Dead Greek Guy: Reading Homer’s Iliad

Note: This was originally written 12 years ago.

Books 1-2:

It has been nearly a decade since I picked up the Iliad, and I have re-read my old freshman Literary Tradition I notes to refresh my dusty memory.

After re-reading Books One and Two, I realize that anger is strong in these two books and, I suppose, is as much the subject of this epic as the war between the Greeks and the Trojans itself.

In my notes, as an aside, are these words: “menis=anger beyond reason; hubris=pride in defiance of good authority.” From the beginning, the epic poet asks for the muse for her to “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus” – and a large part of the focus of the epic is on Achilleus and his anger.

But Books One and Two also show the anger of Agamemnon towards the priest Chryses and towards Achilleus; they also show the anger of the gods in Olympus, i.e., Hera’s and Zeus’ anger towards each other in regards to Thetis’ request to help her son by making the Greeks feel for their loss of Achilleus’ strength.

The anger of the gods mingles with the anger of the humans, and it appears that there does not seem to be anything useful in the gods mingling with the affairs of men.

For example, when Athene stays Achilleus’ hand when he draws his sword in the assembly before Agamemnon while he feels “divided two ways” (1.189), I think he becomes a puppet of the gods instead of his own man: Achilleus the man does not resolve this division between his allegiance to Agamemnon and his treasonous anger towards him, and, in fact, this division does not get resolved when Athene steps in.

It is merely delayed and then mingled into a wish that the Greeks, especially Agamemnon, pay for his dishonour. Instead of one man – Agamemnon — paying for Achilleus’ anger, all of the Greeks end up paying for Achilleus’ anger, which becomes Thetis’ anger and, thus, the anger of the Olympian gods.

In Achilleus, menis and hubris are one and the same, which makes me wonder of the usual concept of hubris as “pride against the gods.” Can there be any real hubris, if the gods themselves seem to exhibit hubris?

Books 3-6:

Having just finished reading Books Three through Six, I find myself still annoyed with the gods and with the men who receive help (sometimes unasked for help, as when Aphrodite rescues Paris in his duel with Menalaos).

Is Zeus the only real father in this world of men and gods?

I have noted that the Trojans truly hate Paris, but they fight for the sake of him because he is Priam’s son. “Hate me, hate my family,” as it were. It would be better if Paris at least showed some real evidence of being a man, like his brother Hektor – at least I would feel sorry for this too-beautiful boy.

But I don’t.

He brings shame for his family, for his people, and even Helen feels shamed because she left her home for him.

Where is honour? Where is justice?

It is hard to find honour when you have immortal gods helping out their favorites, when you have immortal gods ignoring the prayers of suffering innocents (i.e., the Trojan women), when you have immortal gods tricking a glory-seeking man like Pandaros into breaking his own people’s oath with the Achaians, when you have battle-seeking men attacking gods (i.e., Diomedes wounding Aphrodite), and gods attacking men (Ares attacking Diomedes).

The main difference between men and gods is degree:  Men in war get brutally killed – if not killed, then are spared, for the most part, because a god has spared them from death.

Gods in war get wounded but heal quickly and absolutely, such that they can sit back in Olympus and whine about getting wounded.

There is a lot of whining and childishness among the men and gods. As a result, Hektor’s actions, especially towards his wife Andromache and his son, are refreshing reminders of what it means to be a man and an adult.

The whole epic in light of the Talking Horse:

At the end of Book Nineteen, Achilles chides his immortal horses for allowing Patrokles to die.  In order to reply to this serious charge, Hera allows one of the horses, Xanthos, to speak, saying, in essence, that Patrokles was destined to die, and so is Achilles.

Afterwards, the Furies take away Xanthos’ ability to speak.

My question to the poet is “Why have a talking horse in The Iliad?”

A reader may have a willing suspension of disbelief in regards to the gods being involved in this war between the Trojans and the Achaians over a woman. But nowhere, it seems, does the poet prepare the reader for a talking horse.

But on further reflection, I realize that the talking horse does belong in this story and, in actuality, the poet has prepared the reader all along for the arrival of this talking horse. Let us look at this horse more closely.

The horse is a beast, but a beast from immortal stock, a heroic beast. The voice is from Hera, a goddess, and so the beast, possessed by a god, becomes a god-beast.

Where have we seen god-beasts, i.e., extraordinary beasts from immortal stock (have an immortal in their lineage) but every once and a while helped and even possessed by gods, who come down and control their actions and even their thinking?

We have seen such god-beasts in the Heroes of The Iliad: Athene stays Achilles hand before Agamemnon in Book One (lines 188-218). Zeus sends evil Dream to Agamemnon in Book Two (line 6).

Aphrodite saves Paris in the duel with Menelaos in Book Three (lines 380-382). Apollo drives on the Trojans while Athene drives on the Achaians in Book Four (lines 507-516). Poseidon fills the Aiantes “with powerful valour” in Book Thirteen (line 60).

Apollo takes away the pains and gives strength to Glaukos in Book Sixteen (526-528). Apollo strips Patrokles’ armour away so that he can be killed in Book Sixteen (line 790 and following).

Athene takes the wits from the Trojans in Book Eighteen (line 310-311). Thetis drives courage into Achilles in Book Nineteen (line 38). Athene tricks Hektor in Book Twenty-two (lines 226 and following).

These are just some of the examples of the interaction of the god-beasts with the gods.

When a god is able to control the actions of the god-beast in any given time, it is easy for that god-beast to shirk personal responsibility:

For example, in Book Three Priam blames the gods for bringing the Trojan War, even though it was caused by the actions of men, i.e., his own son (line 164-165).

But a most notable example is Agamemnon; in Book Nineteen, Agamemnon blames Zeus, Destiny, and Erinyes for losing his temper with Achilles, and he even calls Zeus a deliverer of “delusions” (line 270).

Thus, the nature of personal free will, justice and responsibility becomes problematic when the nature of man is not human but god-beast, who is the Hero.

The talking horse, therefore, becomes a symbol for the nature of the Hero in the Heroic Age, the fourth age of Man between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, which is the current age of the human beings.

Hesiod in The Works and Days also calls these heroes “demigods,” mortals unlike mere mortals, the anthropoi.

How does the ordinary human being, or anthropoi, rise from the Heroic Age? In The Works and Days, the heroes are all killed in wars, like in The Iliad, or re-settled in the Elysian Fields, such that the non-herioc mortals can rise, similar to the dinosaurs being wiped out so that mammals can rise.

But for Homer, there is another option, which is the transformation of the hero into another kind of hero.

We see this in its immature form in Achilles, when he mourns for Patrokles and, in his own way, feels responsible for his friend’s death (lines 81-82).

We will see this transformation of the too-public, open god-beast into the domestic, private hero in Odysseus in The Odyssey. In such a hero, personal responsibility, in which the hero does not blame the gods but blames himself for his wrongs, becomes an intricate part of what is means to be a human being.

In such a hero, awareness of the consequences of one’s own actions becomes so important that even a woman, Odysseus’ wife Penelope, is heroic.

But, as Hesiod points out, with the rise of the human being in the Iron Age is the rise of “toil and pain” (W&D, line 177), which will lead to the type of hero found in tragedy.

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