Essays and Criticism
Extra-Literary Concerns of the Iliad
In one sense, it is unjust to give Homer all the credit for the Iliad, since it is all but certain that he had at least some "help" in composing it. Whether he merely cobbled together shorter poems into one epic work, or whether he improvised the majority of the Iliad from a pre-existing repertoire of themes, epithets, and episodes, Homer had the benefit of several centuries' worth of material to draw upon in composing his own poem.
Looked at from another perspective, however, it is no less unjust to refuse Homer the credit for his work. Surely there were other artists, now lost in the distant past, on whom Homer drew for inspiration, technique, or source material. Yet it is his artistry that made the poem "sing," if you will. If we compare Homer to Ella Fitzgerald, for example (a metaphor which I owe to Michael Silk's commentary on the Iliad), no one would deny that some credit is due to the original author of the piece being "interpreted" or improvised upon, and some as well to the inventors and refiners of the art itself: yet it is indisputably Fitzgerald's artistry (or Homer's) that makes the piece something more than an exercise in musical theory or poetic technique.
While the Greeks would certainly have considered the poem an artistic creation, they saw more in it than merely great literature. For them, it contained elements of both history and religion as well. Herodotus and Thucydides both accept Homer as a historical source, to some degree, and archaeologists have found evidence of votive offerings and literal "hero-worship" at sites connected with the poem (Mycenae, for example, and at the tomb of Achilles even down to the days of Julius Caesar) that date back at least to the eighth century BC.
For centuries, Greek culture was saturated with the Iliad. The wealthy aristocracy were accustomed to hearing parts of the poem, or at least the Troy cycle, in private performances at dinner parties and other functions. By the time of the Golden Age in the fifth century BC, Homer was a standard part of the school curriculum and was widely quoted in later literature. At least in Athens the Iliad was recited, in full, every four years at the Great Panathenaia, giving everyone regular opportunities to experience the poem in performance.
In order to understand the original importance of the poem, it is vital to remember that the modern conception of "history" was first put forward by Herodotus in the middle of the fifth century BC, some three hundred years after Homer. Lacking a written historical record, the only route to immortality for the Greeks of Homer's day was either through the memory of the gods or of an artist: one could never be certain about the survival of one's family line in a world where disease, famine, and war were much more common than they are in ours. As Sarpedon says to Glaucus (XII.322-328, my translation):
O ray friend, if we could get through this war, live forever and be both ageless and immortal, I would neither myself fight in the front rank, nor command you to fight where men win glory: But now, seeing as the dooms of death stand all around in their thousands, which no mortal can either flee or escape, let us go on and grasp glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.
This is also the impetus behind the repeated invocations to the Muses scattered throughout the poem. (Especially revealing in this context is II.484-85, the beginning of the Catalogue of Ships: "Tell me now, O Muses who have homes on Olympus: for you are goddesses, you are everywhere, and you know all things.")
It is harder for us to get in touch with this mindset, living as we do in an age where all sorts of records and identifications follow us around for most of our lives, and, in many cases, well afterward. Yet we do still yearn to be remembered for something more than just having "lived and moved and had our being" here for a period of time, to borrow a phrase from Scripture.
That is enough to explain why the Iliad was important to the Greeks, in Homer's time and afterward. Why is it important to us, nearly three millennia later? Why do people still read this poem? Of course, because it is good literature: but what makes it not only good, but even popular?
The continued popularity of the poem is due to several factors. Chief among them are, first, the richness of its imagery, coupled with a certain sparseness of detail that allows the imagination of the reader (or, originally, the listener) to fill in the outlines left by the poet, thus...
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The Iliad is not about the Trojan War; that war lasted ten years and the central actions of the poem occupy only a few weeks. War brutalizes men and women, wounds their bodies and minds, enslaves and kills them. This is Homer's message as he focuses on one hero, Achilleus, to demonstrate wrath's destruction of self and others. Achilleus' moral journey in the Iliad brings him face to face with his own humanity, leading him to a startling and essentially unheroic act of generosity toward his enemy. When he gives Priam the dead and mutilated body of Hektor, Achilleus stands for a few moments on the threshold of a different civilization, as Homer shows wrath dissolved through compassion, and human feeling overcoming the stringent heroic code of conformity.
