The Silly-ad Iliad

Hades agreed to represent Achilles’s rage. // Disney / GIPHY

Yes, Achilles sulked. And it is humorous to regard his sulking as the petulance of a child, but we must recall that the opening of the epic tells us of Achilles’s rage. We are meant to envision rage. Indeed, it is what gives Homer’s tale a beginning. The Iliad does not review the full Trojan War. Rather, we land somewhere about the end–after nine years of battling. Achilles’s rage devours nine-years worth of war, and it makes the reader forget that they’ve been fighting for so long. His rage overpowers the entire act of war-making. That is some pretty powerful rage.

Achilles stops fighting because Agamemnon dishonours him by taking Brisēís, a woman Achilles won in battle, to recover Agamemnon’s loss of his own trophy. He was forced by Apollo to return Chryseis to her father, who offered a large ransom for her return. Achilles and the wiseman Calchas, alone, stand up to Agamemnon to say that the woman should be returned to her father. So, Agamemnon takes revenge and takes Achilles’s woman. Essentially, the men aren’t very concerned over the women as people but as property and conquests of war. To them, the women represent property won in battle. These women are representative of the men’s status as a warrior, but they are not represented—as humans or characters in the text. Indeed, even the beautiful Helen, for whom the Trojan war is being fought, represents the defamation of Menelaus’s honour because she ran off with Paris. Helen is much desired for her beauty and the property—her booty, in the many senses of the word. But these attributes are meant to be consumed by the men in her life; her husband(s).

These women are representative of the men’s status as a warrior, but they are not represented—as humans or characters in the text.

Troy will meet its destruction for the battle over honour; but, because Agamemnon dishonours Achilles, the Achaeans almost lose. Honour is constructed by many facets of war and warfare. As we have thus far seen, the conquest of women and objects signifies honour to other warriors and, especially, the people of one’s own race. (I use race here not in its modern sense but to refer to ones countrymen or allies). Furthermore, honour is signified by the performed masculinity of fighting and one’s armour. The gods urge on certain men, breathing courage and energy into their bodies. The gods discourage other men, casting fear and uncertainty into their hearts. Yet, the true warriors are men capable of destroying MANY other men. In an ironic twist, one man who eliminates hundreds of others is the pinnacle of masculinity. Man-ness determined by de-manning; the ultimate game of survival of the fittest. Hector, King Priam of Troy’s son, is beloved for his skill as a warrior. Likewise, Achilles, a man who easily kills many other men, is also distinctly male. Except that he sulks. For this reason, the listener/reader must be made aware, indeed, of Achilles’s rage.

Much of the plot is moved by Achilles’s anger at Agamemnon. The parallels between his dishonour and Menelaus’s is fleshed out. We are left in no doubt that Agamemnon committed the same sin that Paris did. Achilles’s similar rage and intra-Achaean act of warfare is sanctioned by Zeus, who allows the Trojans to, seemingly, win until Achilles re-enters the battle. If Agamemnon and Menelaus can begin full-scale war with Troy, then Achilles can rage his own fury. Indeed, borrowing from Homer’s many metaphors, the scales of battle are tipped in favour of the Trojans, and the warfare ebbs and flows like the tide against the sandy beach. This drama-filled poem contains many graphic scenes of warfare and the many men whom death covers. The ultimate scenes of battle occur when Achilles re-enters the fray, and his rage has intensified.

A quick note on the pace of the poem. The rapidity and the softness of pace that compels you onward. Most of the poem takes place in very fast-paced moment of war. What is extremely fascinating is the pace of the text. At times, many things are happening in what seems like mili-seconds, but there is a grace to the way words take their time and stamp their own authority over the timing of the events. Moreover, at times when fast-paced scenes unravel, gods or other characters will take a moment to interject and monologue, and these moments seem to be a false eternity before the eternity of all eternities: death

The ultimate scenes of battle occur when Achilles re-enters the fray, and his rage has intensified.

(More-revealing spoilers below)

Achilles is a hero for the Achaeans (and somewhat of an anti-hero, generally); crucially, Hector is the true hero of the poem. The poem ends with the Trojans and the listener/reader mourning Hector. Even Helen, who has cursed both Paris and Menelaus honours Hector as a great man. But let’s look a little closer at what happens on the battlefield. Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’s BFF, and this prompts Achilles to re-enter the war. Hector removes Achilles’s armour–so Momma Thetis goes to Hephaestus and asks him to make Achilles’s another set (MORE ON THIS LATER). Achilles seriously mourns Patroclus’s death. The depth of their friendship is revealed, and Achilles’s sorrow moves the listener/reader. Quite so, he must avenge his death, aside from the fact that he must kill the Trojans to win, anyway. So, as Achilles re-enters the war, the scales are forever turned in the Achaean’s favour. BUT ARE THEY?

