1 Anger [mênis]...sing it, goddess, the one belonging to Achilles son of Peleus,
2 baneful as it was, and it made for Achaeans countless woes [algea],
3 and many brave souls [psukhê plural] did it send hurrying down to Hades,
4 [souls] of heroes, but them it made into prey for dogs
5 and for all manner of birds, and the plan of Zeus was coming to completion,
6 starting from where, first, they had a falling apart, quarrelling,
7 the son of Atreus, king of men, and radiant Achilles.
8 Who was it, then, of the gods who impelled the two of them to be in a quarrel, fighting?
9 Leto's and Zeus' son it was, for he, angered at the king, ...
In the original Greek of the Iliad, the first word of this epic composition is mênin 'anger' (this is the objective or accusative case of mênis). In such a composition the first word is conventionally used to name the central topic of the whole composition. Further, the "topic" word is conventionally followed by an ornamental adjective or epithet, in this case the word translated as 'baneful', which sets the tone or "mood" of the whole composition (this story, in terms of the story itself, is about an ominous force that transcends human dimensions). Even further, the epithet is conventionally followed by a relative clause, in this case the set of words translated as 'and it [= which] made for the Achaeans countless woes', which defines the plot of the whole composition.
The ancient Greek convention of using the first word of a composition to name its central and driving topic is evident in the Odyssey as well as the Iliad. In the original Greek of the Odyssey, the first word of this epic composition is andra 'man' (this is the objective or accusative case of anêr). This key word is followed by an epithet, to be translated as 'of many turns' (polutropos: that is, someone who can turn into many different identities), which sets the tone of the whole composition (this story is about a multiple personality, full of surprises). This epithet is followed by a relative clause, to be translated as 'who veered [that is, "zig-zagged"] many times and in many ways', which defines the plot of the whole composition.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of an oral poetic tradition. In oral traditional poetry, the poetic act of composition is simultaneous with the poetic act of performance: the poet composes as he performs, performs as he composes. Let us call this process composition-in-performance. This is not to say, however, that oral traditional poetry is merely free-associative. Rather, it is premeditated - precisely because it is traditional. The degree of premeditation in oral poetry varies from tradition to tradition, from occasion to occasion. An example of extreme premeditation is the beginning of the Iliad.
To say the single word mênis at the very beginning of the Iliad is a poetic act of concentration. In fact, it is an ultimately concentrated composition. To say the word is to name the topic of the whole composition. Because the composition of the Iliad is simultaneously a performance, from the standpoint of the ancient Greek reception of the Iliad, the naming of its central and driving topic is itself tantamount to a micro-performance, announcing the macro-performance of the whole Iliad. One single word in the first verse of the Iliad thus becomes a concentrated equivalent of over 100,000 words, contained in over 15,000 verses of the Iliad as we know it. The first word of the first verse of the Iliad is a compressed composition, a micro-performance that leads into the macro-performance of the expanded composition. For a systematic analysis of the naming of mênis at Iliad 1.1 as a performance in its own right, see the book of Leonard Muellner, The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Early Greek Epic (Cornell UP 1996).
At verse 6, the indirect question of 'starting from where' refers back to 'sing' at verse 1, signaling the point of entry into the narration, into the performance of the composition. The performance &endash; and the composition-in-performance, is to begin at the precise point where the quarrel (neikos) between Agamemnon and Achilles begins.
Before we even hear, at verse 6, about how it all begins, we are already told at verse 5 about how it will all end: 'and the plan of Zeus was coming to completion'. In other words, the Iliad says that the plot of the Iliad will turn out to be the same thing as the 'plan' or 'will' (boulê) of Zeus. As the narration of the Iliad gets under way, the imperfective force of the verb teleieto, which can be translated as 'was coming to completion [telos]' or 'was beginning to reach its end [telos]', is played out in the many reversals of fortune that seem to keep on contradicting the will of Zeus: the many twists and turns of the plot make clear, over and over again, how long it will really take for the imperfective to become, finally, the perfective &endash; how long it will take to reach the telos or 'end'. The end of the story, which seemed right around the corner as early as the fifth verse of the composition, will not be realized till over fifteen thousand verses later, when the Iliad as we know it finally comes to an end.
|(72 But when they had their fill of drinking
73 The Muse impelled the singer to sing the glories [kleos plural] of men,
74 starting from a story thread that had then [tote] a glory [kleos] reaching the wide heavens
75 the quarrel [neikos] of Odysseus and Achilles son of Peleus,
76 how they once [pote] fought at a sumptuous feast of the gods
77 with terrible words, and the king of men, Agamemnon,
78 rejoiced in his mind [noos] that the best of the Achaeans were fighting.
79 Thus had oracular Apollo prophesied to him,
80 at holy Delphi, when he had crossed the stone threshold
81 to ask the oracle. For then [tote] it was that the beginning of pain started rolling
82 upon both Trojans and Danaans, on account of the plans of great Zeus.
Within the overall frame of the macro-composition that is the Odyssey we find contained a micro-composition that parallels the beginning of the Iliad. This story-within-a-story is composed and performed by a blind singer named Demodokos. His performance is indirectly reported - as a micro-composition - by the direct report that is the macro-composition of the Odyssey. If we imagined a direct report, however, the performance of Demodokos could become a macro-composition in its own right, a rival of the Iliad.
As in the beginning of the Iliad, the first word of the reported composition of Demodokos is premeditated: it is neikos 'quarrel'. Like the first word of the Iliad, its purpose is to recapitulate the whole composition. Here too, as in the Iliad, we find two warriors quarrelling. This time, however, it is not Achilles and Agamemnon but Achilles and Odysseus. Here too, as in the Iliad, the will of Zeus is equated with the plot of the composition. Here too, as in the Iliad, the plot is defined by a time-frame: as we hear at verse 81, 'for then [tote] it was that the beginning of pain started rolling.' The 'then' [tote] refers back to the relative clause of verse 76, 'how they once [pote] fought at a sumptuous feast of the gods.'
In the second edition of my book, The Best of the Achaeans (Johns Hopkins UP 1999), I offer this explanation (p. xvii): "I interpret the adverb tote 'then' of verse 81 as a cross-reference to the adverb pote 'once upon a time' at verse 76. By virtue of cross-referring to a specific point in epic time, the wording tote gar 'for then it was...' at verse 81 cross-refers also to a specific point in a notionally total and continuous narration extending into the current narrative." The return to a 'once upon a time' is a matter of performance, not just composition. That is, "the cross-reference represented in this story-within-a-story is performative as well as compositional. The blind singer is here being represented as cross-referring by way of performance." In other words, the resonances between the micro- and macro-compositions come to life in performance. Such is the power of oral traditional poetry to evoke the heroic past as a reality for the present.
[For another example of this kind of analysis of oral traditional poetry see Women of the Iliad.]