Essays on Homer’s Iliad


[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad. References to the text of the Iliad are to the online translation available here. The references in square brackets are to the Greek text.]

Warfare in the Iliad is, as we have seen, an integral part of human life and wider nature. But it is more than that, for it is an essential part of the metaphysical order of the cosmos, the divine arrangements according to which everything behaves the way it does. This central insight is first offered to us in the opening invocation:

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies, threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus. (1.1) [1.1]

These famous lines take us straight to the ironic heart of the poem. Right at the start we are told that this story will focus on the hero’s anger, a destructive rage which condemns noble men (warriors) to agony and death, reducing them to lumps of dead flesh for predatory animals. The final line indicates that all this happens according to the will of Zeus. The terrible battlefield deaths are a direct result of divine desire. The structure of the sentence emphasizes the harshness of this claim, for there is no mention of Zeus until that last moment, when the direct connection between him and the carnage appears almost as a casual afterthought. And the abruptness of the link puts immediate pressure on us to wonder about the “justice” of this arrangement, that is, the way in which such an apparently harsh vision might actually work.

A few lines later, the curious question “Which of the gods drove these two men to fight?” begins taking us inside this apparently strange vision of the world. If we recognize, as we should, that beliefs are shaped not so much by the answers they give as by the questions they prompt, then we should see in this initial query the nature of the explanation. For this interrogative implies two things: first, that there are particular gods and, second, that their actions initiate human destructiveness. There is no pause here to explore other possibilities. Given the importance of the event, it must be the case that a god is involved—he or she has pushed events into this confrontation. That being the case, we need to understand why the god might be motivated to do that. We do not have to wait long for an answer:

That god was Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto.       
Angry with Agamemnon, he cast plague down   
onto the troops—deadly infectious evil.
For Agamemnon had dishonoured the god’s priest. . . . (1.10-13) [1.9]

The source of the action is clear—the instant, passionate, and destructive anger of Apollo. We are not asked even to consider if there is some legal or ethical principle involved. There is no hint of deliberation or consultation (as there is in the opening of the Odyssey, for example). The god swoops down to wipe out hundreds of animals and soldiers because he is instantly enraged about an insult to him.

Throughout the Iliad the gods act as Apollo does here, intervening or refusing to intervene in human affairs on the basis of their own feelings. They are thoroughly unpredictable and do not invoke any particular principles which might justify or at least account for their actions to those seeking some reasonable explanations for what they do. Moreover, they are obviously closely bound up with what is happening on the battlefield. In fact, the conduct of the war is inconceivable to these heroes except in terms of these deities—everyone in this poem sees in the capricious divine wills the origin of all significant events. Hence, if we wish to understand this vision of warfare, we must treat seriously the religious dimensions of the poem.

This last caveat is important to stress, because there is a tradition (now waning) of interpreting the Homeric gods in the Iliad as “merely” poetical fictions, a delightful invention without wider significance. I’m never entirely sure what such comments mean, other than telling us that we don’t need to take this vision of the gods as a viable system of belief which might challenge our very different traditions. Such advice may well help in neutralizing any discomfort we feel about our own religious feelings (or lack of them) when we confront the Olympian family, but it is surely misguided. For, no matter what we may think, the poem and the characters in it take the gods very seriously indeed (as did the ancient Greeks themselves, of course). Hence, any attempt to understand this vision of experience needs to focus directly on what a faith in these gods reveals about a particular understanding of the world and not simply write the gods off as a pleasant irrelevance.

A good place to start is to recognize the importance of the physical shapes of the gods and their inter-relationships in a huge extended family. Except for their two main attributes, their power and immortality, these deities have a recognizable similarity to human beings in their appearance, feelings, likes and dislikes, and their relationships to each other (unlike, say, Jehovah in the Old Testament). This divine order has an instantly recognizable and precisely delineated symbolic form which makes the metaphysical powers controlling the world emotionally intelligible. Not only are these gods clearly etched anthropomorphic males and females, with all the characteristics of often irritable and unpredictable people, but they exist together in a large extended family and display the familiar actions of human beings in the same situation: they bicker constantly, often for reasons which are obscure, and then unexpectedly make up; they trick each other and then establish alliances; they tease, insult, abuse, and respect each other; they argue about areas of authority, family friends, honour, and all sorts of other things quite familiar to anyone who has any experience of family life. Our very first meeting with this family makes this point emphatically:

                               Then Zeus, son of Cronos,
wishing to irk Hera with a sarcastic speech,
addressed them in deviously provoking words. . . . (4.4) [4.3]

