Yesterday: Gilgamesh Tomorrow: The Odyssey Twitter: @GreatBooksDude Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/ (specializing in online Great Books programs)
I started yesterday with a post about the great Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh. Today I am following suit with another epic poem, this time The Iliad of Homer. This is one of my favorite works of all time–on any list of the greatest books ever written I feel that it and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire must be 1 and 1a, though I’m not sure which is which–and I wrote about it briefly in my most recent book, The Decline of the Epic? Much of what I said there bears repeating, but I find it so relevant and so pressing, and I see the book as possessing so much value that whatever I say will still leave you half as well informed about it as you ought to be. Even if one dismisses the work as mere fiction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_the_Iliad)–and I don’t think this is proper–a book telling of the psychological burdens of a ten-year war in the Middle East that served as revenge for a terrorist attack perpetrated by a city there against a city in the West is bound to have valuable lessons for the present and the future. Anyone who works at or with the State Department or who wishes to reasonably analyze the recent campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan must take a careful look at The Iliad and understand its full details and implications before so doing. I strongly doubt, however, that it is considered a requirement by any of the governmental institutions, think tanks, or news outlets that do involve themselves.
That said, the outline of the book is as follows: the Greeks are outside Troy fighting to take the city, in the ninth year of a ten-year war. But they are smitten by a plague sent by the god Apollo, who is upset that the Greeks, in particular Agamemnon, the warrior-chief under whom the other heroes are serving and for whose brother Menelaus’ sake they have gone to take vengeance on Troy for its prince Paris having stolen his wife, have taken the daughter of Apollo’s prophet as a prisoner. They discuss how to get rid of the plague, and Achilles, the greatest warrior of the bunch, insists that Agamemnon must give back the seer’s daughter. Agamemnon, a sleazy old politico who believes that one only gives when one gets more in return, demands and seizes Achilles’ captured lady, Briseis, thereby pissing the hell out of Achilles, who, knowing that his death in battle at Troy is coming, therefore withdraws from the war in order to mope. He claims that his honor has been insulted, and if he is going to die dishonorably, he might as well do it in old age at home, rather than in battle at Troy.
As Achilles sits out the war rages on. Attempts to solve the war by a one-on-one battle between Menelaus and Paris are foiled. The Greek hero Diomedes becomes superman, only to be wounded in all his glory. Ditto for Menelaus, Agamemnon, and most of the rest of the Greek heroes. The doctor Machaon is overworked. The Trojan hero Hector drives the Greeks across the plain so that their backs are pressed against their ships; he sets fire to one of them but is unable to destroy the entire fleet. Greek heroes plead with Achilles to return. He refuses. They plead more. He refuses. Finally his friend (and lover) Patroclus insists on driving Hector away from the ships; unable to refuse him, Achilles lends him his own armor, hoping thereby to frighten the Trojans and deceive them into thinking the warrior to be “fleet-footed Achilles”, “best of the Achaeans” (another word for Greeks–also Danaans and Argives). Achilles tells Patroclus to drive the Trojans back into the plain in front of Troy, but once that is done to return to the tents. Patroclus signals his agreement but, getting caught up in the battle, does not return to the tents, and a combination of Apollo and Hector kill him. A long fight over the body and armor of Patroclus ensues; Achilles learns of the death of his companion and this prompts him to return to the war. New armor is fashioned for him by the god of fire and metal, the lame god Hephaestus, at the entreaties of his mother, the sea nymph Thetis. He massacres scores of Trojans, incurring the wrath of the Scamander River, who complains that all the dead bodies of the Trojans are choking his stream. The Trojans withdraw inside their gates, but Hector, embarrassed by what he presumes will be a record of cowardice if he withdraws inside the walls and in spite of the pleas of the other Trojans (who recognize that he is the city’s last hope), remains outside the walls of the city. But when he sees Achilles his heart sinks, and he runs. Achilles chases him around the city three times, then they face each other mano-a-mano. The goddess Athena helps Achilles, and deceives Hector. Spears break. Achilles emerges as the victor. In rage he ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags him in the dust around the walls of the city. A temporary cessation of hostilities is declared for the funeral of Patroclus. The aged king of Troy, Priam, walks out from the safety of the city, late at night, and travels, with the aid of the god of wanderers, Hermes, to Achilles’ tent, begging him for the body of his beloved son Hector. (Priam had really gotten around, as his 50 children attest!) At the sight of this aged and respectable figure Achilles remembers his own father, Peleus, and finally returns to being a man, yielding the body of Hector to his father. Hector is buried and the Trojans grieve. With this the epic comes to a close.
