Apostrophe in The Iliad
An apostrophe is a literary device that is used to create a dramatic atmosphere in a text. This device is present in many different types of literature. Though you may not be familiar with this literary device, you’ve definitely read or heard it used before.
The apostrophe has been used since ancient times. Homer uses the apostrophe extensively in The Iliad to enhance the dramatic nature of this epic poem. Unlike later pieces of literature, like the works of Shakespeare, for example, apostrophes in ancient Greek literature can be difficult to identify. Typically, apostrophes are used to identify characters or personified ideas which are not preset. Keep in mind that when a character says something like “Oh! God of Thunder,” that the God of Thunder may actually be there in a Greek play or poem. Since the gods are active characters in The Iliad, you must be careful in identifying apostrophes. We’ve comprised a list of 15 epic apostrophes so you can learn the difference.
Here are the examples
• Iliad Book 1
“Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour / Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power”
This is the most common type of apostrophe. It is an open declaration to an abstract figure. Though, keep in mind, in ancient Greek literature, the muses and gods are real characters, not just ideas. But, if these deities are not present when a character calls them out, then it qualifies as an apostrophe.
• Iliad Book 2
“Oh women of Achaia; men no more!”
This apostrophe is addressed not to just one deity or abstract idea, but to a whole group of people. Achaia is a region in the northern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. This is a lament directed to the woman there, from whom Greek men came to lay siege against Troy. It is said by Thersites, a soldier under the command of Ulysses, who is attempting to convince his fellow Greeks to return home.
• Iliad Book 3
“Yet hence, O Heaven, convey that fatal face, / And from destruction save the Trojan race”
In this apostrophe, the chief leaders of Troy, marveling at the beauty of Helen, address heaven itself, that it would save Troy from annihilation at the hands of the Greeks.
• Iliad Book 3
“Give me, great Jove! to punish lawless lust, And lay the Trojan gasping in the dust:”
In this apostrophe, boastful Atrides is addressing Jove. However, what makes this an apostrophe is the fact that Jove (or Zeus) is not actually there. Apostrophes, as you will see, often take the form of curses or oaths in The Iliad.
• Iliad Book 4
“Oh lasting rancor! oh insatiate hate / To Phrygia’s monarch, and the Phrygian state!”
In this example, Zeus is addressing two qualities directly: rancor (or bitterness) and hate. Zeus is literary calling out to these emotions and commanding them to go the Phrygian king and state. Phrygia is an ally of Troy in The Iliad.
• Iliad Book 5
“Stern power of war! by whom the mighty fall, / Who bathe in blood, and shake the lofty wall!”
This example illustrates another use of the apostrophe: personification of abstract ideas. Unlike the previous example where a character is addressing abstract ideas directly as if they were characters themselves, in this example Minerva (or Athena) is addressing a personified quality. This enhances the epic nature of the line.
• Iliad Book 7
“Strong god of ocean! thou, whose rage can make The solid earth’s eternal basis shake!
This example is clearly a reference to Poseidon, the god of the sea. What makes this example an apostrophe, however, is the fact that Poseidon is not present. Remember that the gods are active characters in The Iliad. This fact can make identifying apostrophes difficult.
• Iliad Book 8
“Celestial states! immortal gods! give ear, Hear our decree, and reverence what ye hear;
Here Zeus commands all other deities to listen. This still qualifies as an apostrophe even though Zeus is not referencing a single deity (after all, remember the first example?), but a group of deities who are not present in the scene. Just like in the last example, context is key.
• Iliad Book 11
“Ye sacred nine! celestial Muses! tell, / Who faced him first, and by his prowess fell?”
According to Greek mythology, there are nine sacred Muses. They are the source of knowledge and inspiration. Many apostrophes are addressed to the muse or muses. However, this tradition began with the Greeks. In this example, the character is addressing and questioning the muses, albeit rhetorically.
• Iliad Book 14
“O power of slumbers! hear, and favour still. / Shed thy soft dews on Jove’s immortal eyes,”
This is another example of how an apostrophe can be used to address a personified abstract idea. “Power of slumber,” which could mean sleep or sleepiness is called upon to go to Jove (Jupiter). The character here is asking sleep itself to make Jove fall asleep.
• Iliad Book 18
“Patroclus, loved of all my martial train, / Beyond mankind, beyond myself is slain!”
Achilles is lamenting the death of Patroclus in this example. Achilles is calling out to Patroclus as if he will give an answer from death.
• Iliad Book 19
“Ah, youth for ever dear, forever kind, / Once tender friend of my distracted mind!”
Here we have another example of a character addressing a personified abstract quality. Briseis, the woman given to Achilles as a war prize, in grief laments. Youth is personified and given the qualities of being dear and kind.
• Iliad Book 22
“What god, O muse, assisted Hector’s force / With fate itself so long to hold the course?”
This is another example of a character addressing the muse, or source of knowledge and inspiration. Here a character is questioning the muse about what god helped the Trojan warrior Hector in the scene immediately prior to Hector’s death at the hand of Achilles.
• Iliad Book 23
“Accursed fate! the conquest I forego; / A mortal I, a goddess was my foe;”
A bitter loser in one of the competitions commemorating the death of Patroclus curses his fate. This example is a slight variation of the “Oh God(s)/ O muse” type of apostrophe. These kinds of apostrophes are more along the lines of an exclamation, rather than an address, yet are still apostrophe as they address someone or something.
• Iliad Book 24
“Unpitying powers! how oft each holy fane / Has Hector tinged with blood of victims slain?
This apostrophe is somewhat ambiguous. But from preceding lines, we know that the god Apollo is speaking. But what are the “unpitying powers” he is addressing? Well, this answer isn’t clear. They could be fate, war, or even the power of the gods. Nevertheless, it is an apostrophe because a character (Apollo) is addressing an abstract quality directly in the form of an exclamation.
The literary technique of apostrophe is present in many works and forms of literature, but The Iliad provides us with some of the earliest examples. Homer, in his genius, is able to utilize this technique to increase the epic nature of his most famous work. Each of these examples illustrates the usage and application of apostrophe and proves the versatility of the literary device.