Settle in for a long one. Dare I say it, this one is epic. In the extremely near future, I’m going to be revisiting Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. I used to read these epics frequently through my childhood and into my teens, along with all manner of other Classical mythology. Then somewhere along the lines I branched out to the mythologies of other cultures, and Tolkien got a proper hold of me in there somewhere, so it’s been a while since I’ve come back. A modern novel here and there, set during the time of The Iliad or The Odyssey, reminded me that these old friends were waiting on me to return. I’ve decided it’s time. Thing is, I’ve gained a lot of insight since the last time I’ve read these poems, so while I know the stories and their significance, my understanding of why they work has advanced considerably, so when I do get to directly engage with them again, it’ll be as if with fresh eyes. That excites me.
It also makes me aware of just how much I have to say on these poems. There’s a lot of background to offer that is required for getting the most out of these tales. It’s not just what makes them tick in their own time, but what makes them so powerful to us now. So, I’ve decided that I need to do something I’ve never done before (and probably should have on some previous reviews). I’m offering a prelude so as to put these works into context as I understand them, so that when the reviews drop, we’re already on the same page in terms of the setup. I’ll link back to this when the review is posted. Hopefully readers will find this useful or at least interesting.
As a Medievalist, it pays abundantly to be more than casually aware of the influence of the Classical era: its philosophies, its rhetoric, its arts, and most especially its mythologies. I’m terrible when it comes to philosophy or rhetoric, but the arts… I got this. It is said that in the entirety of the Western canon, there are two major influences that stand above all others: The Bible and the epics of Homer. At first blush, it would be absolutely head-scratching to compare the two and think they have equal weight in the scope of civilization. The Bible is self-explanatory to the Middle Ages. When Rome fell, the Church picked up the pieces of civilization. But what of Homer? Want to get your hands dirty and find out what makes The Iliad part of the great pagan one-two punch that helped to rebirth Western civilization? Read on.
In the turbulence of the 14th century, arguably one of the most dramatic on record in the whole of human civilization, you had three things in abundance in the West: inter-kingdom war between Christian realms, Crusade in the Holy Land, and the Black Plague. In other words, Death, more Death, and even more Death. While the literature and legacy of the Classical world was being translated and rediscovered, people began to lose their faith in an almighty God, frequently blamed for quite literally ravaging the land, the people, and the entire social structure. Feudalism — the social order based on the divine right of kings — began to collapse. For some, God had turned His back on humanity. For others, humanity had sinned too greatly. Either way, people lost their faith, not because they saw too little, but because they were shown too much. In the middle of all this, Classicism reawakened to inform the arts and the humanities — the road map to reclaim and reignite civilization after 1000 years of relative stagnation and rot under the Catholic church. The Renaissance was born. Hot on its heels, the Reformation, and so on. Why?
It’s in large part because of this poem: The Iliad. It’s a poem of death.
Centuries before Shakespeare could comment so brilliantly on the human condition, Homer spelled it out in no uncertain terms: humans are marked to die. Period. That’s our lot in life, our purpose, our entire reason to be. Only in death are we equal. During the age of the Black Death, the concept of Memento Mori — “remember, you too shall die” — was marked on the graves of rich and poor alike. Kings and paupers were no longer so different. In an age of death, a poem of death resonates like you wouldn’t believe, sort of like if you play a C on a piano, and a second piano’s C string vibrates in sympathy. For this poem, it’s not just a testament to the sheer amount of death in war. The Iliad is a commentary on the very idea of what death actually means. Humans are governed by fate. We all have a marked time to die, and it is not for man nor god to change that fate. Once fate is encountered, the person is swept into the underworld, where the spirit is tossed about in madness until given a taste of blood, at which point they become sane again for a little while. This, of course, is only one version of the afterlife according to Classicism (and thankfully there are better ones), but it’s a particularly grim portrait that played into art of the Middle Ages in the form of the Danse Macabre. The living and the dead, dancing together, inseparable, and perhaps indistinguishable. Even though Catholicism was failing miserably, Christianity still looked inviting by comparison. Go figure. But to people at that time, an all-loving, all-forgiving Savior isn’t an easy concept to wrap around when people are dropping by the thousands on the battlefield and by the millions, claimed by the Black Death.
To counterpoint this idea of mortals as walking death, whose lives have little meaning, the gods of Classicism are the deathless ones, the immortals. They will live forever, transcending all things by embodying the forces of life and nature. These gods are very different than the all-powerful concept we understand in the West. They are not omniscient. They can be distracted. They argue and collide with one another. They can be awe-inspiring one moment, petty and cruel the next. They are not all-powerful. Each has dominion over a sphere of influence. For example, Ares is the god of war. That means Ares IS war, undisputed and unequaled. His presence creates the conditions, and his direct actions on the battlefield are devastating. Bodies are scattered like leaves on the wind in his wake. Likewise, Aphrodite, goddess of love, is sexual passion embodied. And so on down the line. When we see a demigod in the story, these people are still mortal, but they are something special because of their parentage. These characters are relatively few in number by comparison, but they populate the myths quite frequently, and many of them converge on the battlefield of Troy. Likewise, the gods themselves take the field of battle, making the Trojan War truly one of the defining moments in literature’s history. For the mortals of the story, they see only the mortal perspective. Thanks to the narrator, we see the dual layers, mortal and divine, through which we are able to experience the concept of humanity and the inevitability of death.
Adding gods to the war is like dumping rocket fuel on a tire fire. But for all their power, gods do not have what humans have, because they do not need it. That missing essence comes in two parts: Honor and Glory. Honor is defined in the Homeric epics as that tangible prize given to a hero in renown, a physical and exterior reward for great deeds. Glory is the reputation earned for those great deeds, that which others say about you. Honor and Glory walk hand in hand. Lose one, you lose the other. These are the only path to immortality offered to humans, the means by which they are remembered. Forget tombs, forget statues, forget all the monuments. Humans remain immortal so long as they are remembered and spoken of. This is why the great heroes are immortalized in the stars. The constellations tell their stories. Ironic that the hubris of man and his city lights blots out the stars so most kids today have no idea. If that’s not a sad testament to the legacy of humanity, I don’t know what is. But, that also cements the validity of epic poetry and the role of the bard. The bard tells of these extraordinary people, and in the poems, the bard’s renown is likewise secured. And so, if a person could achieve Honor and Glory, that person is branded a hero.
Keeping in mind that Homer’s writings are centuries ahead of the concept of Chivalry, the concepts of Honor and Glory mean something very different to the Ancient Greeks, and thus the idea of heroism is very different as well. Forget the idea of the spandex-clad hero with the heart of gold and steel-clad morals. A Classical era hero had nothing to do with contemporary definitions of good and evil. Heroes were born in battle. The only way to achieve immortality — Honor and Glory — is, ironically, to kill someone else in battle or to die well in battle against someone else who is worthy. It’s very Klingon. Understand this, you can begin to understand the entire foundation of The Iliad. Honor and Glory have rules. If you want Honor and Glory, you follow the Heroic Code to attain them. These weren’t written implicitly anywhere, but we can extrapolate from Homer the four pillars of the Heroic Code:
1. Always to be the best and bravest and to be distinguished above others.
2. To stand fast firmly in battle.
3. To be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.
4. To help one’s friends while harming one’s enemies.
I would cite a scholarly source for you, but I don’t have it anymore, sorry. I wrote these down on an index card the last time I read these poems, some 20 years ago, and placed it inside the front cover of one of my copies of the book. Anyway, the first three of these pillars are found in The Iliad, while the fourth is more or less reserved for The Odyssey. Uphold these pillars, you gain Honor and Glory. Sounds easy enough until you examine that first one and realize that in the dog eat dog world of Ancient Greece, everyone wore Milk Bone underwear. Now, with this understanding, go back and watch the movie 300. No, really. Watch it now. I’ll wait.
