Achilles drags hector behind his chariot

I recently read The Iliad for the first time.

Here are some things I noticed about the text:

Mandatory Female Subordination:

The Trojan War, in which Agamemnon, King of Mycenae (ancient Greek center of civilization) led a group of soldiers and attacked the city of Troy for a full decade because Paris (Trojan noble) abducted Helen (Queen of Sparta (prominent Greek city-state)) from Menelaus (King of Sparta).

What’s important to understand is that this abduction is fundamentally considered to be a crime against Menelaus and the men of Greece, not Helen. Women are the property of men. More precisely, beautiful women are war trophies to be won by successful fighters.

Another good example is that of the enslavement of Chryseis and Briseis. The alphas of Greece are free to trade the war brides like baseball cards. Agamemnon is shamed into returning his love slave because her father misses her and because Apollo is punishing Greece for this transgression. Chryseis’ opinion has no influence on the situation.

In this passage, Achilles explains that his love for Briseis is not tainted by the fact that he won her by force:

Any decent man,

a man with sense, loves his own, cares for his own

as deeply as I, I loved that woman with all my heart,

though I won her like a trophy with my spear . . .

Such is the fate of all war brides in the The Iliad:

And then, finally, Meleager’s bride, beautiful Cleopatra

begged him, streaming tears, recounting all the griefs

that fall to people whose city’s seized and plundered –

the men slaughtered, citadel burned to rubble, enemies

dragging the children, raping the sashed and lovely women.

Even Mt. Olympus (home of the Gods) is a patriarchy. Female goddesses can hold sway over mortal men but Zeus, King of the Gods, in the undisputed ruler of the divine kingdom.

In this passage, Zeus lets Athena (Goddess of wisdom) and Queen Hera (Zeus’s wife) know who wears the pants on Mt. Olympus with some mocking lashes from his Godly tongue:

Why so crushed, Athena, Hera?

Not overly tired I trust, from all your efforts

there in glorious battle, slaughtering Trojans,

the men you break with all your deathless rage.

But I with my courage, my hands, never conquered –

for all their force not all the gods on Olympus heights

could ever turn me back. Ah but the two of you –

long ago the trembling shook your glistening limbs

before you could glimpse the horrid works of war.

I tell you this and it would have come to pass:

once my lightening had blasted you in your chariot,

you never could have returned to Mount Olympus

where the immortals make their home.

So he mocked

as Athena and Queen Hera muttered between themselves . .

Hera and her little partner in crime are meddling with Zeus’s war plans and the King of Gods doesn’t appreciate it:

I’ll hurl them from their chariot, smash their car,

and not once in course of ten slow wheeling years

will they heal the wounds my lightening bolt rips open.

So that gray-eyed girl of mine may learn what it means

to fight against her Father.

Master Morality:

Big, strong, fearless, intelligent, charismatic and warlike men are good.

Small, weak, cowardly, dim, trite and slave-like men are bad.

Beautiful, nurturing, pleasant, fertile and home-making women are good.

Ugly, careless, bitchy, barren and spinstery women are bad.

Labels like evil and kind never seem to enter the character’s mind (or that of Homer’s).

Scene from the Iliad

The Importance of Physical Prowess As Status Among Men 

The fastest way for a young Greek man to rise up the ranks of society is to prove his competence on the battle field. It is no coincidence that Kings, commanders and virtually every character of ancient nobility are all talented warriors.

 

 

 

Homer’s Similes:

Homer writes long, lyrical similes, often comparing deadly warriors to wild predatory beasts:

into the black night they went like two lions

stalking through the carnage and the corpses,

through piles of armor and black pools of blood.

{. . .}

And Hector lunged again

like a murderous lion made for kills, charging cattle

grazing across the flats of a broad marshy pasture,

flocks by the hundred led by  an unskilled herdsman

helpless to keep the marauder off a longhorn heifer –

no fighting that bloody slaughter – all he can do

is keep pace with the lead or straggling heads,

leaving the center free for the big cat’s pounce

and it eats a heifer raw as the rest stampede away.

Robert Fagles Translation: 

English professor and poet Robert Fagles translated my edition of The Iliad and what beautiful translation it is. Fagles describes the Mediterranean landscape, combat and traditions of the ancient world in colorful dactylic hexameter.

And he forged a thriving vineyard loaded with clusters

bunches of lustrous grapes in gold, ripening deep purple

and climbing vines shot up on silver vine-poles.

And round it he cut a ditch in dark blue enamel

and round the ditch he staked a fence in tin.

And one lone footpath lead toward the vineyard

and down it the pickers ran

whenever they went to strip the grapes at vintage –

girls and boys, their hearts leaping in innocence,

bearing away the sweet ripe fruit in wicker baskets.

And their among them a young boy plucked his lyre,

so clear it could break the heart with longing,

and what he sang was a dirge for the dying year,

lovely . . . his fine voice rising and falling low

as the rest followed, all together, frisking, singing,

shouting, their dancing footsteps beating out the time.

 

So on they fought like a swirl of living fire –

you could not tell if the sun and the moon still stood secure,

so dense the battle-haze that engulfed the brave

who stood their ground around Patroclus’ body

The Brutality of Hand-To-Hand Combat:

There are no hidden snipers or remote controlled drones on the Trojan battlefield. Victory is won by sword and spear.

 Idomeneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth, 

the merciless brazen spearpoint raking through,

up under the brain to split his glistening skull –

teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids

with a gush of blood and both nostrils spurting,

mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood

and death’s dark cloud closed down around his corpse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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