"And his armour rang rattling round him as he fell heavily to the ground"
"I shall come to your tent and take your own prize Briseis, that you may learn how much stronger I am than you are, and that another may fear to set himself up as equal or comparable with me."1
That's Agamemnon, the King of the Achaeans. Talk about hubris. In fact, the entire story is about war, not just the war of bloodshed, but the war of egos. The book is about why men fight. Amid the obligatory girls, games, guts and gore, you have this sub-narrative of commentary about the war, commentary about men from the perspective of the gods, and vice versa. There is a mutual reflection there that provides keen insight into man and his free will, and gods, and their sovereignty.
The story of the Iliad is a hard one to get your mind around because it is long, complex, and really detailed. The book is 400 pages or so, and yet covers a period of time relatively short, a few weeks maybe. The story begins with the nursing of Achilles's anger (as per the gods's council) and ends with the death of his arch-enemy, Hector. The story is the story of war. Not one chapter goes by without bloodshed, and almost every man who dies, dies with the description, "And his armour rang rattling round him as he fell heavily to the ground."
Achilles is the featured character, but as the story unfolds he stays off the battlefield, pouting while his countrymen die for... well what were they fighting for exactly? What anger was Achilles nursing?
The Achaeans were fighting the Trojans at their home city of Troy because Paris (a Trojan) snatched Agamemnon's wife, Helen, and took her home with him and made her his own wife. The battle for Helen raged for 10 solid years and only let up because Achilles, the invincible warrior, decides he's had enough. What caused him to begin fighting, finally, was the loss of his best friend, Patroclus.
Hector, the son of King Priam, the king of Troy, was the hero for Troy, defeating hundreds of Achaeans. He was the one who killed Patroclus and so he was Achilles's target. Hector was a stud, but the real reason he was invincible was because the gods were using him as their human war machine. As soon as the gods stopped protecting him, Achilles (who himself was part god) killed him and openly disgraced his body.
So after 10 years of fighting, after probably the biggest war campaign of Agamemnon's life, he gets his wife back.2 Countless men have died for this traitorous woman, but also everyone fought for himself, for his own honor. The fighting was about the woman, overall, but that is lost in the day-to-day where the fighting sort of perpetuates itself in an endless cycle. For instance, every time a hero died, his friends would rush around him to carry off his body and keep the enemy from either disgracing it or snatching his armor (the common war prize of the day).
Hundreds died in the story itself just trying to recover the armor of a fallen comrade, and his comrade, and his comrade, and on and on. The story leaves you with this sense of wonder at how small a seed can start such a big war.3
Purpose of the Book
I have many questions for the author, but most of them are something like, Are you serious, or is that a joke? The way Homer portrays the gods, the shallow hubris of men, the witless (brainless) women, and so on. The purpose of this story is either to delight the 6th century BC Greek audience, or it is to instruct them on how they should live. Surely it is the former. I believe this is a story told by a bard (a traveling storyteller/singer) in order to cause the hearers to wonder, to value the goodness in the story, and to respond to what is obviously wrong. And there are many themes here to dissect.
I want to know if the gods of Homer's stories are the gods of the Greek polis (population) or a satirized version. I see no reading that could support an honest look at the gods (they are truly ridiculous), so they must be satirized. If so, the entire story could be about them--they play that large of a role. Sure, the story is about Achilles, but Achilles is only there in reaction to something the gods did and were doing. It's been said that Homer's gods were made in the image of Homer, and that's spot on, down to their sexual appetites, sneaky tricks, and manipulations.
I just imagine Homer as a curmudgeonly old bard, telling these risqué stories of the Olympian gods to the average farmers in Greece, some of whom immediately run to offer a sacrifice lest the gods be offended, while others experience great catharsis laughing at their humble situation as frustrated, mere mortals: pawns in the hands of selfish, perverted gods. You can sense the pent-up frustration in this story between man, who is only mortal, and the gods, who are immortal. Bad things happen to some people, while good happens to others. We moderns may call it chance (or providence if you are a Christian), but they would see it as a result of some activity of the gods. And that interaction between the gods must look like what Homer could see on earth, so he makes the gods in his own image: riotous, belligerent, perverted, manipulative, and totally without honor.