Back? Good. Hopefully that gave you the kind of mindset I’m trying to get across, with better understanding. Honor and Glory. “Come back with your shield, or on it.” Compare that to the knights in shining armor that the Age of Chivalry gave us (more in ideal than in fact) and remember… Chivalry was created by a woman surrounded by brutal manly men as a means to keep them in check. It was a great idea, but it didn’t last when things got desperate.
Now imagine yourself a human mortal on the battlefield of Troy. Homer tells us that mortals of that time were stronger and more powerful than they are even in his own time, capable of throwing boulders that two of the strongest men today could not lift. It’s been a nine and a half year siege. Surrounding areas have already been sacked and destroyed. Honor and Glory yet await. Look around. Your allies and your enemies have demigods among their ranks. And the gods have literally stepped down from Olympus to personally take the field on both sides of the war. In the Middle Ages, God was said to have turned His back. At Troy, the mortals had their attention. Which do you imagine to the Medieval mind was scarier? The Church was incapable of defending itself against this reawakening. It tried, and it’s still trying even today, but the very nature of Catholicism was its universality. Many of the old gods and ceremonies had been incorporated to assimilate pagan cultures. The old gods were now saints, angels, and demons, not so easily dismissed. But now the old stories were in lay hands once more. Scholars need not be found among the clergy, and the old tales could live and inspire as they once did. And what they’re learning is that in the midst of such death as is found in The Iliad, the fall of Troy directly leads to the founding of Rome and a return to better days. That is an idea with which the Church simply cannot compete.
That, my friends, is the minimum of foundation one needs to achieve understanding of The Iliad, both on its own terms and in historical perspective to the progress of Western civilization. In the Middle Ages, humanity looked within and to the past when God failed to keep Death at bay and allowed civilization to begin falling all over again, when the Church failed to provide answers or intercession. The population found the inspiration to express itself in very different terms, changing the game forever. Christian rhetoric evolved considerably from its original intent and from what the Church had done to it since. Suddenly the idea that one needed to suffer on Earth to achieve heaven came across as complete and utter bullshit, and the idea of priests sort of defeated the point if their prayers couldn’t intercede on behalf of those who were dying. If the Church was the remnant of civilization, and that was failing, then it stands to reason that there is little to lose by lighting the fires of civilization all over again and bringing them back to full strength. Evidence of God was to be found all around, in nature and in the creation of man. It’s the sort of thing that makes the scholars and philosophers really think things through in order to find out what lit those fires, because if they could be lit once, they could be lit again. The ideas of Honor and Glory as defined before the Age of Chivalry transcended the battlefield to both the worlds of the secular and of the sacred, which as I say, leads us to the Renaissance and the Reformation. When I get that far, I’ll tell you how The Odyssey plays into all that as well, but I’m betting you have ideas of your own by now if you know the poem. First things first… let’s stay with The Iliad.
The other thing to remember about The Iliad is that it is one of many epics told about The Trojan War. It’s part of an entire tradition. Everyone then and now is expected to know the events of the war, the players, and the themes. The details are why you come to poems, because that is where Glory remains to testify of Honor. The problem, which modern readers soon discover, is that there are whole scenes of the war that do not appear in The Iliad. We know the events happened because we have summaries from the other epics that tell us these things. Oh, didn’t I mention? The Iliad is the only such epic that survives intact. Makes it even more special. Drives up its value in the minds of those who can appreciate such things.