Athena and Hera sat together muttering,
plotting trouble for Trojans. Angry at Zeus,
her father, Athena sat there silently,
so enraged she didn’t say a word. But Hera, 
unable to contain her anger, burst out. . . . (4.24) [4.20] 

The scene has the flavour of a family soap opera. Such a comparison is not wholly trivial. It reminds us that one of the most popular and important symbols in all fiction is the family, especially the family quarrel, for that establishes an immediate link between the world of the story and the world of the audience. Virtually everyone fighting the Trojan War or reading Homer’s epic knows something about authoritarian fathers, bickering mothers, rebellious daughters, inter-family alliances and rivalries, and so on. So when, earlier in the poem, Zeus’s first response to Thetis’s request is a worried concern for what his wife will say (1.578) or when the crippled, gifted son intervenes to save his nagging mother from the bullying father (1.642), we immediately understand. However much we might like our families to remain calm and reasonable, we recognize that strongly personal and often unpredictable emotions are generally the order of the day. So by offering us a vision of the divine powers of the world as a family which behaves just like the families we are all familiar with, Homer is giving us a very accessible symbol of the passionate irrationality and unpredictability governing the world.

But the development of this extended family achieves a great deal more than illuminating for us how basic passions rule divine conduct and are the motive forces in the world. It also provides an instantly understandable picture of how the ruling powers of the cosmos are related to each other. Families by their very nature contain lines of authority and a hierarchy of power. But these are inherently ambiguous and always changing, especially in the complex emotional world of the extended family. A family, in other words, has a dynamic life of its own, without a firmly established or codified logic which clearly lays out the various rights, duties, areas of special responsibility, and so on for each member. Yes, we may well recognize the father or mother or both as the principal authority to whom we will defer if we have to, but we also recognize how often family members seek to subvert that authority, prompted by any number of irrational motives, from sexual desire to petty jealousies. Hence, the emotional life of a family is fluid, ambiguous, and dramatic. The collection of gods in the Iliad always behaves like a family with these familiar characteristics. We see a hierarchy of power, to be sure, with Zeus in charge, but the spheres of influence in earth and heaven, the delineations of power, the extent to which any particular god or goddess can work against Zeus or against the others, remain somewhat blurred, quite acceptably so, because our knowledge of families tells us that is how they operate.

What a faith in this divine family amounts to is a system of belief which accepts that the universe is ruled by passionate uncertainty and unpredictability. There is no simple overarching moral principle (as there is in the Odyssey, for example), nor are there any divinely endorsed rules or codes of behaviour (as in the Old Testament). Hence, all inconsistencies in manifestations of divine power are obviously part of the given condition of the world. Some god can hate the Trojans and help the Achaeans, but then he or she can turn around and momentarily reverse that by saving a Trojan warrior. Emotional people behave that way all the time. Hence, this belief system finds nothing odd about sudden changes in the behaviour of a god (indeed, we have no right to expect that the divine powers will consistently favour anyone). Even Zeus, who we have been given to understand is more or less omnipotent, can be tricked by his wife and later has to abandon his grandson Sarpedon against his will (in Book 16). And when he holds up the scales to determine the outcome of the fight between Achilles and Hector, thus momentarily suggesting that he is subject to some higher authority, there is no sense of any logical difficulty, because this entire divine system is a network of imprecise and shifting relationships between sharply etched personalities, whose authority does not require clear definition or justification. That feature helps to explain the warriors’ curiously tough faith. They offer prayers and sacrifices to these gods, hoping to obtain their favour, but when they are disappointed, their faith never wavers. Zeus and his family are capricious gods. We hope that they will be kind to us, but we have no right to expect them to be or to complain about injustice when they are not.

Moreover, this divine family in the Iliad, like a large human extended family, has no clearly defined limits to membership. The small family circle of Olympian gods obviously governs the main actions and receives most of the attention, but the extended divine clan includes a host of deities more or less closely related to the main group. Here again, there is little attempt at precision. The divine family is a huge interconnected network, extending from the Olympians down through a host of lesser figures (giants, Titans, nymphs, sea-goddesses, old men of the sea, and so on) and existing everywhere, so that the entire world is full of divine presences. Hence, in dealing with the Iliad we cannot talk of nature and the gods as if they are two clearly separate entities (as in the Old Testament, for example). Throughout the poem nature and the divine are fused in a paradoxical but imaginatively vital manner. The gods both exist in nature and are nature. The warriors make no attempt to differentiate. The eagle soaring in the sky may be an ordinary bird, or an omen from Zeus, or the transformed god himself. The Scamander River is clearly a river, a geographical feature, but it is also divine, not just the home or the favourite haunt of a god or a natural shrine to his worship, but the god himself. Poseidon is god of the sea, and he has his palace in the sea, but in an important sense Poseidon also is the sea, just as Hades is the god of the underworld who lives in the underworld and is also the underworld itself. This fusion of the natural and the divine stresses how the conflicts we see among the gods are intimately linked to the conflicts which govern natural phenomena, and vice versa.

