“Troy has perished, the great city. Only the red flame now lives there.”
Homer, The Iliad
Homer was possibly a blind poet who lived during the 700s BC. I write “possibly” because there is debate about whether he even existed. Nevertheless, he has been named as the author of two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which dramatically influenced Greek and Western civilization.
The Iliad is an epic tale about the Trojan War, which was possibly waged between the city-states of Greece and the nation of Troy. There is some debate on the historical nature of the account. If you are interested in the discussion, please watch the TedEd video at the end of this blog titled “Did ancient Troy really exist?” The war began when the beautiful Spartan princess Helen left her husband, the king of Sparta, for the love of Paris, a Trojan prince. The Trojans decided to shelter Helen. At first, they were successful in defending the walls against the Trojans and the Greeks’ greatest warrior, Achilles. But in the end, the war ended very badly for the Trojans. Through the trickery of the Greek king, Odysseus, and a large wooden horse, a small Greek force was able to sneak into Troy and open its gates, after which Greek armies tore the city apart and burnt it to the ground.
For the teacher in the classroom, The Iliad raises some essential questions in which to engage students.
- What does it mean to be human?
- What does it mean to die?
- How should we honor the dead?
- Which is more important: the community or the individual?
- Is life comparable to a battle?
These questions from the reading of The Iliad will have students thinking at a deep cognitive level about their own lives in no time.
The Odyssey picks up where The Iliad ends, detailing the adventures of king Odysseus as he tries for ten years to return to his beloved wife, Penelope, and his city-state of Ithaca. Finally, after ten years and some help from the goddess Athene, Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, journeys in search of his father to free him from his imprisonment by the goddess Calypso.
What can we learn from Homer?
There is a great deal of opportunity for teachers to engage their students in some big ideas and essential questions.
- Is life comparable to a journey?
- Is there a greater meaning to “looking for your father”?
- Is deceit justifiable?
- How do Helen and Penelope compare?
- Why is storytelling important?
Of course, beyond being a great story, the Greeks used the epics to teach the values of Hellenic culture. Greek heroic virtues or the arête are embedded in the texts. As such, they were used by the Greeks in education in the paideia, where students would learn to be virtuous citizens of the polis. And for educators today, they can serve as a way in which to engage students in the essential questions of life while learning about a major influence on Western thought.