Homer “The Iliad” (2 of 2)

Long before they were recorded, the Homeric legends were the material of traveling oral bards who composed as they chanted, making use of certain stock formulas: the battle, the speech, the ritual, proper descriptions for the goods, etc, and reciting stories that lasted hours, or even days. In a time of regional decline and stagnation, the epics recalled the greatness of the Mycenaean culture, while creating a common literature for the coming Archaic Greek revival; they stood, in a sense, between the palace and the polis. Eventually, two such epics were written down and attributed to the poet Homer, probably about 750 BC. I believe their worth is still easily recognized. The poet is adept at blending action-packed battle scenes with psychologically-penetrating drama. Characteristic are the imaginative metaphors drawing from nature/agriculture: i.e.

“As the south wind wraps a mist around the mountaintops- trouble for the shepherd but better than night for the thief, and a man can see no farther than he can throw a stone- so dense a cloud of dust arose from their marching feet as they advanced at speed across the plain.”

The “Homeric voice” actually reminds me of Stanley Kubrick: in both cases, there is emotional force and operatic intensity and action, but presented in a way that is all-seeing and dispassionate. Their characters speak for themselves, while the narration remains objective. There is the same creative range and all-encompassing quality; their works seem to be about everything. And with both men, one of their works seems equivalent to ten works by anyone else.

With both Kubrick and Homer, we remember a surfeit of great scenes. I have noted my love of the scene with Helen and the old men, one of the great images of feminine beauty in literature. Here are five more favorites:

Helen defies Aphrodite: Helen has been deluded into desiring Paris by the goddess Aphrodite. After he is nearly slaughtered in combat with Menelaus, Helen cools to the young stud.  Aphrodite orders her to have sex with Paris as consolation, but Helen is in no mood to be pimped out again. She tells Aphrodite if she thinks he’s so great she can schtup him herself, and is then promptly smacked down by the goddess, returning to Paris’s bed like a chastened child. The clearest precept in the Iliad remains: Immortals are stronger than Mortals. The gods are not all-powerful by any means; and yet, one must behave. Spengler notes: “The Classical soul… with its parts and properties, imagines itself as an Olympus of little gods… (and seeks) to keep these in peace and harmony with each other…” Human life is a balancing act. Nevertheless, I love the image of this great woman openly defying a goddess, and the underlying notion that lust is uncanny, god-given, uncontrollable and much stronger than we are.

Homer "The Iliad" (2 of 2)

Hector and Andromache: Hector, the son of Priam, is the greatest Trojan warrior and spearman, and the natural opponent of Achilles. Nevertheless, Homer shows him about to leave for battle, likely for the last time, and his wife Andromache begging him to leave with her so that his wife and son are not abandoned. She’s right: He is unfairly obligated to fight to the death for an unworthy cause. Even worse, Andromache is asked to give up her husband and the father of her child because Hector’s weaselly little brother stupidly seduced a Greek king’s wife. She begs him not to go into the battle and for an instant, we see a way out of his fate. But, Hector cannot turn his back on the Trojan Army because, as he says, this is the duty he was raised to fulfill. The scene is bitter and heartrending; Homer makes us feel the tragedy awaiting his central ‘enemy’ protagonist. Even today, few war stories would attempt this feat.

The Death of Patroclus: Achilles foolishly sends Patroclus out to save the ships from Trojan destruction, and win him a bit of glory in the process. But Patroclus is fated to die and Hector does the deed. Achilles loses his closest companion and, even before he hears the news, the horses are weeping with the knowledge. When he does hear the news, Achilles collapses to the ground, pulling his hair out and pouring the soil over his head. His mother comes to him and Achilles tells her that now, “my dearest companion is dead, Patroclus, who was more to me than any other of my men, whom I loved as much as my own life… I have destroyed Patroclus.” Following the death of Patroclus, Achilles withdraws in mourning from all of the things of life: food, companionship, rest, sex, and shelter. C.J. Mackie notes that, “on one level it seems to be Achilles who “dies” after he hears the news from Antilochus.” But this is to the Greek advantage: even fated to die in the War, Achilles can return to avenge his companion without any fear.