In coping with this feature of the Iliad, readers who find imaginative delight in this passionate vision of vital nature may, like William Wordsworth (in “The world is too much with us”), become aware of just how much vital contact with nature we have lost. But we should be careful not to sentimentalize this vision into some nostalgic pantheism. For while the gods in the Iliad may be instantly familiar to us as family members and the intensive spiritual vitality of nature may strike a welcome note to those frustrated by our traditions of seeing the natural world as an alien and inert resource, these cosmic personalities have deadly powers and no compunction about using them to further their intensely egotistical desires. Like the warriors fighting in this war, we cannot forget that the operating principle of this family and of the nature so closely identified with it is conflict and that such conflict routinely involves the brutal destruction of human life. We have already mentioned the actions of Apollo in the opening to Book 1. The first picture of the family group of gods in Book 4 really underscores the passionate callousness these deities are capable of. Early in this scene, the following exchange between Zeus and Hera takes place:

“Dear wife, what sort of crimes have Priam
or Priam’s children committed against you,                                       
that you should be so vehemently keen
to destroy that well-built city Ilion?
If you went through its gates or its huge walls,
you’d gorge on Priam and his children,
and other Trojans, too, swallow their flesh raw.
That’s what you’d do to slake your anger.
Do as you wish. We shouldn’t make this matter
something you and I later squabble over,
a source of major disagreements.
But I’ll tell you this—keep it in mind.                                     
Whenever I get the urge to wipe out    
some city whose inhabitants you love,
don’t try to thwart me. Let me have my way.  
I’ll give in to you freely, though unwillingly.
For of all towns inhabited by earth’s peoples,
under the sun, beneath the heavenly stars, 
sacred Ilion, with Priam, Priam’s folk, 
expert spearmen, stands dearest in my heart.  
My altar there has always shared their feasts,                                   
with libations and sacrificial smoke,
offerings we get as honours due to us “

Ox-eyed Hera then said in reply to Zeus: 

“The three cities I love the best by far
are Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae,
city of wide streets. Destroy them utterly,
if you ever hate them in your heart.                       
I won’t deny you or get in your way. . . .” (4.38) [4.30]

This spontaneous conversation between husband and wife displays no particular benevolence towards human beings. If these remarks represent the way in which the most important of the Olympian deities treat the men they “love the best by far,” the cities highest in their esteem, civilized worshippers who have always observed all the appropriate rites, we might well raise a question or two about the nature of the arrangements here. Divine favour or divine destruction seems fairly arbitrary. 

One might note, in passing, how such an exchange helps these warriors face destruction and yet accept that the gods do like them sometimes. Zeus, after all, expresses a certain regret for what the Trojans are going to experience—not that that will be enough to spare them. This scene also registers as fairly normal Olympian behaviour. There is no particular motive for Zeus’s decision to provoke his wife or for Hera’s hatred for the Trojans. The story might well provide Homer with such a motive in Hera’s case (in the Judgment of Paris, in which the Trojan prince chose Aphrodite over Hera), but he chooses not to do so. The reason, it strikes me, has nothing to do with the fact that the story is “too abstract for his manner” or that this divine bargaining is “unmotivated and mysterious” (Griffin 25), whatever those phrases mean exactly, but rests on Homer’s obvious sense that any reasonable motive would detract from the most shocking element in this dialogue, the casual and callous normality with which the Trojans are destined to be slaughtered. After all, the motivation on both sides is clear enough: these gods are acting on their most powerful and immediate feelings, which they make no attempt to conceal or justify. The epithets given to the major gods are constant reminders of this quality—with references to lightning, earthquakes, storm clouds, and so on, all of which keep reverberating through the images of human efforts and hopes the ominous sense of an irrational, overpowering, and destructive cosmic destiny.

Some of those who find such a vision of the divine uncomfortable try to neutralize the obvious implications of this scene. So G. S. Kirk, for example, finds nothing very shocking here. “[Zeus’ declaration of affection for Troy and Priam] may cause the listener to wonder why, nevertheless, he allows the city to fall even after he has discharged his promise to Thetis. The answer is that this has been made inevitable by Paris’ offense against hospitality which is protected by Zeus . . . and by the Trojans’ condoning of it by receiving him and Helen” (Commentary 333). But there is no reference here to that reason. Indeed, it is conspicuous by its absence, as if Homer wishes to go out of his way to bring out the lack of such moral reasoning on Zeus’s part. Comments like this one by Kirk, it strikes me, are imposed on the poem in order to enable the reader to evade the central ironies in this harsh vision of experience (more about the origin and effects of such interpretative efforts in a later essay).

