The Iliad and Odyssey as sources of metaphors for understanding formal science?

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson Leave a comment

I dismissed using Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as a metaphor for contemporary science a bit quickly in my 2018 paper ‘Homer in the laboratory’, only focussing on the idea of οικος as a metaphor for how contemporary science labs operate. On reflection I think a more sustained reading of formal science, its practitioners and institutions, through Homer can reward us. Here are some further thoughts on this topic.

What is the Iliad about? There are lots of themes, and even a very clear stated aim and goal of the poem. Here is the famous opening verse of the Iliad:

“The Wrath of Peleus’s Son, the direful Spring

Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess sing!” (Pope)

Or, in Rieu:

“The Wrath of Achilles is my theme.”

Or Lattimore:

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation”

But the poem isn’t really about that – or rather not about that alone. Apart from anything else, “more than half of the Iliad is occupied by the long battle scenes from which the hero on account of his withdrawal is wholly absent” (Camps 1980: 13) That observation of the absence of the main subject alone is pertinent to our understanding of formal science: many discoveries are made when scientists are not focusing on what their stated aim is.

Although the Iliad and Odyssey are populated with gods and goddesses, and supernatural beings of different sorts, the focus keeps coming back to real human experiences. The parallel to formal science is, I think, useful: we tell ourselves a story of science as a series of remarkable discoveries made by a handful of geniuses working alone, but the actuality is that formal science is carried out by a vast group of workers who are not necessarily geniuses, and have very human lives. But it is also Homer’s humans who are better than the gods: their short lives give them something the gods can never have – the moral dignity of effort and endurance.

Another of the Iliad’s themes, and a paradoxical one, is that of war. Heroes excel and are validated in battle, and the greater the warrior the better a hero they are. Homer’s text is full of bloody and relentless violence; interestingly, the bloodier the violence the more bucolic and pacific the attending similes are.

However, taken as a whole the Iliad presents war as a futile exercise, a series of hollow victories. In formal science we can see a parallel: scientists who excel in their practical activities (laboratory work) and in achieving short-term victories (paper publication) achieve higher status. However, the short-term victories of science are often hollow; the paper is superseded by further and better knowledge or methods, the theory is overturned by a more suitable one.

Jasper Griffin (1992) writes about the paradoxical elements in everyday life as represented in Homer. The palaces of kings are splendid beyond the dreams of ordinary people, yet the kings have had poor lives. Even Paris works as a shepherd. In the Odyssey when Telemachus and Athene visit Menelaus a servant asks him if they can manage to accommodate two extra people (and, presumably, mouths to feed) or ask them to try somewhere else – hardly ‘palatial’. Griffin notes quite a few instances of un-heroic concern with the mundane aspects of booty and food in both books.

“The opulence is that of fairyland, and the poet lets his imagination loose; but also present to his mind is the urgent question of cost.” (1992: 22)

But consider this. Perhaps Homer’s audience understand this only too well and know that it is their part in the performance, their duty, to bracket (but recognise) the mundane reality and to actively construct in their imagination what kings, heroes and gods should be, i.e. imagine the fantastic (and fantasy) splendour of kings.

So – the audience is doing two things: recognising how the world pretty much is, and constructing a fantasy of what it once was and, perhaps, could be. Now, isn’t this somewhat similar to how we look at science (particularly social scientists when they think about science)? We look, see the mundane, but imagine the heroic, the shining edifice, the magical.


And finally, the Iliad, though a poem ostensibly about individual heroes, is actually about collective efforts to achieve a goal that is shared by all participants. Substitute ‘taking Troy’ for ‘making scientific knowledge’.



Camps, W.A. (1980) An introduction to Homer, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Griffin, J. (1992) ‘Heroic and unheroic ideas in Homer’, In Emlyn-Jones, C.J., Hardwick, L. and Purkis, J. (eds) Homer : readings and images, London: Duckworth in association with the Open University. pp. 20-32.


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