Published Humanitas, Volume XX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2007
Mockery and Mirth
—“if anyone examines more closely the lives of those sober gods in Homer . . . he will find them all full of folly”—Erasmus.
The very subject of humor in Homer’s Iliad might seem to be a bad joke. “Deep-browed Homer” has long been our laureate of loss, esteemed by Aristotle “in the serious style the poet of poets, standing alone.” Though foolishness abounds in the Iliad, as Erasmus’ Stultitia long ago noticed, Homeric follies usually bring suffering and sorrow; tragedy shadows Greeks and Trojans, and shapes readers’ perceptions of the Iliad. It remains difficult to comprehend (much less enjoy) Homeric comedy. The epic’s very lack of humor has been regarded as a virtue: Northrop Frye observes that for the first time in Western literature the misery of one’s devastated enemies is not seen as comic. Understandably, few critics have stressed the humorous aspects of the Iliad, or pursued Pope’s hint “That Homer was no enemy to mirth may appear from several places of his poem; which so serious as it is, is interspers’d with many gayeties.” Four sequences in the Iliad illustrate the range and complexity of Homeric humor: the Olympian squabble at the end of Book I, Thersites’ intervention at the Greek war council in Book II, Hera’s seduction of Zeus in Book XIV, and the battle of the gods in Book XXI. Why characters in the Iliad laugh, and why readers are invited and entitled to laugh, are complicated issues. Quite distinct kinds of humor emerge from and contribute to the epic’s predominantly tragic, painfully serious project. In Homer’s myriad-minded narrative, it is often but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous—and the reverse.
The first instance of “mirth” comes near the end of Iliad 1, when Thetis, mother of Achilles, successfully petitions Zeus to aid her aggrieved son. Hawk-eyed Hera notices and reviles Zeus. Vainly invoking patriarchal authority, exasperated, Zeus abandons polite persuasion and frankly threatens Hera, who withdraws (rather like Achilles), indignant, sullen, and miserable. All Olympus is distressed. Tenderly comforting his mother, Hephaistos reminds Hera that once before he intervened between his quarreling parents and provoked Zeus: “he caught me by the foot and threw me from the magic threshold,/and all day long I dropped helpless, and about sunset/I landed in Lemnos, and there was not much life left in me./After that fall it was the Sintian men who took care of me.” He too suffered the wrath of Zeus and survived to tell the tale. A tactful diplomat, Hephaestos models courtesy and counsels acquiescence. “He spoke, and the goddess of the white arms Hera smiled at him,/and smiling she accepted the goblet out of her son’s hand” (1.595-596).