Heike Monogatari: the Japanese Iliad

Two impressive works, both of great influence. They originated in places and ages that couldn’t be more distant from each other, and still there are some striking resemblances.

The title

‘Iliad’ is derived from the old Greek word for Troy (Ilion or Ilios).

‘Heike monogatari’ 平家物語 means ‘the tale of the house of Taira’ (‘Taira’ in Chinese reading is ‘hei’平).

The titles work here as a kind of spoiler: they predict the fall of two once mighty people.

Description of an epic battle between two groups of brave warriors

Iliad: Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, is kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris. In those times that seemed a sound reason for declaring war, and the deceived husband mobilizes together with his brother Agamemnon Greek’s bravest men to attack Troy. After knocking around for ten years, the Greek succeed in burning Troy with the assistance of a giant wooden horse.

Heike: The mighty and dominant Taira clan has to deal with protest actions conducted by retired emperor Go-Shirakawa and the Minamoto clan. These struggles culminate in the Genpei war 1180-1185 (源‘gen’ is Chinese reading for Minamoto, 平‘hei (becomes pei after n-sound)’ for Taira). Lots of battles provide some spectacular scenes. Most famous is the one with a Minamoto boy shooting an arrow through a fan hold by a Taira lady on a ship. The Taira were finally defeated in the battle of Dan-no-Ura.

The author

409px-Homeros_MFA_Munich_51The author of the Iliad is said to be Homer, a blind poet-singer-with-lyre. The story of Troy was an oral tradition that went on for ages, before someone wrote it down. Was Homer really the author, and did he even exist? To be or not to be, that’s the Homeric Question.

The Heike displays a remarkably resembling issue with authorship. The story is a compilation of oral tales, told by singing monks-with-biwa, the Japanese lute. Therefore there are various versions, but the most famous one is written by the monk Kakuichi in 1371. And, surprisingly, he was blind too.


The Iliad is written in dactylic hexameters: — U | — U | — U | — U | — u u | — X.

The Heike uses the 7-5 syllable rhythm, except for the opening poem.

Opening poem

Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾿ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾿ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾿ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι· Διὸς δ᾿ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
the cursed rage which brought the Achaeans endless sorrow
and threw many mighty souls of heroes into Hades,
and made them a pray for the dogs and all kind of birds.
For thus the will of Zeus was fulfilled;
(Sing) from the moment they were parted by strife,
Atreus’ son, king of the men, and the glorious Achilles.


The sound of the bells at the Gion Monastery
echoes the impermanence of worldly things.
The color of the flowers on the double-trunked sala tree
reveals the reason why the prosperous must decay.
Haughty people won’t last for long,
like a mere dream on a spring night.
The brave will be destroyed in the end,
will be only like dust before the wind.

Some resemblances in content:

– The role of religion, whether it is Greek pantheism (Goddess, Hades, Zeus) or Buddhism (Gion, double-trunked sala tree, “impermanence of worldly things”).

– The fall of human (prey for dogs and birds, decay, destroyed)

– A moral lesson: “Too much rage can lead to trouble!”, “Don’t act haughty!”. At the same time, men is not to blame. The Greek made it a fulfilment of Zeus’ wish, the Japanese sigh “karma…”

– The last sentence makes a sinister prediction (parted by strife, destroyed). Doubtlessly they mastered the techniques to gain their public’s attention.


– Information and original texts found on Wikipedia. Greek and Japanese translations are mine.

– Iliad and Homer picture from Wiki Commons.

Facts for Fun

– full text of Iliad (English)  and Heike Monogatari (Japanese)

Performance of a singing biwa player.

– The Tokugawa Art Museum has some nice collections. You find nine objects about the Heike here.

4 thoughts on “Heike Monogatari: the Japanese Iliad

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  4. Pingback: My Internship in Japan: Kyushu Travels II | nippaku

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