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The Birds In The Iliad Strengthened Warriors

February 14, 2012

The birds in the Iliad help warriors and kings make difficult decisions and satisfy the basic human need for self-esteem and security. This is the conclusion of a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, that analyses 35 bird scenes in Homer’s Iliad from around 700 B.C.

In the Iliad, gods use birds to disguise themselves and as transmitters of messages to humans. Similarly, humans use birds as signs and symbols that they interpret to acquire knowledge about the presence and identities of gods and their intentions for the future. Birds therefore have a very important function as intermediaries between humans and their gods.

‘The birds are central in the event structure of the Iliad. They often appear in dangerous and important war situations and prior to risky journeys. Receiving a positive bird sign from the gods in those situations strengthened the warriors’ fighting spirit and ability to fight, but it also evoked a sense of relief since it indicated that the god was with them,’ says the author of the thesis Karin Johansson.

In her thesis, Johansson identifies the different bird species that are included in the Iliad and shows that they are carefully selected to fit into the particular situations and environments where they appear. The most common species are the peregrine falcon, the rock dove and the golden eagle, but also the so-called bearded vulture, with is very uncommon today.

‘It is important to identify the birds and pay attention to their behavior and characteristics. The specific species are also chosen to convey and add specific information. If we neglect these details, we also lose important parts of the messages,’ says Johansson.

Johansson’s research on Homer’s birds is unique, since previous research mainly has focused on the symbolic functions of the birds and on whether a bird is a transformed god or should be interpreted as a mere metaphor. The ornitological identities, behavior and characteristics of the birds have never been given much attention in the past. Johansson’s thesis sheds light on how the birds in the Iliad challenge the modern scientific division of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and to some extent the way we think, since the birds are both birds in a zoological sense and signs and symbols at the same time.

‘Focusing on the birds in the Iliad helps us better understand the deepest wishes, reliefs and fears of the human characters, it also helps us understand how deeply rooted the birds are in the persons’ lives and way of thinking. The situations and events in the Iliad center around war and others dangers in life, and there is no doubt that the birds are very important to the human characters in those situations,’ says Johansson.

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