The Greek hero in the Brazilian backlands: Reception of the Iliad and the Epic Cycle in Brazilian literature by João Guimarães Rosa

Lorena Lopes da Costa, Federal University of Western Pará, Brazil
The reception of epic poetry by Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967) is an important factor for our understanding of his literature. Rosa is a celebrated author in Brazil and known as one of the most important writers in the lusophone world. His personal library contains, besides many titles of ancient philosophy and poetry, five pieces by Homer. [1] This fact, together with the notes he took on the theme, is concrete evidence of his interest in ancient epic poetry.
In the year 1950, while living in France as a diplomat, Rosa read and made some notes on the Iliad. He took these notes six years before the release of his most acclaimed novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas (The devil to pay in the backlands), published in 1956. Given their content, it is likely that it was the revision of a previous book of short stories, named Sagarana and published in 1946, what would have influenced his decision to study Homer more systematically in the following years and this, on the other hand, influenced the novel. These readings would have contributed to the fate and characterization of his heroic characters in Grande Sertão: Veredas.
One of the most relevant notes about Book 10 of the Iliad is when Rosa quotes Odysseus’ words as the hero replies to Diomedes’ speech in reference to a gunslinger who was admired in the long war of the Brazilian backlands depicted in his literature. [2] To be precise, what Odysseus says in the Iliad is transcribed in Rosa’s notebook not after the name of Odysseus, but after the name of Joãozinho Bem-Bem: “Joãozinho Bem-Bem: My lord Diomedes, said the all-daring excellent Odysseus, there is no need for you to sing my praises, or to criticize me either, since you are talking to men who know me…” [3] This passage reveals the clear association between Rosa’s hero and Odysseus. Joãozinho Bem-Bem is a great warrior in one of the short stories from 1946, already written when Rosa took the notes on the Iliad, and is confirmed as a hero in the novel from 1956. Indeed, in the short story, Bem-Bem’s war comrade says “We cannot have even the taste of the war, since people don’t show themselves if they know Joãozinho Bem-Bem will fight.” [4] The famous hero replies to him, similarly to Odysseus replying to Diomedes in Book 10 of the Iliad: “About me you don’t have to tell, brother, since everybody already knows.” [5]
When writing in his notebook about Book 21 of the Iliad, Rosa again states the names of his warriors, Joãozinho Bem-Bem and his rival. From his notes on the book, it seems that he was reading the moment where Achilles fears for his life before Scamander’s furious waters. The hero was scared, not so much of dying but because, if he did die in such ignoble circumstances, he would die without fame: “I wish now Hector had killed me, the greatest man grown in this place. / A brave man would have been the slayer, as the slain was a brave man.” [6] This desire for a belle mort (which is discussed by Jean-Pierre Vernant, 1989), to be killed by a great rival, resonates in the words of Rosa’s Joãozinho Bem-Bem, when he is close to his end.

I am almost dead, my brother… I will die, but I will die from the knife of the greatest and most brave that I have ever known! I have always said who was the great, brother… It is just like that that people like me are allowed to die. [7]
Once more, Rosa has employed the speech of a Homeric hero into the words of one of his gunmen. Moreover, as soon as Joãozinho Bem-Bem’s rival realizes that people who are supporting him in the battle want to attack the corpse of Bem-Bem, he rebukes and orders them to bury him with respect and in sacred earth, as is the proper way to treat a corpse in the backlands. [8] In this regard, while going over the verses about the corpse of Patroclus in Iliad 16, the author wrote: “The sacred fight for the corpses. The horror of the desecration of the dead.” [9]
The motif of profanation of the dead, which appears in the short story only as a threat avoided by Bem-Bem’s rival, also takes place in the novel Grande Sertão: Veredas. One of the gunmen, who happens to be the narrator, forbids his crew to bury a former ally, a traitor: “Don’t bury this man.” [10] He chooses to use his authority to announce the rejection of proper treatment to a specific corpse as punishment for the treason and a way of restoring justice.

