The deathless gods, impassioned and fickle, bound to their grudges and affections for all eternity. Mortal humanity, granted some release, through death; but death comes dark, black, shot through with the wild fury of rage and battle, bloodlust and pride, destruction, war. Homer is singing of the criss-crossed border between the two realms, deathless and deathly, and it’s terrible to hear. This is the Iliad.
They populate the poem, mingle with average humanity: god-sired and goddess-born heroes. About the hero, Bernard Knox says in his introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation:
To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. But there are human beings who are like this. Preeminent in their particular sphere of power, they impose their will on others with the confidence, the unquestioning certainty of their own right and worth that is characteristic of gods. Such people the Greeks called “heroes”; they recognized the fact that they transcended the norms of humanity by according them worship at their tombs after death. Heroes might be, usually were, violent, antisocial, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessels humanity is capable of superhuman greatness, that there are some human beings who can deny the imperatives which others obey in order to live.
Chilling words, in light of recent tragedies. In a violent world ringed with death, in which the graphic literary descriptions of warriors’ fatal wounds on the battle field sound not like embellishment, but documentation, perhaps the human heroes who blurred the distinction between mortality and deathlessness by their character and nature were a comfort to Homer and the audience for whom he sang. What the deathless gods possess by default, mortal man can attain through heroic action. For the hero, the long memory of man singing his praise gains his immortality and the heroic life continues through story and song. But to me, reading the Iliad from the cultural remove of thousands of years and, perhaps more pointedly, a strangely sanitized modern America in which violence is as close as the television or a video game but not experienced to the extent it is visualized, the violence and rage Homer describes with nauseating detail disturb me. The price at which immortality is gained on the fields of Ilium is too high, to me.
Grief and sorrow exist in Homer’s world. This society, in which war and physical conflict were both endemic and immediate, soldiers dying at the front gates, the fallen brought back to bleed out their lives in the arms of family just behind the walls of Troy, understood sorrow; but they also understood and accepted death as a force in their world and understood it as part of the natural order of things. What Homer hints might be unnatural, although no less integral to his society, is war, “inhuman warfare” (Book 3), the “pain and grisly fighting” (Book 4) whose toils are “the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world” (Book 5). Death comes, but war is a choice. War brings eternal glory to the hero, but also destruction, rending families, testing and breaking alliances. Its opposite it not merely peace, but friendship, the lateral bonds of human society itself.
Homer’s similes have drawn their deserved praise and critical attention for millennia, but I’m still startled to read, time and again, his yoking of the domestic and pastoral with the military. Armies swarm like bees, yes, crash like waves, their armor glinting like ravening wildfire as they gather like flocks of wide-winged birds. More explicit contrasts are drawn between domesticity (and the implication of peace) and war, and I find those lines, in their directness, heartbreaking:
So [Helen] wavered, but the earth already held them fast,
long-dead in the life-giving earth of Lacedaemon,
the dear land of their fathers.
“Long-dead in the life-giving earth…” But we know that fields burned or salted by invading or retreating enemy troops in vengeance, or churned up under infantry, strafed with napalm or seeded with mines, or simply left empty for lack of people to work them, people dead from war— these fields are no longer part of the life-giving earth. The earth, in order to give life, requires peace. Helen is thinking of her brothers whom she left in Lacedaeomon, Achaea, when she sailed for Troy with Paris. They died, far from the battle her departure instigated, and perhaps those “lovely hills” across the sea are still life-giving; but not so the killing fields between the black-hulled ships of the Achaeans and the gates of Troy.
Reaching the front, they climbed down from the chariot,
onto the earth that feeds us all…
So Priam rides his chariot out to the plain in front of the gates, where the Achaean troops with Menelaus at their head wait to seal the oath which will bind Paris and Menelaus to one-to-one combat for Helen. Whoever wins the combat, takes Helen home; and “The rest will seal in blood their binding pacts of friendship.” Those oaths, like the one Paris and Menelaus take, are sealed with ritual sacrifice. The livestock slaughtered for sacrifice becomes a kind of surrogate army. Rather than spill their own blood in continuous fighting, the armies agree to spill sacrificial blood for friendship. It’s still a world drenched in blood, requiring blood even for friendship. Peace is founded on blood. The earth that feeds us all, one way or another, will be soaked red. Whether the red of bloody battle or the red of amicable, appeasing sacrifice, is the uneasy hinge on which actions of the Iliad swing.
The gods meddle. Fate is decreed, then the design tampered with. Hera sets her will against Zeus’, Ares and Athena rouse war-lust in men to serve their own ends, Aphrodite interferes to save Paris from the mortal combat that should have killed him and resolved the war, Thetis pleads for a secret scheme from Zeus to satisfy her son Achilles. The only foregone conclusion in the Iliad is that Achilles will die young. He must, if he is to have a hero’s fate and the immortality which accompanies it. Thetis, his goddess mother, mourns:
O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you?
All I bore was doom…
Would to god you could linger by your ships
without a grief in the world, without a torment!
Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.
And not only short, now, but filled with heartbreak too,
more than all other men alive—doomed twice over.
Thetis imagines the life that might-have-been for her heroic son, griefless; warless. But also unheroic, and therefore, fully mortal.
The Iliad is gory and psychologically disturbing. People and gods alike are driven by revenge, greed, pride, and rage. Few, if any, of the other aspects of the human character are present. Those that are seem latent. Helen’s belated attempt at honor after Paris broke the agreement of his combat with Menelaus is met with fury by the goddess Aphrodite. Honor has no place when it contravenes the will of the gods:
“Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?
Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?
Where will you drive me next? …
But why now?—
because Menelaus has beaten your handsome Paris
and hateful as I am, he longs to take me home?
Is that why you beckon here beside me now
with all the immortal cunning in your heart?
Well, go to him yourself—you hover beside him!
Abandon the gods’ high road and be a mortal!
…It would be wrong,
disgraceful to share that coward’s bed once more.”
But Aphrodite rounded on her in fury:
“Don’t provoke me—wretched, headstrong girl!
Or in my immortal rage I may just toss you over,
hate you as I adore you now—with a vengeance.”
The gods’ high road is not the moral high ground. It is, quite literally, the high ground of Olympus, where the deathless ones live. It’s laughable that Aphrodite would call Helen headstrong, since it’s Aphrodite’s desire to see her favorite Paris live and flourish that compels her to twist Helen’s arm. Aphrodite comes across as bullying. All the gods do, and the ranks of men below mimic this, taking what they want from weaker men by force, or where they can leverage others to obtain either power or prizes. It’s a world ruled by force unyoked from what we would consider a moral imperative. It’s a devastating world in which neither observers nor participants can concluded whether it’s free will or fate that drives events and men.
Achilles, the hero, is still off-stage at this point in the poem. The events which will establish the background and set up the immediate events of the main action are still happening at the end of Book Five. The feeling I have had since the opening words—”Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles”—is that it isn’t Achilles who is the main character of the story. It’s rage, Rage, and the other passions that drive us still today as they drove the characters of the Iliad. If Homer’s battle scenes with their precise descriptions of wounds are physically accurate, I find him no less precise when describing the brutality and wounds of the inner battlefield. A brutal world, and a brutal humanity.
I’ve read Books 1 to 5 of the Iliad so far, the second book in a project to read epics in 2013.