July 31, 2006


According to Homer, the beautiful Helen of Troy, represented here by Venus the goat, had a lot to do with starting the war.

"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 fighter's souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus moved on toward it's end"--Iliad, Book I

The next few posts in the Goat Rope will try to follow a thread of thought about what the Iliad of the legendary bard Homer can teach us today.

The Iliad is the story of an incident in the first (but not the last) ill-advised invasion of the Middle East—Troy-- by a Western power—Mycenaean Greece. It is believed to have been assembled from oral traditions around the 8th century BC and depicts events set several hundred years earlier.

For many people, the Iliad conjures up images of old myths of gods and men behaving badly. There is plenty of that in there, but a lot more too.

Ultimately, the Iliad is about the shortness of human life and the limits of our condition. It is about war and particularly force, which reduces living people to things (figuratively as well as literally). In Homer’s world as today, those who arrogantly rely on force think that they are using it while in fact it is using them. Force is fickle and has no loyalty. Those who consider themselves the victor one day often find themselves among its victims the next.

It also has a lot to say about the sorrows and traumas of soldiers and veterans and has even been used to help understand and treat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress.

The Iliad does not glorify war. It portrays killing and dying in graphic and distinctly unromantic form over and over again. Yet it is also a work of deep compassion and shows equal sympathy to Greeks and Trojans, kings and slave, warriors and women, children and parents.

As the French writer Simone Weil wrote, for those who “perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors.”

Next time: background to the story.


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