Extra-Literary Concerns of the Iliad

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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:...

(This entire section contains 1896 words.)

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"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 inviting "audience participation" in the work, as it were; second, the balanced treatment it gives to both sides; and lastly, the excellent portrait of the human condition offered by the protagonists, Achilles and Hector.

The chief rule in poetry, as one of my teachers once described it, is "show, don't tell" —and Homer is a master at this tactic. From the ubiquitous descriptive epithets up through the frequent similes and metaphors, to such masterful scenes as the bed of flowers put forth by the earth on Mount Ida when Hera seduces Zeus to draw his attention away from the war (XIV.345ff.), or the intricacies of Achilles' new shield which occupies the latter half of Book 18, the Iliad is a richly woven tapestry of descriptive detail.

But like any good poet, Homer uses images that would have been familiar to his audience (though, as with those used by Jesus in his parables, they may be less so to us today), and he uses them to sketch a scene, no more. Consider, for example, that we have almost no description of Troy itself beyond the very general formulaic expressions "well-built," and "wide-wayed," and the detail that it contains a high place where there are temples to the gods. The rest is left to our imagination to supply.

It would have been very easy, in writing about the Trojan War, to play up or favor one side over the other (as later accounts did), but Homer opts for the middle road instead. More Trojans than Achaeans are killed, but in all other respects, the poet treats both sides equally. There is nobility and savagery on both sides: even the gods are fairly equally divided, if we hold Zeus and Ares to be fairly impartial, or at least alternatively favoring both sides. This keeps the poem from becoming a cheap bit of nationalistic propaganda, but it also says something, I think, about the nature of war itself: a supposition that is strengthened by the repeated use of peacetime imagery to describe the events of war. We are invited to consider that war afflicts both the victors and the vanquished, though in differing degrees, of course, and to remember all the good things in life that war destroys.

This balance is also found in Homer's treatment of the two protagonists, Achilles and Hector, who serve as both literal and metaphorical "bookends" to the poem. Achilles is the first person, and Hector the last, to be named in the poem, in the first and last lines, respectively. Achilles is mentioned by name 322 times, and Hector, 447 (probably because Achilles "sits it out" for the majority of the poem, while Hector continues to fight).

Achilles is better in war than Hector, but Hector clearly outshines Achilles in the activities of peace. Granted, we do not have an opportunity to see Achilles in the kind of peacetime activities like Hector's interlude with Andromache in Book 6, Achilles' main concern seems to be with war. Hector, on the other hand, is quite clearly a man of peace who had rather be doing anything but fighting: he fights because he must, and because it is expected of him (see, for example, VI.441-45 and 526-29).

At the beginning of the poem, Achilles is godlike in more than just the name. His rage is boundless, his fury is all-consuming: we see in him all the worst characteristics of humankind, all on a par with those of the divine characters of the poem. With Hector, we see the reverse: it is the exception for him to become enraged, and if anger does come upon him, it goes as quickly as it comes. He embodies all or most of the good qualities of humanity, and the better aspects of the gods.

It is in Hector's direction that Achilles moves throughout the course of the poem. He does not reach that goal until his rage has destroyed Hector, however: it may be that Homer was again making a moral point about the destructive tendencies of war in showing us how it destroys all that is good in us.

Yet Hector is not without flaws of his own. He rounds on Polydamas and refuses to heed his (usually sound) advice on several occasions (especially XII.231ff.). What is more, he and Achilles seem to share the same major flaw—an over-developed concern about what other people think of them—although it is expressed in different ways.

Achilles' need for the regard of others is explicit: he says repeatedly that he is concerned about his reputation, both while he is yet alive and in years to come after his death. He knows he will die whether or not he fights at Troy, but if he is denied his rightful honors, he seems to feel that he has lost everything, and all his efforts have been in vain. As he tells Odysseus (IX.315-22, my translation):

I do not think that I will be persuaded by Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, nor by the rest of the Danaans, since there was no gratitude rendered for fighting on and on against [your] enemies, without end. The fate for one who hangs back and for one who fights well is the same, the coward and the brave man are held in a single honor. The man who has done much dies just the same as the man who has done nothing. Nor is there any advantage for me, now that my heart has suffered such pains, in forever holding out my life as bait in the fighting.

Homer depicts Hector's need for others' respect more sketchily than Achilles', but it is there. Feeling as he does about the cause of the war (see VI.280-85 and 325ff.), surely Hector could have refused to fight in it, or prevailed on his brother (directly or indirectly, through Priam) to give Helen and the looted treasures back. Why, then, does he fight on? Homer hints at the answer twice in Book 6, at the opening of Hector's speech to Andromache (441-45), and the close of his speech to Paris (526-29): he would be unable to hold up his head in Troy if he failed to fight, even in a war he felt to be unworthy.

In his portraits of Hector and Achilles, Homer shows us the best and the worst of humanity, set against the background of the war that eventually destroys them both. Neither one learns the lesson of self-respect in time to save himself: and that is the true tragedy of the Iliad.