Achilles fights the River Scamander: After undergoing this sort of death, Achilles descends onto the battlefield, as a raging beast, lashing out with a level of violence that is extreme even for the Iliad. Now on the warpath, Achilles’s rage is disproportionate and pitiless. In pursuit of Hector, he chases the Trojans into the River Scamander and starts hacking away at them.  When Priam’s son Lycaon appeals to Achilles as a suppliant, he cruelly hacks him down. The “sweetly-flowing” River Scamander, fundamental to Troy, is soon clogged with bodies and the river-god is angrily watching. After Achilles disembowels Asteropaeus, descended from the River Axius, Scamander addresses him directly, appalled and calling for an end at the carnage. Achilles seems to have crossed some sort of natural limit; for the only time in the story, he defies a god. The river rises up in a pillar of water to drown him. Camille Paglia calls it, a strange episode which oscillates surreally between terror and comedy”. In this bizarre image, nature rises up in revulsion at the human atrocities of war. I see the scene as proof that man is powerless before nature; the River is only defeated by another element when Hephaestus sends fire, which will soon come to annihilate Troy.

In this fierce baptism of water and fire, a measure of humility (and humanity) is restored to Achilles; he is reminded again: “Gods are stronger than men”. Some readers object to the Divine interventions throughout the story. Why pay attention to the warriors if the gods tip the scales for their favorites? I accept them partly because the interventions are so brief, the gods are also powerless before fate, and each army is fairly evenly matched in Divine firepower. Also, for me, if the story had no gods and the men just hacked away at each other, it would paint a hopeless picture of existence, and the battles would be formless chaos. After five pages of battle, it would be like we were staring at the collapse of meaning, hope, and humanity. Most likely, that’s what war is. But, the addition of the gods, adds a higher level of meaning and a direction to the war; this makes the Iliad about something greater than war. Strangely, for me, battle without the gods would an unfair fight. I also take the gods as Homer’s way of solving the problem of evil. In the Iliad, the gods are not always more ethical or more just; they’re just more powerful than we are. But, at least, their actions are not random. And that gives us a measure of hope.

Priam and Achilles: Even after killing Hector, Achilles is overcome by sorrow, unable to eat or sleep, and grotesquely dragging Hector’s corpse through the dirt. In a remarkable scene, he is brought back to humanity by the king Priam who comes to Achilles tent and kisses the hands that have killed his sons. Praim’s kingship should not make us think of inborn noble superiority; the Homeric rulers are more like petty kings and chieftains, their power rests on their wealth, personal allies, and military prowess. Part of this is about maintaining face. Now, addressing the warrior as a suppliant, Priam tells of his great losses, comparing himself to Achilles’ father, and the two men break down in tears. And so, the epic begins with one king’s arrogance and ends with another’s profound humility. Nearing the end of this long war, the two sides compare their tallies of dead and share their grief; this is what they have to show for it all. After their meeting, though, Achilles returns to the tent to fall asleep with the slave girl Briseis, returning to the land of the living.

Okay, these are some of my favorite scenes in the Iliad. Please leave your favorites in the comments!


1. Building on the theme of the Greek “Dark Ages” before the coming Archaic bloom, I’d like to post about Hesiod’s “Works and Days” and “Theogony” in the very near future.

2. Then, following in the theme of great (paused) war stories, I’d like to post about the “Bhagavad Gita”.

3. In both cases, I’d like to use the Penguin Classics editions. (At some point, Penguin is going to have to send me a tee-shirt or something!)

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

31 thoughts on “Homer “The Iliad” (2 of 2)

  1. You didn’t mention the defeat of Aries by Diomedes. The Greeks had such an interesting view of war. Athena, their Goddess of Wisdom being so much more admirably martial while their primary deity of War is portrayed as such a crude bully.
    Also Aenas’ rejection of the aid of his Mother Aphrodite, as classic a case of apron string cutting as I’ve ever read.

    I hesitate to bring this up but I must strongly agree with your position vis a vis the Gods being involved in the plot. Have you seen the Hollywood abomination that was supposedly modeled on Troy? Scrubbed of its divinities and with the detestable Paris whitewashed into a Dicaprio style romantic hero? I was wracked with revulsion. The involvement of the Gods lent the conflict a greater significance. Almost world war like. A conflict in the heavens as much as on the earth and again so striking how close, personal and how much like people the Greek Gods were. Immediate, capricious and mercurial but so powerful, just like the raw elements of the world the poems writer lived in.


