Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Iliad discussion: Books I - IV

The beginning of The Iliad
Picture source

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfilment of the will of Zeus.
Start at the point where Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
that king of men, quarrelled with noble Achilles.
Which of the gods incited these two men to fight?
(translation by Ian Johnston)

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
(translation by Robert Fagles)

Note: unless otherwise noted, I'll use Robert Fagles' version on all quotes. I highly recommend it because of Bernard Knox's incisive introduction (and I always love the inclusion of maps). Also recommended is Ian Johnston's series of Essays on Homer's Iliad which helps in understanding the work both in Homer's time as well as our own. Finally, while I rarely listen to recorded books, I suggest listening to part or all of this. It is easy to forget that The Iliad was initially a performance and hearing the work unfold put me squarely in the tale.

Second useless note: how to approach writing about
The Iliad? This is my second time through it (first reading it about 6 years ago). I resisted it the first time, but as I got to the end of it many aspects of the work began to ‘click’ and I found it engaging. My discussions will be geared for someone like me when I first read it—knowledgeable about some mythology and the culture but not in great detail, needing a little help to make some pieces fit together.

The Iliad starts off with little introduction, quickly detailing the circumstances where Homer will begin the narration. No introduction is needed to characters or the larger setting—all these things are assumed to be well known with the listener. So how can it possibly be interesting if the audience already knows how it will turn out? The key is to focus on a small part of the Trojan War, letting the known outcome lend irony and pathos to the narration as well as delving into the consciousness of one of the heroes.

The first word of The Iliad is mênin, meaning rage, anger or wrath (it is the accusative case of mênis). While the first sentence tells you the subject of the story, it concentrates it into the first word as well. While there are several words that could have been used to mean "rage", Homer's choice here is limited in the rest of the text to describe a god's anger (for a more complete examination of mênis in the work see Leonard Muellner's The Anger of Achilles). So right away the reader/listener is clued in that there is something special about Achilles and his rage.

A first time reader of The Iliad will see commentary on the concepts of kleos and timê. I initially shrugged at the explanations, but they are essential in understanding the action throughout the book. Timê is translated as honor, but there is a physical component to it. It is expressed as the prizes given or booty taken, whether armor, gold, or slaves. Kleos is the glory or fame that accrues to a person. This happens through being victorious in battle and/or how much timê is earned. There is obviously an interrelationship between the two concepts—the more timê, the more kleos. Kleos is important in the “shame culture” of the ancient Greek world, since what is said about you by others defines how you are viewed. In addition, what does a Greek look forward to if he believes his afterlife is spent as a shade in Hades? His kleos, the glory he has achieved in life and then communicated to others, will insure his immortality in at least one respect.

The chain of events leading to the feud between Agamemnon and Achilles has some similarities, but the differences are more important. Agamemnon is asked to give up Chryseis to appease a god and end a plague killing his men. He will suffer a loss of timê, but he is offered greater rewards as a replacement once Troy is taken. Agamemnon assumes his kleos will be reduced, but later actions provide clues that he is mistaken. The situation for his loss of timê is similar to a soldier refusing to engage in battle when a god assists the other side—retreat is an acceptable behavior in this case with no negative impact to honor. Likewise, there is no loss of honor in Agamemnon giving up Chryseis since the action is required by a divinity.

Achilles, however, has Briseis taken from him in order to appease Agamemnon, with no replacement or offset offered. This is a direct affront to him by another man and his kleos is diminished, the more so because it is done in front of other leaders and soldiers. Why fight if timê and kleos can arbitrarily be removed? But how should Achilles’ request to his mother to have Zeus assist the Trojans and harm the Achaeans be interpreted? The modern reader will probably think he acts like a petulant kid, unable to let his loss go. However his request fits in perfectly in such a system of honor, glory, and shame. Achilles wishes to restore his kleos and establish his worth (and not coincidentally make Agamemnon realize his mistake) by showing how much he is needed in battle. To reinforce these concepts, during a speech Achilles he rhetorically asks why he is fighting for Agamemnon. The implied answer is honor and glory since, as he mentions, the Trojans never did him harm nor stole anything from him (unlike Agamemnon).

The relationship between man and the gods is highlighted early in the work. The will of Zeus and the anger of Apollo are mentioned on the first page. The listeners would know of the gods’ involvement in starting the Trojan War. One intrusion I found interesting was Athena (with help from Hera) stopping Achilles from assaulting Agamemnon. Her enticement is that three times the “glistening gifts will lie before you” if he checks himself. The irony is not lost on the audience since they know of Achilles’ fate, also reflected in Thetis’ reaction to her son. “All I bore was doom” she mourns when she sees him. Even if Achilles lives a long time after returning home, it is still a short life to a god that does not experience death. The interaction between gods and men is one of the more fascinating and complex themes in the book, especially when a god is dealing with a human offspring.

