Homer’s Iliad is the defining epic of Western literature. Its heroes live on in lore and our collective and individual consciousness. Most of Greek—and Roman literature—is indebted to the epic and its characters. Even modern English literature owes much to Homer’s monumental and heroic poem. Indeed, all Western literature owes to the wellspring of Homer. Even literary criticism, if it begins with Alexander Pope, is rooted in Homer’s genius and splendor. But what is the moving force of the drama, which sees men and their entrails spilling out, throats slit, as dark crimson blood bathes the sand of Troy?
The Iliad begins at the end of the Trojan War with a dispute between Agamemnon, the lord and controller of men, and Achilles, the handsome and long-haired Argive who has fallen in love—so he claims—with Briseis. Agamemnon spurns the priest of Apollo and seizes Briseis for himself. Outraged, Achilles abandons the Greek army and holes himself up in his tent with Patroclus and the rest of the Myrmidons as the beaches and plains of Troy are bathed in the blood and intestines of men of all ages.
Homer’s epic includes the symbiotic relationship between the heavens and earth, between the gods of Olympus and the men and women of the soil. There are heroes who defy and attack the gods, wounding them and showing the boundless lust unleashed in war. There are heroes who always honor the gods and pour out libations and prayers, thus becoming the instantiated link between heaven and earth. The flesh and blood heroes of the Iliad struggle with themselves, their desires, and their psyches. From Helen and Agamemnon, to Paris and Hector, to Achilles and Diomedes, the dramatis personae of Homer’s poetic rendering of the Trojan War stirs the heart to hatred and sympathy.
As such, Homer’s poem includes the vestiges of the old cosmogonic worldview captured by Hesiod. Indeed, the contest between Homer and Hesiod is a contest between competing cosmogonies. Homer is, in this case, the radical; Hesiod the reactionary. The Iliad may have been composed before the Theogony, but its message radically differs from that of Hesiod’s strife-filled classic. In this regard, and if Giambattista Vico is right about sublime poetry and the strife of the gods being the first instantiation of primitive logos, the cosmogony of Hesiod is certainly older than the tragic humanized and humanistic cosmos of Homer.
It is difficult to ascertain any sort of free will in the Iliad. It is much easier to see, as Plato implied, that the poetic world was one where humans were the puppets of the gods. Those who live and die, those who gain glory and suffer humiliation, do so only because the gods directly involve themselves in human affairs—deflect arrow and spear shafts into less important characters—or allow the various heroes to have their moment under the sun. Irrespective of this, what is clear is the fatalistic cosmos that Homer occupied and that he was wrestling with in his masterpiece.
Hesiod’s Theogony is a reminder of the cosmogonic world of the ancient Greeks. Their cosmos teemed with life; the gods were active participants in the world, and heaven and earth were linked together in symbiosis. Hesiod’s grand poem details, in brutal fashion, the birth and overthrow of the gods. The Titans and Olympians are the offspring of lustful sex, and as such, they are conceived in hatred for their fathers: Uranus among the Titans and Cronos among the Olympians. The cosmos of Hesiod is filled with strife from start to finish. The muses, who sing the praises to the gods, sing praises only to those who are cunning and power hungry.
The strife of the gods is also an enduring image in Homer. Indeed, it is central to it. There is not a moment of peace between the gods. Zeus is repeatedly enraged at Hera and Athena. Athena and Hera conspire against Aphrodite. A wounded Ares is scolded by an angered Zeus. Poseidon holds Zeus in contempt for usurping the position of lord among the gods when the world was agreed to be split in thirds between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. Hera seduces Zeus, which causes chaos to spill out over the fields of Troy. In this respect, Homer’s depiction of heavenly Olympus is not far removed from Hesiod’s brutal and bleak depiction of patricide and usurpation.
As a matter of fact, Homer’s Olympus is much like Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Olympus. In the Bibliotheca, Pseudo-Apollodorus compiles the arc of Greek mythology—thus preserving the wellspring of ancient Greek consciousness. The narrative mythology behind Troy’s doom begins in an event reminiscent of the first image of Achilles’ god-made shield: a wedding banquet. But mere mortals are not the main guests of honor. The main guests of honor are the gods. All but the goddess of strife, Eris.
There is irony in the goddess of strife not receiving an invitation to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. If Hesiod’s account of the birth of the gods is just the capturing of the most ancient and sublime myth of cosmogonic strife and violence, then all the gods present at the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis have the energy of strife running through them. Eris, however, is wroth at her exclusion. She tosses the apple of discord in the midst of Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. The three goddesses quarrel with each other over who is the most beautiful and approach Zeus to settle the dispute.
Zeus, we are told, abdicates his providential responsibility. Instead, he shifts the burden of responsibility to the lustful shepherd Paris. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus’ story, Zeus abdicates for two reasons. First, he doesn’t want to be the target of the enmity of the two goddesses he does not choose as the most beautiful. Second, by allowing Paris to choose he has a casus belli to destroy Troy (because of overpopulation).
