Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Iliad discussion: Books V – VIII

Aphrodite Wounded by Diomedes
Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Picture source

Book V belongs to Diomedes despite Zeus’ agreement allowing the Trojans temporary ascendancy on the battlefield. I find the interplay between gods and humans fascinating, the gods protecting or abandoning people at the god’s whim. The battles that the gods wage against each other, using humans as intermediaries, must highlight the role the ancients felt in the world. There is a complex fatalism at work in the humans. Anything they are incapable of ascribing to logic or cause/effect they attribute to the gods. These explanations can cover mundane happenings (a “clouded mind” for example) or momentous events (Zeus granting Trojans an upper hand, or Aphrodite ‘giving’ Helen to Paris). Despite the human’s pawn-like role in this cosmology, uncertainty or impotence in determining an outcome is rarely an acceptable excuse for lack of determined action. There is a code for the soldier in particular and similar guidelines for others wishing to avoid reproof.

For Diomedes’ determination, Athena grants his wish for revenge and he is physically transformed (as are many of the humans divinely assisted in the tale), wounding two of the gods. (Sidenote: notice the gods’ response to being wounded—they flee the battle immediately. Kleos is not important to them as they are already immortal.) The gods also protect favorites on the battlefield as well, such as Aeneas. Given that the gods arbitrarily intervene and that prayers and requests to the gods are often denied, imagine the mindset that a soldier must have in order to be successful. The warrior code exemplified ined in The Iliad provides meaning and reason in such an uncertain and demanding role. War may be one of the natural conditions of man, but as shown when the Achaeans rush for their boats in Book II it isn’t necessarily desirable for the participants. The code helps offset such a reaction and ensures that warriors fight for not just themselves, their cause, or their fellow soldiers but to avoid shame as well. Some of the interesting (to me) examples and exceptions to the code will be pointed out as more of the work is covered.

Early in Book VI, with the Achaeans surging toward Troy, Menelaus captures Adrestus alive. Menelaus’ agreement to ransom his captive changes to a “rough justice” at the urging of Agamemnon. Has Agamemnon moved outside the code, caught up in his personal vengeance against the Trojans? If anything, Menelaus has more reason to be upset since it was his wife that was abducted. Or maybe Agamemnon is intent on proving that Achilles isn’t needed for the Achaeans to be successful? Whatever the reason, Agamemnon’s wish that not one Trojan escape their death at the Greeks’ hands is a timely reminder to the audience (who already know the bloody outcome of the war) as the story shifts inside Troy.

Just before the narrative moves inside the walls of Troy, Diomedes and Glaucus have an extended scene on the battlefield that highlights an exception to the warrior’s code as well as makes a commentary about this war in general regarding the Trojans. As the two soldiers face each other and boast of their lineage and accomplishments, they realize their families have a friend/guest relationship. They stand down and Diomedes offers to “trade armor” so that others will know of their friendly claim. Glaucus (whose wits were stolen by Zeus) agrees to the exchange, trading “his gold armor for bronze with Diomedes, / the worth of a hundred oxen just for nine.” Family friendships are established as an exception to the call for battle, but even more important is the symbolism in the exchange of armor. The scene immediately shifts to Hector entering the city walls, bringing the trade that the Trojan have made into relief—allowing Paris a few adulterous years with Helen in exchange for the destruction of Troy. Neither trade seems to be in the Glaucus’ or Troy’s best interest.

Even so, Hector’s treatment of Helen is better than his attitude toward his brother Paris. Again, Paris meekly accepts the reproof, knowing his brother fairly criticizes him. And it is easy to question Helen’s reasons for urging of Paris back to the battle—for his honor of his death? The reaction of Helen and several of Troy’s citizens toward Paris (the cause of the war) and the gods’ feelings toward Ares (the god of war) are similar, which seems more than just a coincidence. Just because war is inevitable does not mean everyone favors it.