Faith in such deities obviously demands an acceptance of irrational and cosmic conflict and the frequently brutal consequences of that for human beings as the way the world and everything in it operates. There is no covenant between the human and the divine (and no sense that the basic conditions will change), no divinely endorsed moral code which informs human beings how they might obtain the favours of the gods, no way in which the warriors can understand the divine forces of the world in clear moral terms, no explicit sense of what the gods expect from human beings or why they have created human beings and the world the way they have. The last point is worth stressing: for all their clear images of, stories about, and personal contact with the gods, these warriors have no clear sense of what the gods want from them, no divine guidance in how they ought to behave. The gods do communicate with human beings from time to time, directly or through omens, but such instructions cannot be counted on and are often ambiguous. So unlike the ancient Israelite, for example, who had a very detailed rule book covering all aspects of life (the Mosaic Code, which was written down and carefully preserved) and a covenant promising a historical reward, the Homeric warrior faces a world permeated by powerful divine presences whose motives and wishes are unpredictable.

This religious vision is a picture of the cosmos as totally controlled by irrational forces beyond human control. The most extraordinary aspect of this warrior culture is its acceptance of such a tough creed. These men do not, like Job, seek an accounting from Zeus, or, like Job’s friends, do they search for a “sin” they might have committed to earn divine displeasure. Instead they endorse the fact that unreasonable and destructive conflict is entirely natural and divinely sanctioned, and they continue to function, proud of their power to assert their individuality in the face of such a grim vision of a world governed by an irrational fate originating in the unpredictable dynamics of the divine family.

The Iliad demonstrates, of course, that the gods are not always hostile to human beings. The Olympians can provide decisive assistance and intimate practical counsel to individual men or transform the normal warrior into a mighty hero or turn the tide one way or the other in a battle. But such moments are spontaneous results of particular feelings and subject to instant change. Zeus can grant Thetis’s plea to avenge the insult to her son and then with equally sudden indifference turn his back on the entire war and attend exclusively to his own affairs elsewhere. Or a god can express a sympathetic concern for the sufferings of humanity, unwelcome evils which the divine wills have brought about, and then proceed to multiply those evils. The capricious desires of the gods mean that the only consistent feature of their relationship to human beings is their unpredictability. From a caring protector of a pampered favourite, any god can instant change into a cruel deceiver or the same man’s hopes and an agent in his brutal destruction. In their constant interference with human conduct the gods display nothing we can recognize as a divine concern for a reasonable principle of justice (Dodds 32). In fact, if we want to use the phrase “divine justice” to describe what goes on in the Iliad, we will have to strip it of the meaning we customarily associate with it, so that when we speak of “divine justice” we mean something like “the gods act that way because that’s the way they feel like acting at that particular moment.”

Nothing is potentially more disturbing for modern readers than this vision of the divine, because it is so different from our central faith in a providential God or, if we are not particularly religious, in some secular form of this belief (like a faith in progress or in historical destiny or in gaining power over nature, and so on). We have long been raised to believe that some reasonable moral principles (divinely sanctioned or otherwise) manifest themselves in human life, and many of our prayers or hopes rest on appeals made in the name of this belief. So the vision of a universe governed by irrational conflict—and the faith of the warriors in such a belief—is a direct challenge to us.

Occasionally the Iliad will raise the issue of a moralized fate, that is, a sense that the cosmic justice of the Olympian gods might operate by some consistent principle different from what now rules the warriors’ lives (as happens repeatedly in the Odyssey, where the sanctity of the home is affirmed by human beings and gods throughout). It’s important to notice, however, that such a different sense of divine justice typically comes from one of the warriors as a fervent desire, not as a statement of belief. When Menelaus prays to Zeus for victory over Paris on the ground that Paris has broken a law of hospitality (3.388), he is not invoking a sacred principle but expressing a personal wish. Thus, when Zeus denies his prayer, as he does so often in this poem, Menelaus does not question his faith but reaffirms it. Similarly, immediately before Achilles sets out to avenge Patroclus, he momentarily wishes that the fatal conditions of life might change to something less grimly irrational and destructive:

. . . so let wars disappear from gods and men
and passionate anger, too, which incites
even the prudent man to that sweet rage,
sweeter than trickling honey in men’s throats,
which builds up like smoke inside their chests. . . . (18.133) [18.107]

These lines prompted Heracleitus to observe “Homer was wrong. . . . He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away” (qtd Burnet 136). But Homer does not utter this prayer; Achilles does. His vain demand for a life more peaceful and reasonable, with an absence of deadly conflict, like the earlier prayer of Menelaus, emphasizes how the hopes of men, even the most powerful, cannot alter the basic conditions of an irrational and violent universe, as both Menelaus and Achilles themselves realize only too well (1).