A hero is one who willingly and eagerly confronts death, and three Greek words embody the heroic code: áristos, areté, and aristeía. Áristos is being the best at whatever is called for by the situation: in wartime, killing; in peacetime, husbandry; in seamanship, steering. To be known as the best requires aristeía―exploits which gain for the warrior the prestige of having comrades consider him possessed of areté, merit. Areté can only be bestowed by others, not by self. In the world of the Iliad what the world thinks of you is far more important than what you think of yourself. Indeed, it is what you think of yourself. Fame and glory, kléos, can only be achieved through action. This is why the withdrawal of Achilleus from the battle is such a devastating decision: without exploits he has no identity and can only sit in his shelter singing about fame and glory instead of achieving it. Achilleus is no longer áristos, the best of the Achaians, when Agamemnon succeeds in depriving him of Briseis. The girl, along with tripods, spears, and other parseus tells Achilleus of Agamemnon's offer of gifts if he will return to the battle. In response, Achilleus rejects the heroic code once again. We are all going to die, he says, both the brave and the weak, so it matters little whether you do a great deal or nothing. Look at me, how I've fought harder than anyone, and how I have nothing. And what was I fighting for, why are the Argives fighting the Trojans? For Helen? What is so special about Helen?
In a dramatic rejection of the heroic code, Achilleus questions the sexual cause of the war, finding it unworthy of dying for. He has alienated himself from the war and has had time to question the standards of his society. Returning to the battle only after the death of Patroklos, Achilleus slays Hektor and then mutilates the body. That behavior is properly heroic. But then, in another brave defection from the heroic code, Achilleus takes a stance of compassion toward his enemy: he gives the body of Hektor to Priam for proper burial, a rite that will not only ensure the eternal peace of a spirit Achilleus has reason to condemn to a restless eternity, but will also give the body a continuing temporal fame in a burial marker. Achilleus ceases his erasure of the identity of Hektor.
In this first great work of Western literature, Homer shows war destroying not only cities and civilizations but the souls of men. War turns men into things, objects without pity. What difference does it make? Achilleus asks. We are all going to die. And he plunges his sword through the neck of the naked and defenseless young son of Priam.
Hektor, prince and defender of the city of Troy, becomes for the reader a more complete human being than does Achilleus. The latter deals primarily with other warriors, whereas Hektor is seen responding to his mother, Hekuba, his sister-in-law, Helen, and his wife, Andromache. Hektor is revealed through these three women, and they reveal themselves, especially by their positions when, in Book 6, Hektor returns to the city for respite from the fighting. These scenes gain for Hektor a sympathetic response from us that might otherwise have been reserved solely for Achilleus.
Hektor's first encounter is with his mother (the present Queen of Troy); this woman does not bury herself deep within the palace, but, herself a fierce warrior who can cry out that she would like to eat the liver of Achilleus raw, she comes rushing to greet her son. However, her first words to Hektor are not of comfort but of reprimand: she demands to know what he is doing behind the city walls, away from the fighting. No mother to coddle her children, she immediately commands Hektor to offer a libation of wine to Zeus for victory in battle, and only then does she suggest that Hektor may drink some of the wine himself. But only to restore his energy for battle. This stern Queen of Troy is equal to the Spartan enemies besieging the walls of her city. How different she is from Thetis; Achilleus' mother treats him like a little baby before his final battle with Hektor.
Hektor continues on to the palace of his brother, where he finds Paris and Helen (the former Queen of Sparta) in a most appropriate place, her bedroom. Paris is polishing his battle gear rather than fighting with it, and Helen is berating him, projecting the blame for the war on the gods, and referring to herself as a vile bitch. When she suggests that future poets will, as they indeed have done, make songs about her and perpetuate her fame, one wonders whether she really does resent her "misfortune." The lady protests at great length, and she responds to Hektor with much more tenderness and regard than she does to Paris. And Hektor, for all the ten years of suffering Helen has caused, treats her with the respect due a former Queen of Sparta. (To be fair to Helen, it must be remembered that women of this period had no more control over their fate than did those in the male-dominated Athenian "Golden Age.")
