Before the Qur’an was revealed, there were many books deemed sacred by mankind. Treasured tomes that could be opened at random in order to extract some advice of the moment, recited over the dead and dying, or written down as charms to heal the ill and the deranged. One of the most beautiful in language, but with the oddest morality for any modern reader to embrace, is the Iliad. Attributed to Homer, like the Qur’an it first existed on this earth as an oral recitation before it was committed (many, many years after it was first composed) into a written form. The Iliad was cherished by the Greeks (and then the Romans) for a thousand years. It inspired hundreds of subsidiary works, commentaries, translations and grammatical glosses. Scholars are still at each other’s throats about re-assembling and agreed first written textual version of it, whilst others duel with each other as to how far back into history its composition can be pushed. Does it portray the events of a raid by a mixed gang of pirates from the Greek coast on a civilised Bronze Age city of Anatolia with documentary accuracy, or does it depict some of the anarchy with which the Iron Age Aegean was consumed, or does it also contain some fragments of ancient cultural memory from the lost homeland of the horse-riding Aryans?
Three thousand years after its first composition it remains one of the cornerstones of western civilisation, though people are now unlikely to turn to it for divination, or to tell them how to best worship the gods. Though there is not a year when it does not inspire a new play, a film, a novel or a new poet. I have been fortunate enough to hear two British poets of my chance acquaintance recite their own very powerful adaptations of portions of the Iliad. One was sitting in a courtyard in Greece, right towards the end of his long life, with his mind already confused but yet he remained razor sharp about these words. He was not a scholar translator, but someone who delighted in the constant emerging forms of everyday English, perfectly caught in the title of his last collection of Iliad derived verse, All Day Permanent Red. The other recital was in an attic-lecture hall in Somerset House, London. I had first met the poet when we worked together decorating an underground grotto with flints and bleached bones, but that evening she avoided all eye contact with any member of the audience. Like some ageless Sybil she addressed a distant corner of the room, with her words seemingly coming to her in a trance. What bound both poets together was that they had excavated the text of this ancient, classical work and turned the antiquarian dust of centuries of scholarship into a highly visual, and alarmingly vivid word entertainment about the pleasure to be derived from violent killing.