The wedding of Peleus and Thetis is much like the image of the wedding banquet and the peaceful city forged on the Shield of Achilles. The supposedly peaceful image is filled with strife. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this regard.
Homer’s cosmos was a fatalistic one. It was bleak, dark, and filled with strife—that enduring image that carries the Iliad forward to its sudden and remarkable conclusion with Priam in the tent of Achilles.
But Homer’s sacrilegious, perhaps even impious, inversion of the strife-filled cosmos through the human characters that move the reader’s heart to fury and sympathy is part of his triumph as poet and thinker. The gods may be present, but the real action, the real learning, the real progress, is made among the fated heroes of the epic. Homer turns the strife-filled cosmogonic portrait of 8th-century Greece on its head. In doing so, he crafts the greatest love epic in the history of Western literature until Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Homer shows the gods in their naked vanity. Where Hesiod’s muses sing of gods, titans, and monsters, Homer’s muses sing of a man—Achilles. This subtle shift is important. The focus of the Iliad is not the gods but mortals. Specifically, it is the song of tragic Achilles in faraway Ilium. We are told of the rage of Achilles, but Achilles’ rage subsides to love by the end of his story arc.
This returns us to where the epic begins, in the final days of Troy and a dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles. Agamemnon is the lord of men and a king who has nothing but the lust for power and glory moving through his fibers. The lust for glory, the lust for power, had so consumed Agamemnon that Aeschylus reminds us that this is what moves Agamemnon—indeed, his entire house, including Clytaemnestra, in his play about the King of Mycenae. The chorus, after Cassandra has finished personifying the oracle of reckoning and death, breaks out in collective chant: “But the lust for power never dies—men cannot have enough.” Conveniently, the chorus chants this collective wisdom just as Agamemnon is murdered behind the scenes.
In the mad lust of Agamemnon, he spurns the priest of Apollo which enrages the god of the sun, and he also steals Briseis from Achilles’ tender and loving arms (or so Achilles claims). Truly, as Aeschylus said, “the lust for power never dies—men cannot have enough.” And Agamemnon cannot have enough. But Agamemnon’s lusts, his immoral and impious actions—from sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, to stealing Briseis, to spurning the priest of Apollo—cause him nightmares and a guilty conscience throughout the epic.
The second great image on the Shield of Achilles is the city at war. Strife dominates the background of that image but the multitude of figures in that image, men and women, young and old, soldiers and non-combatants, are all focused in this hour of strife. It is as if strife also allows for the opportunity to control the passions that times of peace allow to run unbounded, unimpeded, unrestrained. In strife one can harness the power of his devotion, of his love, and focus it to something specific—even if it be life or death in war in the service of the gods, family, and country.
Homer’s genius is that the first image is the mythic image of the gods in the heavens that all of listeners would have known. As mentioned, it harkens back to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and the strife involved in that wedding banquet. The cosmos of strife harkens back to the collective consciousness of the agonistic cosmos that Hesiod put to paper in Theogony. The second image embodies the lived reality of Homer’s epic as it unfolds. The Iliad is a story of strife found in war:
Strife and Havoc plunged in the fight, and violent Death—now seizing a man alive with fresh wounds, now one unhurt, now hauling a dead man through the slaughter by the heels, the cloak on her back stained red with human blood.
Both images permeate the Greek cosmos and understanding of life just as much as both images pay homage and subvert that collective consciousness of the Greek past.
The Iliad is not a story about the gods. It is a story about men and women. It is a story of contrasts. Of growth and humiliation. Of lust and love. Of despair and triumph. The human characters of Homer’s grand epic embody what Homer is driving home at with his poem: the tension between strife and love, or lust and love.
The city at war, most immediate of which is Troy, but which also encompasses all the cities involved in the war, focuses on a very specific goal. The enjoyment of peace, of the love afforded in peace, is impossible. The enjoyment of war, the lust unleashed in war, rampages through the pages of the Iliad like a tsunami.
Our Homeric heroes embody this epic strife between lust and love that, according to Homer, moves the cosmos instead of only strife. Among those characters who embody lust are Diomedes, Agamemnon, and Paris. Diomedes’ lust is so pernicious and wild-flowing that he even wounds Aphrodite and spears Ares in his rage. Not even the sacred can escape the punishing power of lust. Moreover, Diomedes’ strife and rage is manifested during the funeral games for Patroclus. Agamemnon is so consumed by the lust for strife that he is deceived by Zeus in a dream and launches a futile attack soon after stealing Briseis from Achilles’ arms. He is obstinate throughout the poem and doesn’t want to apologize for his actions because of his self-conceited ego. Paris would prefer to soothe his sexual appetites rather than fight Menelaus with honor. “Come—let’s go to bed, let’s lose ourselves in love,” Paris tells Helen after being wounded and whisked away by Aphrodite.
