plays a significant role in the Iliad. In Book 21, maddened by the death of his beloved companion, Patroclus, Achilles kills so many Trojans that he chokes the waters of the river Scamander with their corpses; the river-god objects to this, but Achilles is so wrapped up in his wrath that he dares to fight the god himself. This eighteenth-century image, however, shows Troy as it was at a later time: grassy hills, white houses, and what looks like a minaret. It is a peaceful, tranquil illustration, contrasting sharply with the bloody, violent slaughter that we find in the Iliad.



Valérie Mangin, scénariste (1973—) & Thierry Demaréz, illustrateur (1971—) Le Dernier Troyen (2012)

Contrast this with a fictional vision of Troy (above). This is an image from a French comic, or bande dessinée (‘drawn strip’), which retells the story of the Odyssey alongside that of the Aeneid; the Aeneid is a later Roman epic, telling of the journeying of one of the Trojan heroes, Aeneas, and his eventual foundation of Rome. Le Dernier Troyen is a science fictional take on these ancient stories, and the image here depicts the interior of the Troy asteroid: Troy is no longer a city on a plain, rather it is a city nestled inside an asteroid in space. This is a very different version of Troy, with spacecraft rather than minarets, but what both Le Dernier Troyen and Morritt’s illustration show is that the city of Troy has had a lasting impact on the literary imagination. Troy might have fallen, but it stands forever in art and literature.


Private collection

John Flaxman (1755—1826) The Odyssey of Homer (1805)

One of the most memorable passages of Homer’s Odyssey is Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus, an enormous one-eyed monster. The Cyclops traps Odysseus and his men in his cave and eats Odysseus’ men in a graphic, grotesque description:


σὺν δὲ δύω μάρψας ὥς τε σκύλακας ποτὶ γαίῃ

κόπτ᾽· ἐκ δ᾽ ἐγκέφαλος χαμάδις ῥέε, δεῦε δὲ γαῖαν.

τοὺς δὲ διὰ μελεϊστὶ ταμὼν ὡπλίσσατο δόρπον·

ἤσθιε δ᾽ ὥς τε λέων ὀρεσίτροφος, οὐδ᾽ ἀπέλειπεν,

ἔγκατά τε σάρκας τε καὶ ὀστέα μυελόεντα.                                                          Od.9.289-93


                He snatched up two of my men and dashed them against the earth

                like puppies. Their brains ran out onto the ground and wetted the earth.

                He sliced them up, limb from limb, and made his meal.

                He ate them like a mountain-raised lion, and he left nothing behind,

                eating the entrails and the flesh and the marrow-filled bones.


Odysseus gets the Cyclops drunk on unmixed wine, then blinds him so that he and his remaining men can escape death. This is a central image in this collection of engravings from the Odyssey (above): Odysseus pours out the wine while the Cyclops looks on, mouth open, almost comically panting with thirst.



Homer and the Cyclops
Matt Fraction, writer (1975—) & Christian Ward, artist (1977?—) ODY-C (2014—) Gerry Duggan, writer (1984?—) & Phil Noto, artist (1971—) The Infinite Horizon (2007—2012) David Drake (1945—) Voyage Across the Stars (2012)

Modern illustrators are just as keen on the Cyclops. Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C, an American science fiction comic (2014—present) that makes virtually all the male characters of the Odyssey female, includes the Cyclops incident (below left), presenting the reader with a grotesquely female version of the monster. Another US comic, Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto’s The Infinite Horizon (2007—2012), gives us an equally aggressive Cyclops (below right): here, in a military setting, the Cyclops becomes a hostile Russian soldier wearing a one-eyed combat suit.


The cover of David Drake’s Voyage Across the Stars (2012) also shows two Cyclopes attacking a human soldier (right). This is interesting because, although the book does contain a version of the Cyclops story, the novel’s Cyclops is nothing like the rampaging monster that the cover art depicts: it is a malfunctioning space station that cannibalises living beings for spare parts to ensure its own survival. This discrepancy suggests that a huge, monstrous, murderous Cyclops is something of a calling-card for the Odyssey in artistic depictions, old and new.


Private collection

George Chapman (1559?—1634) Homer’s Works (1616)

The Homeric poems and their illustrious creator are prestigious texts in Western literature. This is evident in the engravings in George Chapman’s translation of the poems (above), where on the right hand page Athena, the goddess of wisdom (left) and Odysseus (right) are shown gazing reverentially up at Homer. The poet is backed by the Latin words solus sapit hic homo, meaning ‘only this man understands’ or ‘only this man is wise’. Chapman’s translation of Homer is an important literary milestone in its own right: it was an influential early translation of the poems, and was famously the topic of a poem by Keats, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (1816). The left-hand page shows an image of the translator.


James Scudamore (1624—1668) Homer A La Mode: A Mock Poem Upon the First and Second Books of the Iliad (1665)

However, as the images of the Cyclops in this case have already shown, Homer is not always taken quite so literally: the Cyclops can appear as a drunk and slavering monster, or he can be twisted into something rather more human, suggesting that Homer does not always have to be quite so serious. This is perhaps epitomised in James Scudamore’s Homer A La Mode. This is a translation of the first and second books of the Iliad, written in bouncy, jokey rhyming couplets that make liberal references to wildly anachronistic events and characters. In the pages on show, for instance, the Greeks are returning Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses (the priest of Apollo), to her father, along with gifts for the gods. The translation runs thus:


                They brought rich presents too from their land,

                For state the sceptre and the garland

                Of great Apollo, who’s as good

                At pricks and buts as Robin Hood


Elsewhere, Agamemnon threatens Chryses, saying:


                “Therefore be gone, provoke me not,

                Or else by --- thou go’st to pot.”


The language of these quotations is light and irreverent, particularly the comparison of Robin Hood and Apollo and the “---“, indicating that a rude word is to be implied by the reader. They contrast starkly with the august language that was usually used to translate Homer at the time, showing that, just as nowadays, even in the 1600s Homer was a subject to ridicule as well as respect. Homer and the Homeric poems can be put to all kinds of uses, serious or not. They are malleable, protean creations which have nonetheless resonated with artists, writers, and printers throughout history.