Rage. Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, the cost of Achaeans countless losses,
Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
Great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
Feasts for the dogs and birds
And the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
—Homer, The Iliad, Book I, Lines 1-6
By golly, that’s a swell opening. It makes the hair on my neck standup. Chills run up and down my spine. My fingers tingle and my hands ache in anticipation of what I know will follow: The most thrilling, exciting and instructive story told in bold and beautiful language. That Homer does have a way with words. They awe me. They inspire me.
And Homer doesn’t mince those words, either. That keen opening says exactly what the story’s about. The rage of Achilles. Not the Trojan War. Not Paris abducting Helen. It’s taken for granted that Troy will lose, but there’s nothing about a wooden horse or about Paris killing Achilles because of some podiatric problem.
It’s so unfair, but life’s sort of like that, isn’t it? The Trojans are fighting for their survival. The Greeks are fighting for kleos and timê. Kleos is all the nice things people say about you after you’re dead. Things like, “He sho’nuff was a hard-ass”. Timê translates as “honor”, but it’s really more like “plunder”, and it’s plunder that’s got Achilles riled.
Pride, lust, mortality, and divinity—McClinton breaks down the heady language and epic grandeur of this classic of classics to reveal a heart that speaks to modern life as easily as it did the ancient world.
Agamemnon took away Achilles’s plunder, namely Briseis, because Achilles led the movement to persuade Agamemnon to give back Chryseis, a priestess of Apollo that the elder statesman had abducted. The kidnapping had prickled Apollo, who, to get even, brought a plague among the Achaeans. But Agamemnon’s fiat so peeves Achilles that he refuses to fight. Hell, let the Trojans kill ‘em all, for all he cares.
His friends beg Achilles to change his mind, but Achilles wonders why strive for honor when it is so easily taken away. I always start out thinking Achilles is just spoiled rotten, arrogant and petulant, but then it dawns on me that Achilles is teaching me about civil disobedience. About freedom and independence. About not being exploited by the high and mighty.
Anyway, Achilles is recalcitrant until his friend Patroklos goes to battle, only to be killed by Hector, Troy’s super-hero. Achilles is inconsolable and freaks out. And here’s why: He isn’t entirely human. Momma is a minor goddess who actually talks to him. She tells him his fate, or fates in this case, because he’s got a choice. Stay, fight, and die with a bushel of kleos, or go home to live a long life without any kleos.
Humans don’t know their fate, but learning his doesn’t make Achilles any happier. To avenge Patroklos, he returns to battle, but nothing he does reconciles him. He won’t bury Patroklos for so long that even Patroklos starts complaining. He turns to slaughter, murder, and human sacrifice. Eventually he kills Hector and drags the body off to his tent where he can have fun desecrating it. He sickens even the gods. But in his struggle to reconcile himself to the inevitable, he’s really teaching me what it is to be human, to suffer joys and failures, and to accept the inescapable.
Finally, Priam, Hector’s daddy, sneaks over for a conversation with Achilles. They weep together over all the things they’ve lost and will lose, and Priam negotiates the return of his son’s body. By this act of decency, Achilles accepts his humanity and his mortality; he’s reconciled to death. And so am I. This is why The Iliad is sometimes called the Song of Death.
Plato, the old fuddy-duddy, doesn’t think much of The Iliad because its impiety verges on blasphemy. Homer compares Athena and Apollo, sitting on a branch to watch a battle, to a pair of vultures. The gods are petty, sensual, capricious, and frivolous. Because they’re immortal, they neither risk nor achieve anything. They’re forever trivial, often with tragic results for humans. The struggle for Troy reflects Zeus’s quibble with Poseidon. Hera, Zeus’s wife, hates all Trojans because Paris slighted her. Aphrodite bribes Paris with Helen. Athena, fearful that a temporary truce might become permanent, tricks a Trojan into attempting to assassinate Agamemnon, and the two armies plunge into battle again. Aphrodite whines about a piddling wound. Zeus warns her to keep to the bedroom where she knows what she’s doing. Her sister Athena mocks and teases her.
Competition between the sisters, Athena and Aphrodite, fuels the destruction of Troy, and the skullduggery is rampant, but that’s a lot like my hometown. Skullduggery is just part of the human condition, part of the world I live in. And even though the gods are comical and pathetic, gray-eyed Athena, goddess of knowledge and plunder, takes my breath away when she hovers in her armor above her beloved Achaean hoplites. That’s just like my life, too, silly in a way but still breathtaking
Helen was the excuse for all this bloodshed. She’s awarded to Paris while still married to Menelaos because Aphrodite is bribing Paris. Ironically, by the time of the The Iliad, nine years into the war, Helen despises Paris. When Paris is shamed into individual combat with Menelaos, Aphrodite saves him from a complete ass kicking. She deposits him in his bedroom and commands Helen to comfort him. Helen rebels: “Not I, I’ll never go back again / It would be wrong, disgraceful to share the coward’s bed once more”. Aphrodite warns Helen not to provoke her, and Helen capitulates.
Helen is nothing but Aphrodite’s pawn. She has no choice. Neither does anyone else. The Trojans risk everything and ultimately lose everything for a woman who despises her abductor and freely refers to herself as a whore. She’s making eyes at her brother-in-law while other sources say she was sharing a bath with the Achaean spy, Odysseus. Even Helen is bewildered that the Trojans fight for her. But that’s fate. The gods command Troy’s destruction, so the characters have to play their roles heroically and let come what may. That’s life, too, isn’t it? I didn’t pick the stage, but I have to play my part, anyway.
Helen is one of The Iliad‘s and the Ancient World’s most fascinating characters. She’s a Spartan, and the Spartans eventually deify her. As if in thanks, she turns the Spartan women into the most exceptional women in ancient, and possibly human, history. At a time when all respectable women lived behind their veils, secluded in houses as secure as Fort Knox, Spartan women danced in the streets in skimpy dresses. Sometimes they shed even that modesty. Foreigners, some shocked and some beguiled, praised their beauty and physical attributes. Spartan women went to school and had a physical education program, their own Olympics, and one won the chariot race in the men’s Olympics. They made love to each other but married warriors and mothered warriors, and if they didn’t govern, they weren’t shy of speaking their minds. They apologize for none of it. They were literate, and they speak to us today in their own voices, the only women we hear from in the Ancient World, and what they say is they were having a damn fine time.
Possibly the Spartans deified Helen because she reflected what they already were. Or possibly, a deified Helen inspired Sparta. Possibly the Trojans were right; Helen was worth the risk. Possibly she is a spine-chilling goddess. And possibly this is what she’s trying to tell me: That what we all should be, what we are, when we shed our robes of convention, is nothing less than a goddess. A mind-boggling, bodacious goddess. Whatever her nature, she inspires me, just as she inspires the The Iliad, a tale that packs an enduring wallop.