Becoming Mortal: The Humanization of Achilles in “The Iliad”

As some might know, I frequently write essays on Homer and his greatest song—The Iliad—and am in process of completing a manuscript on The Iliad as a cosmic love song that laid the foundations for the birth of humanism in Western civilization. “Rage—Goddess—sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” Perhaps only the opening lines of Genesis are more famous than those eternal words from the poet of The Iliad.

The Achilles of The Iliad, as those who have read the poetic song know, is a rather crass, impersonal, and very dislikable character from start to finish. He is certainly no Brad Pitt as Wolfgang Petersen portrayed him in the Hollywood epic Troy. But as I’ve dealt more closely with The Iliad in composing the manuscript, the centrality and metamorphosis of Achilles over the course of the poem is so much more powerful and sublime than initial readings often provide.

Homer begins his song with μῆνις (mēnis), often translated as Rage or Wrath. What is important for us to remember when dealing with rage is that Homer uses two different words for rage: μῆνις (mēnis) and χόλος (kholos). Mēnis is repeatedly used by Homer, as with other Homeric Greek poets, to refer to the rage of the gods. Kholos, by contrast, is only ever used by Homer to refer to the rage of mortal humans.

That Achilles is attributed with divine rage is not insignificant though is, sadly, often lost in translation unless explicitly commentated on by translators or expositors. Achilles, as he is introduced to us, quite literally is governed by the impersonal wrath of the Olympians divines. Lest we forget his origins: Achilles is the demi-god son of the human Peleus and the divine Thetis; the wedding of Peleus and Thetis was disrupted by the Apple of Discord when the God of Strife (Eris) tossed the apple into the wedding that caused a chain of events leading to the Trojan War.

Strife isn’t just the god of chaos. Strife is what also governs the Hesiodic cosmos. The Theogony of Hesiod is a grand and violent poem dealing with the chaos of the gods and how sexual predation gave birth to the gods. It is the sexual predation of Uranus over Gaia that births the Titans. It is through an act of sexual violence that Cronos castrates Uranus; from that castration came forth Aphrodite. Then the sexual lusts of Cronos gave birth to the other Olympians. We then witness Zeus’ usurpation and overthrow of his father, Cronos, and the Tians in the Titanomachy. Finally, Zeus slays Typhoeus and ascends to his altar and throne as chief of the gods. Strife is also the divine spirit that Hesiod ties to human labor in Work and Days, “Strife is good for mortals.” Hesiod uses the divine name Ἔρις (Eris) in this passage.

The contest between Hesiod and Homer, then, is actually deeply profound in their contrast. Hesiod sings of divines and divine violence. Homer sings of a man, a mortal man, and not—as superficially apparent at first glance—this impersonal, inhuman, divine rage which explodes in fury as he slaughters Trojans left and right, mercilessly slays Lycaon after he begs for mercy unarmed and weeping at his feet, and, of course, kills Hector. The Achilles we meet in the opening of Homer’s dramatic opera is the impersonal—that is inhuman—Achilles. But over the course of the poem this impersonal semi-divine being who is separated from the rest of the mortals (but also not dwelling among the gods) becomes one with the human world of mortality and subjective persons with relational emotions and feelings.

The metamorphosis of Achilles, which is what the poem concerns itself with, is the transformation of Achilles away from his impersonal divine state of rage and into the human realm of love and compassion; culminating, as we know, in forgiveness. The gods cannot forgive, in Homer’s theology, because the gods are governed by impersonal rage like mēnis. That is why the gods, though present in The Iliad, are not the chief subjects to which the bard and the muses sing.

Yet Homer’s song gives birth to a new cosmos. Just as in the Christian tradition it is the love song of the Father and the Son from which the Spirit generates the world into being; literally, sung into existence, so too is a new cosmos sung into existence by Homer. The cosmos of the Greeks before Homer, the Hesiodic cosmos, is dark, violent, and unforgiving. The cosmos that Homer sings into being is a kind, compassionate, and loving cosmos with the star of compassionate forgiveness as its central pole. Achilles leaves the Hesiodic cosmos of impersonal rage and strife and takes his place as the star of the new cosmos forged in love, compassion, and forgiveness.

We must remember that Homer, as M.L. West has conclusively proven in my opinion, worked on The Iliad over the course of many years, if not decades. It was gradually refined over time. The now lost Cypria, a Greek epic that dealt with the earlier years of the Trojan War, while alluded to, is not what Homer includes in The Iliad. Nor is the end of the Trojan War what Homer gives us either. Now for a supposed war epic, it is interesting to realize that the greatest warrior barely fights in the epic. Achilles doesn’t enter battle until Book 20 (near the very end of the poem). And when he does enter battle, while grotesque and inhuman, his fight with shield and spear is relatively short.

Instead of ending the song with the destruction of Troy, the beheading of Priam, and the death of Achilles, Homer ends his dramatic opera with a peace brought about by a single act of human compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. The gods willed Achilles to return the body of Hector, that is true. But the gods never stipulated that Achilles had to forgive Priam and weep with him in love, nor did the gods stipulate that Achilles had to freely bestow peace to his avowed enemy. Instead, Achilles breaks free of the will of the Olympians and freely bestows these uniquely human gifts—forgiveness and peace—to the very man he vowed to wipe off the face of the earth during the manifestation of his divine wrath.

The Achilles we weep with is the human Achilles who has become mortal through an act of love. Homer sings to us the only force that can heal a broken, war-torn, and desecrated world: love, specifically, the love that is forgiveness. We are often told, by Christians, that St. Paul and the Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible “invented” agape to express the charitable love of the Bible. This is not necessarily true. Homer uses the term agapêton and agapazomenoi in his epics. (So while the very specific term “agape” is a Christian invention, its roots are Homeric.) And where Homer employs these terms they refer to the charitable greeting, in kindness and compassion, that people show to each other.

In the tent of Achilles, the son of Peleus comes to greet, and weep with, Priam with an affection heretofore not seen in Greek literature or in the very epic itself. Homer sings a new love into existence, a love that exceeds the eros of Paris or the philos of Hector. While Hector’s love, a filial love dedicated to family, fatherland, and the ancestral gods is undeniably moving, it is not the love that heals our shattered world. The love that breaks free of the vengeful cosmos of the Hesiodic gods is the compassionate love that Achilles comes to bestow to Priam which brings The Iliad to its conclusion: peace.

Homer beheld Achilles fall from the Hesiodic cosmos not in pride or rebellion, but in a compassionate love that the gods knew not and could only be actualized in a mortal human and hero. The true heroism of Achilles was not his warlike butchering but his renunciation of impersonal and divine mēnis which brought him into the flesh and heart of mortality, but in that flesh and heart of mortality, also brought forth a new world of love. In this act, and in Homer’s song, a new star and new cosmos was born. We are still revolving around that seemingly dimming star nearly three millennia later.

 

You can read some of my essays on Homer here:

Reading Homer: From Here to Eternity (forthcoming, June 2020)

Achilles, Priam, and the Redemptive Power of Forgiveness (6 April 2020)

Heroes of Love (15 January 2020)

Homer’s “Iliad” and the Shield of Love and Strife (8 August 2019)

From Hector to Christ (3 August 2019)

Homer’s Epic of the Family (16 October 2018)

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