August 02, 2006


Caption: A Trojan warrior, represented here by Lily, sounds the alarm.

"Even of sorrows men can have their fill."--Iliad, Book 23

This is the third post in a series on Homer's Iliad and the light this ancient epic shed on contemporary issues of war and peace. First time readers are encouraged to scroll down to the two previous posts.

Here's a ridiculously brief plot summary. The story begins years after the Greek invasion of Troy when the war has become a bloody stalemate. The Greek king Agamemnon brings plague upon his troops after seizing the daughter of a priest of the god Apollo, to whom the father turns for vengeance.

Agamemnon is every soldier's nightmare as a commanding officer. Arrogant, stubborn and selfish, he refuses to give up his prize even while the Greeks die in droves. Achilles confronts the king in an angry meeting. When he finally agrees to return the girl, he insists on seizing the prize of another warrior to maintain his sense of honor. Specifically, he seizes a woman "won" by Achilles in the conquest of a city. (Homer describes, he does not endorse.)

Enraged, Achilles, the best Greek warrior, returns to his tent, refuses to fight and wishes destruction on Agamemnon and his armies. He even involves the gods by pleading with his immortal mother in his behalf.

(Note: These guys weren't great team players.)

The tide of battle tilts towards the Trojans, led by Hector, another son of the prolific Priam. Hector is one of the most admirable characters in the story, a devoted son, father and husband fighting for the survival of his city. Under his leadership, the Trojans almost succeed in defeating the Greeks and burning their ships.

Finally, Patroclus, beloved comrade of Achilles, feels compassion for the Greeks and borrows Achilles' armor to rally the troops. Patroclus is another of the few admirable warriors, known for his valor and compassion. He is slain by Hector.

Achilles goes berserk after the death of Patroclus. In a suit of armor fashioned by the smith god Hephaestus, he wreaks incredible slaughter on the Trojans. His rage is inhuman--it has been described as both beastlike and godlike. He slays the noble Hector and drags his body repeatedly around the city and refuses to allow his burial.

Not being properly buried was a fate worse than death in this world. It meant that the spirit of the dead could never even gain the wretched rest of the underworld. It was the ultimate degradation.

At length, the aged King Priam, with the help of the god Hermes, crosses enemy lines to the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of his son. Sated with his rage and full of grief, Achilles genuinely connects with the old king at a human level. He sees his father in Priam's aging face, just as Priam is reminded of his dead son by the countenance of Achilles. They weep together and share a meal.

Achilles relents and releases the body to the grieving father so that the proper rites can be observed while a temporary truce is declared.

With this act, Achilles regains his humanity after losing himself in rage. All that's left for him to do is die.

There's a lot more to it than that, but those are the main events. It's pretty grim stuff, but Homer never glorifies war, killing, enslavement, or dying. He treats victor and vanquished, soldiers and slaves, with equal compassion, knowing the common fate and suffering they share.

As Simone Weil put it,

...this poem is a miracle. Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjection of the human spirit to force, that is, in the last analysis to matter. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is. No one who succumbs to it is by virtue of this fact regarded with contempt.

...nothing is so rare as to see misfortune fairly portrayed; the tendency is either to treat the unfortunate person as though catastrophe were his natural vocation, or to ignore the effects of misfortune on the soul, to assume, that is, that the soul can suffer and remain unmarked by it, can fail, in fact, to be recast in misfortune's image.

The Iliad has nothing in common with "holy" books that glory in the slaughter of men, women, and children who happen to be different different or are regarded as infidels. For El Cabrero's money, that makes it holier.


1 comment:

Khazouh Baszhees said...

You skipped the part where Brad Pitt hooks up with Paris (Hilton, duh, after he finds her Hermes bag under the owners' boxes at Aquaduct). But then when he's done giving her the shaft, she bites him on the heel and rides away with Orlando Bloom (also called Paris, just like her most recent fiance).

C'mon El Camino, you're leaving out all the good parts...