Mighty sieges and human follies. The bravado of warriors and the rages and schemes of gods.
The Iliad, one of the best-told epics of all time, will be heard aloud again when some 150 volunteer readers recite the ancient Greek masterpiece in a daylong marathon at the Getty Villa next Saturday, April 30. (There are a few spots left for readers and some seats in the audience, which you can sign up for by email). The Readers of Homer, which is co-presenting the event to be held April 30, has staged public readings of Homer’s epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey—in many sublime locales.
Hundreds gathered to pay homage to the earliest surviving work of Greek literature—first sung as oral poetry in the middle of the 8th century B.C.—in Homer’s hometown on the Greek island of Chios. Homer aficionados took over the grand hall of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, as well as the city of Montevideo, Uruguay. Homer fans have camped out for recitations at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Some Iliad marathons are three-day affairs covering all 15,000 lines, while others use expertly whittled-down versions that demand a seven- to twelve-hour day or nighttime stint.
Kathryn Hohlwein, a poet and the founder of Readers of Homer, said that the Villa, home to ancient statues of Greek and Roman gods, is an inspired address for recounting the divine fates and forces that governed the Greeks centuries ago. It’s tempting to imagine the sculptures as literary critics craning their marble heads to hear how well they were portrayed. “These are magnificent poems and stories and incredibly constructed,” Kathryn told me. “Architecturally the Iliad is one of the more beautiful edifices in human history.”
The beauty (and horror) very briefly goes like this: The Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, and is a story about the demigod warrior Achilles and the ideals of excellence, virtue, and courage that heroes represent. The action-filled poem explores profound Greek ideas of the hero against the backdrop of war and the machinations of the gods.
How will this tale be told? Each reader has been pre-assigned passages of about 40 to 50 lines—or about three minutes’ worth—of an abridged version of the Iliad translation by Stanley Lombardo. The event begins at 10:00 a.m. and concludes at 7:00 p.m. Guidelines for those ascending the pedestal? No apologies for mispronunciation, please, or any comments that might disrupt the flow of the reading.
Ida, who is 6, feels she’s ready. The Greek myths are her bedtime stories. She even has a podium at home where she’s been practicing her lines. “My favorite gods are Hera, Athena, and Zeus,’’ Ida told me. “I want the powers of Zeus, because he’s the god of the gods and he has thunderbolts, and I like thunderbolts.” Ida’s passage, in the beginning of Book 4, deals with Zeus and Hera having a tussle about the conduct of the war. “My daughter puts a lot of emotion into it,” Tim Gould, Ida’s father, told me. “I’m so excited for her. We can’t wait.”
Wendilyn Emrys, another reader-to-be, is just as eager. She and her husband are ex-actors and ready to take part in the production. “I am heavy into mythology,” Wendilyn told me. “And I am a bit of a ham.” She is also writing a book about the goddess Athena and can recite the complicated plots and themes with ease. She likes the Iliad’s emphasis on thinking straight both in war and daily life. “It says if you use your intellect well, you will be the victor, and if not, you’ll be dead on the ground.”
You can also ponder these heady themes as you wander though the Villa’s galleries. Gallery 110 is dedicated to Stories of the Trojan War. A Wine Cup with an Eagle Battling a Snake dovetails with Homer’s description of a high-flying bird carrying a snake in its talons—an omen the Trojans saw as they attacked the Greek forces.
A rare scroll fragment of Homer’s companion masterpiece, the Odyssey, tells the story of the hero Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War. It’s a vivid passage, too, about breaking a spell cast by the sorceress-goddess Circe. The Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Life of Achilles is also a marble marvel. Dated to about A.D. 200, it depicts the Greek hero Achilles in various exploits. You’ll see the warrior slipping into his armor and desecrating the corpse of the fallen Trojan hero Hektor.
Skip Faulkner knows that particular sarcophagus well. Before he retired, Skip worked as a security officer at the Getty for 25 years and was a night guard at the Villa. He told me that returning to read a passage from Homer is a wonderful homecoming.
“This feels so important to me,” Skip said. “This is as good as it gets in America, to have the beginning of an understanding about how these stories were told.”