I will leave the teaching of specific passages and characters to my course on the great epics next summer and possibly to future blog posts. Here I will note two important features: 1) the role of the gods in the war, especially their relationship to fate; and 2) the moral atmosphere of the epic.
As the first goes, what is essentially clear in the poem is that the gods assist the humans to come to the outcome of the war, which has been predetermined by the Fates. There is some discussion among the gods about overturning the dictates of the three sisters (see the movie Hercules for a wonderful depiction of the weavers of fate’s web), which would redound to the benefit of the Trojans, but the goddess Athena voices strong objections and the subject is dropped. The fates have determined that Hector’s life will end at the hands of Achilles, and not that Achilles’ will end at the hands of Hector. Were the gods to have changed this one event, the war itself may well have turned out differently, and one is left with the distinct conclusion that the gods, even Zeus, the greatest among them, are not omnipotent. This is at least one aspect of the behavior of the gods, but there is another which needs greater focus.
The other aspect of the gods’ behavior is that it is remarkably human, in fact one can see the gods as more human than the warriors and ladies themselves. Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera are catty and immature; Hera is a slut who is in one place described as being of “false lying purpose” as she seduces Zeus to distract him from the war, on which he takes the Trojan side and she the Argive. Aprhodite comes off as a wonderful and protective mother who whisks her son Aeneas out of battle when he receives a wound; but she for some bizarre reason decides to enter the war and fight herself, and receives a wound from Diomedes, after which she goes running back to Zeus crying. Athena is probably the most active in the war itself, refusing to leave it alone despite the agreement of the gods to let the men on the field decide it. The three of them come off as high school cheerleaders, still bickering over the choice by Paris of Aphrodite as the most beautiful of them. Ares shows himself a coward, being himself wounded by Diomedes. Apollo is always trying to kill Greeks, being among the most partisan of the gods. Zeus is the most magnanimous of them, but Thetis has him wrapped around her little finger, and he in many cases refuses to take action when he otherwise should, his passivity being merely a guise for his incompetence.
The second feature of the poem to be discussed here is equally insightful. The moral atmosphere of the poem is one where wrong is completely dominant over right. The war is fought partially as a response to a terrorist attack and gross injustice–Paris, the Trojan prince, having seduced and stolen Menelaus’ wife–but also to gratify the Greeks’ lust for conquest and booty. Achilles is angry first because Agamemnon is fucking Briseis, then because he can’t screw Patroclus anymore. Agamemnon demands Briseis because he can’t make a woman out of Chryseis. Later tales explain that Ajax Oileus rapes the Trojan princess Cassandra at the alter of Athena. Sex, sex, and more sex (this at times is a rather erotic poem, as when Helen describes herself as a slut). The warriors taunt each other, steal each others’ prizes (not only Agamemnon, but Odysseus takes Achilles’ armor from Ajax Telamonius, leading Ajax to go crazy and commit suicide, which will be discussed with Oedipus’ play on the matter). What is so easy to forget in a piece of literature is that it is describing the ninth year of a ten year war, and in that case something must be terribly wrong. Something broke the peace, and wars typically don’t last that long.
The last scene, then, is one of resolution in that it is the first time that anyone really does right in the entirety of the epic! Achilles restores the son’s body to the father in respect of his age and respectability. This marks a break with everything that has come before it; we would naturally expect him to murder Priam or demand a daughter in return, if we were to judge by his previous conduct. But in not doing so, Achilles becomes a symbol of hope and justice. A highly critical poem leaves us with some positive taste, thereby reinforcing its message.
Briefly, before I leave off, I would like to discuss the history of the poem. It appears that Homer in fact describes a real war in a real place. Recent excavations of the site have shown Troy VIIa to have been destroyed by either war or fire around 1190 BC. (When we speak of The Odyssey tomorrow we will give more data on this). Homer’s depiction of the natural scenery, including topography and winds, is stunningly accurate. Though many of the specific tales of the war are clearly fictional, it appears clear that the Trojan War did, in fact, happen. Hittite writings from around this time refer to a city in the region as “Wilusa”–Troy–and an ethnic group called “Ahhiyawa”–Acheans–as well as a king of Wilusa named “Alaksandu”–Alexandros, the alternative name for Paris, who would have been next in line after Hector to inherit the throne on the death of Priam. Homer, if he lived, writing 450 years after this war and building on centuries of oral tradition, would have had no real way of building a completely fact-based narrative, so the achievement rests not on its factuality but on its use of a historical event as a lens through which to make a compelling point. As we will see with later epics, this is a common mark of genius among a dozen or so poets, and it is one feature that marks this genre as distinct from others.