November 26, 2020

#08-015: Terms from The Iliad

Thetis dips Achilles into the River Styx
Detail from a painting by Peter Paul Rubens

Note: In recent months I have been rereading some of the great classics of Western literature, and have been struck again by how stories and phrases from those early works have permeated our modern languages. Case in point: The Iliad.

Get Ready: Are you familiar with The Iliad or its companion work, The Odyssey? If so, what, briefly, are they about? Do you know any other "epics"?

The Iliad, about the Trojan War, is the oldest major epic of European literature, and is full of references and allusions that we still use today.

Among these is the English verb "to hector," meaning to bully or torment. This comes from the name of the eldest son of Priam, King of Troy, and brother of Paris (whose actions caused the war). This Hector was the greatest fighter of Troy (as Achilles was of the Greeks) and used to go out and "trash talk"--or "hector"--the Greek ranks before fighting.

But surprisingly, Homer (alleged author of the epic) did not include several of the most famous incidents surrounding the war. The story begins in medias res, a literary technique in which the book starts "in the middle of things." By the time we start reading, the war is in its tenth and final year.

Before the events of the book, Thetis, a sea nymph, dipped her son Achilles into the river Styx to make him invulnerable. However, she held him by his heel, leaving a weak point. Sure enough, Paris shoots Achilles in the heel. But none of this is mentioned in The Iliad itself: the dipping precedes the book, and the death of Achilles follows it (that is, he is still alive at the end of The Iliad). We learn all of this story from later writers.

Anyway, today we still call a person's weak point his or her "Achilles heel."

Another important story about Troy also comes to us from later works. The Trojan Horse, the large wooden statue that the Greeks used to trick their way inside the gates of Troy, is mentioned in passing in The Odyssey (also supposed to have been written by Homer), but is told more fully many centuries later in The Aeneid by the Roman author Virgil.

This incident left us with the term for a virus that is sneaked into a computer for later activation, called a "Trojan" or "Trojan Horse." It is also the source of the proverb, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. alleged
  2. allusions
  3. case in point
  4. in passing
  5. incident
  6. literary
  7. nymph
  8. permeated
  9. precedes
  10. technique

  1. penetrated every part of
  2. related to literature
  3. supposed; asserted
  4. literary references
  5. comes before
  6. "for example"
  7. briefly; without elaboration
  8. method; way of doing something
  9. lesser nature deity
  10. event; occurrence

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 26, 2020

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. d; 3. f; 4. g; 5. j; 6. b; 7. i; 8. a; 9. e; 10. h