Don’t bury this man, I said. It was justice. Anyway, how were we going to bury all we had killed that day? As we returned to the sierra, I looked up now and then at the sky. The first buzzard that I sighted—it was coming in from the direction of Sungado-do-A—was slowly moving its wings up and down, as if waving to me in friendly greeting. Fly on. But—what was yet to happen! [11]
The man punished with desecration was second in line in the group of traitors. The prime mover of the treason, Hermógenes, is punished with desecration as well. [12] He is the murderer of a fellow, cowardice being his main characteristic. And here we reach what I see as Rosa’s indirect reception of the Epic Cycle through Homer. In other words, I argue that Rosa’s reception of the epic hero does not end with Homer, even if, in this case, there are no notes about the Epic Cycle by Rosa or a collection of fragments in his personal library. Rosa’s reception of epic values beyond Homer can best be characterized along the lines of Malcolm Davies’ argument that some elements found in Homer are unHomeric. [13] To put it another way, Rosa has incorporated some unHomeric features in his Brazilian fictional hinterland that, having been collected from Homer, suggest an indirect reception of the Epic Cycle through Homer, especially regarding one of his heroes—the worst of them, the aforementioned Hermógenes.
Jasper Griffin in “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer” notes that the Epic Cycle contained a number of elements that the Iliad avoided. [14] One of them is the murder of Palamedes, a Greek drowned by Diomedes and Odysseus while fishing in the Cypria, according to Proclus, which is not mentioned by Homer at all. Pausanias also cites the drowning of the man by the hands of Diomedes and Odysseus: “That Palamedes was drowned on a fishing expedition, and that Diomedes was the one who killed him with Odysseus, I know from reading it in the epic Cypria.” [15] Griffin finds it hard to imagine a scene more alien to Homer. Fishing is unheroic in the Iliad and the Odyssey and, even as food, fish is avoided by the warriors and eaten by Odysseus and his men only when in desperate need. Also unHomeric is the assassination of an ally and his consequent, inglorious death by drowning. [16] The Iliadic Achilles fears to die drowned by the waters of the Scamander River, as this pathetic death would prevent him from being remembered as a great hero. We have seen how Achilles demonstrates this thinking in Iliad 21, which Rosa found relevant to his heroes Joãozinho Bem-Bem and his rival. [17]
Betrayal of and vengeance against an ally are notably prohibited by the heroic ethos of the Iliad. Likewise, they are excluded from Rosa’s heroic backlands [18] with only the one powerful exception. Hermógenes [19] kills the main leader of the troop because, according to him, Joca Ramiro had gone too far in changing the customs of the war. The victim discovers another new way to solve problems: a fair trial for the enemy. [20] Hermógenes, together with his comrade, kills his ally Joca Ramiro, as Odysseus with Diomedes kills Palamedes. That is to say that inventive characters are killed in both instances and specially that Rosa character kills an ally as Odysseus does in the Cycle.
Similarly noteworthy regarding this indirect reception is Hermógenes’ cowardice in his treatment given to the corpse of the enemy, which is found in the Iliad but would be another unHomeric feature. In the Iliad the improper treatment and the mutilation of the dead hero is more of a threat than a practice, in spite of Achilles’ behavior over Hector’s dead body. For Charles Segal, the horror of mutilation of an enemy’s corpse plays an important role in the Iliad, where they arouse repugnance and even some moral outrage. [21] Nevertheless, mutilation by dogs and birds (1.4–5; 8.379–80); by vultures who will eat the tender flesh (2.393; 4.237) all involve threats of mutilated corpses and not actual incidents of mutilation. The vindictive maltreatment of the corpse is rare behavior in epic narrative. Violence against a dead enemy for personal reasons already happens in the Iliad no more than three times (11.146; 13.202; 22.395).
In the Little Iliad, however, mistreatment of a corpse seems more usual. After Ajax becomes insane and commits suicide according to Proclus, Apollodorus adds that “Agamemnon prevents his body being cremated.” [22] Still according to Apollodorus, the Little Iliad would reveal another passage of disrespectful treatment of a corpse, since after Paris being killed, his body is mutilated by Menelaus. [23] Malcolm Davies identifies the mutilation of Paris’ body as one of the Little Iliad’s unHomeric features. [24] Moreover, that Menelaus should be portrayed as the one who desecrates the enemy’s corpse “speaks volumes for the difference in the ethos between the Iliad and the Odyssey and a poem like ours,” [25] that is, the Little Iliad.