Source: Michael J. Spires, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Homer: Iliad

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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 lust. What happens next in that bed is a startling precursor of the link between sex and death in succeeding literature. Paris, turning to Helen, tells her he has never before felt such passion for her. Although this may be a formulaic statement always uttered at each instance of lovemaking in epic poetry of this period, it appears Homer is suggesting that the exciting stimuli of danger and imminent death have served to increase Paris' sexual excitement.

At this early stage of Greek civilization, the concept of díké, justice, is inconsistent and rudimentary. Although the Iliad has been read by some as a poem about divine justice―Zeus' punishment of Troy in retribution for Paris' abduction of Helen―the gods and goddesses themselves are all too humanly fickle, wrathful, inconsistent, and ambiguous in their behavior for a reading of the poem as one concerned primarily with divine justice; the poet, after all, opens by telling the listener that his poem is about the "wrath of Achilleus."

Díké in the Iliad consists of getting one's own fair share of war booty, food, or land―the share due a hero who risks his life. And the wrath of Achilleus is first stirred when he is deprived of part of his "fair portion," the captive Briseis. Among men, brute force determines justice: Agamemnon has more warriors than Achilleus and can thus have his way, and Achilleus can only resort to withdrawing from the war and thus causing vital losses to Agamemnon.

Divine justice seems to be based on favoritism and whim, and Judeo-Christian concepts of an all-knowing God must be set aside for a Zeus who seems not always to know the future. In order to determine which of two battling warriors will die, Zeus places their death portions on the scale; the heavier one will die that day. In spite of teaching at one point that the gods listen to those who obey them, the Iliad shows Zeus granting some prayers and denying others. Zeus has two urns, one of evils and one of blessings, and he mingles gifts from the two urns to be distributed to an individual without regard for merit. The definition of human life seems to be that it is always a mixture of both good and bad experiences for every human being, that those experiences are not always merited, and that all must die. Heroes who forget their human nature and begin to act like deathless gods are soon reminded of their mortality.

In the Homeric poems two kinds of díké exist side by side; one for wartime and another for peacetime. In wartime a hero's experiences are usually the result of force or chance; in the city at peace on the shield of Achilleus, the poet presents a different concept of justice. When two men disagree, they go to arbitrators, elders of the city who listen to the men's cases as well as to the voice of the people; two talents of gold are given to the judge who speaks the best opinion. Homer portrays justice and love and dancing in the city at peace, but only destruction and death in the city at war. There is no arbitration in war, no peaceful solution, no restitution through the payment of a blood price, but only desecration by dogs and vultures. Deliberation and arbitration result in recompense for the killing of a man in the city at peace, whereas the victorious warrior on the battlefield always rejects the payment promised by the defeated warrior for his proper burial. In the Odyssey, Odysseus conquers the suitors through cunning rather than brute force, and his victory over them, as we shall see, is one that rights a civic injustice. In the two Homeric poems it appears that war is a time when justice is subject to irrational, arbitrary, and hasty determinations, and peace a time for reflection and rational deliberation.

Homer seldom relents in showing the brutality of war. Within a hundred lines at the beginning of Book 5, various fighters are struck in the back by a spear that drives on through the chest; pierced by a spear through the right shoulder; struck in the right buttock by a spear that plunges in under the bone and through the bladder; struck in the back of the head by a spear that drives on through the teeth and under the tongue until the spearhead sticks out through the warrior's mouth and he falls, gripping the spear between his teeth; struck by a spear that severs the arm, which then drops bleeding to the ground.

By using similes from experiences common to everyone at that time, Homer succeeds in making battle vivid to those in his audience who may never have been to war. He likens combat to lions attacking sheep, to the fury of thunderstorms, to lightning and raging forest fires: the comparisons are always to destructive elements or to violent animals. Heroes may achieve glory and fame on the battlefield, but war itself is brutal and degrading. On the point of death, a warrior pleads pitifully for mercy he knows is not forthcoming, while the hero stands crowing and vaunting over him, spearhead pointed at the sprawled warrior's chest.

Striking illustrations of Homer's technique of using familiar comparisons occur in Book 2. He first shows the visual aspects of war: the battle is like a raging forest fire running across mountaintops whose glorious bronze light dazzles all the way up to the heavens. He next compares the sounds of battle to flying geese and cranes, to the throated sound of swans and their wings as, when they are settling, meadows echo with their clashing swarms. The sound is also like horses' hooves thundering. Next he presents the kinetic movement, the impetus of thrusting armies, comparing them to swarming insects frantically buzzing around the milk pails in a sheepfold. The leaders of the armies are compared to goatherds separating and organizing goats, to the strongest ox of the herd, to a chief bull who stands out among the cattle. A touching comparison occurs when Apollo leads the Trojans in their destruction of the ramparts of the Achaians; Homer sings that they do this as easily as a little boy at the seashore amuses himself by trampling his carefully built sand towers with his feet.