Hector’s visit to his wife Andromache and son Astyanax provides for a tender and moving scene in the midst of the carnage. Agamemnon’s wishes remind the listener what will happen to the Trojans, making the scene that much more poignant. Hector’s prayers to Zeus for Astyanax’s future will come to naught. The scene also reminds the listener what is at stake for the Trojans—the defense of their homes and their family in addition to their honor. In his discussion with this wife, Hector provides a glimpse inside the warrior mindset and another aspect in the concept of kleos:

”Even so,
it is less the pain of the Trojans still to come
that weighs me down, not even of Hecuba herself
or King Priam, or the thought that my own brothers
in all their numbers, all their gallant courage,
may tumble in the dust, crushed by enemies—
That is nothing, nothing beside your agony
when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears,
wrenching away your day of light and freedom!
Then far off in the land of Argos, you must live,
laboring at the loom, at another woman’s beck and call,
fetching water at some spring. Messis or Hpyeria,
resisting it all the way—
the rough yoke of necessity at your neck.
And a man may say, who sees you streaming tears,
‘There is the wife of Hector, the bravest fighter
they could field, those stallion-breaking Trojans,
long ago when the men fought for Troy.’ So he will say
and the fresh grief will swell your heart once more,
widowed of the one man strong enough
to fight off your day of slavery. No, no,
let the earth come piling over my dead body
before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away!”
The shame attached to his name being dragged down is just as repellant (more so?) as the thought of his wife being hauled into slavery. Hector has already outlined why he fights—to avoid shame as well as to earn glory for himself and his father. Here and elsewhere, the Trojans are presented sympathetically to a Greek audience. The Greek “enemy” is painted as more than just worthy opponents. In addition, the Trojans are painted as surprisingly similar to the Greeks. He knows the possibility of Troy being destroyed (stating that he knows it will fall at one point, then in the next breath wishing his son a long glory-filled life), his love of the city tied to the regard he has for his father as its ruler. Hector’s uncertainty as to his and the city’s fate provides the basic framework for how most mortals operate—either option may happen but he can’t be sure which will occur. This scene, as do many other in the book, sets the groundwork for a comparison with Achilles.

Book VII shows Paris and Hector returning to battle, the gods intervening yet again to set up a duel between Ajax and Hector. More divine intervention stops the battle for the evening without a clear winner. In council that evening, Paris responds to Antenor’s request to return Helen to the Achaeans by offering to return the treasure he took from Sparta. The desire to end the war with an inadequate offering makes the Achaeans believe the Trojans are desperate.

Zeus’ use of his scales in Book VIII highlights a complicated relationship between the gods and fate. Certain things are destined to happen, yet the gods can intervene to some extent. It is as if the destination is known, but the gods can influence the path toward arrival. There is much more opportunity to discuss the gods in this work, but a couple of their major roles is to provide a comparison or offset to humans as well as provide an explanation for things and events that humans cannot explain (as mentioned earlier). In the case of Book VIII, Zeus has the other gods refrain from interference (although not entirely) to let him control the action. The battle goes back and forth, but Zeus foreshadows events that will happen the next day.

I mention it several times, but it is important to remember that the original audience for this work was the Greeks. How do you make it palatable to the audience that your ancestors are to be routed, even just temporarily? Divine intervention provides the excuse, in addition to having the best warrior sit out the fighting. Achilles has been absent from the story, but will reappear in Book IX, one of my favorite chapters in literature.


Bill said...

Your comments about Diomedes' rampage across the field remind me of "Guns, Germs, and Steel". I happen to be reading it at the same time I was re-reading the "Iliad". I had just read about the Spanish and the Incans. One soldier (maybe the Incans thought he was a god.) slayed a thousand Incans in one battle. Later in the day i read about Diomedes attaching gods and Homer's instruction on how to kill a guy in arm. (Use a large rock to the neck.) Sort of a telling cultural difference; the Americans line up to slaughtered by the gods, the Europeans seek them out in battle.

Also as to all the Trojans blaming Paris... Didn't they all know better wasn't there a prophecy that he'd be the death of the them all, which is why he was a lowly shepherd at the time of the beauty contest? What were his parents thinking when they brought him home.


Dwight said...

Funny you should mention what Paris' parents were thinking since apparently people have been asking that since at least the 5th century BC. Just posted on Herodotus' analysis in Book Two of The Histories.