Kleos and the Code of Honor: One of the central themes of The Iliad is the defining of a code of honor. This is most apparent in the character of Achilles, whose narrative is motivated almost entirely by his relationship to honor and the concept of kleos, the immortal fame a warrior could achieve through glorious deeds. Achilles oscillates between defining and, at times, defying that code, giving his character a complexity and ambiguity that mirrors human nature. Other characters also help describe and define the ideal Greek hero. For example, in book 3, Hector upbraids Paris for cowardice. By abducting Helen, he has betrayed the trust of his host and therefore violated the code of honor.
- For discussion: Illuminated like a god, vicious like a monster, Achilles’s character hovers in a liminal space between deity and demon. What is Achilles’s attitude toward war? What is Achilles’s attitude towards death? What does Achilles want? Does he achieve it?
- For discussion: Examine and discuss Achilles’s shifting motivations, goals, and attitudes towards his peers, violence, and his own mortality. Suggested reading: book 1, book 16, book 22, book 24.
- For discussion: Make a list of the major players on the Trojan battlefield, and compare their performances as described by their peers. How did the Greeks define a valiant, or successful, warrior? How does that compare with attitudes toward the military and warfare today?
- For discussion: What did you know about Achilles before you started reading The Iliad? What is your opinion of his character? Does he deserve to be remembered by history? Do you think he is a good or bad example of a warrior?
The Greek Hero: Though the journey narrative at the heart of The Odyssey is better known, The Iliad also offers up a number of characters on journeys of their own, in which the hero must pass through a sequence of trials and tribulations, confronting their own flaws and mortality along the way. Achilles has left his home to win the glory of a noble death, Hector must leave the safety of Troy to fight the invading Achaeans, and Priam must reclaim the body of his fallen son, Hector. However, the ancient Greek definition of a hero differed greatly from most modern interpretations, which require heroes to undergo some sort of internal development through the course of their narratives. For the ancient Greeks, heroes simply excelled at whatever they did.
- For discussion: Compare and contrast two heroes in the text. Why must they leave safety? What are their flaws? Are their flaws overcome?
- For discussion: Does the Greek definition of a hero hold today? Do you consider these characters heroic?
Human Choice in a World Ruled by Gods: Over the course of the epic, scenes of the violent war are interspersed with scenes of the gods being precocious, playful, flirtatious, flippant, and vindictive. These human-seeming gods have incredible power, though, and frequently interfere in the affairs of the mortals on the battlefield. When Paris, who is arguably to blame for the Trojan War, is in danger, Aphrodite whisks him away to safety. When the more honorable Hector is running from Achilles, Athena tricks him into stopping, bringing about his death. Gods choose sides and favorites, and maintain complicated relationships with the mortals they influence, their own desires, and the requirements of Fate.
- For discussion: How would you describe the characters and functions of the gods? Which god do you think is the most important in The Iliad? Why? How do the Greek gods compare and contrast with characterizations of the omniscient god in monotheistic cultures today?
- For discussion: Consider events that the gods control as opposed to the events that humans control. What factors seem to differentiate the two?
- For discussion: Track examples of deus ex machina in the text. Where do gods seem inclined to interfere in human affairs? What motivates them? How do the mortals react to these interventions?
The Importance of Grief and...
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