Two questions that I ponder endlessly as I attempt to render Homer in English are these: What do we, as modern readers, want from a text? And if I want to render what the Homeric texts give us, to what extent do I need to set aside what we, as modern readers, want from texts? If we want a clear narrative, and to treat the characters in Homer as we would treat characters in modern literature, then we may find the texts that Homer actually gives us quite frustrating.
For one thing, the Greek texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey expect us to know that the stories within the text are part of a much larger story that lies beyond the text. The “plan of Zeus” referred in the first stanza of the Iliad, for example, could refer to his plan to honor Achilles within the text. And it may also be referring to his larger plan to end the age of heroes, referenced in Hesiod and another epic called the Cypria (known, appropriately and frustratingly, only via fragments and ancient summaries). In both cases—within and beyond the boundaries of the Iliad—Thetis is a driving force of the narrative.
For a second thing, the gods and heroes in Homer are not—for the historical listeners— fictional characters but superhuman forces, both of whom are worshiped in the historical present. And humans can never fully understand or control superhuman forces, only try to read the signs to differentiate what is true, in an essential sense, from what appears true but is not.
Recently, I was working on one of Helen’s speeches in Odyssey 4.138-146, in which she first sets eyes on Telemachus:
“Menelaus, nourished by Zeus, do we know these men,
The men who have come into our house, who they declare themselves?
Shall I lie or shall I speak the truth, my consciousness urges me.
For I say, up to this time, I have not seen anyone
Neither man nor woman, reverence holds me, beholding
How this one looks like the son of great-hearted Odysseus.”
Helen is a deeply enigmatic and paradoxical figure in Homer. In Greek mythology, she is the daughter of Zeus and Nemesis, goddess of retribution and is conceived as part of Zeus’ plan to end the age of heroes. Within the poems, she is characterized by epithets that describe both heroes and goddesses. Her speech in the scene above echoes words Hesiod attributes to the sacred Muses at the moment they choose to reveal themselves to him.
I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw, other than this: If I set as my goal to create a clear and singular narrative, I would lose the intentional ambiguity in Homer. To render Homer, I believe it is necessary to accept human limitations and to love the questions.