The control the gods exercise over the conduct of the war manifests itself in a number of ways. The most remarkable is their direct interference in the daily events on the battlefield. While their behaviour is impossible to predict, for the warriors divine interferences affects almost everything that happens. The gods, in other words, are not just responsible for launching this war (and others). They also determine the decisive events in the day-to-day fighting. The fortunes of war thus depend, not just on the bravery and resourcefulness of the warrior, but on the capricious feelings of external divine agents. Just as what goes on in the natural world confirms the presence of divine force, so major successes or failures on the battlefield stem from some god’s interference.

The divine influence on these human actions typically takes one of two forms, direct interference in a physical event or in the emotional or psychological state of the warrior (or both). In the former, a god can guide a spear or arrow to or away from its target, cause a piece of equipment, like a chin strap or an axle, to malfunction, trip someone up at a crucial point, and so on, always working to see that events on the battlefield match his or her desires at that particular moment. Hence, unexpected events on the battlefield do not happen by accident but by divine desire. In Book 3, for example Menelaus finally gets his wish to fight Paris, and it seems clear he has the physical superiority to triumph in such a duel. But his sword shatters (to Menelaus this is clearly the work of Zeus) and then, a moment later, when Menelaus is about to break Paris’s neck, Aphrodite make sure that Paris escapes and returns to Troy safely. In the normal course of events, Menelaus should have killed Paris. The unexpected outcome must be the work of the gods (2).

More complex and fascinating than these moments of physical interference are the times when the gods suddenly and decisively, for better or worse, interfere with a particular warrior’s feelings or thought processes (which, as we shall see in a moment, are largely the same thing). Such moments are particularly interesting because they bring out a picture of warrior psychology which is significantly different from many of our most common notions about how human beings think (although, as I shall discuss later, this Homeric psychology is still a very insightful way to think about certain forms of modern conduct). Through their psychic interference, the gods repeatedly alter a warrior’s normal behaviour and his perceptual process. Dreams come from Zeus (as we see in the opening of Book 2), and the gods can place an idea in a man’s head. Alternatively, they can assume the shape of a familiar mortal and deliver an important message or perform an important task. In the course of the poem Apollo does this many times, as Acamas, Mentes, Periphas, Lycaon, and Agenor. They can suddenly infuse a warrior with enormous courage and strength, so that he enjoys spectacular success on the battlefield. Or they can drain a man’s courage and make him back off or run away from battle. And so on. Thus the unpredictable irrationality of the divine personalities affects human behaviour frequently, and sometimes there is no permanently clear demarcation between normal human conduct and divinely affected conduct.

Such divine interference has important consequences for our sense of how these warrior understand themselves and thus of how they behave. At the simplest level, such a fatalistic view encourages the belief that people do not bear the responsibility for what they are. Telamonian Ajax is a redoubtable warrior because he has received power and clear thinking from Zeus (7.336), and Achilles’ pre-eminence comes from the gods (1.322). Helen recognizes that she and Paris have no control over or responsibility for who they are, and Paris says the same to Hector:

                          But don’t blame me 
for golden Aphrodite’s lovely gifts.
Men can’t reject fine presents from the gods,
those gifts they personally bestow on us,
though no man would take them of his own free will. (3.69) [3.65]

By a natural extension of the same idea, the individuals do not bear direct responsibility for the unusual actions they sometimes carry out, because extraordinary events are caused by divine interference. The next essay in this series discusses the heroic code, the shared standards of conduct by which these warriors live, but we need to appreciate how in the Iliad the warriors interpret actions which fall outside the normal behaviour defined by this code as divinely caused. When Achilles unexpectedly does not physically defend his honour in front of Agamemnon in Book 1, he is acting on the direct advice of a god. The normal behaviour in the group (as we shall see) demands from Achilles a different response. Similarly Agamemnon’s major blunder in offending Achilles must be divinely inspired. Although this mistake brings a series of military disasters on the Achaeans and although Agamemnon has to offer suitable compensation, he can assign responsibility elsewhere:

You Achaeans have often criticized
and spoken ill of me. But I’m not to blame.
It’s Zeus’ fault and Fate—those Furies, too,
who walk in darkness. In our assembly,
they cast a savage blindness on my heart,
that day when on my own I took away  
Achilles’ prize. But what was I to do? 
It is a god who brought all this about.
Zeus’ eldest daughter, Ate, blinds all men
with her destructive power. Her feet are soft,
for she walks, not on the ground, but on men’s heads,
and she brings folly onto humankind,
seducing them at random. (19.105) [19.85]

No one challenges this assessment. Agamemnon receives some stinging criticism in the course of the battles, but not on this occasion. For here he speaks what everyone acknowledges to be true. Similarly, psychic interference from Athena drives Pandarus to shoot an arrow at Menelaus in Book 4, thus ending the truce between the warring parties. Even Helen, the famous legendary cause of the war, has no personal responsibility for what is happening. King Priam, who knows better than anyone what this war is costing in human terms, expressly states that she bears no blame (in his remarks at 3.178).

