The Iliad by HomerWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Victory or defeat in ancient Greek wars is primarily the result of marital spats and/or petty sibling rivalry in Zeus and Hera’s dysfunctional divine household.
2. Zeus “the father of gods and men” is a henpecked husband who is also partial to domestic abuse.
3. If you take a pretty girl who is the daughter of a priest of Apollo as war booty and refuse to have her ransomed, Apollo will rain plague on your troops. And he won’t be appeased until you return the girl and throw him a ginormous BBQ party involving hundreds of cattle at his temple.
4. If an arrow or a spear were thrown at you in battle, more often than not, it would land on your nipple or thereabout. Or alternatively, it would pierce your helmet and splatter your brain.
5. Paris is a proper guy’s name, not just a name for capital cities or bratty heiresses.
7. Real men eat red meat, specifically:
a. sheep chines;
b. fat goats; and
c. the long back cuts of a full-grown pig, marbled with lard.
8. The most valuable booty are (in no particular order):
a. bronze tripods (each worth 12 oxens) and armors;
b. swift war stallions; and
c. pretty women (each worth 4 oxens, if also skilled in crafts). Lesbians are particularly prized.
9. There is nothing more glorious for a warrior than to sack enemy cities, plunder their wealth, kill all their men, bed their pretty women and enslave their children.
10. The only men who matter are warriors, but if you are a woman, the range of roles that you could play is rather more diverse. You could be:
a. a runaway wife who sparks a cosmic battle between your thuggish hubby’s city-state and your cowardly boyfriend’s (1);
b. a war booty with a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome (2);
c. a manipulative uber bitch (who also happens to be a goddess) (3);
d. a long-suffering wife and mother (4).
(1) Helen (2) Briseis (3) Hera (4) Andromache
But whatever role you choose to play, you will still be the bone of contention between men and the armies that they lead. All the major conflicts in the story are triggered by women, or specifically by their sexuality: Helen’s elopement with Paris launched a thousand Argive ships against Troy; Agamemnon’s desire to bed Briseis, Achilles’ lawful prize, caused a nearly unhealable rift between them; and Hector’s desire to protect his wife from the dismal fate of being an Argive sex slave inspired him to fight Achilles to the death. Homer’s mortal women might be meek and mild, but his goddesses can kick ass with the best of them, and even occasionally best their male counterparts: Zeus is not above being manipulated by Hera, and Ares the God of War actually got whacked on the head by Athena.
*Troy, Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Warner Bros. 2004.
What I find most surprising about the Iliad is the amount of graphic, X-rated violence that it contains. The violence is not the biblical slaying and smiting, but something much more voyeuristically gory:
“…the one Peneleos lanced beneath the brows, down to the eyes roots and scooped an eyeball out --- the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword, hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all. But the big spears point still stuck in the eye socket ---.
I imagine that this kind of anatomically precise, brain-splattering, gut-spilling action scenes made the Iliad popular with the Romans, who routinely went to the Colosseum to watch gladiators hack each other to death, but there is only so much of it that I could take in one sitting, which is why it took me almost three months to finish it. It is not that I’m particularly sensitive to fictional death and dismemberment --- and after all, this book is a war book --- but the sheer amount of such scenes, as well as their mind-numbing repetitiveness made for tedious reading. It doesn’t help that many of these deaths happened to seemingly throwaway characters, barely introduced in three or four lines, merely to be summarily (and gorily) dispatched in another half a dozen lines on the same page. The Iliad is assumed to be the written version of a much older oral poem, and such characters might represent collective memories of real Bronze Age warriors, but by Zeus, hundreds of pages of them being hacked, cleaved and skewered to death almost did me in.
Now, what is the purpose of such meticulously catalogued carnage? Was Homer trying to present War with all its attendant horrors to shock his audience into pacifism? Or was the old guy just trying to write an 8th century BCE equivalent of a blockbuster action-adventure movie with enough gore to satisfy his young male demographic? The Iliad both celebrates and laments the warrior spirit: the haughty pride and terrible thirst for vengeance and plunder that set men to distant shores, intent on razing cities and putting its inhabitants to slaughter, but also the stark, tragic consequences of such acts.
I actually find the gods’ politicking and manipulations more interesting than the actual war. The Greek gods are blissfully free of any human notion of morality --- which makes the problem of theodicy much more simpler to solve than in the Judeo-Christian model. The Olympian gods do not move in mysterious ways: they are moved by caprice and petty grievances. Why did we suffer such an ignominious defeat, despite all that we had done to win Zeus’ favor? Well, it happened that just before the battle was about to begin, Hera seduced him and subsequently put him to sleep with the help of Hypnos, whom she bribed with one of the Graces. A perfectly logical and very human explanation.
The story gets much more interesting in the last five books. The Olympian gods entered into the fray and the effect is sometimes like watching WWE SmackDown:
“Bloody Ares lunged at it now with giant lance
and Athena backed away, her powerful hand hefting
a boulder off the plain, black, jagged, a ton weight
that men in the old days planted there to make off plowland ---
Pallas hurled that boundary-stone at Ares, struck his neck,
loosed his limbs, and down he crashed and out over seven acres
sprawled the enormous god and his mane dragged in the dust.”
Or maybe an episode of Super Friends :
“How do you have the gall, you shameless bitch,
to stand and fight me here?
But since you’d like a lesson in warfare, Artemis,
just to learn, to savor how much stronger I am
when you engage my power ---“
The gods are “deathless”, so you know that there won’t be any lasting harm from their catfight, but the cost of battle to all too mortal men is heavy indeed. This was a time when war was as elemental as they come: no mercy was shown to the enemy on the battlefield, save one that pertained to a warrior’s honor, which was to be buried with full honors by his family and comrades. When mighty, “stallion-breaking” Hector finally succumbed to Achilles in a strangely anticlimactic duel, his father Priam went to Achilles’ camp and
“kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees
and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands
that had slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle.”
Troy’s old king begged for his son’s body, and in the magnificent, poignant last book, Homer showed us the real cost of war, both on the vanquished and the triumphant. By the will of the gods, Achilles’ death would soon follow: his destiny was ultimately no different from the rest of tragic humanity, fated to suffer and die by callous, immoral gods for causes that were entirely beyond their ken.
“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments ---“
Book Review – The Iliad
Goodreads Description. The Iliad is the first and the greatest literary achievement of Greek civilization — an epic poem without rival in the literature of the world, and the cornerstone of Western culture. With compassion and humanity, he presents a universal and tragic view of the world, of human life lived under the shadow of suffering and death, set against a vast and largely unpitying divine background. The Iliad is the first of the great tragedies. The Iliad is an epic poem by Homer that is widely considered a great piece of literature, and certainly one of the oldest.
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Set during the Trojan War , the ten-year siege of the city of Troy Ilium by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. Although the story covers only a few weeks in the final year of the war, the Iliad mentions or alludes to many of the Greek legends about the siege; the earlier events, such as the gathering of warriors for the siege, the cause of the war , and related concerns tend to appear near the beginning. Then the epic narrative takes up events prophesied for the future, such as Achilles' imminent death and the fall of Troy, although the narrative ends before these events take place. However, as these events are prefigured and alluded to more and more vividly, when it reaches an end the poem has told a more or less complete tale of the Trojan War. The Iliad is paired with something of a sequel , the Odyssey , also attributed to Homer. Along with the Odyssey , the Iliad is among the oldest extant works of Western literature , and its written version is usually dated to around the 8th century BC.