In Japan, Homer is so familiar that Japanese have been known to describe their own lengthy Heike epic on the (fully historical) downfall of the Taira clan as a Japanese Iliad. It is a truly national epic: I have yet to meet a Japanese who couldn’t recite its opening line – ‘Gionshōja no kane no koe. Shōgyomujō no hibiki ari’, ‘The bell of Gion Temple recalls the impermanence of all things’ – which echoes, though in Buddhist resignation, Homer’s bitter evocation of human mortality at the very start of the Iliad. Like the Iliad, The Tale of the Heike was sung, by blind itinerant monks strumming the four-string biwa, colleagues of the rhapsodes who strummed the often four-stringed phorminx lyre while singing Homeric compositions (and of the cantastorie who recited tales of Federico Secondo Hohenstaufen in the Palermo of my childhood with the aid of highly coloured storyboards; and the Serbian singers of the Sanjak of Novi Pazar recorded by Milman Parry and Albert Lord in 1934-35). Yet another similarity is in the parallel fates of the infant Astyanax, son of Hector, destined successor of King Priam, and that of the child emperor Antoku, the former thrown from the walls of Troy during its sack according to the post-Iliadic Ilias mikra, or ‘Little Iliad’, the latter drowned by his own grandmother, who threw herself into the sea with him after the Taira were defeated in 1185 off Shimonoseki. His mother survived in perpetual sorrow at the appropriately melancholy Jakkō-in nunnery at Ohara just above Kyoto, which no tourist should miss, especially in the rainy mists of June.
Homer Inc. by Edward Luttwak