Extraordinary conduct on the battlefield also has a divine cause. The gods can interfere to invest a warrior with unusually heroic powers, temporarily transforming a heroic leader, one among many, into an invincible fighter. In such cases, the action of the god occurs simply because he or she has an immediate desire to assist this individual. In this, as in so much of the poem, the treatment of Diomedes provides an excellent example:

Then Pallas Athena gave Diomedes, son of Tydeus, 
strength and courage, so among all Argives, 
he’d stand out and win heroic glory.
She made his helmet blaze with tireless flames,
his shield as well—like a late star in summer
which shines especially bright, newly risen from its bath
in Ocean’s streams. Around his head and shoulders
the goddess put a fiery glow, then drove him forward,                                         
right into the middle of the strife, the killing zone,
where most warriors fight.  (5.1) [5.1]

In the fighting which follows Diomedes enjoys an unusual series of personal victories over his opponents. Athena helps him recover from an arrow wound and fires his spirit for even more combat, in which for a while he appears to be invincible. His opponents acknowledge that his extraordinary success must be the result of divine assistance: 

                                “But if he’s the man
I think he is, the fierce son of Tydeus,
he could not be charging at us in this way                       
without help from some god beside him, 
an immortal with a covering cloud
around his shoulders, the god who pushed aside
that sharp arrow which struck Diomedes.” (5.212) [5.185]

The inspired hero sustains his battlefield charge, even challenging and wounding Aphrodite, until he reaches the limit of his human powers by confronting Ares. At that point, Diomedes goes no further and rejoins the Achaean forces as the normal warrior leader he was before. This moment in the poem gives us our first extended look at a recurring phenomenon in the poem, the aristeia, when a particular warrior, with the help of a god, is transformed from a leader among men to an extraordinarily successful battlefield hero. In the aristeia the warrior’s normal appearance and behaviour change. He becomes abnormally ferocious, courageous, beautiful, and successful, all with the help of a god. In precisely the same way, the gods can fill a character with erotic passion and change him or her into a supremely desirable love partner. Helen has no power to resist the demands of Aphrodite, any more than Paris can resist the divinely inspired erotic impulse to make love to Helen. Questions about whether they ought to surrender to sexual passion while the Trojans perish in defense of the city simply do not make sense.

The people in this world thus have a fatalistic sense of their own behaviour. The ironic forces which govern the world play a decisive role in how they understand themselves. As many writers have observed, we are dealing with people who do not think of the inner life in the way we normally do. They lack an inner moral consciousness or sense of responsibility which might enable them to reflect, evaluate, and decide what to do. Instead they respond directly to the immediate situation they find themselves in or, in unusual situations, under the impulse of divine forces coming from outside. This lack of self-consciousness, a preoccupation with some inner individuality which lies at the heart of our evaluations of people, may be one reason why characters in the Iliad all seem very similar in some essential ways. Some are bigger or stronger or more beautiful, some have gray hair or red hair, some are young men, others mature leaders, and so on, but they differ little from each other in any significant inner qualities, and thus we cannot easily make the usual distinctions among them.

Of course, we do get some sense of difference from time to time. Many readers, for example, have reservations about Agamemnon’s conduct in certain places and prefer Hector and (perhaps) Menelaus (who at times seems a favourite of the narrator’s). But for the most part, characters differ little from each other in the way they think or act. If one were casting a film of the Iliad, what significant criteria could one use, apart from age and the occasional hints we get about external appearance, to distinguish among, say, Antenor, Sarpedon, Diomedes, Glaucus, Meriones, Hector, Menelaus, or even Odysseus? Fine inner distinctions would be impossible because our evaluation of these warriors does not arise from any intimate feeling for their moral qualities in a conventional sense, which they do not possess, or from any significant differences in their individual sensibilities but rather from our response to their actions, which are all very similar, the major difference being one of degree. As Erich Auerbach points out in his famous essay on Homer’s style, the characters are all basically the same (10). For in the Iliad, the main emphasis always falls, not on significant inner differences among human beings, but on the fatal situation common to them all and their responses to it:

“Friends, whether you’re an Achaean leader,
or average, or one of the worst—for men              
are not all equal when it comes to battle—
there’s enough work here for everyone,
as you yourselves well know.” (12.289) [12.269]

 If this form of thinking seems odd, it shouldn’t, because anyone who watches professional team sports or who plays team sports should recognize an immediate similarity between how we evaluate players or fellow team mates or ourselves in the course of a game and how these warriors think. When we use the terms good and bad to describe players in such situations, we are not referring to any particular inner moral qualities, as we are at other times. Our evaluations are based on the actions they perform in a strenuous team enterprise where they are not free to break the basic rules. That’s why it’s always such a shock to see a great player demonstrate outside the game that he may be a bad person (e.g., a murderer, abuser, drug addict, and so on). And when one is playing a strenuous team game, one does not experience an inner life of deliberation, reflection, or mental agonizing—one’s character is, as the saying goes, “into the game,” rather than inside one’s head, so one is “thinking” (if that is the right word) more instinctually, as these heroes do, in one’s chest and heart.  That, indeed, is one of the great attractions of team sports (more about this later in the next essay on the heroic code) (3).

Beyond the world of team games, virtually all of us have experienced a sense of acting without reflection, or carrying out something remarkably good or foolish under a sudden impulse, so that when we look back on what we have done, we talk about being inspired, deluded, or compelled to do the act, especially if it falls outside our normal behaviour. The literature of warfare, in particular, offers countless examples of extraordinary conduct the front lines—heroism, cowardice, loyalty, atrocity—for which the agents have no reasonable explanation. Few things are more painful for us than putting one of our combat soldiers on trial after the fact for acts committed in the killing zone. For in such cases, we are demanding a rational moral evaluation of conduct obviously originating from sources beyond the reach of our most fundamental metaphors of how the mind operates.

Our traditional theories of the mind may inform us that irrational motive forces come from within according to some as yet unknown interaction between the mind and the body, but our common language often suggests otherwise. We still talk of artists being inspired by the muses, of athletes have God in their corner, of gamblers escorting Lady Luck, and so on. Some people find it curious that so many football players in America kneel and cross themselves when they score a touchdown. But there’s nothing particularly odd about it. The player is acknowledging the assistance of some outside power in making him successful at that moment. Some fifty years ago or so the television comedian Flip Wilson became famous for his slogan “The Devil made me do it!” We laughed at the excuse, but we recognized exactly what he meant.

The Homeric vision of human motivation also bears some similarity to the behaviour of children and adolescents, who tend to respond spontaneously to an impulse from whatever quarter and often find themselves quite unable to explain why they acted in a certain way (much to the frustration of parents). Here the agent has no consciousness of an inner motive, for the action was an immediate response to an irresistible urge for which he or she feels no personal responsibility, since it did not arise out of a process of mental deliberation. Parents and teachers spend many years teaching the child the notion of the responsible self, the idea that we all have an inner consciousness that directs our actions and that makes us personally accountable for what we do. The lesson usually takes hold very slowly, for there is a natural resistance to this modern metaphor for the mind. If the child does not learn the lesson, however, he can have great trouble functioning in modern society, which bases it social relationships on well-controlled lies and delayed emotional responses, its educational, legal, and moral systems on the concepts of personal responsibility, guilt, and individual self-consciousness, and its politics on the survival values of deceit.

The analogy between the impulsive, non-conscious behaviour of the Homeric warriors and the actions of children may explain why so many readers of the Iliad find something childlike and immature in the actions of these characters. The warriors are so impulsive and so immediately candid about their feelings about themselves and others, without the guile we often associate with maturity. No human being in the Iliad intentionally tells a successful lie. That would require a consciousness, an inner awareness of the difference between the spoken words and the truth. No one has any inner secrets. The closest we come to any form of double-dealing is Odysseus’s treatment of Dolon in Book 10 or Hector’s momentary thought of breaking the heroic code in Book 22. The characters in the Iliad do not engage in deception, not even in those tricks common to warfare. They cannot even carry out one of the most important early lessons we teach our children, the delayed emotional response. Achilles’s restraint in not physically attacking Agamemnon in Book 1 is so extraordinary that it must be god-inspired. There is no room in this poem for celebrated sly resourcefulness and duplicity of Odysseus in the Odyssey, because what people in the Iliad say and what they do are spontaneous responses to their immediate feelings. Those who see Odysseus in the Iliad has having the same comic resourcefulness he displays in the Odyssey (e.g., Whitman 176) surely overlook the fact that Odysseus acts throughout as a loyal and inflexible apologist for the warrior ethic, energetically and openly correcting the objections of Thersites (in Book 2) and countering the doubts of Agamemnon (in Book 14) and even his own doubts (in Book 11). Homer uses his characterization of Odysseus, famous in legend from the days of Homer’s audience to the present as a tricky, ingeniously deceptive liar, to emphasize through the ironic contradictions between his reputation and his actions in this war and the absence of such qualities in Iliadic society (4).

