The Iliad by Homer - Books I-V - Some Beginning Thoughts
Books I - V
I’m reading the Iliad for the first time, and I’ve finished Books I - V and I just wanted to leave a few thoughts I’ve had so far from these first five books.
From a literary standpoint, of course this is a masterpiece. If only I could read it fully in Greek and enjoy the play of the original words on each other, that would be amazing. One thing that I’ve noticed that Homer does it to use these beautiful metaphors from nature pretty consistently throughout to describe people or scenes in battle. Clearly they had a deep connection to nature and reflected on the workings of nature. There are examples of this almost on every page, but here's just one example from Book II.
"And out he marched, leading the way from council. The rest sprang to their feet, the sceptered kings obeyed the great field marshal. Rank and file streamed behind and rushed like swarms of bees pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst, bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms, dark hordes swirling into the air, this way, that way - so the many armed platoons from the ships and tents came marching on, close-file, along the deep wide beach to crowd the meeting grounds, and Rumor, Zeus's crier, like wildfire blazing among them, whipped them on. The troops assembled. The meeting grounds shook. The earth groaned and rumbled under the huge weight as soldiers took their positions." (Bk II 100 - 115)
Women in the Ancient World
Another point that has come through clearly to me is that women in the ancient world, at least reflected here in the context of battle, were seen as a type of reward or property. Of course the drama at the beginning is about Achilles having to give up this beautiful girl because she was the daughter of one of Apollo’s priest. (Also the whole point of the battle being that or fighting over Helen.) But it makes it clear that especially Agamemnon took many of the beautiful women they captured for himself. Here's just one example.
“But he kept shouting at Agamemnon, spewing his abuse: "Still moaning and groaning, mighty Atrides--why now? What are you panting after now? Your shelters packed with the lion's share of bronze, plenty of women too, crowding your lodges. Best of the lot, the beauties we hand you first, whenever we take some stronghold.” (Bk II 260 - 270). This reflects something which I have believed for a long time, namely that Christianity has been the most impactful historical force for the dignity of women. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Likewise Christians have always venerated the Blessed Virgin Mary from the earliest days, honoring her role in God’s plan of salvation.
Difficulties of Being a Warrior
Third, it struck me the difficulty of being a warrior at that time. They have left their home because of alliances and allegiances to fight in a battle that doesn’t really have a good justification for it’s required sacrifices. They are fighting over Paris stealing away Menelaus' wife, Helen. (Even the Trojans want Paris to just give Helen back so that the death and bloodshed can stop, yet he will not yield.) The soldiers have been away from their families for years on end, and are still called to rouse from their tents, fight, and die because of their allegiances and to keep their honor. Their families don’t know what happened to them, or if they are still alive, or if they will ever make it home. Or if they do make it home 10 years after they left, what will life be like?
Death and Hades
Connected to this is the violence of battle, and how Homer describes death. The battle scenes are extremely violent, describing soldiers being impaled with spears, having peoples' faces sliced off, and their innards ripped out. And yet the way Homer describes these deaths comes off, at least to me, as almost nonchalant. He uses the phrase of darkness clouding the eyes to describe death. Clearly they held a strong belief in the connection between life here and life in Hades, as another way he describes death is to be brought to the gates/house of Hades.
They Share the Same Culture
Reflecting a bit more about the war, it seems as though they are all somewhat related. Homer knows the names and history of so many of the fighters who are killed. It's clear they are all related in one way or another. Both armies have called upon allies from all over the area. It's also clear that they share that culture together, as they worship the same gods as one another... And yet they are killing one another savagely. One passage I thought was especially interesting was a pact they make with one another to allow the outcome of a duel to decide the fate of the war. Here's an excerpt:
"Now Paris and Menelaus, Atrides loved by Ares, will fight it out with their rugged spears for Helen, and Helen and all her treasures go to the man who wins. The rest will seal in blood their biding pacts of friendship. Our people will live in peace on the rich soil of Troy. Our enemies sail home to the stallion-land of Argos, the land of Achaea where the women are a wonder.
Reaching the front, they climbed down from the chariot, onto the earth that feeds us all, and into the space between Achaean and Trojan lines they marched. Lord Agamemnon rose at once to greet them both with the great tactician Odysseus by his side. They noble heralds brought on the victims marked for the gods to seal and bind the oaths. They mixed the contenders' wine in a large bowl and rinsed the warlords' waiting hands with water. Atreus' son drew forth the dagger always slung at his battle sword's big sheath, cut some tufts from the lambs' head, and heralds passed them round to Achaean and Trojan captains. Then Atreus' son Agamemnon stood in behalf of all, lifted his arms and prayed in his deep resounding voice, 'Father Zeus! Ruling over us all from Ida, god of greatness, god of glory! Helios, Sun above us, you who see all, hear all things! Rivers! and Earth! And you beneath the ground who punish the dead - whoever broke is oath - be witness here, protect our binding pacts.
On those terms he dragged his ruthless dagger across the lambs' throats and let them fall to the ground, dying, gasping away, their life breath, cut short by the sharp bronze. Then dipping up the wine from the mixing bowls, brimming their cups, pouring them on the earth, men said their prayers to the gods who never die. You could hear some Trojans or Achaean calling, "Zeus - god of greatness, god of glory, all you immortals! Whichever contender trample on his treaty first, spill their brains on the ground as this wine spills - theirs, their children's too - their enemies rape their wives!'" (Bk III, 300 - 355)
The Forces of the Gods
Lastly, there are some beautiful passages describing the gods and the soldier’s relation to the gods. Some of the special warriors are backed and spirited by the gods, giving them their greatness. Diomedes certainly comes to mind here. In all, though, tt seems clear to me that the Greeks associated the many forces of life, both exteriorly and interiorly, which are beyond man’s rational control as the workings of the gods. And thus the gods are not always consistent in their actions or their alliances, but sway back and forth, and are open to change due to the actions of one side of the battle or another. Yet, there are also some alliances which the gods take which seem pretty consistent. It seems that Hera and Athena are set on fighting for the Argives, while Apollo and Aphrodite are on the side of the Trojans. Anyway, these are just a few thoughts, more to come as a progress through the book!