August 01, 2006
ACHILLES IN IRAQ: BACKGROUND ON THE ILIAD
Caption: Ferdinand the peacock's headgear resembles the helmet of Hector, prince of Troy.
"There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus's halls
And hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
Now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn."--Iliad, Book 24
This is the second post in a series about the Iliad of Homer and what it has to say to us today. Before we can get to that, a little background on the story is in order. This ancient epic has a lot to offer, but it requires a little patience.
(Note: a good way to get through this work is to read a brief summary of the contents and listen to a recorded version. These are available in many public libraries. The epics were originally meant to be heard, not read.)
For the ancient Greeks, the Trojan war was the center of a huge cycle of stories and song. Of all these, the two major works of epic poetry that survive are the Iliad and Odyssey attributed to Homer.
The Iliad tells of a brief interlude in a bitter war that lasted 10 years. The story assumes the reader (or originally the hearer), knew the backstory and following events. The war had its origin in a dispute between goddesses years before the actual events. The outcome, the fall of Troy and the suffering of the victors, is fated in advance by the will of Zeus and known by many.
Some of the characters, such as Achilles, know that their own doom is destined by the gods. He was given the choice between a long unnoted life of peace at home or an early death in Troy and eternal fame and chose the latter.
The immediate cause was the abduction of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, by Paris, son of Trojan King Priam. This was a serious and blasphemous breach of the sacred rules of hospitality that bound both guest and host. Previously, the leaders of Greece had sworn a sacred oath to defend the marriage of whoever wedded the beautiful Helen.
The couple seeks refuge in Troy and are received by King Priam. When Priam refuses to meet the demands of Greek envoys for a return of Helen, the Greek invasion begins.
While the motive of the Trojan warriors was the preservation of their city, the Greeks fought for several reasons. One was to honor their commitment to Menelaus. Other motives included the desire for the spoils of war and for honor and glory.
Honor specifically meant public recognition of valor in the form of prizes or gifts. The problem with honor was that there was never quite enough to go around. Any honor won by one person seemed to come at the expense of another, which led to a volatile situation. For this reason, they fight more as individuals seeking distinction than as members of a unit.
Glory (Greek: kleos) had a more somber meaning. In this world, the dead were wretched shadows of themselves in the dark underworld. The only meaningful immortality a person could have was to live and die in such a way as to be spoken of after death in the stories or songs of the living. That was kleos.
The Iliad and the Odyssey show what an empty goal this is. In the latter epic, the ghost of Achilles says that he would rather be the most wretched slave on earth than king of the underworld.
We still haven't got to the storyline yet. That will have to wait for next time.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: OLYMPIAN
by El Cabrero