Up until about a year ago, I am not sure I had ever read the Iliad. Regardless of whether I had read it or not, I knew that it was about war, violence, the quest to conquer and their corresponding glorification. In today’s world, these and similar topics seem to dominate the daily news. I had no desire to immerse myself in those things in the world of fiction too.
I have read Homer’s other notable work, The Odyssey, many times. I find I resonate more with the Odyssey partly because of the archetypal nature of the Return primary to its storyline. I am confident I will read it yet again in my future. The Iliad? Not so much.
And then one day, I came across an essay by Dr. Glenn Arbery in The Epic Cosmos. His essay blew open the whole story of the Iliad and the story of Achilles specifically. Not only did his essay pique my interest, I was able to glean more out of the story than the glorification of war and violence that is a somewhat superficial layer of the story.
So, I picked up a copy of the Iliad and dove in. What a difference. I encourage you to read Arbery’s commentary. It might make a difference for you too in how you approach the Iliad and what you take from it. I was so enthused by Arbery’s commentary I went so far as to re-read The Aeneid, watch the 2004 film Alexander and the film Troy also released in 2004. (I found after reading Homer, I better understood what Brad Pitt was attempting to portray.)
Yes, the Iliad “inspires heroic enterprises, whether the conquest of nations, explorations of consciousness or massive literary undertakings”. Notables such as Alexander the Great, Thoreau, Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff, and Tolstoy were known to keep a version of the Iliad handy during their respective endeavors.
Achilles’ backstory is alluded to but not defined in the Iliad. We gather more information from Pindar’s Eighth Isthmian Ode (found in Pindar II (Loeb Classical Library) ):
At one level the story of the Iliad is about the theft of Helen and the war to return her to her lawful husband. After reading Arbery, I began to think that plot device is not unlike Hitchcock’s McGuffin. It is a literary device to carry the plot. A deeper level of the story is what is going on internally in Achilles and his backstory, something I didn’t pick up on if I had read the Iliad before and not something I conjure with the CliffsNote version in my mind. Arbery’s introduction of this internal plot is what deepens and opens out the story for me.
Zeus and bright Poseidon came to strife over Thetis, each desirous to be wed to her beauty and possess her; the passion was on them. . .It was destined for this sea-goddess [Thetis] to bring to birth a lord stronger than his father, to wield in his hand a shaft heavier than the thunderbolt or the weariless trident, if she lay with Zeus or his brothers. . .
Against her will she was forced to marry a mortal. (A mortal of high standing, but a mortal nonetheless.) The son born to Thetis from this joining was Achilles. More than any other god or goddess in the whole of the Olympia pantheon, Thetis (Achilles’ mother) can complain of genuine, terrible dishonor.
For most people, consciousness of mortality is present but always theoretical, that is, not faced in its actual implications. We may accept mortality as our lot (even if only “theoretically”), but comprehending the disdain the Olympians have for mortality is necessary in order to grasp the dishonor to Thetis and her offspring, Achilles. Zeus speaks of Peleus [Achilles’ mortal father] in a way that reveals the Olympian perspective on mortality as such, bringing its ineradicable taint even to godlike excellence. After the death of Patroklos, he addresses the horses of Achilles, which were given to Achilles’ father. . .”Poor wretches,/why then did we ever give you to the lord Peleus,/a mortal man, and you yourselves are immortal and ageless?” Zeus, himself, is quoted in the poem “there is not anywhere a thing more dismal than man is” primarily because of man’s mortality.
As Arbery points out: “The death of the son of Thetis is the purpose of her marriage to Peleus, since mortality as a condition provides a way for the Olympians to avoid the threatening destiny that the sea-goddess bears. . . The forced marriage of Thetis and the tragic mortality of Achilles are the price paid for preserving the hegemony of Zeus and the cosmic order.” He goes on to say: “For Achilles, and for no other mortal, mortality is not an accident of his nature, but his very purpose for being. This refusal of immortality to Achilles constitutes the profundity of the poem.” Once this profundity was pointed out, I experienced a significant shift in my perception of the story.
In addition to this immortal versus mortal and the corresponding honor/dishonor key to the essence of Achilles’ struggle, Arbery points out the opposition between the Greek word thymos and the Greek word psyche. I am not a classicist and cannot read the Iliad in its original Greek. It is also difficult (if not impossible) to enter the Greek world from our postmodern sensibility. We can but try.
To the ancient Greek thymos was a warrior’s purpose for being. “The warrior possesses above all that fiery breast-soul, thymos, which is the source of courage and wrath. In a sense, honor always mirrors thymos, . . .The greatest gift that a man can give to his city is his life; but the great warrior loses his thymos with his life, and the honor with which he is remembered—the kleos of song—can do nothing to restore it. The shift in the Iliad, then, has to be a shift away from external honor, certainly, but also and more importantly away from the thymos that does not survive death and toward the psyche that does.”
It is an honor for a warrior to be considered the most valuable in a particular battle, and it is also fitting that this honor be acknowledged visibly with prizes. For Achilles his only compensation for the dishonor of being mortal is being honored for his thymos in battle. Early in the Iliad Achilles is deeply dishonored when Agamemnon confiscates his prizes of recognition. Because of this dishonor, for most of the story, Achilles sits out the war. He asks his goddess mother, Thetis, to seek recompense from Zeus. Doubly dishonored, first by being born a mortal and now the dishonor from Agamemnon, he asks from Zeus reparation.
The push and pull of mortality versus his rightful immortality and thymos versus psyche are argued effectively by Arbery, who says: “Achilles’ movement in the Iliad can be seen as a poetic initiation in the vertical dimension of depth that characterizes psyche as opposed to the more horizontal dimension of thymos in its relation to honor.”
I cannot emphasize too much that reading source material is essential. However, when you find a secondary source as enlightening as Arbery’s essay was for me I can testify that it does not adversely affect the educational process.
I would be curious to know if reading the Iliad after reading Arbery’s commentary affects your involvement with the story as it has for me.