Helen embodied lust in her life before reaching the shores of Troy. In the story she struggles to come to terms with her lustful desires and her strife-filled past. In the presence of Hector she acknowledges that strife governs, or governed, her life. “B#### that I am” and “Whore that I am” are uttered from her lips to Hector. Helen veers between the poles of strife and orderly love behind the ordered walls and life offered in Troy. She laments that her free-wheeling life of lustful strife has come to an end.
In lamenting this movement away from strife, she comes to embody the possibility of what a life of love can consummate. It is unsurprising that she speaks to Hector of this metamorphosis occurring despite the repercussions of her actions to herself and much of the world. Furthermore, when Hector’s body is returned to Troy, she flings herself onto his body and laments his death—recalling how Hector always showed her nothing but love and calmed storms of rage against her with reasoned words of persuasion.
Hector is the character who best embodies ordered love in the poem. His very name, in Greek, means “one who holds together.” Hector holds together the worlds of strife and love within him. Hector is also the man blessed with a family in the midst of strife, and his family is a peaceful pole in the turbulence of war. Andromache and Astyanax exude a calming force over Hector, even Astyanax’s uncontrollable weeping brings out the intimacy of Hector’s caressing and tender love as he strips off his armor and holds his infant son in his arms.
Piety is the great virtue of Hector. When Helenus tells him to return to Troy and offer up libations at Athena’s shrine, Hector complies: “So [Helenus] urged and Hector obeyed his brother start to finish.” When Hector reaches the gates of Troy he implores the women to fulfill their sacred duties too. “Pray to the gods” are his first words upon returning to his city. Hector’s patriotic heart “races to help [his] Trojans” throughout the poem. Hector is a man of family, faith, and fatherland. It is true that “man-killing Hector” is unhinged right before his death, but the shifting—or breaking—of Hector from the man who holds the worlds of mortal love and immortal strife together causes the great resolution of Homer’s epic: Hector’s death at the hand of Achilles and Priam’s retrieval of Hector’s body from Achilles’ blood-stained fingers.
Patroclus and Briseis give order to each other, or at least Patroclus brought order to Briseis. Patroclus curbed the rage of Achilles as well—until his death at Hector’s hands. The internal rage of Achilles never floods outward thanks to Patroclus’ calming presence in his tent. When Briseis sees the dead body of Patroclus, she weeps over him like Achilles and the other Greek heroes. In her darkest hours it was Patroclus’ kindness that kept her ordered and free from being consumed by the strife of grief.
But you, Patroclus, you would not let me weep, not when the swift Achilles cut my husband down, not when he plundered the lordly Mynes’ city—not even weep! No, again and again you vowed you’d make me godlike Achilles’ lawful, wedded wife, you would sail me west in your warships, home to Phthia and there with the Myrmidons hold my marriage feast. So now I mourn your death—I will never stop—you were always kind.
Briseis is another character who brings love and order out of the heroes of the poem. As mentioned, Patroclus apparently treats her with abundant kindness after her city is sacked by the Greeks and her family killed by Achilles. She is the loved person of Achilles, the bride or bride-to-be of the rage-filled son of Peleus and Thetis. Even when hauled off by Agamemnon, the lord and controller of men claims he never slept with her. For whatever reason, Briseis is a sacred subject whom even lustful Agamemnon doesn’t violate.
Achilles, however, is a character in oscillation between the two poles much like Helen. Achilles loved Briseis, at least if we can trust Achilles. When Diomedes and Odysseus rendezvous with Achilles, carrying Agamemnon’s offer to bring Achilles back into the fight, the wounds of Achilles run very deep in his soul. He is the lover spurned and, as such, is filled with internal strife and hatred. He rages with the same rage that he had unleashed in the previous ten years of war which earned him immortal fame and glory. But in rebuking Agamemnon, Achilles makes clear, “he keeps the bride I love” (referring to Briseis). Achilles professes his love for Briseis and considers her his bride. A man can only love once, “but a man’s life breath cannot come back again—no raiders in force, no trading brings it back, once it slips through a man’s clenched teeth.”
The love that Achilles has for Briseis is no love at all. It is self-centered, self-focused. It is a love that cannot lead to relationships. It is a love that is, in fact, a form of lust.
Achilles must learn to overcome this self-centered lust, which he conveniently veils with the language of love to distract him from this important awakening. Love requires people. Love moves beyond the self to others. So self-absorbed is Achilles, he lets thousands of lovers perish and thousands of families fall ruined forever. That is the price of strife as Homer so poignantly captures when he brutally details the gore and violence of men’s limbs being hacked off, throats slashed, and blood gushing onto the sandy plains of Troy of men no longer able to make love to their wives, brides, or enjoy the company of parents and children ever again…
Read the rest of the essay here: Homer’s Iliad and the Shield of Love and Strife (8 August 2019).
*This essay was published as part of my regular column with TIC.
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