Homer frequently employs what we would call a cinematic approach in dealing with large battles, photographing from a distance, then moving to the foreground, and only at the last showing a close-up of two specific warriors. At the beginning of the battle, . . . [in] Book 4, he gives an overview of two armies surging toward each other, and the comparison is to sea surf pounding in toward the shore, driven by the wind. The cries of the oncoming army sound from a distance, and the cries are compared to those of sheep waiting to be milked and yearning for their lambs. . . . [Later] the camera moves in closer to show still-unidentified men killing and being killed, and, Homer sings, blood running along the ground like rivers rushing down from mountain streams. The sound of armies clashing is like thunder. Having provided a long view followed by a move to the foreground, the poet is now ready for a close-up of a distinct individual: "Antilochos was first to kill a chief man of the Trojans."

One of the chief men of the Achaians is Patroklos, the dearly beloved friend of Achilleus. Patroklos is so youthful, so guileless, so saddened by the sufferings of others, that, given Achilleus' protective attitude toward him, it is necessary to remind ourselves that Patroklos is the older of the two: he has been sent along to protect Achilleus.

Patroklos initiates the final climactic scenes of the story. Moved by the sight of his wounded comrades, Patroklos―his name means glory to the fathers―pleads with Achilleus to allow him to reenter the fighting. Thus, clad in the armor of Achilleus, he goes forth only to be killed by Hektor. In an ironic foreshadowing of the final battle between Hektor and Achilleus, Patroklos, wearing the armor of Achilleus, is surrogate for that greater warrior. In larger terms, Achilleus experiences his own death, as well as that of his dear friend. "Die all," Achilleus shouts at a later point. And they will die all, including Achilleus, as he symbolically dies in the Iliad when he kills Hektor, a warrior clad in the armor of Achilleus that he stripped from Patroklos. Achilleus knows the prophecy that he is to die shortly after the death of Hektor; he thus embraces his own death when he kills Hektor, especially so since the armor makes that warrior another surrogate Achilleus. Like Patroklos, Achilleus also requires three instruments of death―in his case, Patroklos, Hektor, and finally, Paris―the actual killer.

Odysseus is a different breed of Iliadic warrior. The skill of the hero of Homer's second epic is not in brute force but in crafty strategies. Odysseus is intelligent and resourceful, descriptions not applied to other warriors. From the very beginning, in Book 2, he seems to take charge through speech and persuasion when decisions are to be made. And when Agamemnon finally gives in to the fact that he needs Achilleus, it is Odysseus who is put in charge of the embassy to persuade Achilleus to return. This embassy in Book 9 consists of the wily Odysseus, the older and respected Phoinix, and Ajax, that plain-spoken, tough, honest warrior. Each has his own approach to the unyielding Achilleus.

Odysseus speaks first, repeating the speech Agamemnon has delivered to him, promising numerous gifts to Achilleus if he will come to their aid. Odysseus cleverly omits the one part of Agamemnon's speech that would have much offended Achilleus: Achilleus should yield to him because he is the kinglier of the two. Achilleus is unpersuaded; there is a standoff between the mêtis, cunning, of Odysseus and the bíe, might, of Achilleus. Both mêtis and bíe are needed to win the Trojan War. In the Iliad they are represented by the characters of Odysseus and Achilleus, whereas in the Odyssey, melded as they are into one hero, Hellenic awareness takes a sophisticated step forward in the realization that man needs to have both mêtis and bíe to be áristos, the best.

Phoinix next recounts a somewhat lengthy but pointed story about a warrior, Meleagros, who also withdrew from battle and, in spite of the failure of the army without him, refused the entreaties of mother, sisters, and friends to return to the fight. He succumbed only to the pleas of his wife, Kleopatra. Phoinix is being even more subtle than he perhaps realizes. He knows Patroklos is Achilleus' dearest friend, that only Patroklos could possibly persuade him, and he has chosen this particular story because the name Kleopatra is Patroklos in reverse, and he hopes the echo will set up some kind of emotional response in Achilleus. Kleopatra is the only one who is successful in persuading her husband, Meleagros, to put on his armor and return to the battle: Homer is here brilliantly foreshadowing Achilleus' return to the war because of Patroklos: the dead body of Patroklos becomes the ultimate persuasive force.

Finally, . . . the blunt Ajax speaks, and doesn't try to be psychologically clever or wily; he is incapable of either. He speaks directly: We're not getting anywhere with this stubborn and proud man, he is so hard that he doesn't even listen to his friends, and he is being selfish. This short, direct appeal succeeds more than the others―at least enough for Achilleus to promise to return to the battle should the Trojans fight their way up to the ships.

Achilleus is a new and different epic hero; he breaks rules, forswears sacred oaths, is moved by compassion for the enemy. The partially successful embassy to Achilleus is a stage in his development which reaches a climax in Priam's own embassy to Achilleus to plead for the mutilated body of his son.

