Homer’s name echoes down through the centuries as the greatest of all the Greek poets. More generally, he is the father of the Western literary tradition, but it’s not only because of this fact that he’s still being talked about and celebrated. If being some kind of key figure in the history of literature was sufficient for such celebration, people would be saying that John Steinbeck was one of the greatest writers of all time. Homer is instead talked about and celebrated because he deeply moved his audience. Alexander the Great famously kept a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, and the Homeric mythos was so enduring that royalty all over Europe well into the early modern period attempted to prove they were of Trojan descent. (Michael Wood, In Search of The Trojan War)
Those are the marks of a powerful and influential storyteller.
Homer’s use of language, even in translation, is masterful, but whether he knew it or not, he used two unconscious human biases to build up the influence his stories had on their audience, ensuring that they would leave an impression that those audiences would never forget. This was particularly so in the Iliad. He immediately hits you full-force, letting you know immediately that shit is about to go down, a tragic course of events is set to take place, and a whole lot of people are going to die:
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
These are the very first lines of the Iliad. They are powerful lines. “Rage” is an extremely potent, emotional word to begin the poem and give you a feel for what it’s about. The lines convey an easy visual – the corpses of men, “countless” men, becoming a great feast for the beasts of the sky and earth. “Hurling down to the House of Death” is a very captivating phrase that conveys action by the strong verb. You know there are two great characters whose quarrel caused all of this, but you don’t know exactly who they are. This incomplete information is a stimulus to your brain’s reticulated activating system to find out more.
Homer ends his first great story on a much different note, but still just as emotionally engaging and powerful:
At last, when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more, the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre…and once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds, they first put out the fires with glistening wine, wherever the flames still burned in all their fury. Then they collected the white bones of Hector – all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning, and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks. They placed the bones they found in a golden chest, shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths. They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set, then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around for fear the Achaean troops would launch their attack before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor, held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.
And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.
After a story with so much death, you see the final funeral pyre in your mind’s eye with vivid clarity. You see how the people have put such effort into building it for “illustrious” Hector, who you remember as their greatest defender. He was so great that he deserved a “splendid” funeral feast, and you can see that in your mind’s eye as well. You hear the wails of the city of Troy and its people, and you can imagine how low their morale has sunk. Homer conveys it vividly and sensually.
Whereas when you first pick up the Iliad, or when an ancient audience first heard it being performed, you hear about rage, and you can envision the consequences of that rage, at the end, you’re just left with an aftermath so pathetic that even Achilles acknowledges it in his meeting with Priam. You’re left with an unforgettable sense of waste, an emptiness and void that makes the entire poem a contextually clear, powerful narrative that you’re going to constantly be drawn to in the future, as we have been drawn to it for nearly 3,000 years.
Homer uses the same techniques in the Odyssey, though to achieve a differing end more appropriate to its own narrative. The Odyssey is not a story of war, but of homecoming, of a rekindling of the domestic life after one of exotic adventure, in Odysseus’ case at war and on the seas. Because of this, Homer starts the poem off with a softer touch:
Speak, Memory – of the cunning hero, the wanderer, blown off course time and again after he plundered Troy’s scared heights. Speak of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped, the suffering deep in his heart at sea as he struggled to survive and bring his men home but could not save them, hard as he tried – the fools – destroyed by their own recklessness when they ate the oxen of Hyperion the Sun, and that god snuffed out their day of return. Of these things, speak, Immortal One, and tell the tale once more in our time.
By now, all the others who had fought at Troy – at least those who had survived the war and the sea – were safely back home. Only Odysseus still longed to return to his home and his wife.
Homer again immediately speaks of a great hero, one who had suffered exotic trials and had wild adventures. You can see a ship at sea, blown off course time and again, setting up an identification to the audience with the protagonist, as you feel his frustration and suffering – feelings we’ve all felt in out own lives as our desired ends seem to elude us time and time again. Odysseus’ unique frustration is all for the simple want of returning home to his wife and property – an immediate experience that can resonate with the general public. Who does not enjoy having these things in a pristine state? “Fools,” “recklessness,” and “destroyed” are also evocative, emotionally-charged words.
How does Homer choose to end the Odyssey?
“ITHACANS! Lay down your arms now, and go your ways with no more bloodshed.”