The gods fight and manipulate one other, cashing out favors for their favorites on earth. Eventually, the gods reach a sort of manipulative critical-mass, a stalemate, and then whatever happens must be the will of Jove, the chief god. But sometimes things happened that were even outside of his control. Then, well, it was just Fate. No one is sovereign but Fate, the impersonal edict of life, but many gods are all-knowing. Jove is said to be all-powerful, but Fate turns against even him from time to time, so you never can tell. But by and large, if Jove makes you a promise, you're pretty set. (Some god, huh?)
One story I find really compelling is the way the gods protected some men and killed others. They turn the tide of the entire battle, when and how they want so that the men are just pawns. For example, when one man trains his entire life to be an excellent warrior, then goes to war only to have his spears knocked away by the gods, he loses hope (and rightly so) in his own ability. After all, how can he fight the gods? And when the gods cause his shield to fail him so that his enemies spear crashes through his shield, armor, and chest, he lays there, dying, surrendering his free will and skill to the gods, who do what they please.
When the gods invade time and space in random ways, man loses his free will, and when man loses his free will, he has no reason to live, because no matter what he does, no matter how hard he trains as a warrior, there are other powers at play which undermine all of that. This is the worldview of polytheism. Only in monotheism can "the gods" be perfectly unified (God), and only then can man maintain a free will. Yes, stuff happens that are outside our control, but they are never (for the Christian) random acts of irrational passion.
The characters of the men in this story vary greatly. It's been noted that Homer's characters are incredibly well-rounded and vivid, considering there are hundreds that come and go throughout. The most applauded character traits in the Iliad are things such as honor, sacrifice, service, obedience, courage, wisdom, and skill. Some men seem to embody certain attributes. Achilles is the face of revenge after Patroclus dies, and Patroclus exudes courage and refined power. Agamemnon, the king, is a bloodthirsty ego-maniac who cares for no one but himself, but even he transforms toward the end of the story and humble himself some. Helen is a brainless woman (but so are all women in the story, really) and totally remorseless for leaving her husband.
The Greek culture was an honor-based culture. One example of this dedication to honor is in the way they handled the armor of the dead. If you killed a man in battle, you took his armor as a trophy and hung it up for all to see. In that way, you've taken the honor from the dead and ascribed it to yourself. You've traded him dishonor for honor, and since he's dead, he can't stop you.
When Achilles finally kills Hector, he treats the body with great dishonor, something very rare for the time. He ties Hector to the chariot and drags around the desert for all to see his shame. Since he was a personal favorite of the gods, they protect his face and body from disfiguration, sparing him from that dishonor. Later, King Priam (Hector's father) courageously sneaks into enemy camp in order to barter for his son's body that they may burn it in their honorable tradition. He was willing to risk his life and the life of his escorts just for Hector's dead body.
Some other themes are the unity of men in battle, their courage and bravery in the face of death, the honor bestowed on those who do well, and the dishonor for those who fail, the virtue of trustworthiness and faithfulness, the great value on honesty and openness (a rare virtue in this book), and integrity and wisdom which comes with age (presented greatly in the man Ulysses).
Homer was an incredible story-teller, and the Iliad is a great example of that. This is the first of a two-part series, the second being the Odyssey, the next book in our series. At times the Iliad can get repetitive, but once you step back, you begin to see how much is truly tackled in this work--it is deep and it is wide. As some scholars have said, you can get an entire liberal arts education just from reading Homer. While Homer doesn't give many answers, he definitely brings up some of the most fundamental questions of life, like what it means to be human, how we are to live, how "the gods" relate to our lives, and, most importantly, to what extent a man will (and should) go to redeem his honor and get the girl.
- The Iliad and the The Odyssey (Book 4 of the Great Books of the Western World) pg. 5 ↩︎
- But who would want her? She willfully ran off with another man and enjoyed him for 10 years without trying to escape. I can't get over how much I would be over her. Maybe that's the point of the story--to show the lunacy and costliness of love... or as a foil for Agamemnon to show his capital-H Hubris. ↩︎
- And maybe that's the point. It's hard to know how much of this story is quasi-satirical and how much is dead-honest. ↩︎