In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle discovers the epic poets who wrote continuations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
When I began this column back in May last year, it was intended to be an online extension of my first book for a general audience, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. Just as that book had arisen out of this very blog, so it returned to the blog, its natural home.
The blog, and the book, are dedicated to rootling about in a mythical and entirely virtual ‘secret library’ containing all sorts of books and other texts that have been lost, forgotten, or never received their due. And although occasionally I’ve turned my thoughts to more familiar titles, unearthing the little-known sides to them, for the most part this column has concerned itself with the ‘lost’ works among literature, whatever that might signify. And they don’t come much more lost than the Cyclic poets.
They were known as the ‘Cyclic’ poets because they wrote about the ‘cycle’ of the Trojan war, which was the epic subject for ancient Greek poets. Homer had helped to make it so. Of course, it wouldn’t end there, but would resonate down the ages and with other civilisations and literary traditions, from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida to James Joyce’s Ulysses and even the film O Brother, Where Art Thou.
But before all of these, there were the Cyclic poets. A poet named Arctinos wrote a sequel to Homer’s Iliad, which focused on something which many people who haven’t read Homer’s poem expect to find in it: the Trojan Horse. But in fact the story of the Wooden Horse doesn’t feature in the Iliad: it took later poets like Arctinos to bring it into epic poetry. Arctinos’ poem would then be used by Virgil as the basis for a much more famous poem, the Aeneid.
A number of Cyclic poets also focused on the return of the Greeks from Troy. Agias was one such poet to give this story the epic treatment, although his poem has been lost. Eugamon (or Eugammon), by contrast, chose to write a sequel to the Odyssey (something that H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang would undertake several millennia later, in their romance The World’s Desire).
A man named Telegonos goes in search of his father, Odysseus: Telegonos was the illegitimate result of an affair Odysseus had with the witch Circe. When Odysseus arrives back on Ithaca, he and his other son, Telemachus, face Telegonos, and Telegonos kills his father with a poisonous spear given to him by his mother, Circe.
Telegonos is unaware that he his killed his father: as in Oedipus’ killing of Laius, he doesn’t recognise his victim as his own father, and, like the story of Oedipus, Telegonos’ killing of Odysseus fulfils a prophecy (at least in one interpretation: Tiresias had prophesied that death would come to Odysseus ‘out of the sea’, and the poison in the spear that kills him is from a deadly ray).
This poem, known as the Telegony, is one of the more famous of the Homeric sequels, or works of the Cyclic poets. The Telegony, too, has been lost: just two lines of it have survived into modern times.
Such continuations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey even stretched to the Little Iliad, a four-book condensing of the story of the fall of Troy written by Lesches, and featuring Ajax, Odysseus, and various other important players from Homer’s original poem. Like Eugamon, Lesches was writing several centuries after Homer. Like the Telegony, the Little Iliad is lost.
As well as the grand, epic continuations of and responses to Homer’s two mighty poems, there were also comic riffs off Homeric themes. Notably there was the comic poem Margites, about a monumentally silly protagonist who is mad, pedantic, vain, and above all, stupid – so stupid that he doesn’t know which of his parents gave birth to him. Although most of the poem has not survived, we know that it enjoyed considerable popularity during classical times.
Although Aristotle attributed the poem to Homer in his Poetics, it seems likelier that Margites was the work of another Greek writer, Pigres. Another poem which Aristotle attributed to Homer, but which historians have since ascribed to a variety of other poets, is Batrachomyomachia, which translates as ‘The Battle of Frogs and Mice’.
It’s essentially one giant spoof of Homer’s Iliad, with the Greeks and Trojans replaced by amphibians and rodents, and the author poking fun at the heroics of Homer’s epic. I even discuss the Batrachomyomachia at greater length in The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, to bring this round-tour of the Cyclic poets back to its starting-point, in suitably circular or cyclical fashion. You can read George Chapman’s sixteenth-century translation of the Batrachomyomachia here.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.