We’ve chosen the Iliad as our first review because it exemplifies what we are hoping to convey with these reviews: the power of great literature to demonstrate the universality of the human experience.
Yes, it is a poem (verse), though it doesn’t rhyme, and there are prose versions. Either is sufficient to convey the story: a Trojan prince kidnaps the beautiful wife of the powerful Greek king Agamemnon, who organises an army to take her back. If this were all that the Iliad was about it would still be a cracking tale. But Agamemnon has a secret weapon: the great warrior Achilles – more skilled than Rickson Gracie, and with an ego greater than Conor McGregor’s. In essence the Iliad is about Achilles’ battle with his own ego. Ultimately, and in one of the most moving scenes in all of Western literature, the Iliad asks the question: can we forgive our enemies?
Technically the Iliad was a spoken word poem (the ancient equivalent of hip hop) from 800BC, about an event that may or may not have occurred, and that may be the product of one person (Homer), but more than likely was added to by many subsequent performers to become the version we have today. Nevertheless, the Iliad, along with its sequel the Odyssey, are considered the origins of Western literature.
We are separated from the characters of the Iliad by about 3000 years, but their emotions – jealousy, courage, fear, hate, love – are the same as ours today. For all of our technology, our emotions remain the same as they have been for thousands of years. To be sure, material possessions were important to the ancient Greeks; the Iliad is filled with descriptions of gold drinking cups, magnificent horsehair-plumed helmets, intricately patterned shields and fine bronze swords. But the greatest pride was in how one carried oneself; to distinguish oneself in battle was to achieve immortality through stories told down the generations.
In jiujitsu we often refer to our lineage, our connection to the greats. Homer, and the ancient Greek world in general, was OBSESSED with lineage. Before entering into combat, warriors recite their lineage and who they had defeated in battle. What’s more, their opponents give them time to do so, and in turn would recite their own lineage and achievements. The idea was to know who you would be killing (hopefully), so adding to your glory. It was the original version of pre-fight hype.
The Iliad is also a part of our cultural lineage, a direct line to the greats of Western culture and civilization. It is literally our oldest story. Alexander the Great carried a treasured copy wherever he went (which was a long way). If it was good enough to inspire the greatest warrior of all time, then it’s good enough for you.
Reading the Iliad is like listening to your uncle tell a story: you feel connected to something greater. And indeed, you are, without even knowing it, because you’ve heard this story (and every other Greek myth) before, in almost every movie, tv show and book. This is the Western tradition that typifies the Greek mindset and has been handed down to us today: to be part of something bigger than oneself, and yet still have the opportunity for individual growth and achievement. Isn’t that what we are trying to achieve in jiujitsu?
If you enjoyed the Iliad then you will probably also enjoy the Odyssey, which is considered a loose sequel. There is also a wealth of Greek history – Herodotus, Xenophon, Thucydides, Plutarch – that could keep you going for years.