How does Homer depict the traditional idea of heroism and then redefine this idea?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Homer's brilliance in the Iliad is to depict a traditional notion of heroism on the battlefield, only to subvert it as he reveals the true nature of warfighting. This subversion is where heroism is redefined, as Homer convinces the audience to intricately analyze definitions of heroism. In the work's exposition, Homer depicts heroism as success on the battlefield.  The will to win and the call to military action is what defines heroism. It is this valorous notion that links figures like Agamemnon, Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus, and Menelaus. Heroism is defined by arete on the battlefield as well as the need to defend one's honor through military conflict. Homer's depiction follows along a traditional trajectory in the exposition of the work.

Yet, as the work continues, Homer redefines this ideal of heroism by showing the complexity that exists within it. For example, in Book VI, the farewell scene between Hektor and Andromache depicts the cruelty that lives in a notion of heroism defined purely by militaristic action.  Poised between equally desirable, but ultimately incompatible courses of action, Hektor embodies how the traditional notion of heroism on the battlefield is redefined. Homer subverts his own ideal through the agony that Hektor experiences. Andromache depicts the consequence of military heroism, in terms of the family members who must suffer because of it:  

Dear husband, your valor will bring you to destruction; think on your infant son and on my hapless self who ere long shall be your widow- for the Achaeans will long set upon you as a body and kill you.  It would be better for me should I lose you, to lie dead and buried, for I shall have nothing left to comfort me when you are gone,... I have neither father nor mother now. Achilles slew my father when he sacked the city of Thebe...

Hektor cannot respond effectively because he is wracked with pain and suffering over what he knows he must do.  He bids farewell to his son and wife, putting his hands with the Gods, a decision that everyone knows will not end well.  In this moment, Hektor embodies how Homer redefines a notion of heroism steeped solely in militaristic notions of the good.

From this emotionally agonizing subversion, Homer continues its reexamination in depicting the moral repugnance within war.  Hektor must face Achilles and his wrath "alone and unsupported."  By Priam's words alone, Homer illuminates the lonely condition of the soldier.  All warriors must face their end "alone and unsupported."  While they may begin war in a crowd, the death of a soldier is a forlorn one. Interestingly enough, Priam's words also reflect how the Gods themselves have abandoned Hektor.  Despite his honor and sense of decency, the scales of fate are weighed against him, and his death is all but guaranteed.  In both realities, Homer prompts reexamination of the traditional idea of military heroism.  When Hektor dies, there is full reevaluation of the heroic premise in war by the savage way in which Hektor's body is treated. The lack of dignity in war is revealed both in the cowardly way the other Achaeans attack his body now that he is dead and Achilles's treatment of it: "It is easier to handle Hektor now than when he was flinging fire onto our ships." Homer illuminates the savage and undignified reality in war with this scene.  Homer causes the audience to reevaluate the perceived heroism in war and warfighting so commonly associated with the Classical period.