The Iliad is a feast of epic proportions, it introduces us to Agamemnon , Menelaus , Paris ,Helen , Hector , Ajax, Diomedes and hordes of fascinating characters including Odysseus who is the hero of the other great epic poem that Homer writes and Aeneas whom Virgil immortalizes in the Aeneid but if we had to pick one that is the driving force in this epic poem , it would be Achilles and by the same token if one was to identify one single emotion that drives the Iliad , it would be rage , a cleansing fury so pure that no other emotion dare even come close, so much so that the first word of Book 1 is the word Rage.
This is also our introduction to the pantheon of gods and interestingly they have a hierarchy with one supreme god , Zeus /Jove/Jupiter who has two brothers Poseidon/Neptune and Hades/Pluto . His wife Hera/Juno is also his sister !!! Lovely !!
The book starts with the background of Achilles’s fury. Chryses , priest of Apollo comes to Agamemnon asking for his daughter back and willing to offer a ransom . While the Greeks are willing , Agamemnon refuses , Apollo is pissed and decides to bitch slap the Greeks . The Greeks suitably humbled and terrified of the anger of the gods, inform Agamemnon as one man with Achilles as the leading voice that he needs to return the daughter of the priest . Needless to say , Agamemnon’s fury is directed at Achilles and he deprives him of his own prize , Briseis . Achilles cannot endure this humiliation because he is the greatest of the Greek warriors and Agamemnon has no right to insult him in said manner. He promptly goes and sulks in his corner and also calls his momma , Thetis the water nymph .These water nymphs have connections , she promptly goes to Zeus/Jove/Jupiter , King of the gods and begs him for retribution . The poor Greeks just cannot win, first they invoke the ire of Apollo and then the wrath of Zeus. From this point on the book takes off ,Homer goes into great , gory and graphic detail about the spears being thrust into the back of necks and tongues being cut off at the root and teeth clamping down on cold brass as bloody and muddy oblivion seems to come to Greeks and Trojans alike. There is abundant slaughter , more elegant euphemisms of violent death than I could keep count of ; “Darkness veiling the eyes” , “Purple hue clouding the eyes”, “the spirit leaving the body” , “a veil of crimson fell over his eyes” , “He would never pay the debt he owed his parents for raising him” and many many more eloquent beautiful elegies . I was not sure if I was expected to be horrified at the brutal slaughter or marvel at the wonderful word smithing.
Time and again , one tends to see the capricious gods play humans against one another and intervene time and again, sometimes on the side of one and sometimes on the side of the other . I could not help but wonder if this needs to be viewed through the lens of allegory. Athena is the goddess of wisdom so when they sing about her leading Odysseus to speak , do they mean that Odysseus came upon a wise decision and going to speak words of wisdom . But by book 4, I had learnt to abandon that line of reason . There is no doubt that Homer intends the gods to be present amongst humans and be intensely meddlesome and capricious , he also intends us to know that no matter what we try to do , whatever is ordained shall come to pass , even Zeus at one point makes that clear that he is helpless to prevent whatever is to come . However at one section when his son Sarpedon is about to be killed and Zeus is aware of the fate that awaits Sarpedon, he wonders if he should save him and his wife/sister Hera counsels him against meddling in the affairs of fate and we watch the slaughter of Sarpedon.
One can trace the storyline of the Iliad by following the fury of Apollo at Agamemnon leading to the fury of Achilles at Agamemnon for insulting Chryses and holding his daughter and in turn leading up to the fury of Agamemnon at Achilles for his foul words followed by the retaliatory fury of Achilles at Agamemnon for depriving Achilles of his prized Briseis and finally the grand finale , Achilles driven by fury at the death of Patrocles , kills Hector and mutilates his body .
The Iliad is an epic poem studded with small verses that brim over with wisdom , my only regret is that in reading the poem and taking in the story , these small nuggets of wisdom can be easily looked over and one would have to wait to go back to discover these nuggets .
Here is a potent verse
“When Strife first appears , she is small but she keeps on growing till her forehead touches the sky while her feet walk the earth. into the hearts of both sides, she spreads fierce hatred and swept on , multiplying the death groans of men. “
Prayers and Repentance are daughters of mighty Zeus
they are lame and wrinkled , eyes always averted
and they make it their business to follow in the footsteps of madness
Now Madness is strong and fast and so she outruns them
and she damages men in every country on this earth
But Prayers comes hobbling behind and bring healing with them
When a man though offended shows the proper respect
to these daughters of Zeus when they draw near, they help him greatly
but when a man hardens his heart and turns them away
they go to their father and beg him to order madness
to follow the man and he pays for it with his sorrow
It is a tale of caution, it is a tale of bravery , honor , wisdom , it also gives us a close insight into the times. Rather than having to dive through some boring academic tome trying to find out how people lived , what they believed in, what drove them, we have a gripping story in the form of a poem.
Indeed it is a poem so gripping that I found myself in the thick of battle watching over Achilles shoulder as he rages like a madman amongst the Trojans and slaughters countless sons , husbands and fathers . I do not remember their names but the manner of their destruction is not something that can be easily forgotten . I watched Hector goaded by Zeus , drive the Greeks to the sea . I watched Patrocles try to climb the walls of Troy , Diomedes wound the immortal Aphrodite and Ares , Achilles grieve over his dead friend , Priam mourn for his many children and they have left a deep impression on me .
I first read the Iliad 7 years ago , I was disappointed when it ended without the Trojan horse , no death of Achilles , no destruction of Troy . But rereading now , I am glad that it ended when it ended , I had my fill of brutal savagery and welcome the sorely needed hiatus . At this point , we can hope that Achilles will mourn Patrocles , Priam and Hecuba can mourn their beloved Hector , Andromache having lost her beloved Hector to the same Achilles who killed her father and seven brothers, will experience some solace and see her infant son grow up and will age safely within the walls of her beloved Troy and who knows , maybe the Greeks will just go away and leave Troy in peace , Helen and justice not withstanding .
Initially the dichotomy of the treatment of women did not make any sense , on the one hand , the Greeks have launched this battle that has raged for 10 years to get back one woman and the Trojans by refusing to give back that one woman, have escalated and continued the war and then on the other hand, we see the treatment of Briseis and several other women who are treated merely as property. But by book 4 , it is evident that the matter at hand is not of Helen but the dishonor that Paris has bought on Menelaus .
It raises the question of the entire destruction of a city and its people for one person , Helen . The fact that Helen is so beautiful is simply the catalyst for the conflict. But following the zeitgeist of the times , Paris abused his host, Menelaus by seducing his wife and eloping with her and for that insult , the punishment fits the crime (by the prevailing standards of the time). Another insight is that the honor of a man is far greater than even his own life , as can be seen with Achilles . His fury has its root in his perceived dishonor , Agamemnon deprived him of his prize because he was angry with Achilles for his harsh words where as Achilles took it to mean that he was not worthy of his prize , ditto with Hector as he is getting ready to fight Achilles , he realizes that he will die and debates retreating but the thought of social condemnation/dishonor keeps him steadfast on his path of destruction . Lastly the concept of preordained fate does not sit too well with me , are we to understand that humans are merely automatons following their preordained fates and playing some role in a script that has been determined long before our conception essentially negating the concept of free will. But regardless of the questions that it raises for me and the answers that it delivers , the Iliad is an amazing work , a mesmerizing saga of the times when Achilles and Hector walked among men.