The war and the world have come to a halt with the death of Hektor. Following the funeral games for Patroklos, Achilleus spends twelve days without sleep, alternately rolling in the dirt, weeping over the death of Patroklos, and tossing and throwing the body of Hektor in the dust as though it were some despoiled rag doll. Even the gods are upset by his behavior: Apollo complains that Achilleus doesn't even feel helpful shame about what he is doing, and that he has destroyed pity by tying Hektor's body to horses and dragging it around the tomb of Patroklos. Thetis, Achilleus' immortal mother, descends and urges him to return the body. Although this external appearance can be interpreted as die internal promptings of Achilleus' spirit to give up his wrath, he does say that he will, for ransom, turn over the body. The emotional scene in which he offers Hektor's corpse to Priam shows that this action is for reasons other than ransom.

Within die walls of Troy, Priam prepares for his journey to Achilleus, much against the fears of Hekuba, who argues . . . that Achilleus cannot be trusted, will show no pity, and is an "eater of raw meat." Despite her warnings, Priam sets out on a strange, eerie, frightening journey past the great tomb of Ilos, alongside a river, and into the darkness. Zeus sends Hermes down to guide him, and even though Hermes appears to him as a young man, Priam is so frightened that his hair stands on end. Hermes questions him, asking why he is traveling through the immortal black night. Conducting him to the barricades protecting Achilleus' dwelling, Hermes casts sleep on the sentries.

All of the components of a fearful journey to Hades are here, as Priam travels past tombs and rivers through an immortal black night in which Hermes, who guides souls to Hades, casts sleep on watchdogs. This can only be a symbolic journey to Hades to visit Achilleus, who has truly become King of the Dead. And his dwelling is no ordinary battlefield shelter, but an imposing structure worthy of this symbolic King of Hades.

Priam enters alone, falls to the ground, clasps the knees and kisses the hands of Achilleus. Moved by the tears of the groaning father, the hero of the Iliad weeps at the thought of his own father's devastation had the body of Achilleus lain on a battlefield to be ravaged by wild dogs and vultures. As Priam and Achilleus shed tears of sadness and loss in recognition of their common human condition, Achilleus, in a heroic thrust through the heroic code, agrees to return the body of Hektor, slayer of his dear friend and companion Patroklos. The days of wrath thus end with a compassionate human rather than heroic gesture.

Source: Wallace Gray, "Homer: Iliad," in Homer to Joyce, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1985, pp. 1-16.

Death and the God-Like Hero

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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 serious poetic treatment. Hence no tragedies about Pisistratus or Periander, the colonizing period, or the Lelantine War.

There was something special about that time. Heroes, we read, were bigger and stronger than we are—a hero of Homer could pick up and throw a rock which "nowadays two of the best men in a city could barely hoist on to a waggon"—but that is not the important thing. In that time gods intervened openly in human affairs, and it is their passionate concern and personal participation which marks heroic events as possessing significance. Aeschylus, brooding upon the morality of war and conquest, writes about King Agamemnon; Euripides brooding upon the relation of the sexes, writes about Jason and Medea. An event like the murder of a husband by his wife, or a question like that of civil disobedience, is raised to the level at which it can be "seen" and taken seriously, when a poet writes of Clytemnestra or Antigone. In the epic, the divine presence and concern ensure that the story of Paris and Helen is a tragedy, not a mere spicy tale, and that the fall of Troy is not just one more disaster but an event of moral significance. The gods find nothing so enthralling as the spectacle of human heroism and suffering; their attention marks its importance, but equally their superiority marks its smallness in another perspective. The heroes were nearer to the gods than later men. "Born of Zeus," "nourished by Zeus," "honoured by Zeus"; these are standard epithets for Homeric kings and princes, and not less interesting are "loved by Zeus" and "god-like."

"Like Zeus in counsel," "the equal of Ares," "a man equal to the gods," "god-like," "resembling the immortals," "divine," "with the appearance of a god," "honoured by his people like a god"—no reader of Homer needs to be told that these and other such epithets are among the commonest in the poems. Heroines, too, "have beauty from the goddesses" or "look like a goddess in face," and can be compared to Artemis or Aphrodite. A hero may be compared to several gods at once, as when Agamemnon is said to be "in eyes and head like Zeus who delights in thunder, in girdle like Ares, in chest like Poseidon." Priam says of his son Hector that "he was a god among men, and did not seem like the son of a mortal man but of a god." But these passages suggest complications, for Agamemnon is being led to disaster by Zeus, while Hector is dead, his body in the power of his ruthless enemy. What is it to be "god-like"?

There is one great difference between gods and men. Gods are deathless and ageless, while men are mortal. When Apollo thrusts Diomede back into the limits of his mortality, he shouts, "Reflect, son of Tydeus, and fall back; do not try to be the equal of the gods. Never is the race of immortal gods on a level with earthbound men." When Achilles is misled into attacking Apollo, the god says, "Son of Peleus, why do you pursue me, when you are a mortal and I a deathless god?'' He declines to fight with Poseidon "for the sake of mortal men, wretched creatures, who one day flourish and another day are gone." The heroes who are "god-like" are subject to death, and we see them die. The epithets which belong to them as heroes contrast poignantly with their human fate. Sometimes the effect seems so light that it is not certain whether it is meant to be felt at all: as when in the boxing match the only challenger for the formidable Epeius is "Euryalus, that man equal to a god"—who is promptly knocked out and helped off by his friends, "with feet dragging, spitting out thick blood, with his head lolling to one side." Similarly light is the stress in a passage like that where Bnseis tells the tragic story of her life: Achilles slew her husband and destroyed "the city of divine Mynes." The attentive listener is aware of a certain faint resonance, in the first case of irony, in the second of pathos.

