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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Iliad

The Iliad - Homer Some commentaries describe The Iliad as direct and fast paced. Those aren't the descriptive words that come to my mind. "Long" and "boring" are what I had in mind. I kept waiting for the Trojan horse to show up! Everybody has heard of the Trojan horse, so why isn't it in The Iliad? Now I know that The Iliad is about the anger of Achilles. But Achilles' heel and death do not occur in The Iliad either. There were probably many other ancient Greek epics that have been lost and are no longer known to us today. I think The Iliad was preserved because it was so uninteresting that later authors weren't tempted to rewrite it with later versions. That explains why the myths of the Trojan horse and Achilles' heel are based on later writings. They are more interesting plot ideas and may have preempted earlier myths that are now lost. (This is my idea and I may be the only person who believes it.) See "Epic Cycle" in Wikipedia for discussion of fragments of oral tradition related to the Trojan war that have been assembled.

Homer's war details are very graphic and grotesque. Brains, eyeballs and guts are reconfigured and blood spilled in just about every conceivable way in The Iliad. The one thing not described is maiming and slow death. The injuries are either not serious or they're serious enough to cause instant death; Nothing in between.

Fate plays a central role in the thinking of the characters in The Iliad. Who would have thought that the Greeks believed in predestination long before Calvin. Why is the concept of avoiding death by not fighting so hard to understand? These guys think they're fated to die in battle. Why not rob (or delay) the fate of death and run the other direction?

One thing I'll have to concede to the ancient Greeks; Their concept of numerous fickle Gods matches real life much closer than the monotheistic concept of a just, fair and loving God. Frankly, some the Gods described in The Iliad remind me of the personality of God in the Biblical story of Job. They both do bad things to good people for childish reasons.

Speaking of good people, I was surprised how sympathetically The Iliad treated the Trojans. Since it's a Greek myth one would expect that the Trojans to be portrayed as bad people. But no, they're the good people defending their homes, women and children. The Greeks are the mean guys there for plunder. That's why the ancient Greeks conquered the world, they raped other people's women instead of staying home with their own. Ostensibly, the Greeks are there to rescue Helen who's been kidnapped by Paris, a junior prince of the Trojans. But it's pretty clear that the Greeks wouldn't have gone to all the trouble of sailing to Troy if there wasn't the prospect of plunder.

It's pretty clear that women, at least the young and pretty ones, are considered to be part of the plunder. A good discussion question is, "Was Helen a willing participant in her abduction?" The answer is yes in my opinion. Another interesting case is the woman Briseis who morns the death of Patroclus who she says had treated her kindly when she was kidnapped from her homeland. She goes on to recall how the rest of her family, including her husband and three brothers, were killed when she was taken captive by the Greeks. Yet her sadness is directed toward the death of one of her captors. This must be an example of Stockholm syndrome. (Briseis was the cause of Achilles' anger when Agamemnon took her away from him.)

Incredibly the Greeks take time in the middle of their war to hold games to honor the death of Patroclus. It was a mini Olympics except that the Trojans didn't participate. The games included chariot races, boxing, wrestling, running and other competitions. I noticed that the prizes for the wrestling match gave another indication of the relative value of women for the ancient Greeks. First prize was a fire straddling tripod valued at 12 oxen and second prize was a woman skilled at crafts valued at four oxen.

It's interesting to compare The Iliad with the Hebrew story of Moses. Both stories are about incidents that occurred perhaps over 3,200 years ago. Both stories were preserved (and probably enhanced) via oral retelling until they were first put into writing perhaps 2,600 years ago. The Iliad would become the founding myth of the Greek civilization that ended up conquering the world under Alexander the Great. The other story became part of the founding myth of Judah that was taken into Babylonian captivity and later continued under foreign domination. In a sense, the one story is for the winners, and the other for the losers. Both stories have become part of the roots of the western literary tradition. Since oppressed peoples, refugees and the homeless outnumber the victors at any given time in history, many people have found the promise of deliverance contained in the Hebrew scriptures to be a comforting message. That can't be said for The Iliad.