    • Oh man, I must have done a bad job with my prose here! Because what you say:
      “The involvement of the Gods lent the conflict a greater significance. Almost world war like. A conflict in the heavens as much as on the earth and again so striking how close, personal and how much like people the Greek Gods were. Immediate, capricious and mercurial but so powerful, just like the raw elements of the world the poems writer lived in.” That’s pretty much exactly the opinion I was attempting to express! Sorry if I gave the opposite impression.


  2. I simply love your approach to all of this. Until recently I more or less considered appreciation of the classics as a cultural duty rather than as something so worthwile in itself. Thanks for broadening my horizons.


    • Thanks so much.

      One motivation for this project was something Jaybird said (really my motivation for doing anything!) about re-reading the classics years after being forced through them in High School and feeling like you’ve missed a lot. It’s an experience I’ve had repeatedly.


  3. I was going to ask if you had a modern realization you refer to in the main, then I got to Endnote 3. I’d love a post comparing the most famous versions if you’ve come at it from that direction in your scholarship at all.


    • I haven’t unfortunately. Most of my scholarship so far has to do with French Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and the Ottoman Empire. I really want to study Homer, but after the dissertation, I suppose. Actually, part of the fun of blogging here is in making a jailbreak from my scholarly duties!


  4. Great post. The Hector & Andromache scene is my favorite in the epic; what makes it so heartbreaking to me is Hector’s cognitive dissonance. He knows he will be killed, his son will be murdered, and his wife will be raped and enslaved- and he tells her as much. At the same time, he’s still able to envision Astyanax growing up to be a greater warrior than his dad. He needs that false hope in order to function, but it tears my heart out.

    About the gods: I’ve always seen them as the comic counterpoint to the human tragedy. Nothing really bad can ever happen to a god, so when Diomedes gives Aphrodite a boo-boo and she goes crying to Daddy, it brings into relief the horrors and sorrows of war that humans face. The divine face-off in Book 21 is there for the same reason: it doesn’t matter whether Athena or Apollo wins the fight. It *does* matter, terribly, what happens to all the Trojans whom Achilles slaughters in his murderous rage.

    This is getting too long, so I’ll just mention my favorite scene that you didn’t mention: Achilles’ speeches in book 9, and especially his reply to Odysseus. There, you see him struggling to reject the Homeric worldview (in which praise = loot = honor) that has failed him and that he sees as pointless. He tries to reformulate honor as something internal, but he never quite makes it, instead running aground on the language. It’s remarkable.


    • I really enjoy the comic aspect of the gods. It amuses me to no end that Zeus is the most powerful of the gods, but can’t stop bickering with Hera.

      You’re right- the embassy to Achilles scene really is one of the best in the story. It’s also, I think, where his tragedy begins. He has plenty of reasons to return at that point, but none of them are good enough really.


  5. Hector & Andromache in Book 6 is everybody’s favorite scene! For fun, here are some of my favorite details which I think make it especially awesome:

    1. Before Hector finds his wife and son, he chides Paris for sulking at home with Helen instead of fighting. The contrast between Hector with his 11-foot spear and Paris listlessly playing with his bow (archers were considered wusses compared to warriors who fought face-to-face) is striking, and made all the more so when a cocksure Paris strides out to battle at the end of the book.

    2. Andromache laments to Hector that Achilles has killed her father Eetion, but praises him for treating the corpse with proper respect — in contrast to how he will despoil Hector’s body.

    3. Even as Hector mourns his family’s inevitible fate, he knows that he will live on in glory*, imagining the Greeks who have enslaved Andromache to say: “Lo, the wife of Hector, that was pre-eminent in war above all the horse-taming Trojans, in the day when men fought about Ilios.” (Sorry for the lame translation — it’s from the Loeb).

    4. The little touch of Astyanax’s fear on seeing his father in his war-helmet, and his joy at seeing Hector’s face, really brings the scene home.

    Now I’d better reread the embassy to Achilles!

    *Another cool bit of meta-glory-mongering happens in Book 3 (I think this is also the Helen & Aphrodite smackdown Rufus mentions) when we see Helen and her handmaidens weaving the tale of the Trojan War as it happens — with Helen’s beauty, of course, highlighted and preserved for eternity. She’s still at it when Hector comes to find Paris.