More positively striking, perhaps, are such passages as those where old Nestor indulges himself in reminiscences of his great exploit in youth: "Would that I were young, as I was when I slew god-like Ereuthalion," and "Ereuthalion was their champion, a man the equal of gods . . . he was the biggest and strongest man I ever slew." Ereuthalion was a Goliath-figure whom nobody but the youthful Nestor dared to face; his great stature and terrifying power are dwelt upon by his slayer, who adds "He lay sprawling, far in both directions.'' He was like a god—but I slew him. The emphasis becomes, I think, clearly deliberate when we read of Paris, when he has gaily challenged any Achaean champion and Menelaus has appeared to fight him, that "When Paris, beautiful as a god, saw him appear, his spirit was dashed, and he slunk back into the ranks to avoid his fate. . . . So did he slip back into the body of the haughty Trojans, Paris as beautiful as a god, in fear of Atreus' son." For the poet makes it very clear that the beauty of Paris is what characterizes him, and is at variance with his lack of heroism: Hector at once rebukes him as "Evil Paris, great in beauty, woman-mad, seducer. . . ." and adds that "Your music and your gifts from Aphrodite, your hair and your beauty, would not help you when Menelaus brought you down in the dust."

But the poet can find deeper notes of pathos and significance in this way. When "the god-like Sarpedon" is dead, his body fought over by the two armies, "then not even a discerning man would have recognized god-like Sarpedon, for he was covered with weapons and blood and dirt, from his head right down to his feet. Zeus, his father, keeps his shining eyes fixed on the struggle over the body of his son, unrecognizable in blood and dirt; that is all that remains of the handsome warrior Sarpedon, who in life was like a god. The epithet helps to bring out the human pathos, and also to underline the contrast of the human, even at its greatest and most attractive, and the really divine. When Achilles has killed Hector, he starts a paean of triumph over his body: "We have won a great victory: we have slain the god-like Hector, whom the Trojans adored like a god in Troy." Here the epithet, and the idea of adoration by one's fellow citizens, become a triumphant taunt, in which what was largely left implicit in the boasts of Nestor is fully developed. It becomes pathetic explicitly when Hecuba laments her son: "You were my pride night and day, and you were the defender of all the men and women of Troy, who hailed you like a god. Alive, you were their great glory; but now death and fate have caught you." The greatness of his fall and her loss emerge in this touching claim.

In the light of these passages I think it is clear that we are also to see force in the epithet "godlike" when it is used in the context of Hector's body being dishonoured by Achilles. Thus the poet tells us that after Achilles' triumphant paean "he wrought acts of humiliation on god-like Hector," piercing his ankles and dragging through the dust of his own country "his head that before was comely." The immediate juxtaposition of "god-like Hector" and "acts of humiliation" enables the poet to bring out, without sentimentality, the pathos of the greatest possible fall for a man, from god-like stature to humiliation and helplessness. I find the same technique repeatedly in the last book of the Iliad. "Achilles in his rage was abusing god-like Hector, and all the gods, looking on, felt pity for him." "He has tied god-like Hector to his chariot, having robbed him of his life, and is dragging him round the tomb of his friend. That is not right or good for him; we gods may grow angry with him, for all his strength; for he is abusing dumb earth in his rage"—so says Apollo, and we see in the speech of the god the full nature of man, at once capable of being "god-like" and also doomed to be "dumb earth." A last and rather different example: when Patroclus is called by Achilles to go on the mission which will lead to his return to battle and to his death, the poet, with unequalled economy and power, presents him in one line: "He came out, the equal of Ares; and that was the beginning of his doom." His greatness and his fragility emphasize and reflect upon each other.

The love of the gods for men is not less capable of bearing a range of emotional overtones. That great gods "loved" great kings was an age-old part of the belief of Egypt and the kingdoms of the Levant. There it was a simple and unambiguous conception. The god would be on our side and would frustrate the knavish tricks of our enemies; our king was the special favourite of mighty forces, and rebellion against him was as wicked as war against him was futile. Such an idea is to be found in Homer, as when Odysseus warns the Achaeans not to provoke their king Agamemnon: "Great is the anger of kings nourished by Zeus: their honours come from Zeus, and Zeus the Counsellor loves them." But the subject of the epic is not a simple and one-sided narration of "our" king's career of conquest, like an Assyrian or Egyptian historical inscription. Zeus honours Troy, he tells us himself, more than any other city under the starry heaven, and he loves Hector and his own son Sarpedon, on the Trojan side, no less than he loves Achilles and Patroclus, their slayers. And he loves Achilles, the opponent of Agamemnon, more than he loves the sceptred king himself, as Agamemnon is forced to learn.