So let’s set the stage properly. The sack of Troy according to most scholars happened around 1184 BCE, the Trojan War itself covering the preceding decade within the 12th century BCE. For perspective, the earliest examples of the Greek alphabet exist from the 8th century BCE, meaning The Iliad and its contemporary stories were part of an oral tradition long before they were written down. Homer, it is said, composed his epics in the 10th century BCE. There is some question as to whether or not there is a Homer or one single Homer, a debate that has raged on since the 2nd century CE and well through the 19th century CE. Homer may or may not be the originating genius. Some believe he is. Others believe he may be one of many bards who won their own renown telling this story. Others still believe him to be a placeholder for the legions of bards who spread this tale around, a literary contrivance that helps to unify the traditions. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does matter, like I’ve said before, is that people were expected to go into this tale knowing the story and its characters. That sense of inevitability as the heroes encountered fate is what propelled the suspense. And since we’re supposed to know this stuff, it becomes important for modern readers to know the war, what caused it, how it ends, and who the principle characters are.
We begin with the Judgment of Paris, a tale not found in The Iliad, but crucial to understanding it all the same.
According to the tale, Zeus held a marriage celebration for Peleus and Thetis (the parents of Achilles, the primary hero of The Iliad). Eris, goddess of discord, was not invited, fearing her disruption. For this snub, she crashed the party with a golden apple bearing the inscription “For the fairest one.” Yes, this is also the potential origin of the tale of Snow White. You were, perhaps, expecting dwarves? Three goddesses claimed the prize: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. They bid Zeus to settle the argument. Reluctant to snatch steak from a hungry tiger, Zeus commanded that the mortal Paris, prince of Troy, should decide, having proven his exemplary fairness in contest against Ares. And so the three goddesses, escorted by Hermes, bathed in the spring at Mount Ida, where they encountered the hapless Paris and made him choose who among them was the fairest. Failing to to be adequately judged for their beauty with their clothes on, the goddesses stripped nude for Paris. Then during the further *ahem* inspection, each of the goddesses, of course, attempted a bribe because if you think humans are insecure, deities are even more so. Hera, as queen of the gods, offers to make Paris a King over Europe and Asia. Athena, goddess of wisdom and the rational aspects of warfare, offers him wisdom and skill in war. Aphrodite, who doubled down with enhancements of flowers and song as only the goddess of love can, offered to Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. This was Helen of Sparta, wife of King Menalaus and… a demigoddess herself, daughter of Zeus. Paris accepted Aphrodite’s bribe and gifted the apple to her. Aphrodite made good on her bargain, and Paris won Helen… and the united hatred of the Greek kingdoms.
If you know something about World War I, you know that the alliances between nations dropped everything into place like dominoes, leading a group of countries to fight another group of countries over something relatively insignificant. Same thing here, because humans fail to learn from anything. There was no united Greece at that time. There were city-states, ruled by kings, each with promises of protection to the others that should any of them betray one, the others would line up for vengeance. You see where this is going. Paris gets Helen smuggled out of Sparta and into Troy for safety. Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and all the other city-states send their kings and armies, all for the sake of a woman. Hence, we know Helen as “the face who launched a thousand ships.” Right from the beginning, no price is too high. Agamemnon of Mycenae, of who leads the expedition, sacrifices his own daughter to the gods to gain favorable winds for sailing in order to pursue Paris and Helen. Understand, human sacrifice is not a regular or accepted thing in this society. It’s considered beyond the pale, and yet, here it is, right up front, all for the pursuit of Honor and Glory.
Fast forward nine and half years later, this is where The Iliad begins. The walls of Troy are still standing, and the Greek armies have since built a massive defensive wall of their own, fortified with lumber supports and a deep trench in front. Sounds a bit like No Man’s Land in World War I, doesn’t it? But instead of modern weapons, we are told outright arrows are coward’s weapons. Real warriors fight hand to hand, with sword and spear. And again, the gods are very much part of this war on both sides. They cannot change a person’s fate as they themselves are part of the tapestry, but they can certainly make things bigger. As I say, rocket fuel on a tire fire.
And that’s where I’ll stop for this prelude. I hope to have my review of The Iliad sometime next week. Honor and Glory await.