It’s been over a solid decade since I read many of the “Classics” of English Literature in college; Homer, Chaucer, Dante, Milton, etc. At the time, it was my first exposure to many of these texts, while I was also simultaneously attempting to juggle many new life experiences, relationships, and responsibilities. I am ashamed of the practice, but willing to admit, that I often didn’t give my best to studying the books I was assigned to read in my classes, even though those books were the main reason I attended college in the first place. But that first exposure was still enough to give me the fundamentals and confidence to approach them; it was enough to plant the seeds of love and fascination. I have since learned a lot more about the world, life, myself, and storytelling, and it seems an appropriate time to give the Great Books their due. Self-education should be something that never ceases throughout our lives, after all.
The Iliad was compiled at least 600 years before Christ entered the world, probably earlier, and it is likely that tales of the Trojan War were well known for centuries even before Homer composed his epic. That is quite a long time to be telling a single story. It can be easy to get bogged down with the academic approach that is used with so many things these days; to analyze the minutia, to criticize and pick apart centuries old arguments about the text, or to see it as something that only aged professors tucked away in universities think to be important. Sometimes we can analyze things to the point that we no longer see them properly anymore.
The simple fact is that The Iliad is a good story, and that is the ultimate basis for why we should keep reading it.
Reading stories such as The Iliad takes us out of our own time and place, but also puts us in touch with the roots of human experience. This is why good stories endure; we can see ourselves, and our neighbors, in them. Perhaps not in the particular events or circumstances, but in the reactions, the emotions, and the honesty that is conveyed at the heart of them.
From a young age, I have been inclined to enjoy Homer. I grew up on Greek mythology, and so the names and personalities of the gods and goddesses and various heroes have always been familiar. I like epics, grand stories with mighty warriors, and tales of destiny and unalterable fate. And while I might prefer the more coherent story arc of The Odyssey, The Iliad was a surprisingly delightful book to re-visit.
What struck me the most on this reading was the diversity and depth of the characters, and especially the strong roles played by women. You might think that because this is a story primarily about Ancient Greeks and a big war, that it is just going to be all about the men and the fighting, with Helen occasionally mentioned just as a token. But the women of The Iliad are more often than not the driving factor behind the important action.
The goddesses play a particularly vital role in moving much of the action forward; Hera and Athena most prominently, but Achilles’ mother Thetis is also a key character in events. When Achilles throws his temper tantrum at the beginning of the poem and refuses to keep fighting, it causes Thetis to petition Zeus to vindicate Achilles and give the opposing Trojans great success in battle for a span, even though the city is fated to eventual destruction. Zeus grants this request, even though it causes some, not uncommon, marital tension with Hera.
Hera and Athena, both proponents of the Greeks, are shown not only orchestrating events but wading into the battles themselves. Even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, enters the fray and takes a personal hand in the great war. There are also many times when several of the mighty heroes are saved from death only because an obliging goddess scoops them out of the battle to safety.
What I have always loved about the Greek pantheon is the great diversity of personality. The goddesses Hera and Aphrodite are not above using their beauty and feminine allure in achieving their schemes, but then you also have the virginal Artemis who will punish a man for merely looking at her, Athena who is the embodiment of pure Wisdom, and Demeter who is the patroness of the hearth and home. The male gods are of course quite diverse as well, but in these days where we seem to have lost the complexity of what it means to be female, we could do worse than to take a look at how ancient people viewed such things.
The mortals in Homer’s epic are just as engaging as the immortals. The beautiful Helen may have been the cause of the Trojan War itself, but it is two slave girls, Chryseis and Briseis, that are the cause of the opening conflict in The Iliad. It was the norm at the time that as cities were conquered and plundered, the majority of the population were then enslaved, especially the women. The women who were particularly beautiful and skilled would of course go to the most prominent men. Chryseis had been claimed by Agamemnon, the king and leader over all the other Greeks, but her father was a priest of Apollo and when the Greeks would not return her, even for a heavy ransom, he called on the god to curse them with a plague. Apollo obliged, and the Greeks suffered greatly, all for the love a father had for his daughter. Agamemnon was finally forced to give her up, but out of spite decided to claim Briseis, who belonged to Achilles, as recompense. It is the loss of Briseis that so enrages Achilles that he stops fighting and causes his goddess mother to beg Zeus to punish the Greeks by favoring the Trojans, thus turning the tide of the war for a period.
It is easy to read Achilles’ tantrum as just the result of a blow to his ego, but this is a simplistic view and a discredit to the value placed on these women. Achilles did not view Briseis only as his possession that he was loath to have taken away, for later in the text he describes her as the “bride of his heart.” He admits that it was his spear that won her, but that does not lessen the affection that he feels for her. And Briseis is shown to have her own vibrant personality and to also have genuine affection for these men who are technically her captors, such as when she mourns and weeps at the death of Patroclus.
In the text, Helen is not shown as just some simpering beauty, mooning over Paris who stole her away from her previous husband. In fact, she frequently curses herself violently for being the cause of the war, and she is disparaging towards Paris but glowing with admiration towards Hector as the true hero and leader of Troy, emphasizing his kindness and gentleness towards her when all others are harsh and cruel. The relationship between Hector and his wife, Andromache, is one of the most beautiful aspects in the whole story, in my opinion, especially in a scene where Hector takes leave of his beloved wife and their infant son. The interaction between father and child shows a powerful and manly tenderness that is so often missing from modern depictions of masculinity.
One of the more fascinating relationships to me is the contrast between the Trojan princes, Paris and Hector. Paris and his infatuation with Helen were the cause of the war and the many griefs that ensued; on the other hand, Hector is the great defender and hero of Troy, until he is finally cut down by Achilles. Paris is frequently described as exceptionally handsome, godlike, and a decent enough warrior, but is still openly scorned and berated as a coward by both Helen and Hector. Paris is one of those warriors who only survives the lethal battles because he is whisked away to safety by a goddess, in this case Aphrodite. Hector, on the other hand, is described with ultimate nobility and valor, admired without reserve by both his own people and his enemies. It was Paris’ vain pride that initiated Troy’s fate, but it was Hector’s death that sealed it.
It is the Trojan women who are given the last word, as the poem ends with the lamentations of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen over the death of Hector. It is interesting to reflect that The Iliad opens with the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over their slave girls and concludes with the laments for Hector by his wife, mother, and sister-in-law. What begins with anger ends only with grief; grief that has spread out beyond those who originally acted out in their injured pride. Our own actions are never self-contained, after all; everything that we do radiates outward, causing unknown chain reactions in the lives of others. Because we do, or fail to do, something, it has an effect on events around us, on the lives of other people, and on our own development and future selves. We cannot be passive in our lives, but we do have to be aware of that ripple effect.
Achilles knows that he is doomed to die young, yet chooses that death so that he might also have the glory. The gods know that Troy is destined to fall, yet they still take part in affecting minor incursions in the battle. We all know that we are going to leave this earth one day, yet we can still decide how we spend our time on it.
Why do we read literature? Why do some stories endure through the ages? Why does a time so far removed from our own still speak to us? There are fundamentals of what it means to be human, and stories are one of the ways that we learn and relate and progress through Truth. We can’t experience all that there is to experience in the world during our own brief lives, so we learn from the lives and stories of others. It doesn’t matter how long ago those lives may have been lived.