Zeus loves Hector and Sarpedon, Patroclus and Achilles; but by the end of the Iliad three of the four are dead, and the fourth is to be slain very soon. He loves Troy, yet Troy will fall. He loves Agamemnon, but he sends a lying dream to him to deceive and defeat him. Odysseus, indeed, loved by Zeus and Athena, will survive, but that is the exception rather than the rule in the Homeric poems, and even he reproaches his patron goddess bitterly for her failure to protect him in his sufferings. Aphrodite claims that she has "loved exceedingly" the Helen whom she forces against her will into the shameless embrace of Paris:

"Do not provoke me, wretch, lest I be angry and forsake you, and hate you even as I have exceedingly loved you; between both sides, Trojans and Achaeans, I shall devise bitter suffering for you, and you will come to a miserable end." So she spoke, and Helen, daughter of Zeus, was afraid. She followed in silence, shielding her face with her shining robe, and none of the Trojan women saw her; the goddess led the way.

That is what it might be like to be loved by a god.

Even the greatest of the sons of Zeus, Heracles himself, "who was the dearest of men to Zeus," did not for that escape suffering and disaster. Peleus, Hera tells us, was dear above all men to the immortal gods and all the gods attended his wedding to Thetis, but now he is alone and miserable, far away from his only son, who will never come home. Amphiaraus was "loved exceedingly by aegis-bearing Zeus and by Apollo, with all kinds of love; yet he did not reach the threshold of old age, but died at Thebes by reason of a woman's gifts"—betrayed to death by his wife for a bribe. The poet of the Odyssey tells us with inimitable objectivity that the singer Demodocus was blind: "the Muse loved him exceedingly, and she gave him both good and evil; she robbed him of his sight, but she gave him sweet singing." The ancients believed that Homer was a blind man, and that belief adds to the poignancy of his representation of another singer, his counterpart in his epic.

Zeus is a father to men, and Athena sometimes looks after a favourite "like a mother"; Zeus is said to "care for and pity" Priam in his misery. It has often been emphasized that the gods of Homer love the strong and successful, not the weak and poor, but it is wrong to think that means a straightforward idealizing of successful power and force. The gods love great heroes, but that love does not protect them from defeat and death. The heroes who engross the attention of the poet of the Iliad are those who are doomed—Sarpedon, Patroclus, Hector, Achilles; they it is whom the gods love, and who will exchange their strength and brilliance for the cold and darkness of death. As they come nearer to that terrible transition, the shining eyes of Zeus are fixed on them all the more attentively; he loves them because they are doomed. They in their mortal blindness cannot know, as the god allows them temporary triumph, that in his long-term plan they must die, the victories of Hector and Patroclus, which show Zeus' love for them, are in that perspective only a stage in their planned defeat and death.

The hero who is most often compared with the gods is Achilles. But not only is he said to be "godlike," but also we observe in action how like the gods he is, and above all how like Zeus himself. He has sacked twenty-three cities in the Troad, he boasts, and he numbers "Sacker of Cities" among his formulaic titles: Zeus "has brought down the towers of many cities and will bring down many more." His quarrel with Agamemnon over his "honour" . . . is reflected in heaven when Poseidon resents the claim of Zeus to higher rank. Zeus rubs in his quelling of Hera's attempted mutiny by saying, "In the morning, if you wish, you will see the paramount son of Cronus destroy the Argive host yet more, ox-eyed Lady Hera." In the same words Achilles tells the envoys of Agamemnon that despite all their pleas he will go home: "Tomorrow . . . you will see, if you wish, and if you are interested, my ships sailing at dawn on the Hellespont." He possesses a special cup, from which no man drinks but himself, and libations are poured to no god but Zeus. He is urged to "be like the gods," whose prepotent power does not prevent them from relenting and giving way to suppliants, but his nature is god-like in a different sense. Patroclus, who knows him better than any other man, says "You know what he is like, he is terrible. He may well blame the innocent." We remember what Iris says that Zeus will do, if his will is crossed: "He will come to Olympus to cast us into confusion; he will seize in succession on the guilty and the innocent." The poet even creates a parallel between the bringing of the mourning figure of Thetis before the gods on Olympus and the appearance of the mourning Priam before Achilles. In both scenes the incomer emerges from the darkness, dressed in mourning, and finds the other in the light, sitting at ease and drinking; the gods press a wine-cup into Thetis' hand; Achilles insists that Priam eat and drink with him.