In conclusion, these fragments on the heroic code from the Epic Cycle can be conceived as both the basis of the passages which interested Rosa in his reading of the Iliad and as a limit marking significant differences between the hero of the Epic Cycle and the hero of the Iliad. If we assume that limit, Rosa would have been interested precisely in that unIliadic heroic behavior, despite his source having been the Iliad. My assumption is that, while he incorporated Homer into his language, he ended up incorporating the Epic Cycle as well. Therefore, even if we cannot know surely whether the stories of the Epic Cycle precede the Iliad and the Odyssey historically or if they were actually influenced by the written Homeric poems, what is really important for my argument is that the Epic Cycle and the Homeric epics were part of a shared tradition. This allows us to see some elements from the Epic Cycle in the Iliad and to see how they can be received through the Iliad in the far-away Brazilian backlands, serving as a code to elaborate not only a deep reflection on violence and war but also an unexpected cultural bond between ancient Greece and modern Brazil.


Allen, Thomas W. 1931. Homeri Ilias. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Berbané, Alberto. 1999. Fragmentos de Épica Griega Arcaica. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.
Davies, Malcolm. 1989. The Epic Cycle. Bedminster: Bristol Classical Press.
Griffin, Jasper. 1977. “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 97, 39–53.
Lattimore, Richmond. 1951. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rieu, Emile Victor. 1950. The Iliad of Homer. London: Penguin Books.
Rosa, João Guimarães. N. d. Diário de guerra de João Guimarães Rosa. Hambourg. 1945. Acervo de Escritores Mineiros da UFMG. Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Rosa, João Guimarães. N. d. Documento E17: Caderno de notas de leitura da Ilíada e da Odisséia, das Fábulas de La Fontaine e da Divina Comédia. Série “Estudos para a Obra.” In Arquivo IEB, University of São Paulo, Fundo João Guimarães Rosa (código de referência JGR-EO-08,01) São Paulo, Brazil.
Rosa, João Guimarães. 2001a. Grande sertão: Veredas. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira.
Rosa, João Guimarães. 2001b. Sagarana. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira.
Rosa, João Guimarães. 1963. The devil to pay in the backlands. Translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Segal, Charles. 1971. The theme of the mutilation of the corpse in the Iliad. Leiden: Lugduni Batavorum E. J. Brill.
Sperber, Suzi. 1976. Caos e Cosmos. Leituras de GR. São Paulo: Duas Cidades.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre. 1989. « La belle mort et le cadavre outragé ». Vernant, Jean-Pierre. L’individu, la mort, l’amour. Soi-même et l’autre en Grèce Ancienne. Paris : Éditions Gallimard.
West, Martin. 2013. A Commentary on the Lost Troy Epics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
West, Martin. 2003. Greek Epic Fragments from the seventh to the fifth centuries BC. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press.


[ back ] 1. Rieu, E. V. 1950. The Iliad. London: Penguin Books; Scheffer, T. 1938. Ilias. Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung; Dufour, M., and Raison, J. 1941. Odyssée. Paris: Garnier; Rieu, E. V. 1948. The Odyssey. London: Penguin Books; Voss, J. H. n.d. Odyssee. Leipzig: Tempel-Verlag.
[ back ] 2. Iliad 10.248–250.
[ back ] 3. JGR EO 08, 01. The cited passages are partly in Portuguese, partly in English, and even in German or Greek. In the original, for example, Rosa writes: Joãozinho Bem-Bem: “My lord Diomedes, disse o all-daring excelente Odysseus, there is no need for you to sing my praises, or to criticize me either, since you are talking to men who know me…”
[ back ] 4. Rosa, 2001b, 391, my translation. In the original: “Mas a gente nem pode mais ter o gosto de brigar, porque o pessoal não aparece, no falar de entrar no meio do seu Joãozinho Bem-Bem.”
[ back ] 5. Rosa, 2001b, 391, my translation. In the original: “Prosa minha não carece de contar, companheiro, que todo o mundo já sabe.”
[ back ] 6. Iliad 21.279–280, transl. Lattimore.
[ back ] 7. Rosa, 2001b, 411, my translation. In the original: “Estou no quase, mano velho… Morro, mas morro na faca do homem mais maneiro de junta e de mais coragem que eu já conheci!… Eu sempre lhe disse quem era bom mesmo, mano velho… É só assim que gente como eu tem licença de morrer…”
[ back ] 8. Rosa, 2001b, 412. The backlands are named sertão, meaning an exotic Brazilian universe characterized by Rosa, from its physical and regional descriptions as well as its metaphysical and universal dimension.
[ back ] 9. JGR EO 08, 01. In the original: “A sacra luta pelos cadáveres. O horror à profanação dos mortos.”
[ back ] 10. Rosa, 1963, 574.
