Western literature begins with the Iliad and, until very recently, it was assumed that no educated person in the West could have skipped reading the story. The story of a few days towards the end of the tenth year of the Greek war with Troy, the epic most likely refers to an actual war, remembered long after and filtered through a storyline of gods interacting with men, and men being undone by pride, anger, arrogance, and lust. Kierkegaard wrote that the Iliad was the perfect epic because it combined a great poet with a great subject matter. Even today, it stands up as a flawless story abounding in heroics, psychological drama, and ironic commentary on the lives of men.
The epic in fact begins with a delicious irony: we’re going to hear a song about the damage caused by Achilles’ uncontrolled anger, and yet it’s clear from the start that it’s the arrogance of his commander, Agamemnon, that’s causing all the trouble. Agamemnon, as leader of a Greek fleet besieging Ilium, has taken for his own concubine the daughter of the local priest of Apollo and his arrogance has moved the god to strike the Greeks with plague. Finally agreeing to return the girl, Agamemnon decides instead to take Achilles’ own slave girl, a direct slap in the face of his greatest warrior. The war has been raging for nine years already and all Achilles has to look forward to is glory after his death, and now his supercilious commander has insulted him in front of all the other warriors. In a sense, the Iliad begins with a question we can all relate to: what to do when your boss is a jerk?
In the larger sense, Achilles faces the dilemma of how the individual subsumes their needs to the collective good. It’s hard to live in society for any of us; but Achilles really is the greatest warrior and the son of a man and a goddess, Thetis. Even as a demigod, he has to stifle his will in order to live within an order of his inferiors. Agamemnon is an old fool, and nobody would fault Achilles if he killed him. This is a warrior culture in which the order of authority is not set in stone, but negotiated at nearly every minute. Agamemnon is the ruler because he asserts his authority and argues down anyone who challenges him. He is getting older and irrational. But, in order to win glory, Achilles will eventually have to fall in line under this old fool.
The Iliad is the story of how Achilles finally overcomes his own anger and follows his destiny; for much of the story, he just sits out the fighting and lets the Greeks get slaughtered. The gods have their favorites and fight as angrily among themselves as the men do. Zeus agrees for Thetis’s sake to let the Greeks suffer great casualties, which in turn angers his own wife Hera, who roots for the Greeks. Hera and Zeus are really one of the greatest feuding couples in Western literature. Meanwhile, the greatest warriors all experience divine interventions from gods and goddesses that often only they can see.
If the story of Achilles and Agamemnon revolves around their quarrel over a woman, the Trojan War is also fought over a woman: Helen. The wife of the Greek king Menelaus, Helen was seduced by the young Paris (again with divine help) and taken to Troy, triggering the Greek cities to band together and send a fleet of 1,186 ships and probably 100,000 men to attack the city. In one of the great scenes in the epic, the old men of Troy, when first seeing this woman who will launch one of the great wars of history against their city, say to one another that she was worth it. Helen’s is, quite literally, the face that launched a thousand ships.
Amazingly, we will discover in the Odyssey that, following the war, Helen and Menelaus got back together! Note the similar theme too: in the Iliad, the greatest war of prehistory is launched by a cuckolded husband and an unfaithful wife; in the Odyssey, Ulysses goes through hell in order to return home and prevent his wife Penelope from being seduced by her many suitors. In the Iliad, Homer’s view of women at first seems much more in line with Hesiod, his contemporary, and at odds with the civilizing harlot of Gilgamesh. Western literature, instead, begins with unbridled female sexuality as a force of destruction. It’s complicated though. As much as we moderns might wish to see the Iliad as a patriarchal story in which men are warriors and women are property (and it is that too); it still has to be remembered that one woman’s sexual sovereignty is powerful enough to destroy Troy and nearly destroy the Greek fleet. Consider the strangeness of this- imagine if Michelle Obama shacked up with the son of the French President and, as a result, the entire US military was sent to war with France! And yet, none of the Greeks find this strange! In other words, the flipside of patriarchy is the almost supernatural power it assigns to the very female sexuality that patriarchy exists in order to channel into marriage. This isn’t just the story of the face that launched a thousand ships; it’s about the pussy that sent thousands of men rushing to their deaths. I’m guessing most High School humanities courses don’t discuss this aspect of the story!
The other reason these men rush to their deaths, and a subject those teachers love to discuss, is kleos: the glory that survives after one’s death. It is known, almost from the beginning, that Achilles will not return from this battle. His life is destined to be short-lived and filled with combat. He literally has nothing to look forward to after death; the underworld is a place of forgetting that’s almost like endless suspended animation. These men jockey and clash with each other because all they really have to look forward to in life is being remembered as heroes after their deaths. Their lives are both short and intense. Achilles talks often about this glory and we, as well as Homer, know that he will be remembered as a great hero. But, in the end, he will become a hero by losing everything and sacrificing himself. He is the first self-sacrificing hero, of a great many, in Western literature. Part of being a hero in the West is willingly giving oneself over to death. Achilles is the first self-sacrificing hero in Western literature; and Christ is the utmost self-sacrificing hero.
The greatest loss, however, is that Achilles will ultimately lose his beloved comrade, Patroclus, due to his own anger and shortsightedness. In Greek literature, fighting men often have relationships akin to love relationships. One of the other themes in the story that likely goes unmentioned in those civ classes is that Achilles is effectively in love with Patroclus, a theme that Greek listeners would have easily picked up on. The death of his buddy is as devastating as that of Enkidu is for Gilgamesh. These are men who live together and fight together; they might satisfy their lusts with captive women, but they are emotionally devoted to one another in a way that the Greeks would have understood fully. In fact, it must be pointed out that this bond of love and devotion between the men is purer and more elevating, in this story, than all of the examples of heterosexual love, which lead to destruction. Now, in the Odyssey, Homer will write the story of a great love between a man and a woman; but here the story is of the great love between two men.
There is much more to the Iliad than sexual desire and male bonding, however, and Homer is downright cinematic in the way he blends the history of a decade-long war, epic battles, and the emotional lives and loves of individuals. There is enough, in fact, that the Iliad will have to occupy two posts!