To describe the warriors’ actions and their understanding of themselves as immature or childish, however, sounds unnecessarily pejorative.  Their conduct may seem to us very odd in some respects, not because we have outgrown it, but rather because we employ a different metaphor for understanding human behaviour. We do not think in our chests or in our hearts (a significant and recurring image throughout the poem), but in our minds, or at least that’s how we like to think the process works. But it takes no great leap of the imagination to sense within ourselves a response to life similar to the Homeric vision, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that when we have to deal with a significant emotional state like love, war, or team sports, we quickly revert to a faith in outside forces at work all around us. Reading the Iliad can thus remind us of an understanding of human nature quite foreign to our orthodox ways of analyzing our conduct, but familiar enough if we set those temporarily aside and consult our feelings about ourselves (5).

In any event, the images of divine intervention in significant matters of human behaviour bring out how these warriors must constantly respond to emotional forces induced by irrational and irresistible gods. Hence, their very personalities are part of a natural world governed by conflict. The men succeed and fail, triumph and suffer, in a fatalistic world from which conventional notions of moral justice have been excluded because they are inconceivable. Without the divine promise in a covenant or some guiding moral principles or a rational hope for progress, justice is the given irrationality of things. Without self-consciousness there is no sin or guilt, only actions more or less under the influence of external divine agents. None of this means, as we shall see in the next essay, that the warrior is a mere automaton, a limp feather to be blown around by divine whims. For he has the freedom and the will to assert himself in the face of this paradoxical destiny.

With Homer there is no marvelling or blaming. Who is good in the Iliad? Who is bad? Such distinctions do not exist; there are only men suffering, warriors fighting some winning, some losing. The passion for justice emerges only in a mourning for justice in the dumb avowal of silence. To condemn force, or absolve it, would be to condemn, or absolve, life itself. (Bespaloff 48)



(1) The strongest suggestion of some divinely sanctioned moral principle occurs in Book 16, where there is a reference to Zeus’s anger at those ”who have provoked him with their crooked judgments,/corrupting their assemblies and driving justice out,/ not thinking of gods’ vengeance. . . .” (16.451). Such a remark, suggesting, as it does, that Zeus is concerned about punishing human beings who fail to live up to some moral standard, is so at odds with the rest of the poem that the lines have invited the suggestion they are a later interpolation (see, for example, Paley’s comments in 2:140). Whether that is the case or not, this comment so goes against Zeus’s behaviour in the rest of the poem, that it’s difficult to give much interpretative weight to it. [Back to Text]

(2) Such a belief is common enough among front-line soldiers everywhere, a fatalistic sense that somewhere or other there’s a bullet with a particular soldier’s name on it or when, faced with the apparent chaos of the killing zone, a soldier affirms that there are no atheists in fox holes. Giving a name and a motive to the unpredictable destructive forces which threaten him is one of the soldier’s most important ways of emotionally comprehending and thus dealing with might otherwise be an insupportably meaningless situation. [Back to Text]

(3) This analogy to sports might be developed to illustrate this point further. If one were casting a film of the Iliad from NBA basketball players, who would one choose? Well, I think there are only two obvious candidates, Shaquille O’Neal as Ajax (because of his size) and Michael Jordan as Achilles (because of his acknowledged pre-eminence). But any number of players would fit, say, the roles of Diomedes, Sarpedon, Hector, Paris, and so on. [Back to Text]

(4) Homer uses the same technique in the Odyssey in his portrayal of Achilles, in the scene (in Book 11) where the greatest of all the heroic warriors repudiates the warrior ethic, claiming that life as a lowly farm hand is preferable to the price the warrior pays for his greatness. This comment derives its telling force from the person who utters such anti-Iliadic sentiments. [Back to Text]

(5) On a personal note, let me state here one of the great “lessons” I have learned from Homer’s Iliad, the inadequacy of “guilt” as a concept leading to an understanding of myself. In the course of my life I have done many very silly things, and I have recognized a responsibility for doing something about cleaning up the resulting mess. But I have never felt the slightest bit guilty, when it was clear to me I acted under the influence of a sudden irresistible force which, as far as I could tell, acted from outside myself. That has always struck me as a much healthier mental attitude than endless self-recrimination and an inner awareness of my personal “sins.” [Back to Text]

[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad.]