Thus Athena, and they turned pale with fear. The weapons dropped from their trembling hands and fell to the ground as the goddess’ voice sent shock waves through them. They turned back toward the city and ran for their lives. With a roar, the great, long-suffering Odysseus gathered himself and swept after them like a soaring raptor.
At that moment, Zeus, Son of Cronus, hurled down a flaming thunderbolt that landed at the feet of his owl-eyed daughter, who said:
“Son of Laertes in the line of Zeus, cunning Odysseus – restrain yourself. End this quarrel and cease from fighting lest broad-browed Zeus frown upon you.”
Thus Athena. The man obeyed and was glad, and the goddess made both sides swear binding oaths – Pallas Athena, daughter of the Storm Cloud, who looked like Mentor and spoke with his voice.
Homer here recounts a (literally) thunderous, ending to his story. It’s made clear to the audience that peace is now at last at hand, mandated by the gods who hold Olympus. Thus, Odysseus’ story, and by extension, the story of the Trojan War, has ended, as all the principal players have settled back into civilian life.
These two passages, beginning and end, set an unmistakable, enrapturing tone for the Odyssey, which is one of wandering, of a loose end which is then finally tied up to bring the Trojan story to a conclusion.
In his stories, Homer immediately sucks us in and then leaves us with strong feelings – waste in the Iliad and closure in the Odyssey. We can say that these choices were wise, as he was successful in achieving his purpose as a storyteller by leaving an unforgettable impression to generations of audiences for nearly 3,000 years. Homer still engages us, millennia after his death. That is power.
How, exactly, does he do it?
One of Homer’s narrative techniques is something known as “in media res,” literally “in the middle of things.” He doesn’t begin either the Iliad or the Odyssey with a standard novel format of beginning, middle, and end. Instead, the action is already taking place at the very start of his epics. This saves him time, as he doesn’t need to build up, and instead Homer can immediately capture attention since the action is already well underway. Some loose ends do need to be tied up in this style, such as in the Iliad’s catalogue of ships (book 2) and books 9 to 12 in the Odyssey, but by that point, the audience is already invested in the story.
Conversely, Homer ends the Iliad and even the Odyssey (when you consider that Odysseus is told that he must make one last journey to make amends with Poseidon by the prophet Tiresias) in a state of in media res. This is especially so in the Iliad, where Hector is buried and the fate of Troy is made clear to all, but we do not see the final stages of the war or the city’s fall. The audience is left with a sense of waste, but we know that more is to come.
Homer’s captivating beginnings and endings, through the device of in media res, actually take advantage of an unconscious human bias. This bias involves us being partial to the first and last bits of information that we hear about a topic. They are what are known as the primacy and recency effects.
Why do first impressions matter? Why do we want to end our interactions on a high or particularly memorable note? It’s because of the primacy and recency effects.
These effects are due to people generally putting more weight on the first and last bits of information they hear on a topic. Think about a list or about the information that you know about a certain subject. You’re more likely to be unconsciously drawn to the first things you saw or the most recent things you saw. The time you first discovered a topic of interest to you, maybe years or even decades ago, will be powerful to your memory, and similarly, you’re more likely to remember more recent information on it. The middle tends to get lost in the fold, or at least given less prominence in your mind.
Homer, whether he knew it or not, took advantage of these biases of memory. People will remember how he began the Iliad in media res with such powerful language, and how he ended it with such a sense of gloom and waste, that the rest of the story will be defined by those memories. Its status as the preeminent tragedy in Western literature, one whose themes effect us all – the loss of loved ones for often needless reasons, will be indelibly marked on the memory of each member of the audience, and has been for 3,000 years.
Similarly, the Odyssey begins with a nagging loose end – the wanderer who was blown off course time and time again. Then you remember that this wanderer, the ultimate survivor, achieved triumph and peace at long last by his indomitable will and his godlike wits (metis). Who wouldn’t be drawn to a story centering on those immediately relatable values?
Homer, by beginning in media res, can more easily take advantage of the primacy and recency effects, and this is partially why he’s become almost like a god.
Homer knew that we human beings operate more in stories, in narrative, than in “objective” reality. We are all our own Odysseus, wandering our own seas of chaos, struggling against time and circumstance to make a great fate for ourselves. These are the feelings which stir to action.
To find out more about the primacy and recency effects, and how you can stir your own audience to action by leaving indelible, unbelievable impressions, learn from the contemporary master of the craft in Stumped: How Trump Triumphed.