Homer and the Power of Story-telling

Katharine Radice

“A speaker of words and a doer of deeds”: so said the aged Phoenix to Achilles as a reminder of his identity as a hero. There is no doubting Achilles’ fame as a doer: even those who have never picked up the Iliad will know that he was the most famous warrior from the Trojan War. The focus of this article, however, lies in Achilles’ role as a speaker of words: this is something which is to the fore in Homer’s poem too.

At the start of the Iliad, Achilles appears to us first in his role as a speaker. The Greek army is in the grip of the devastating plague sent upon them as punishment by the god Apollo. It is Achilles who takes the lead in initiating action, and he does this through the medium of speech:

On the tenth day Achilles called the people to an assembly… when they were all gathered together in one place, swift-footed Achilles stood up among them and spoke. (Iliad 1.54–8)[1]

Achilles is not only the first to speak, but he is also the facilitator of the debate: he summons the assembly, and when Calchas, the prophet who can truthfully report the reasons for Apollo’s anger, is too scared to explain that it is Agamemnon’s actions that are at fault here, Achilles offers his protection. This gives Calchas the reassurance that he needs to speak openly.

Achilles’ dispute with Agamemnon (watched by the despairing Calchas), Johann Heinrich Tischbein, 1776 (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany).

The idea that words are connected with action, power or prestige is a familiar theme across the Classical world. Democratic Athens and Republican Rome were both communities built around debate. It is no surprise that there are many examples of leaders (both real, such as Cicero, or mythological, such as Odysseus) whose fame derived from their skill in speaking. Speech-making is often at the forefront of Classical texts, whether it be the role of speeches within historical texts, the ἀγών (or ‘debate’ scene) as a core ingredient within the structure of Greek tragedy, or the high proportion of lines given over to speeches within epic poetry. There is often a very porous boundary between the idea of ‘speaking’ and the idea of ‘story-telling’. Nestor’s lengthy speeches in the Iliad are part of the poem’s internal political debates, but they typically contain fairly fantastical anecdotes as he illustrates his argument with stories from his past.

All of this is familiar stuff, but the role of words – and especially of story-telling – in relation to inactivity or as a means of dealing with disempowerment or suffering is, perhaps, a less frequently discussed theme. Despite its focus on characters as doers of deeds, there are pivotal moments in the Iliad where the poet zooms in on characters who have no real deeds to do and turn instead to story-telling.

The first seven lines of Homer’s Iliad in a 15th-century manuscript (Vatican Apostolic Library, Vaticanus Palatinus Graecus 246, f. 1r)

In Book 3, we are shown Priam and the elders of Troy sitting on the walls of Troy, talking companionably to each other as they narrate what they see. They tell the story to each other of the fighting that is taking place, the reasons for it, and their hope that it soon will end. In the same book, we meet Helen, sitting alone in her room. She cannot contribute to the action on the battlefield, but she is shown to us engaging with it by narrating the story of Troy through the medium of weaving. In Book 9, we meet Achilles sitting by his tents, absent from the battle and the sphere of influence, but singing songs to himself instead, telling the stories of men’s glory.

Perhaps for Homer’s inactive characters story-telling serves simply as a way to pass the time, a Classical-world equivalent to scrolling through social media feeds during a boring wait at a train station. If we look, however, at the role of story-telling during the most profound and important scene in the poem – the meeting between Priam and Achilles in Book 24 – a very different interpretation comes to light. As outlined in the opening to the poem, the Iliad is interested in enmity and reconciliation: it explores the ingredients which make men stand apart and the ingredients which help bind us together.

Fresco of Priam pleading with Achilles, 2nd cent. AD, Tyre, Lebanon (National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon).

Achilles’ anger, and his self-obsessed hunger for status and recompense, is the catalyst for enmity between him and his own side. As a counterpart to this, empathy – and a willingness to understand the perspective of others – is what allows the moment of fellowship between Priam and Achilles as the counterbalancing scene at the poem’s end. This empathy is achieved, however, in part through the stories that Achilles tells.

The first is the story of Zeus’ two jars: one is full of blessings and the other is full of troubles. All humans receive something from the jar of troubles. As Achilles reminds Priam, suffering is something which all humans understand: by looking to his own life, and in particular the grief his own father will feel, Achilles can empathise and connect with Priam. The second story – Niobe – reminds Priam that even grief must have its limits. Niobe witnessed the death of all twelve of her children, but even she remembered to eat, and so too must Priam.

Niobe and her children, Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, 1772 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France).

Agency and passivity are at the core of human thought and experience. They are there too in the most basic of our grammatical structures: most verbs have both active and passive forms because sometimes we do things, and sometimes things are done to us. The Iliad is indeed a great tale of derring-do, but it is in equal measure a tale of passivity – suffering – and it explores how we can respond when things are done to us.

As the final scene evidences, it is our capacity to tell stories, to reflect on the experiences of others, which allows us to reach beyond our pain, to connect with others, and to remember that food, rest, life still remain alongside our grief. When we watch the elders of Troy, Helen or Achilles dealing with their passivity by telling stories, we should not think of it as idle entertainment. When they turn action into stories, they give it shape and form, they process it, they allow others (and themselves) to understand it.

A reading from Homer, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, USA).

In 21st-century Britain we are increasingly alert to the power of talking as a process for healing: Homer, perhaps, would have been surprised that this was not evident to our society from the outset. Much has been written on the opening word of the Iliad – μῆνιν (“anger”) – but we should be equally interested in its second word too, ἄειδε, the command to sing, i.e. tell the story. We should listen to this command and remember that telling stories should not be relegated just to something that we do for fun in our downtime. As Homer shows us, stories are the means by which we will understand better our lives and – most importantly of all – the means by which we will empower ourselves to handle best not just what we do, but also what is done to us.

Katharine Radice has been Head of Classics at the Stephen Perse Foundation, Cambridge and, prior to that, at Westminster School. She is lead author of the new ab initio Latin course De Romanis and is a committed devotee to the wonders of Greek.

Further Reading

For those wishing to approach the Iliad in translation, I recommend in particular Martin Hammond’s Penguin Classics translation (1987). Those wishing to explore the Greek text along with the English can do so freely online via the Chicago Homer or Perseus. Other articles on Antigone have tackled a few aspects of Homer’s poetry: children in the Iliad, Odysseus on paying attention, marriage beds in the Odyssey, Helen and her literary legacy, and, most recently, recasting the Iliad as modern blues.


1 This passage, and all others mentioned in this piece, can be read in Greek and English via the Chicago Homer.