While organizers of a recent all-night reading of Homer's Iliad, the ancient Greek classic, billed the event as a form of activism staged 'in an oblique way' as commentary on the current climate of political debate over the wisdom of the war in Iraq, others took it as simply a way to reacquaint themselves with one of world culture's great monuments in literature.

"Not all scholars agree that it is an anti-war epic," notes Kathryn Hohlwein, "but I feel that the uneasy effect it produces in us requires that we acknowledge it as such. Distant from us as Homer is, he understand the travails of our world, and brutal as the Iliad is, it is also infinitely tender and life-affirming."

In an era when popular movies such as Kill Bill contain graphic and gory bloodlettings of unprecedented magnitude, the uneasiness Hohlwein would attribute to Homer's classic may be more in the fact that a foundation stone in world culture is so full of battle.

The marathon reading - one might more properly call it a relay - is part of a worldwide traveling effort organized by Hohlwein and others. It was held at the Angel Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street in lower Manhattan - a converted church cum synagogue which now hosts a decidedly European-influenced menu of visual arts - and lasted 12 hours, from approximately 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Fittingly, the evening's schedule was announced by organizers with Homer's own words: "The night is very long - immeasureably so. It is not yet time to sleep in the palace. But go on telling me about your wondrous deeds." As reader after reader - some in Greek, some in English - executed their portions of the great Greek classic, audience and visitors viewed artwork by Laura Hohlwein, and listened as percussionist Bill Warren complemented the readings.

The Readers of Homer performance was introduced by The New York Times last week as a rendering of 'the greatest war story ever told.' "In case 'The Iliad' isn't lying around the Oval Office," notes Nicholas D Kritof, he recaps the story and says that while ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus 'do not avoid mistakes, they learn from them. Through their errorrs, they come to understand moral nuance as well as moral clarity, and to appreciate moderation."

The Iliad is full of battle scenes, confrontations and exchanges between gods, heroes and men. Some of it is slow going, but in its best moments confronts human issues of the greatest magnitude with potency and power that is at once fundamental and pure poetry. Divided into twenty four books, the ancient Greek classic was divided into approximately 112 sections, each about 100 lines long, and as the evening progressed, a line-up of readers waited their turn on chairs near the dais while viewers and participants lounged in chairs provided by organizers in the spacious chamber.

One such passage read by a local writer from Long Island was a culminating moment in chapter 24 when Troy's King Priam overcomes his anger and his fear, traveling to the camp of Achilles with treasure in an attempt to retrieve the body of his dead son, the Trojan hero Hektor. 'It is well to lift hands to Zeus and ask if he will have mercy,' says aged King Priam, as he prepares to cross a plain of war, carrying treasures to give to his enemy in war. Standing in the middle of an enclosure in the city, he pours unstained water over his hands, takes a cup of wine from his wife Hecuba, and pours it on to the ground, all the while looking up at heaven.

To show he has heard the king, Zeus sends an omen - a black eagle, sweeping through Troy from the right hand, uplifting the hearts of Priam and his people. And Priam takes heart, and sets out across the plain accompanied by an old man driving a mule-led wagon filled with treasure. The people follow him for a time, but after a short while they fall back in fear, and leave Priam to his dangerous journey.

Zeus sees this and takes pity. He sends the god Hermes, disguised as a young man, a noble, to bgive him comfort and guide him on his way. Hermes, who beyond all other gods finds it dearest to be among men, complies. 'Immediately he bound upon his feet the fair, golden, immortal sandals which carried him over the water as over the dry land of the main abreast of the wind's blast.'

Hermes encounters Priam on the plain, and at first the aged king is afraid. 'The hairs stood up all over his gnarled body and he stood staring.' But Hermes is persistent and through gentle discourse, he reassures King Priam. The passage ends with hermes guiding Priam in safety and invisibly to the lair of the wrathful warrior Achilles.

The marathon concluded after 7 a.m., as if in synchronicity with this thought by Homer "And I myself could hold out until the bright dawn, if only you could bear to tell me, here in the palace, of your suffering."

The New York reading follows readings of both The Iliad and The Odyssey in California. Another reading of The Odyssey is planned in Paris, next year.




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