Athena holds Achilles from Agamemnon
Fresco from The House of the Tragic Poet
Picture source


After Zeus assents to Thetis’ request, the audience is treated to scenes from Olympus, the strife and war there mirroring what is happening around Troy. War is characterized as one of the natural states in the world and heaven, which is reinforced by the similes Homer uses in likening actions taking place during the war to events in nature. The humans may blame the gods for war taking place, but that is the characters' way to explain difficult or illogical concept since they live outside consciousness. More on this as the story progresses...

Book II opens with Zeus sending a misleading dream to Agamemnon, who then gives a misleading order to the men that he is abandoning the battle since the gods have tricked him (there are multiple layers of trickery going on here). To Agamemnon’s dismay, many of the men hightail it to their boats—after nine years of war they are ready to return home. Their commitment, now that there are no more potential prizes, is forgotten in a heartbeat. Hera and Athena have to intervene to keep the men from leaving, extending the war to satisfy their desires.

It is at this point that Thersites challenges Agamemnon and his leadership. Thersites is described as ugly, gimpy, and insubordinate, the jokester of the group. Yet his speech sounds amazingly like Achilles’ abuse, accusing Agamemnon of engaging in the war solely for his own reward of prizes, gold and women. Odysseus does not respond to the accusations directly but says “Who are you to wrangle with kings, you alone?” and belittle Thersites in front of the troops. The listener would find this interesting since Odysseus stood by when Achilles made the same accusations and that Odysseus has no answer to Thersites’ questions. This is part of the wonderful structure of The Iliad, where ideas continually circle and weave a pattern. The structure allows the listener to compare and contrast, to draw out what is different and interpret why that is. In this case, the differences between Thersites and Achilles goes beyond their status and prowess, going instead to the heart of being a soldier at that time. Achilles and Odysseus believe in the system or code they are fighting by, Thersites does not. He mocks the system since he cannot achieve what others do. Achilles turns his back on Agamemnon because he does believe in the system (at this point anyway) but that the code has not been applied properly.

Book II continues with Odysseus recalling Calchas’ divination that Troy would fall in ten years to the Achaeans, followed by a census of the Achaean troops. This part can be tedious to the reader, but there are a few points to make it interesting. First, by looking at the maps as the regions are named it is easy to see that this was the equivalent of a world war. Second, the relative position of the leaders is shown since the force a king commanded helps determine his rank. Even here, the exceptions are illuminating. For example, Odysseus only brought twelve ships yet he is one of the highest leaders, emphasizing ability and results to also determine rank. Third, this census would give someone reciting The Iliad the chance to embellish and expand descriptions for the local area where he was performing ("hello Cleveland!"). A shorter list of Trojan armies follows, but their census includes more foreshadowing and presentiment to the outcomes of some leaders. That the descriptions of the enemy are honorable and flattering highlights a different code for that time—defeating an honorable and strong army redoubles the credit that goes to the victor.

Book III begins with the armies amassed and ready for battle. Paris steps forward, eager to challenge his opponents until he sees Menelaus ready to meet him. Hector upbraids his brother Paris, “our prince of beauty”, for his cowardly action. Paris accepts the criticism as fair, but includes this ironic quote:

Still, don’t fling in my face the lovely gifts
of golden Aphrodite. Not to be tossed aside,
the gifts of the gods, those glories…
whatever the gods give of their own free will—
how could we ever choose them for ourselves?

The listener would not forget that this war came about because of Paris' choice of Aphrodite over Hera and Athena, her gift over theirs. Paris may be the most difficult character to asses in the poem. Speeches like this one leave you wondering what his appeal could possibly be, even though you know he will be the slayer of Achilles (which happens outside The Iliad). Then in the next moment he offers to end the war with a one-on-one battle with Menelaus, winner take all, and it is possible to have a high regard for him. Many of his action seem to embody one possible reaction to the interference of the gods in humans’ lives, something akin to a weary resignation. Other heroes accept the arbitrary and usually irrational interference of the gods as well, but never lose the verve and vitality that makes them heroes. Yet there must be something behind Paris’ stature since Hector and all the Trojans are delighted to see this match occur—given the stakes, they must respect his fighting ability.