[ back ] 11. Rosa, 1963, 452. In the original: “‘Não enterrem este homem!’, eu disse. A justiça. Mas, mesmo, como é que se ia poder enterrar a quantidade deles, mortos naquele dia? Ao quando retornávamos para a Serra, eu ia olhava o céu, vez em quando. Primeiro urubu que passou—foi vindo dos lados do Sungado-do-A—esse se serenou bem, que me parecia uma amizade de aceno. Avoêje… Mas—o que ia suceder por diante!” (Rosa, 2001a, 574).
[ back ] 12. “Some of the men went to open that room and bring out Hermógenes’ wife. ‘Go to the window, lady, and look below in the street,’ João Concliz told her. She wasn’t a bad woman. ‘Take a look, lady, at a man who was possessed of the devil, but has already begun to stink” (Rosa, 1963, 484). In the original: Como estavam indo abrir aquele quarto, trazendo do corredor a mulher do Hermógenes. Ela visse. ‘A senhora chegue na janela, dona, espia para a rua…’, o que o João Concliz falou. Aquela mulher não era malina. ‘A senhora conheça, dona, um homem demõiado que foi: mas que já começou a feder’ (…) (Rosa, 2001a, 613)
[ back ] 13. Davies, 1989, 2; 5.
[ back ] 14. Griffin, 1977, 39.
[ back ] 15. Cypria, fr. 27 West.
[ back ] 16. Griffin, 1977, 46.
[ back ] 17. In the original: “(Joãozinho BEM-BEM e MATRAGA: importante! pg 387) IMPORTANTE (J. BEM-BEM): pg 388 (“Mano Velho” …)” (JGR EO 08, 01).
[ back ] 18. As Sô Candelário reports: “Aren’t we all jagunços? All right—jagunço against jagunço—hand-to-hand, face-to-face. Is that a crime? (…) The only crimes I know are treachery, or to be a horse or cattle thief, or not to keep your word” (Rosa, 1963, 222). In the original: “A gente não é jagunços? A pois: jagunço com jagunço—aos peitos, após. Isso é crime? (…) Crime que sei, é fazer traição, ser ladrão de cavalos ou de gado… não cumprir a palavra…” (Rosa, 2001a, 282)
[ back ] 19. He is the coward who, besides committing treason, slaughters harmless horses. He is the gunman who wants to mutilate the enemy and therefore sharpens his knife for hours. He always wants to kill in the worst possible way: “The recommendation I make is that we tie this scum up like a pig—and bleed him. Or else, stretch him out on the ground and everybody rides their horses over him until there is no life left in him!” (Rosa, 1963, 219–220). In the original: “Acusação, que a gente acha, é que se devia de amarrar este cujo, feito porco. O sangrante… Ou então botar atravessado no chão, a gente todos passava a cavalo por riba dele—a ver se vida sobrava, para não sobrar!” (Rosa, 2001a, 279).
[ back ] 20. “What would the trial be like? I said right off that nobody knew for sure. Hermógenes heard me and agreed: That’s right, that’s right. We’ll see, we’ll see something that isn’t usually done” were his words. ‘So now we have trials’, many said jokingly. I listened to what the others had to say. ‘That’s true, that’s right. Joca Ramiro knows what he’s doing’ (Rosa, 1963, 213). In the original: “Arte, o julgamento? O que isso tinha de ser, achei logo que ninguém ao certo não sabia. O Hermógenes me ouviu, e gostou: ‘É e é. Vamos ver, vamos ver, o que não sendo dos usos…’, foi o que ele citou. ‘Ei, agora é julgamento!’, os muitos caçoavam, em festa fona. Cacei de escutar os outros. ‘Está certo, está direito. Joca Ramiro sabe o que faz…’ ” (Rosa, Grande Sertão: Veredas, 271–272).
[ back ] 21. Segal, 1971, 13.
[ back ] 22. Little Iliad, arg. 1 West.
[ back ] 23. “After this Odysseus ambushes Helenus and captures him. Following a prophecy he makes about the taking of the city, < Odysseus with > Diomedes brings Philoctetes back from Lemnos. He is healed by Machaon, and fights alone against Alexander and kills him. His body is mutilated by Menelaus, but then the Trojans recover it and give it burial. After this Deiphobus marries Helen” (Little Iliad, arg. 2 West).
[ back ] 24. Davies, 1989, 66.
[ back ] 25. Davies, 1989, 66.