  6. You hit my favorite with Priam and Achilles. Achilles dragging the body of Hector over and over again because he does not know how to stop.

    It takes Priam’s mercy to bring Achilles back from this weird Martian state to moral agency again. (North covered the distinctions between Ares and Athena… a tension felt to this day.)


  7. “I believe their worth is still easily recognized.”

    I agree that they have recognizable worth, but I am not sure that recognizing it is “easy.” I think this stems from the fact that we are so far removed from their original intent. They were speaking, as you say, to the polis. But that polis has changed so profoundly that it’s nearly impossible to envision people “enjoying” them for the same reasons or to the same extent.

    Take, for instanc, the question of meter. From what I understand, meter was a HUGE part of the draw. But translation and the passage of time render that impossible to recreate in modern readers. (The very fact that we are reading rather than watching offers a clue.)

    A modern analogy would be Star Wars. It is going to be impossible to convey to my kids how blown away I was by the special effects of that movie. Yes, my kids might like the story. They might identify with it on some level. If they specialize in cinema studies, they might use it as a model. But generally, by that time, it has become kitsch or an academic object. Not a “movie.” And to watch Star Wars devoid of the wonder at the special effects is to not fully grasp its impact.

    Then we get to stickier issues like the involvement of the gods. I can sit back at try to appreciate the import, and I do. But trying to suspend modernity and think it through is, again, something different that the original intent. Original intent is not the end all and be all. It might not matter at all, in fact. But it certainly puts new light on ideas like “timelessness.” The fact is, many of the people watching these plays believed the stuff about the Gods. Appreciating and believing are two different things. For instance, a non-Catholic can study all he wants about the Passion. He can have a PhD in it. But when he goes to watch the Passion play with my mother, who is devout, he will NEVER fully grasp what’s going on.

    So that becomes my question. What IS the worth? Is it history, insofar as it sheds light on the battle? is it history, insofar as it sheds light on the contruction of drama at the time? Is it sociology, in that it tells us what these people care about? I suppose it’s literature, but the loss of the meter would seem to lose a lot of the literary merit right off the bat? Is it the characters and the actual narrative? If that’s the case, how does this translate? Can we easily transpose the arc of the narrative on modern culture and not lose any of the value? (Make it about the war in Afghanistan, say?)

    Again, I see value in studying these things. But I think it’s telling that I consider it “study,” implying some kind of onus or obligation.


    • I definitely agree with a lot of what you’re saying here and maybe the word “easily” was a bit propagandistic on my part. For me, part of the worth and the enjoyment is in the work. When I read something like the Bhagavad Gita, which is very far from my experience, I have to work hard to even approximate an understanding. It’s certainly not what I might have as a Hindu, but even coming halfway out on the bridge allows me to see things I couldn’t see back on solid land.

      It’s much the same with, say, getting to know someone from a very different culture: there are a lot of things you learn by the relationship that add to your mental furniture, even if you might never achieve full comprehension of their beliefs, experiences, or worldview. And I think the work of it is enjoyable; and even the challenge of stepping far outside of your own ongoing internal monologue. But it’s probably too rosy a view to say that everyone will find that work enjoyable.


  8. Like our own Arthurian legend (the English-speaking peoples’ cultural memory of Roman occupation and its aftermath) the Homeric epics were how a people explained and grappled with their history. It was a grim one: a civilizational collapse near the end of the second millenium BCE, followed by a centuries-long Dark Age that lasted until 800 BCE. The Iliad and Odyssey recount a time when cities were being destroyed by sea-going raiders (Iliad) and civilization’s long dark journey afterwards, filled with horror, disease, etc (Odyssey).


    • That’s an interesting point. The Iliad is definitely quite grim. I find the Odyssey a bit less so with it’s theme of hearth and home giving a bit of hope. Now, Hesiod I find to be considerably more pessimistic than Homer. But Homer’s is definitely not an easy world to live in either.