But above all it is in being irresponsible and arbitrary that kings resemble gods. Achilles, we have seen, is apt to blame the innocent. The conduct to be expected of a king is viewed in the same light, and with the same apprehension, in both epics. Calchas asks in advance for a guarantee of protection before he names Agamemnon as the cause of the plague, "for a king is too powerful when he is angry with a man of lower rank: even if he digests his wrath for a time, yet he keeps his anger in his heart thereafter, to pay him out." In the same way we hear of Zeus: "if the Olympian does not bring it to pass at once, he brings it out in the end, and men pay for it dearly." Penelope describes the normal kingly behaviour, to which Odysseus was such an exception: "This is the custom of god-like kings: one man he will hate, another he will love—but Odysseus never did violence at all to any man." The gods, in their superior power, can be arbitrary. Kings, placed on the pinnacle of mortal power, try to emulate them, Agamemnon tries to treat Achilles with mere force, as he tried with the suppliant Chryses. In both cases a greater force defeats him. Achilles is asked to be like the gods and yield; he might have replied that he emulated the gods at least as well in refusing to yield to prayer. We see in the Iliad Zeus accept the sacrifices but reject the prayer of the Achaeans for an early victory, reject the prayer of both sides for a negotiated peace, disregard the passionate prayer of Asius, and plan disaster for the Achaeans though they pour anxious libations to him all night long; and we see Athena reject the prayers of the women of Troy. The motives which impel the gods to intervene in human affairs are personal and arbitrary, all-too-human in fact. Men try to act in the same way and come to grief, for Achilles, god-like beyond any other hero and indulging his passionate and arbitrary will in rejecting prayers which he knows to be right, causes the death of Patroclus and wishes only to die himself. While he lives, the hero is god-like and loved by the gods. In his martial rage, the high point and essence of his existence, he is like a lion, a wild boar, a storm, a river in flood, a raging forest fire, a bright star from a dark cloud; his armour blazes like the sun, his eyes flash fire, his breast is filled with irresistible fury, his limbs are light and active. The mere sight of his onset and the sound of his great battle-cry are enough to fill enemy heroes with panic. Encouraged by gods, even "thrust on by the mighty hand of Zeus," he mows down opponents like a reaper in a cornfield, like a wind scattering the foam of the sea, like a great dolphin swallowing little fishes. Men fall and are crushed under his chariot wheels, and he drives on, his chariot rattling over them. He challenges his opponent to single combat with insults and exults over his body, so that the defeated must die with the taunts of the victor in his ears. He then aims to strip off his armour and abolish his identity by depriving him in death of burial, and leaving his corpse to be mauled by scavenging animals and birds.

"To be alive and to see the light of the sun" is in the Homeric poems a regular phrase, along with "while I have breath in my lungs and my knees are active." To die, conversely, is to "leave the light of the sun" and to "go into the dark," or to have one's knees or limbs "undone." The Iliad is full of detailed accounts of the moment of death of the warrior. The poet dislikes any account of men being gravely wounded but not dying; a wounded man either dies quickly or recovers and fights again. The incurable Philoctetes is left far from Troy, groaning on the island of Lemnos; the Achaean chieftains wounded in Book II are healed and will return to battle. This works with the removal of chance as a possible cause of a hero's death (no arrow at a venture can kill a Homeric hero as Ahab or Harold were killed), and the virtual suppression of trickery and treason, and the fact that, in the poem, prisoners are no longer taken, all suppliants being killed. The effect of all this stylization is to concentrate attention as exclusively as possible on the position of the hero, face to face with his destiny at the hands of another hero: either he must kill or be killed, dying a heroic death.

When a hero dies, dark night covers him, he is seized by hateful darkness; he is robbed of his sweet life, his soul rushes forth from the wound; it goes down to Hades bewailing its fate, leaving behind its youth and strength. The doom of death covers his eyes and nostrils, his armour rings upon him, he breathes out his life in the dust, hateful fate swallows him up, he gluts the god of war with his blood. Stabbed in the back, he lies in the dust, stretching out his hands to his friends; wounded in the bladder, he crouches breathing his last, and lies stretched out on the earth like a worm. With a spear driven through his eye he collapses, arms spread wide, and his killer cuts off and brandishes his head; he lies on his back in the dust, breathing his last, while all his guts pour from his wound to the earth; he dies bellowing with pain, clutching the bloody earth, or biting the cold bronze which has severed his tongue, or wounded between the navel and the genitals, "where the wound is most painful for poor mortal men," writhing like a roped bull about the spear. His eyes are knocked out and fall bloody before his feet in the dust; stabbed in the act of begging for his life, his liver slides out and his lap is filled with his blood; the spear is thrust into his mouth, splitting his white bones, and filling his eye sockets with blood which spouts at his mouth and nose; hit in the head, his blood and brains rush from the wound. Wounded in the arm and helpless, he awaits his slayer, seeing death before him; his prayer for life rejected, he crouches with arms spread out waiting for the death-stroke. After death his corpse may be driven over by chariots, his hands and head may be lopped off, all his enemies may surround his corpse and stab it at their leisure, his body may be thrown into the river and gnawed by fishes, or he unrecognizable in the melee. His soul goes down to a dark and comfortless world, to a shadowy and senseless existence, for ever banished from the light and warmth and activity of this life.