It is in this book that we see Helen for the first time. The reaction of the old men on the city wall shows recognition of her beauty and how the war could happen because of her. Still, most would like to see her return to her original home in order to end the war. Priam, the one responsible and answerable for the death and destruction of his city, reacts the kindest of all to her. He blames the war on the gods, but leaves unanswered what happened when Menelaus and Odysseus visited to seek Helen’s return (before the war began). Obviously their request was denied, but who made that decision and what was the reasoning?

Priam’s request, in the ninth year of the war, to have Helen tell him the soldiers’ names seems a little displaced in time (wouldn’t that happen earlier during the fighting?). It is better to not get too troubled over these displacements since the war itself is a better example. Even adjusting for the long lead time to muster troops, how could Achilles be present in a war that had its origins at his parents’ wedding? Better just to note these questions and move on. This scene does give a nice glimpse of how the Trojans view the Achaeans. As mentioned before, irony abounds throughout the poem since the listener knows the outcome of Troy, of Achilles, of Priam, of Hector and others, even if the results are outside the scope of this work. The scene on the city wall provides an additional perspective when the listener is told of the death of Helen’s brothers as she looks for them among the soldiers. She blames her status without thinking of other possibilities. Helen is an interesting character as the poet reveals her self-loathing, her mixed feelings for Paris, and how Aphrodite toys with her feelings and desires for both Menelaus and Paris.

After Aphrodite spirits Paris away from certain death at the hands of Menelaus, Book IV switches to Olympus as the gods decide whether to end the war or let it continue. The scene cannot be comforting—Zeus would like to spare Troy, but the ease with which he allows its destruction is surpassed only by the ease Hera says she would allow the destruction of Argos, Sparta or Mycenae any time Zeus desires. Imagine living in one of these towns and listening to the poem.

The deception of the gods continues with the breaking of the truce. Menelaus is shot, and the resulting wound is described as and compared to a work of art. Instructions are given for the battle and some of the preparations reveal how the soldiers view the battle and their code. For example, the known cowards are to be flanked by experts so that they are forced to fight. Emphasis is placed on fighting as a group. Nestor, an aged warrior, is a sharp contrast to the old “cicadas” perched on the walls of Troy. Even though not in the thick of fighting, he realizes he can provide discipline and direction for the forces. His outlook is one of the most upbeat on being older: “the gods won’t give us all their gifts at once.” While preparing the forces to fight, Agamemnon provides an example of kleos when he meets Diomedes, commenting on the glory of the soldier’s father. Diomedes for his part recognizes the responsibility of Agamemnon, win or lose.

The battle begins in this book and the clash provides plenty of action and death. What I found interesting my first time through The Aeneid was that there was no (individual) anonymous death. Every victim was named, and many times their families or their achievements were mentioned. At the same time (on the first reading), watching the soldiers immediately try to strip the armor from a fallen enemy is rather puzzling if the concepts of kleos and timê are not understood. I remember thinking that the soldier could return to the field after the battle was over, but the importance of gathering the armor lies in the acknowledgment of victory over your victim.

Once again the gods stoke the desire for battle in the humans, Apollo and Athena insuring no one shirked their duty for long. The gods reward is the damage they cause:

And so the two lay stretched in the dust, side-by-side,
a lord of Thrace, a lord of Epeans armed in bronze
and a ruck of other soldiers died around them. And now
no man who waded into that work could scorn it any longer,
anyone still not speared or stabbed by tearing bronze
who whirled into the heart of all that slaughter—
not even if great Athena led him by the hand,
flicking away the weapons hailing down against him.
That day ranks of Trojans, ranks of Achaen fighters
Sprawled there side-by-side, facedown in the dust.

Achilles meanwhile is sitting by his ship. The impact of his withdrawal will be seen in the next section.

Picture source

1 comment:

Bill said...

“The first word of The Iliad is mênin” That’s one reason I’ve never enjoyed Ian Johnston translation. I can imagine the word Wrath! Startling an audicnce as Homer begins. Casanova’s memiors start with blood; a bloody nose. And in writers’ group it is a clique “Start with blood.”

I too really enjoyed Leonard Muellner's The Anger of Achilles).

“The modern reader will probably think he acts like a petulant kid,” Maybe the modern readers should keep in mind he as a kid. Achilles was one of the few heroes that was too young to swear the oath at Helen’s engagement to Menelaus. Plus I read of some archeological events (sorry I don’t recall the reference) that reminded us of the short life spans these people have. The bulk of the foot soldier could have been teenagers.