  9. Given that Achilles has chosen a short albeit glorious life, we might want to inquire as to why he is so attached to this world? Voegelin calls him a “vainglorious coward” for causing so many deaths, for his “..subtle attempt to cheat his fate by converting the imperishable fame after death into a triumph in life.”
    Achilles then defines those “passions that blinds men to the ways of reason
    and represent the disorder of existence…his civilization is collapsing…apocalypse?
    Achilles is consumed in the madness of war as are so many of his friends but Homer gives us Diomedes , a sane and “exemplary hero”…!
    Homer acknowledges evil in the world but the disorder of the age transcends the stupidity, greed, or criminality of the actors and points to what Voegelin terms the “mysterium iniquitatis,” and for that the Gods have willed the “destruction of the Mycenaean civilization.” And, we should know that Homer wrote four hundred years after the Mycenaean cities were pillaged by the Dorian hordes.


    • Achilles does live in a disordered age, doesn’t he? It occurs to me that at the point he finally fulfills his duty to the Greeks, he is consumed in the madness of war. He might have been better off staying in the tent. It was interesting looking at the story about the battle with the River Scamander because the river actually knows that Troy will be destroyed by fire. Actually, the entire natural world seems to know that this social order is doomed to fall. It does add another wrinkle to the story.


  10. I’m loving The Iliad (first reading), and your posts. I want to take issue with one point you made in your first post: “But the gods offer nothing like a correct form of existence or religious precepts. The idea of men making a covenant with these gods is ridiculous. And there is nothing like a transcendent divine realm in the sense we find in the religions of Abraham.”

    This is all true, to a point, but what’s missing is the argument of “The God Of Old” (Kugel). It turns out that, in the earliest layers of the Hebrew Bible, God looks an awful lot like the Greek gods you describe. Leaving aside that polytheism is by no means out of bounds in those layers (one of the Hebrew words for God is actually in a plural form), the fact is that God there is something like godliness, traversing ordinary human interactions, dreams, and dilemmas.


    • That’s a very good point and I hope to address some of that when I get to the books of the Bible, because indeed the God of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and maybe even up to the time of King David is very reminiscent of the Homeric gods. There is the direct speaking to specific individuals, the burnt offerings that aren’t much different from hectacombs, the promises of abundant crops and success in battle; I would say there are plenty of similarities there, at least in the early books.


          • Certainly from what little I’ve read, the God of the New Testament is a much kinder deity than the one of the Old Testament. Or I suppose to be fair to God (I would be very dismayed to say the lest were I to awaken to my condo being full of a plague of locusts and blood pouring out every faucet) perhaps it’s just the understanding of him/her that evolved from one to the other.


  11. Rufus and North, my eager young pals, we want to be careful here with our comparative analysis. In fact your exuberance in explicating a certain equivalence between Duetero-Isaiah and the pre-Classical Greeks places the conversation on thin ice in that in the authoritative structure has to be grounded on the truth about order or we devolved into an analysis moving toward historicism, skepticism, and the recently discussed relativism.
    The truth of the order of being emerges from the truth of the order of history. And, what’s of importance is to point out that the books of the Bible( Holy Scripture) are the result of “the leap of being,” and Homer’s mytho-speculation represent cosmological compact thinking.

    The “leap of being” experienced at this same time in history in both Hellas and Israel, represents that moment in time when the discovery of the logos in psyche and in the world resulted in an explosion in Revelation, the divine/human relationship in Israel, and in Reason in Hellenes, in the discovery of the psyche, nous and illuminated the structure of truth, order, and reality (history) through an understanding of the critical analysis of the authoritative structure of the history of mankind.


    • Maybe you could expand on that Bob? Though maybe I’d regret that, I’m struggling with your words, your writing is quite dense. Are you essentially saying that the Israelis invented the idea of there being only one God and the Greeks invented the idea of, well, reasoning?


      • I hear what you’re saying Bob, but somehow the idea that Homer was sniffing around the right ideas is less a source of skepticism than a source of comfort for me, even if he didn’t make it as far as others in search of the truth.


  12. Well, now Rufus F. the point being that dear Homer, while a genius, was a bit off the mark in his compact mytho-speculation. And that mytho-spec, while being a wonderful apparatus to explicate the compactness of cosmological myth was inadequate in terms of the truth of being. It required the “leap of being” that occurred around 500 BC in several sites around the world (give me some leeway on the time) that gave our ancestors an authoritative understanding of truth of being emerging from the site of the divine-human encounter, the psyche (soul/spirit) and gave our kith and kin the knowledge of the logos, cosmos, and the truth of reality; in Israel it was in terms of revelation; in Hellas in terms of Reason, where Reason is the questioning of consciousness encompassed in the love of the ground or the divine.


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