Long before they were recorded, the Homeric legends were the material of traveling oral bards who composed as they chanted, making use of certain stock formulas: the battle, the speech, the ritual, proper descriptions for the goods, etc, and reciting stories that lasted hours, or even days. In a time of regional decline and stagnation, the epics recalled the greatness of the Mycenaean culture, while creating a common literature for the coming Archaic Greek revival; they stood, in a sense, between the palace and the polis. Eventually, two such epics were written down and attributed to the poet Homer, probably about 750 BC. I believe their worth is still easily recognized. The poet is adept at blending action-packed battle scenes with psychologically-penetrating drama. Characteristic are the imaginative metaphors drawing from nature/agriculture: i.e.
“As the south wind wraps a mist around the mountaintops- trouble for the shepherd but better than night for the thief, and a man can see no farther than he can throw a stone- so dense a cloud of dust arose from their marching feet as they advanced at speed across the plain.”
The “Homeric voice” actually reminds me of Stanley Kubrick: in both cases, there is emotional force and operatic intensity and action, but presented in a way that is all-seeing and dispassionate. Their characters speak for themselves, while the narration remains objective. There is the same creative range and all-encompassing quality; their works seem to be about everything. And with both men, one of their works seems equivalent to ten works by anyone else.
With both Kubrick and Homer, we remember a surfeit of great scenes. I have noted my love of the scene with Helen and the old men, one of the great images of feminine beauty in literature. Here are five more favorites:
Helen defies Aphrodite: Helen has been deluded into desiring Paris by the goddess Aphrodite. After he is nearly slaughtered in combat with Menelaus, Helen cools to the young stud. Aphrodite orders her to have sex with Paris as consolation, but Helen is in no mood to be pimped out again. She tells Aphrodite if she thinks he’s so great she can schtup him herself, and is then promptly smacked down by the goddess, returning to Paris’s bed like a chastened child. The clearest precept in the Iliad remains: Immortals are stronger than Mortals. The gods are not all-powerful by any means; and yet, one must behave. Spengler notes: “The Classical soul… with its parts and properties, imagines itself as an Olympus of little gods… (and seeks) to keep these in peace and harmony with each other…” Human life is a balancing act. Nevertheless, I love the image of this great woman openly defying a goddess, and the underlying notion that lust is uncanny, god-given, uncontrollable and much stronger than we are.
Hector and Andromache: Hector, the son of Priam, is the greatest Trojan warrior and spearman, and the natural opponent of Achilles. Nevertheless, Homer shows him about to leave for battle, likely for the last time, and his wife Andromache begging him to leave with her so that his wife and son are not abandoned. She’s right: He is unfairly obligated to fight to the death for an unworthy cause. Even worse, Andromache is asked to give up her husband and the father of her child because Hector’s weaselly little brother stupidly seduced a Greek king’s wife. She begs him not to go into the battle and for an instant, we see a way out of his fate. But, Hector cannot turn his back on the Trojan Army because, as he says, this is the duty he was raised to fulfill. The scene is bitter and heartrending; Homer makes us feel the tragedy awaiting his central ‘enemy’ protagonist. Even today, few war stories would attempt this feat.
The Death of Patroclus: Achilles foolishly sends Patroclus out to save the ships from Trojan destruction, and win him a bit of glory in the process. But Patroclus is fated to die and Hector does the deed. Achilles loses his closest companion and, even before he hears the news, the horses are weeping with the knowledge. When he does hear the news, Achilles collapses to the ground, pulling his hair out and pouring the soil over his head. His mother comes to him and Achilles tells her that now, “my dearest companion is dead, Patroclus, who was more to me than any other of my men, whom I loved as much as my own life… I have destroyed Patroclus.” Following the death of Patroclus, Achilles withdraws in mourning from all of the things of life: food, companionship, rest, sex, and shelter. C.J. Mackie notes that, “on one level it seems to be Achilles who “dies” after he hears the news from Antilochus.” But this is to the Greek advantage: even fated to die in the War, Achilles can return to avenge his companion without any fear.
Achilles fights the River Scamander: After undergoing this sort of death, Achilles descends onto the battlefield, as a raging beast, lashing out with a level of violence that is extreme even for the Iliad. Now on the warpath, Achilles’s rage is disproportionate and pitiless. In pursuit of Hector, he chases the Trojans into the River Scamander and starts hacking away at them. When Priam’s son Lycaon appeals to Achilles as a suppliant, he cruelly hacks him down. The “sweetly-flowing” River Scamander, fundamental to Troy, is soon clogged with bodies and the river-god is angrily watching. After Achilles disembowels Asteropaeus, descended from the River Axius, Scamander addresses him directly, appalled and calling for an end at the carnage. Achilles seems to have crossed some sort of natural limit; for the only time in the story, he defies a god. The river rises up in a pillar of water to drown him. Camille Paglia calls it, “a strange episode which oscillates surreally between terror and comedy”. In this bizarre image, nature rises up in revulsion at the human atrocities of war. I see the scene as proof that man is powerless before nature; the River is only defeated by another element when Hephaestus sends fire, which will soon come to annihilate Troy.
In this fierce baptism of water and fire, a measure of humility (and humanity) is restored to Achilles; he is reminded again: “Gods are stronger than men”. Some readers object to the Divine interventions throughout the story. Why pay attention to the warriors if the gods tip the scales for their favorites? I accept them partly because the interventions are so brief, the gods are also powerless before fate, and each army is fairly evenly matched in Divine firepower. Also, for me, if the story had no gods and the men just hacked away at each other, it would paint a hopeless picture of existence, and the battles would be formless chaos. After five pages of battle, it would be like we were staring at the collapse of meaning, hope, and humanity. Most likely, that’s what war is. But, the addition of the gods, adds a higher level of meaning and a direction to the war; this makes the Iliad about something greater than war. Strangely, for me, battle without the gods would an unfair fight. I also take the gods as Homer’s way of solving the problem of evil. In the Iliad, the gods are not always more ethical or more just; they’re just more powerful than we are. But, at least, their actions are not random. And that gives us a measure of hope.
Priam and Achilles: Even after killing Hector, Achilles is overcome by sorrow, unable to eat or sleep, and grotesquely dragging Hector’s corpse through the dirt. In a remarkable scene, he is brought back to humanity by the king Priam who comes to Achilles tent and kisses the hands that have killed his sons. Praim’s kingship should not make us think of inborn noble superiority; the Homeric rulers are more like petty kings and chieftains, their power rests on their wealth, personal allies, and military prowess. Part of this is about maintaining face. Now, addressing the warrior as a suppliant, Priam tells of his great losses, comparing himself to Achilles’ father, and the two men break down in tears. And so, the epic begins with one king’s arrogance and ends with another’s profound humility. Nearing the end of this long war, the two sides compare their tallies of dead and share their grief; this is what they have to show for it all. After their meeting, though, Achilles returns to the tent to fall asleep with the slave girl Briseis, returning to the land of the living.
Okay, these are some of my favorite scenes in the Iliad. Please leave your favorites in the comments!
1. Building on the theme of the Greek “Dark Ages” before the coming Archaic bloom, I’d like to post about Hesiod’s “Works and Days” and “Theogony” in the very near future.
2. Then, following in the theme of great (paused) war stories, I’d like to post about the “Bhagavad Gita”.
3. In both cases, I’d like to use the Penguin Classics editions. (At some point, Penguin is going to have to send me a tee-shirt or something!)