The Iliad: Progress report 5

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 12 line 42 to Book 14 line 407

For the last five months, I’ve beenreading roughly 70 lines of The Iliad each morning, and it’s a great way to start the day. I expect to finish reading it by the end of this year

Books 12 and 13 are mainly accounts of horrific fighting. There’s some attention to tactics as the Trojans, supported by Zeus, attack the Greeks’ ships, and the Greeks, surreptitiously helped by Poseidon in spite of Zeus having forbidden it, inflict serious damage right back.Robert Fagles’ translation goes for anatomical precision where Pope, for example, is much more general and so less visceral in effect. I actually gasped aloud at least once. I’ll spare my reader’s sensibilities and not give an example.

I have so many questions. Is this an anti-war poem – a cry of despair about ‘the surging inhuman blaze of war’ (Book 12, line 205)? If so, what to make of its talk of glory and the joy of battle? Like this (Book 13, lines 398–399):

Only a veteran steeled at heart could watch that struggle
and still thrill with joy and never feel the terror.

If The Iliad is a foundational text of western culture, what kind of civilisation is this, where killing and robbing the freshly dead are honourable deeds? What is a man in this culture? What are we to make of the seemingly endless lists of warriors? Do they refer to stories and histories that were familiar to the book’s original leaders and listeners? Or are at least some of them Homer’s inventions? (Either way, it’s a formidable feat on Homer’s part.) Are the gods there as light relief, or as anything more than a whimsical embodiment of the idea that things aren’t always under human control?

Today I’m in the middle of an episode in which Hera decides to seduce her brother–consort Zeus. Many lines have been spent describing her alluring attire and perfuming. She has tricked Aphrodite into giving her a breastband, ‘pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment woven through it’, and bargained with Sleep to knock Zeus out after she has had it off with him. Now she flies to Zeus on Mount Ida and ‘at one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race’. He then tries to sweet-talk her into going to bed with him, little knowing that this is exactly what she is planning. To my mind, his seduction speech is hilarious. He says his lust for her at this moment is greater than any he’s ever had for goddess or mortal woman, and proceeds to list his past conquests. I’ve peeked ahead and see that his speech works, or at least it doesn’t put Hera off. And after all the horror of the battlefield, here’s the passage about the gods making love that I’ve just glimpsed in tomorrow’s reading (Zeus is the son of Cronos):

With that the son of Cronus caught his wife in his arms
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft
it lifted their bodies off the hard, packed ground ...
Folded deep in that bed they lay and round them wrapped
a marvellous cloud of gold, and glistening showers of dew
rained down around them both.

Phew! And I expect that the rest of Hera’s plan, which will let Poseidon come out into the open to help the Greeks, will also go ahead … up to a point.

It’s brilliant story-telling to have this interlude as an emotional respite in the middle of the terrible man-on-man fighting and killing. But to return to my question: does it represent some understanding of the nature of the gods; is there a theological point to the episode? I expect a lot of scholarly ink has been spent on that and similar questions.

I have no idea. In the same way, I don’t understand the ancient Greek concept of the Hero, which is very important to this book. But the abrupt change of perspective that happens when the story turns to the gods felt strangely familiar. I realised that having recently read the current issue of Southerly (my blog post here) and then read news items on the current election campaign, I had encountered a similar switch. First I was immersed in personal accounts of people who have suffered under the Australian government’s policy about ‘boat people’. Then, coming up for air, I read the abstractions and personality-based coverage of the election, some of which would be mildly laughable if it wasn’t so consequential., where if refugees and asylum seekers in detention are mentioned at all, they are counters in a game of wedge and counter-wedge. So if I happen to say that a particular politician is godlike, please understand that I have the petty, lustful, self-serving, deceitful and arrogant gods of Homer in mind.

3 responses to “The Iliad: Progress report 5

  1. I may have said this before, but whatever the original intent of the poem, its value now is in forcing the modern reader to see the effects of war, close up and unavoidable so that we can’t turn away and not see what is being done in our name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a point worth repeating, Lisa, but it’s also interesting to try to understand the differences in the way things were understood in pas millennia. For example, I’ve read a very interesting discussion of Odysseus’ journey in The Odyssey as an exercise in accumulating wealth by exploiting the laws of hospitality – not something that’s obvious to us now, but it enriches the way we read the story , as well as offering a plausible explanation for why such a short distance took him so long to cover.

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