That is what the hero faces every time he goes into battle. It is clear in Homer that the soldier would, in general, prefer not to fight. Not only do the Achaeans rush for the ships and home, the moment they see a chance, but the rank and file need constant and elaborate appeals and commands to keep them in the field, and even heroes have at times to reason themselves into a fighting mood, and at others to be rebuked by their superiors or their comrades. Women attempt to hold them back from the battlefield, as we see in Book 6, where Hecuba, Helen, and Andromache in turn try to detain Hector in the safe and comfortable women's realm, but the true hero, like Hector, must reject the temptation and go. We are not dealing with berserkers in the pages of Homer, whatever Mycenaean warriors may have been like in reality. Self-respect, respect for public opinion, the conscious determination to be a good man—these motives drive the hero to risk his life; and the crowning paradox of the hero, the idea of inevitable death itself. "If we were to be ageless and immortal once we had survived this war," says Sarpedon to Glaucus, "then I should not fight in the fore-front myself, nor should I be sending you into the battle where men win glory. But in fact countless dooms of death surround us, and no mortal man can escape or avoid them: so let us go, either to yield victory to another or to win it ourselves." If the hero were really god-like, if he were exempt, as the gods are, from age and death, then he would not be a hero at all. It is the pressure of mortality which imposes on men the compulsion to have virtues; the gods, exempt from that pressure, are, with perfect consistency, less "virtuous" than men. They do not need the supreme human virtue of courage, since even if they are wounded in battle they can be instantly cured; and since they make no sacrifice for each other, as Hector does for his wife and child and Odysseus for his, their marriages, too, seem lacking in the depth and truth of human marriage. We see no union on Olympus which has anything of the quality of those of Hector and of Odysseus.

Death is constantly present in the hero's thoughts. Hector knows that Troy will fall, and hopes only that he will be dead and buried first. Before his duel with Ajax he makes careful provision for the burial and memorial to be allotted to the man defeated. Achilles describes his life, fighting and ravaging the Troad, "constantly exposing my own life in battle," and in his speech to Lycaon he says "I too am subject to death and cruel fate: there will be a morning or an evening or a noonday, when someone will take my life in battle, hitting me with a spear or an arrow from the bow-string." No hero, not even the greatest, is spared the shameful experience of fear. Hector runs from Achilles; Ajax is put to flight, "trembling and looking at the crowd of men like a wild beast"; Achilles himself is alarmed by Agenor's spear, and later, reduced by the attack of the River Scamander to seeing a miserable death apparently unavoidable, he is told by Poseidon, "Do not tremble too much nor be afraid." We have seen that in some ways the fighting described by Homer is highly stylized, and that it omits some of the characteristic horrors of war. Yet the audience remains convinced that in fact the poet has done full justice to its nature, that its frightfulness has not been palliated or smoothed over. That effect is achieved, in great part, because the poet insists on presenting death in its full significance as the end, unsoftened by any posthumous consolation or reward; in depicting it dispassionately and fully in all its forms; and showing that even heroes fear and hate it. The hero is granted by the poet the single privilege of dying a hero's death, not a random or undignified one, but that death haunts his thoughts in life and gives his existence at once its limitations and its definition.

It is in accordance with this overriding interest in human life, in its quality as intense and glorious yet transitory, and its position poised between the eternal brightness of heaven and the unchanging darkness of the world of the dead, that the Homeric poems are interested in death far more than they are in fighting. Homeric duels are short; heroes do not hack away at each other, exhausting all their strength and cunning, as do the heroes of Germanic epic or the knights of Malory. Recent work has emphasized the brevity and standardized character of these encounters. When a hero's time of doom has arrived, his strength is no use to him. The armour is struck from the shoulders of Patroclus by a god; Athena secretly gives back to Achilles the spear with which he has missed Hector, "and Hector, shepherd of the people, did not notice"—while as for his doomed opponent, when his death was foreshadowed by the Scales of Zeus, then "Phoebus Apollo abandoned him." In many killings the victim seems rather to wait passively for his death than to be killed fighting. The most powerful descriptions of death in battle are like that of Hector, recognizing that "the gods have called me to my death . . . now my destiny has caught me," and resolving to die fighting; Patroclus, disarmed and exposed helpless to death; Lycaon, arms outstretched, seeing death before him. Achilles, too, though the poem does not show his death, accepts and faces it; for this is what interests the poet very much, the sight of a hero succeeding in facing his own death. It is to produce and emphasize this situation that Homeric fighting is stylized as it is, when it might for instance have been developed much more as blow-by-blow accounts for the expert, interested in the technical details of fighting. The chariot race in Book 23 is treated much more in that manner. Walter Marg called the Iliad "the poem of death." I think it will be more appropriate to call it the poem of life and death: of the contrast and transition between the two. This is what the poet is concerned to emphasize, and on this he concentrates his energies and our gaze. It is part of the greatness of Achilles that he is able to contemplate and accept his own death more fully and more passionately than any other hero.

Source: Jasper Griffin, "Death and the God-Like Hero," in Homer on Life and Death, Clarendon Press, 1980, pp. 81-102.


Critical Overview


Iliad, Homer