At one point, Zeus is tempted to save Hector from death at Achilles’s hands. Surely. this would be the greatest dishonour to Achilles. (22.167-4). Zeus says:

How dreadful! A man I love is being pursued
around the wall of the city, My heart grieves for Hector

But now Achilles, whom no one can match running,
is chasing [Hector] down. All of you–we must decide
whether to save him from death or allow Achilles
to finish him off, brave fighter though Hector is.

Athena quickly quells Zeus’s desire to save Hector. She knows that Achilles must be the one to kill him, or he will never be satisfied. And Athena rather likes Achilles and the Achaeans. But look at the way Zeus offers to save Hector. He loves him and he grieves over his likely death. He wants to save Hector, but he also wants to allows him the chance to fight Achilles because he trusts his bravery. Parent-like, Zeus wants to protect Hector but also allow him to prove himself brave, even it means he dies.

Die, he does. Achilles tries everything to defile Hector’s body, but the gods protect his corpse so he may be honoured by his family with a proper death. Of all the raging men in The Iliad, Hector has his honour intact throughout. Hector is given a full burial rights; the gods ensure this too. How beguiling! A Trojan is the mourned hero of the epic. Indeed, Hector’s proper burial rites gives Homer’s tale it’s ending, not the end of the war or even Achilles’s death. The burial of a hero and not the triumph the the Achaeans, who will destroy and enslave Troy, ends Homer’s epic.

Now, to return to Achilles’s armour. Hephaestus’s craft-godship is perfectly and staggeringly breathtaking. Book 18 contains the magic of Homer. The detail of the armour is spectacular. One could study endless pages on the relationship between the scenes on the armour and the themes of the entire epic. (18. 521-531):

Upon it he set rich farmland that had been lying
fallow the year before. It had just been plowed [sic.]
three times, and the plowmen were wheeling their teams across it,
back and forth and up and down the deep furrows.
When they reached the edge of the field and before they turned,
a man would hand them a cup of honey-sweet wine;
then they would turn back, eager to plow through the soil
and reach the other edge of the field for the next turn.
And the land darker behind them and looked as if
it had just that moment been slowed, although it was fashioned
pure gold: so marvellous was the craft of its forging.

And this is only a brief taste of Hephaestus’s skill. As a final note, I want to remind the reader of the fact that in Homer’s Iliad the only two characters who create are Helen and Hephaestus. Helen sits at a loom making a purple robe with scenes of the battle. Both characters also destroy. Helen is at the centre of the Trojan war. Hephaestus helps save Achilles from an angry river god by casting his fires upon the water. Just like the ultimate claim to manness is de-manning the battlefield, these characters create and destroy. An unholy balance is somewhere set at equal by these characters.

The ending was always clear. The Trojans would lose and the Achaeans would leave triumphant; Odysseus would his famous journey home. Do not let these facts stop you. For, within this text, is heart-breaking language that will stir your soul. Of course, there are many problematic issues with the text: glorification of warfare and the appalling treatment of women–bitch is a recurrent word. But, for the beauty of language, the eloquent use of metaphor and imagination I would recommend this to all. I will definitely revisit this text again and again.

Hector's Theme song:  'Only bad people live to see their likeness set in stone'

3 thoughts on “The Silly-ad Iliad

  1. As a Greek person, I had the chance to read the original in Ancient Greek at school. It’s been many years since then, but I really remmber that I liked it. But, I definitely prefer Odyssey, another Homer’s work. If you like that then I’d recommend you to read Sophocles Antigone.

  2. @thebookishuniverse I imagine the original Greek is much more moving. Translations are always difficult because it always leaves me wondering about the original.
    I am really excited to read it. Thanks for the suggestion I’m going to read one or two books in-between Homer’s works. In secondary school, we read Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, so I will definitely check out Antigone. When I was quite young I read an abridged copy of the Odyssey, and for years I thought I had read the original. Haha. The totally cool Wishbone series:

    Warmest wishes,

  3. You’ve covered it I suppose. There are numerous translations. It’s thought that there were additional volumes that cover the entire war. I think the Iliad and Odyssey are worth multiple reads. Every now and then I pick it up again.

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