When Hektor goes searching for his wife (whom destiny will prevent from becoming Queen of Troy in the future), he finds her in a place that reveals her character as the wife of a prince who is slated to be the future King of Troy: she is standing on the city wall, from which she can watch the battle. There she reminds Hektor that Achilleus had killed her father as well as her seven brothers, and was responsible for the death of her mother. Hektor, then, she tells him, is both father, brother, mother, and husband to her. Indeed, when she loses Hektor to the sword of Achilleus, she loses everything in the world. Both she and Hektor know Achilleus is the greater warrior; they realize Hektor is going to die. He knows the city of Troy will perish and that Andromache and his son will be lost. Although he may at times deny it, Hektor returns to the battle knowing that he will die; this is his heroic grandeur. But, before he goes, he reaches out for his baby son, who, not recognizing his father in plumed helmet and battle gear, cries out in fear and terror. Homer shows that war is not just glorious action bringing fame and honor to the participants; it is also a mechanism turning men into creatures from whom even their children draw back in fright. There are neither good men nor bad men in the Iliad; this is the humanity of Homer, who, Hellenic himself, doesn't favor Hellenes over Trojans.
Homer is given credit for anthropomorphism, for providing the gods and goddesses with human traits. He endowed them with richly human characteristics, turning Ares into the blood-thirsty young god of war, Aphrodite into the "flighty" goddess of love, Hera into a jealous and conniving wife, and Athena and Apollo into grandiose, superhuman beings. To Homer's listeners, as well as to many in the following generations, these divine gods and goddesses constituted their religious beliefs, and their participation in the two Homeric poems was real―the gods controlled and directed the events. The modern reader, however, can choose among a variety of ways of reading the poem: the gods and goddesses are actually real and present; they are external symbols for the internal emotions, desires, and drives of men and women, of their good and bad luck; or, they are both at the same time.
In the first instance the reader can suspend his disbelief in ancient Hellenic religion and enter into the spirit of the times. In the second―the symbolic reading―the reader can consider that everything that happens to the heroes in the Iliad could have happened without the actions of the gods, since they are personifications of the fears and aspirations of the heroes. If a hero is suddenly filled with courage, or overcomes his opponent, or has good luck, or lets out a war cry that terrifies the enemy, then a god or goddess is given the credit. Even Apollo's stunning of Patroklos, and Athena's return of a spear to Achilleus―two occurrences often cited as indisputable evidence of divine intervention―can be considered as symbols for human actions.
However, in reading imaginative literature it is possible to have the best of both worlds: the imaginative reader need not consider the two readings mutually exclusive, need not choose between the actually divine and the symbolically divine. Indeed, this dual function is expressed by Diomedes when he is speaking about Achilleus' rejection of the embassy: "He will fight when the heart in his breast urges him, and the god arouses him." The single combat between Menelaos and Paris and its aftermath illustrate this dual role of the Olympians in Homer.
After ten years of battle it has been decided to resolve the conflict through single combat between Menelaos, Helen's first husband, and Paris, Helen's second husband, (This is one of a number of incidents in the poem which seem likely to have occurred earlier in the war.) In the first moments of the contest Menelaos throws his spear at Paris and misses the body. He then grabs Paris by the helmet, spins him around until Paris falls, and begins to drag him away by the helmet. Aphrodite, however, the protectress of Paris, breaks the chin strap holding the helmet, and Menelaos strides on, carrying only the helmet. Thus, what was accident, a worn chin strap breaking and saving Paris, is attributed to the intervention of a goddess. Paris escapes through a cloud of dust, carried off by Aphrodite and deposited gently in the bed of Helen. The goddess is given credit for spiriting Paris away from the battle, whereas it could also be read as an act of apparent cowardice on his part, Aphrodite leads Helen to the bedroom―or perhaps she is led by her own...
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Death and the God-Like Hero
With small exceptions, the serious poetry of Greece is concerned with the myths; and the subject of Greek mythology is the heroes. These are two obvious facts. Epic dealt with die "deeds of gods and men," and so did the choral lyric, while even the personal lyric is full of mythical narratives and excursions. Tragedy too, tended to restrict itself to the mythical period, although the Capture of Miletus, by Phrynichus, and the Persians, by Aeschylus, show that this was not actually a rule. The mythical period was quite a short one, two or three generations about the time of the Theban and Trojan wars; the rest of the past, however vivid or striking in the memory, was felt to be different, and inappropriate for...
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