The Iliad of Homer in Africa

War is an enduring component of our lives. It repeats and repeats – methodically, systematically and predictably, giving the grim sense of an irrevocable branding upon the human heart.

My new compilation, Africa Ablaze! opens and closes with extracts from Homer’s epic, The Iliad. These are included because of the Iliad’s tragic vision and evocation of war’s devastating relentlessness.

I drew the extracts from Richard Whitaker’s outstanding ‘African’ translation of the Iliad because it is rich in African idiom and language. It uses words like assegai, mkonto and impi. There is a sense of this epic war unfolding right here within our own landscape, the very dust of which, with its ochre and rust-red colours, amplifies the sense of carnage on Homeric battlefields.

I have long wondered what it means to be a peace-maker, and have questioned whether poetry, with its great ability to touch the human heart, might stand against the weaponry we so deftly design and make. Could a sonnet halt a marching army? Could a haiku hold back an armoured tank? Could something as utterly beautiful as Solomon’s Song of Songs sway a military decision against seeding landmines on paths and fields?

Perhaps so. Perhaps all that is needed to reverse the awful, universal ethos of war, in the thrall of which humankind seems to be held, is for our hearts to receive poetic beauty and then to pass it on to another. Or perhaps it is the Iliad that should be put to work to engender peace, for it hides none of the dark truths of war.


 From: The Iliad of Homer – The earth was soaked with blood
Translated from the Ancient Greek by Richard Whitaker

When they met on level ground, they clashedassegai on assegai, hide on hide,
man on bronze-armoured man, bossed shield
shoved against shield, a great uproar arose.
Screams could be heard, shouts of triumph, from men
killing and being killed; the earth was soaked with blood.
When torrents swollen by winter rains rush down
and meet in the groin of a mountain kloof,
the thunder of their waters can be heard
in the distance by a shepherd in the hills;
such was the uproar as the armies clashed.


 The Iliad of Homer: A Southern African translation
By Richard Whitaker
New Voices Publishing, Cape Town
ISBN: 978 1 920411 97 8
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Richard Whitaker is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Cape Town. He has published translations from Latin, French and Ancient Greek, as well as academic articles and books on Classical literature and oral poetry. He has also published travel writing on South Africa.

Africa Ablaze! Poems & prose pieces of war & civil conflict
Selected by Patricia Schonstein
African Sun Press, Cape Town
ISBN 978-1-874915-19-5
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Photograph from:


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