I recently finished The Iliad with some friends of mine in our book club. I had read a children’s version of this story when I was younger and portions of the actual text since then, but I am glad to have now finished the whole text. Homer’s Iliad is a moving text, full of colorful images, intense battles, various characters, and stirring moments. This epic poem is a moment in time captured film-like for us to read centuries later. It’s a poem that has lasted the ages, a poem that all should read. There is a lot I could say on this epic work, and much has already been said, so I only want to briefly discuss my thoughts on the text.
One of the things I appreciate most about The Iliad is that it provides a glimpse into a world that is now gone. Granted, a lot of the elements of The Iliad are fantastic, and the story is probably as much myth as truth. And yet, much of the detail is quite accurate. The description of Troy, the importance of honor, the style of fighting and armor, the sacred nature of the guest-host relationship, and much more than I will describe here – all this reflects a past reality. Reading this story only makes me more excited about what archeologists will uncover in years to come!
I could hardly discuss The Iliad without addressing one of its central characters: Achilles. I might call him the central character, yet a handful of others are also rather crucial. I could not bring myself to like Achilles, and what little awe I held for him before reading the story was all but gone by the time I finished. Don’t get me wrong; Achilles is awesome. He is powerful, gifted, and very clearly wronged. But he is an awful person. And yes, honor is a huge deal for the greeks. Kleos was crucial to them. But it would hardly be an understatement that Achilles (and Agamemnon, honestly) acts like a child at the beginning of the story, and continues his pouting all while his comrades and dearest friends are dying. He’s also something of a monster. Each time someone begs him for mercy, he denies it. After killing the honorable Hector, he treats the body with contempt, desecrating it, continuing as though he is possessed. Even some of the gods call him a madman and a demon. His only redeemable moment is when he treats Priam with respect and mourns with him.
Hector, on the other hand, is the picture of honor. He is a noble son, a dutiful husband, an exemplary father among that age. He is faithful to friends and god alike. Oddly enough, I see him as a foreshadowing of Aneas, his cousin. What Aeneas has to struggle towards, Hector embodies naturally. Hector is a counter to Achilles in that he is honorable and cares for his duties to his friends and country. He is the opposite of Paris in that he cares for his duties to his father. In faithfulness to his wife and child, he counters Helen in her dereliction of duty to her spouse. And finally, all the gods save Hera and Athena (and arguable Ares) claim to adore him and mark him as one most faithful. In Hector, you see a foreshadowing of the Roman Pietas. And I have to agree with other authors: the death of Hector is the linchpin to the downfall of Troy. Hector is by far my favorite character in The Iliad.
Finally, there are the gods. To them, I direct most of my ire and my sadness. One must put it bluntly: the gods are awful. In fact, I think they might be demons. While reading the poem, I often wondered why certain people took such unnatural actions. They did not make logical sense, not even considering the strong emotions of the war. But there was a pattern. Almost always, there was some god or other than influenced or encouraged these actions, either by open deception or whispered ruse. Sometimes the gods even physically partook in the action. I mentioned at the beginning that I think that this story is as much myth as fact. Obviously, the Greek gods are false gods. But I think they are more than that. I think a good number of the gods the Greeks worshiped were actually demons. While reading The Iliad, I wondered if perhaps certain actions that were actually demonic in origin were explained away by Homer particularly and the greeks at large via divine interference.
The gods are also innately unlikable. Not even just unadmirbable, but detestable. As the story progressed, even some of the gods-as-characters that I had come to like began to disgust me. In one example, the gods comment how much they love Hector, yet they do nothing to save him. Multiple times Homer notes how Hector’s body was preserved from mutilation by Achilles and the other Greeks. But who cares? The gods do not love Hector. They caused his death and allowed his desecration. The same is true for all the other devotees. They don’t care about Achilles, love Odysseus, or admire Patroclus. They might in the way a child loves a doll, but no more. People are mere playthings for these monstrous beings.
And this is where my sadness begins. The Greeks really worshiped them, whatever they were. It is clear from Homer’s writing that these gods did not care for their worshipers. They viewed the Greeks as pawns in their great game. There is no better way to put it. For sex, for politics, for war. People were not to be saved or loved, not really, not by these beings. They were toys for these beings to manipulate and use and kill as they saw fit. And yet the Greeks worshiped them! This is likely part fear and part nature, but it is entirely saddening to me. For this empty, loveless, purposeless worship and existence was all there was to the Greeks. Their only hope, only salvation, only future was found in kleos, in gaining honor for themselves that they might live on after death. They worshiped the gods only as a means to an end, and out of fear of what wrath the gods might pour out on them next, for all blessing guaranteed was an equal or greater amount of terror. Such a hopeless life brings me much pain. And yet, it also makes me all the more glad to worship and serve God who loves and cares for even me.
While much of what I wrote here is negative, I greatly enjoyed this story. Of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, it is probably my least favorite epic poem, but only in comparison to my love for The Odyssey and the Aeneid. The story is compelling, even comical at times. You can’t help but laugh when Achilles pouts like a toddler who didn’t like the other toddlers not playing fair at the playground and runs crying to his mother. You can’t help but roll your eyes at Agamemnon’s habit to couch his apologies in a non-apology. You can’t help but marvel at the strength of will and devotion in Hector’s speech to his wife. Homer’s characters feel like real people because most of them were, and they display a part of humanity, though not entirely the best aspects. This story is gritty, engaging, and awe-inspiring. It is a lesson full of warnings. It is history in action. And for all this, it should still be among the great works that we all read and learn from.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig