Josna Rege

191. The Iliad at Bedtime

In 1990s, Books, Childhood, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2013 at 11:42 pm


I don’t know who looked forward to bedtime more when my son was little, but I know we both did, because we could slow down, get comfortable, and read. I was an easy touch. “Just one more chapter,” he would plead as I made to close the book and turn out the lights, and that’s all it would take for me to settle in again with a sigh—of resignation or relief? There was a mere handful of the many, many books we went through together that I couldn’t wait to put down, glancing surreptitiously at Nikhil every so often out of the corner of my eyes in the hope that I would see his eyelids drooping and take that as a cue to say good night. One of those books was The Iliad.

Image.ashxIt’s not the fact that it was a classical epic that made the going tedious. In fact, I had consciously decided to expose him to the epics from both the Indian and the Greek traditions. We started with an abridged children’s edition of my favorite, the wonderfully compendious Mahabharata—of which it is said that what is not in it, is not—followed by the Ramayana. Then, after a bit of an interval, we took up the Odyssey and eventually, the Iliad. I’d never read the Iliad myself, and what I’d heard of it hadn’t particularly pre-disposed me to it; still, I proceeded with it dutifully, if only to round out my son’s education.

Except for this one particular night I confess I don’t remember much of what we read; and, to be quite honest, I’m certain we didn’t finish it. This was entirely due to me: Nikhil would have been prepared to listen to it until long after the cows had come home, if only to postpone indefinitely the moment of actually having to go to sleep; in the end, it was I who didn’t have the stamina. But on this particular night, we were in the middle of what seemed to be an interminably long listing, contingent by contingent, of all the ships making up the army of the Achaeans (that is, the Greeks, also called the Danaans or the Argives in the epic) that had sailed to Troy. Here’s a taste of it:

Tell me now, Muses, who live on Olympus – since you are goddesses, ever present and all-knowing, while we hearing rumour know nothing ourselves for sure – tell me who were the leaders and lords of the Danaans. For I could not count or name the multitude who came to Troy, though I had ten tongues and a tireless voice, and lungs of bronze as well, if you Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, brought them not to mind. Here let me tell of the captains, and their ships.

First the Boeotians, led by Peneleos, Leitus, Arcesilaus, Prothoenor and Clonius; they came from Hyrie and stony Aulis, from Schoenus, Scolus and high-ridged Eteonus; from Thespeia and Graea, and spacious Mycalessus; from the villages of Harma, Eilesium and Erythrae; from Eleon, Hyle, Peteon, Ocalea and Medeon’s stronghold; from Copae, Eutresis, and dove-haunted Thisbe; from Coroneia and grassy Haliartus, Plataea and Glisas, and the great citadel of Thebes; from sacred Onchestus, Poseidon’s bright grove; from vine-rich Arne, Mideia, holy Nisa and coastal Anthedon. They captained fifty ships, each with a hundred and twenty young men. (from The Iliad, Book II)

And that was just the first contingent; it went on and on in this vein until I thought I was going to keel over from boredom. I hoped that Nikhil was getting as tired of it as I was and that I would soon be able to call it a night. But, inexplicably, it appeared to be holding his attention. I went on manfully, trying to muster up the requisite epic resonance in my voice, though in truth I was beginning to flag. Every few minutes I’d steal a glance at the reclining Nikhil, and finally, when it seemed that he’d been still and quiet for a long time, I stopped reading. In an instant, he sprang to life:

“Why have you stopped, Mom?”

“Oh, I thought you were asleep.”

“No I wasn’t; I was counting.”


“There are seven hundred and forty-four ships so far; I don’t want to lose count.”

So he had been listening intently all along; rather than counting sheep, he had been counting ships!

I learned only yesterday that this section is known as the Catalogue of Ships  and that the Greek catalogue alone  “lists twenty-nine contingents under 46 captains, accounting for a total of 1,186 ships.”

I guess my son and I don’t have altogether identical tastes in bedtime reading.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


  1. …and so you fostered a love for poetry in me. Now, to write one with 2000 ships!

  2. What courage to read the “Iliad” as a bedtime story! And I do admire Nikhil’s sharp attention.
    Your reference to the historical coining of the phrase “until the cows come home” is fun, especially the Groucho Marx usage!!

    • I don’t know if I’d call it courage, Anna–more like foolhardiness! It certainly wasn’t very relaxing reading. But, yes, Nikhil found a way to enjoy it! Glad you liked “till the cows come home;” it occurred to me that some of these expressions that I use because I learned them from reading or from my parents’ generation are no longer in general use–at least not in the U.S., so they require some explanation. Thanks for commenting! x J

  3. Susannah had to read The Iliad & The Odyssey in grad school this year. She referred to The Iliad as “full of men whining to the gods or their moms.” Obviously, Nik was paying attention to other things… BTW, I love your A to Z Challenge pieces. xxoo, N

    • I love Susannah’s description of The Iliad. It never ceases to amaze me how differently we experience a book, not only depending who we are, but also depending on when we read it and what our preoccupations are at the time. When I re-read something after a long interval it often seems like a completely different book. Sometimes I can’t even find passages that I “remember” vividly from my earlier reading. Thanks for your comment, McNance; always love hearing from you. xo J

  4. I hope that reading at bedtime is a tradition that live on and on. Stratoz goes AtoZ

  5. Hi Josna
    Thanks for commenting on Pom-Pom. There are some things we all feel impelled to write about. And, from what we write, we learn who we are.

    • “. . .from what we write, we learn who we are.”
      What an intriguing and ponderable thought! I’ve been writing Tell Me Another for three years like one possessed. Perhaps I ought to step back and try reading it like an outsider. I’ve never let myself go enough to be able to create another character, so that I can watch how that character behaves and interacts with others.
      I’ll be returning to Pom-Pom when this crazy one-a-day challenge is over. Thank you for visiting and for your thoughtful comment.

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