Never having read many of the ancient classics in my college studies, Homer’s Iliad & The Odyssey have long been on my oft-postponed, must-read list. For years they have been sitting at the top of my shelf like unearned hand-me-down trophies, looming over me, beckoning to impart their worldly poetics upon my novel-centered brain. After finally mustering the courage to pick up The Iliad I found it difficult to put down, mostly because Robert Fagles’ translation makes it a great read.
The Iliad, probably the oldest written text from the Western world is surprisingly action packed, violent, and gruesome. This tale of the Grecian-Trojan war is overflowing with bloody images of impaled bowels, helmets splattered with brains, decapitated corpses, crushed bones, and human flesh chopped to bits and scattered to feed the dogs. Sounds morbid? Take for example the images that follow after the enraged hero Achilles avenges his friend Patroculus by besting the Trojan hero, Hector. After piercing Hector’s neck but missing his windpipe, Hector begs Achilles for the honor to have his body spared the humiliation of being fed to the dogs. Achilles denies Hector this dying wish by chaining his body through the tendons in his heels and then dragging Hector face first from the rear of his chariot:
“Piercing the tendons, ankle to heel behind both feet,
he knotted straps of rawhide through them both,
lashed them to his chariot, left the head to drag
and mounting the car, hoisting the famous arms aboard,
he whipped his team to a run and breakneck on they flew,
holding nothing back. And a thick cloud of dust rose up
from the man they dragged, his dark hair swirling round
that head so handsome once, all tumbled low in the dust –
since Zeus had given him over to his enemies now
to be defiled in the land of his own fathers.” Book 22: 467-76
It is notable that I was reading the Iliad at the time that Barack Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden. There was much public outcry about the need to see pictures of Bin Laden’s dead body, and listening to the news reports on the radio with a friend I joked that the public would not be happy until Barack spiked Bin Laden’s head on a pike as a trophy for the public spoils of war. The thought was grim, but there is something barbaric in our human culture’s need to celebrate the domination of one another and Homer’s Iliad provides an ancient window into the soul of human culture.
Throughout my reading of the Iliad I had many reflective thoughts. Through all of the spoils of war, it is notable that this ancient text proposes a very secular view of what happens to a man once death takes him. As a man is killed by his combatant he is found “screaming shrill as the world went black before him – clutched his bowels to his body, hunched and sank” (Book 20: 470-75). Despite the presence of the Olympian Gods in the story the blackness of the world is all that the mortal dead inherit; their is no afterlife, no hope for reincarnation, no spiritual life, only death. Yes, the Olympian Gods do play a major role in the mortal’s lives with Zeus, Athena, Apollo and all the others appearing and intervening in the actions of the mortal men. Although, the Gods enjoy and favor the prayers and sacrifices of the mortal men, the Gods vacillate in their mortal loyalties, promoting the Greeks victories one day and the Trojan’s victories the next. In the human efforts of war strength and determination are more reliable than Godly favors.
Despite the promise of death the heroes of the Iliad find solace in the honors of battle, for it is better to die trying to best your enemy than to live a coward. Despite Homer’s celebration of honor there is an underlying indication that the entire effort of combat is pointless. The Greeks and Trojans early settle on a temporary truce, electing to lay down their weapons in the promise that neither side will attack the other, however one single arrow shot at the Greeks by a Trojan bow causes this truce to erupt into an epic war that leaves countless dead. Yet, in the end after Achilles kills Hector, Hector’s father, Priam, is able to enter Achilles’ camp unharmed and retrieve the body of his fallen son and purchase another temporary truce so that the Trojan people can mourn their fallen hero. Through all the violence and carnage of the Iliad this reader is left with the sense that it was all for nothing:
“One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave.” Book 9: 385-7