Homer is my favorite writer. Reading the first chapter to Thomas Cahill's "Sailing the Wine Dark Sea" last night reminded me why.
"Rage - Goddess, sing the rage ... " reads the opening line to the Iliad. The Greeks are into their ninth year of a wearisome stalemate with Troy, but "the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."
Spirits are low, tempers are frayed. Even the Gods and Goddesses are getting antsy.
The Greek's greatest warrior, Achilles, is sulking in his tent and refusing to fight. Agamemnon, his comander-in-chief, has claimed his concubine - a legitimate prize of war - and Achilles is fit to kill. Only the intervention of Hera, wife of Zeus, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, keeps Achilles from giving into his emotions.
The story gets complicated. Agamemnon, himself, had to give up HIS concubine, and fair is fair. It seems that Apollo, son of Zeus, had a personal interest in this particular concubine, and when Agamemnon wouldn't listen to reason, Apollo "came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them ... "
Eventually, Agamemnon came around to thinking that Apollo might have a point. In the meantime: "And the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight."
Homer may have been blind, but he had surely seen first-hand the face of war:
" ... and Athena drove the shaft and it split the archer's nose between the eyes - it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze, cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw, and the point came ripping out beneath his chin."
The action is set in 1200 BC, but Homer is describing the warfare of a later age, with warriors packing 70 pounds of body armor and weapons, and marching into battle in formations "tight as a mason packs a stone wall."
These are the fabled Greek phalanxes - human threshing machines - later perfected upon and put to murderous use by Alexander.
Homer is playing to an audience conditioned to a culture of war. A society not prepared to fight is a society doomed to extinction. Heroes are honored not just for their prowess in battle, but for their psychological stamina, their ability to face down their worst fears and master their emotions in conditions impossible to imagine.
But Homer and his audience are also intimately familiar with the futility of war, as well as the psychic toll it takes. Achilles and Agamemnon and the rest are mere pawns on an Olympian chessboard. The game is played out according to "the will of Zeus." Nine years have elapsed. Everyone is at the end of their rope. Nerves are frayed. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, is losing it.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Homer shows us a humanized enemy. Inside Troy's walls, Hector son of King Priam is preparing for battle. There is a touching scene with his wife Andromache and his infant son:
"So Hector prayed and placed his son in the arms of his loving wife ..."
Thomas Cahill lets us know that this is the first time in literature that a family is shown as a loving unit.
Under Hector's leadership, the Trojans drive back the Greeks and begin setting fire to their beached ships. In response, Achilles agrees to allow his boon companion Patroclus to enter the field of battle in his stead, wearing his armor and riding his chariot.
Soon, the Trojans are in full retreat, but Apollo, apparently still nursing a grudge, turns the tables against Achilles' stand-in. Homer picks up on the action:
"As when a lion has fought some fierce wild-boar and worsted him - the two fight furiously upon the mountains over some little fountain at which they would both drink, and the lion has beaten the boar till he can hardly breathe - even so did Hector son of Priam take the life of the brave son of Menoetius who had killed so many, striking him from close at hand, and vaunting over him the while."
The news is too much for Achilles. He snaps completely. His mad scene is about to unfold. In a white heat, he suits up for battle and becomes a virtual one-man phalanx. A sampling:
"Achilles struck him full on the head as he was coming on towards him, and split it clean in two; whereon he fell heavily to the ground and Achilles vaunted over him saying, 'You he low, son of Otrynteus, mighty hero; your death is here ... '"
This is Homer, remember. Even thugs speak like Lawrence Olivier.
Hector is no match for the raging Achilles. The mad man plants a spear in his throat, then treats the body "with contumely." Achilles fastens the corpse to his chariot, head dragging to the ground, and "lashed his horses on," in full view of Priam and wife Hecuba watching from the battlements.
Now we see events from Andromache's eyes:
"Hector's wife had as yet heard nothing, for no one had come to tell her that her husband had remained without the gates. She was at her loom in an inner part of the house, weaving a double purple web, and embroidering it with many flowers. She told her maids to set a large tripod on the fire, so as to have a warm bath ready for Hector when he came out of battle; poor woman, she knew not that he was now beyond the reach of baths ... "
"Her heart beat fast, and as she spoke she flew from the house like a maniac, with her waiting-women following after. When she reached the battlements and the crowd of people, she stood looking out upon the wall, and saw Hector being borne away in front of the city - the horses dragging him without heed or care over the ground ... "
The Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector. His body is burned upon a pyre, then his white bones are collected, wrapped in robes of purple and placed in a golden urn, then buried. Then the mourners feast. The last line reads:
"Thus, then, did they celebrate the funeral of Hector tamer of horses."
The sack of Troy can wait. This is the story of men and women tested beyond their limits, caught up in events not of their choosing, playthings to the gods. They have no say in the outcome. Their only choice - if you can call it that - is how they personally react in the face of unspeakable hardship and horror.
It's a story from a distant time, a distant place, but one that resonates in a current age. Some days, we are heroes. Other days, we fall to pieces.
For my take on Homer's Odyssey, written in 2006, check out:
Published On: December 11, 2008
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