I stumbled across this little gem whilst at an Open Day at the University of Exeter. It’s a “much understudied” – to quote the lecturer at Exeter – piece of writing from Ancient Greece, allegedly written by ‘Homer’ – as if! The Batrachomyomachia is a comic epic, that is, it’s a parody of the Iliad – hence why Homer is credited for writing it. However, I doubt Homer would have written this (if Homer did indeed exist – a debate for another time, perhaps). It’s a parody, because instead of men fighting in a war, displaying the futility of the human condition in contrast to the immortality of the infantile gods – the Iliad has some deep themes, you’ll note – the frogs fall out with the mice in the most ridiculous way, and promptly go to war, fighting with long blades of grass as spears and covering themselves with leaves as armour.
The text really is true to epic: the ‘heroes’ are given grand names and epithets, just as in epic, but with twists of the hedgerow, field, and pond, such as “the great nut-crunching mouse” instead of “Ajax, strongest of all Greece”. The frogs and mice take on the epic attributes of the heroes in another way, too – much as heroes do, they originally begin to fight because the pride of the mice has been deeply offended, and must be restored. (A frog accidentally drowned the mouse king when he got scared whilst carrying him across a pond.) Various tiny ‘warriors’ on either side also experience an aristeia, which is a period of exceptional fighting, winning them kleos, or glory, which is obviously incredibly important to heroes. And, again as in epic, the gods stand watch, bickering amongst themselves as they do in the Iliad. The comedy is really in the attention to epic detail.
The final layer of brilliance in the Batrachomyomachia is not because of the original comic epic, but perhaps because it is “understudied”; the only copy of the text I could find to buy was translated a long time ago, in the late 1700s, and so is written in a style of English very unlike what you would ordinarily read today! The elevated language used by the translator certainly adds to the comedy of a such a parody.
Overall, I would recommend having a look into this – having read the Iliad, I feel I got an extra something out of it, but the ridiculous nature of the whole thing would have ensured it was funny anyway! The Batrachomyomachia is, simply, brilliant.