Background to the Trojan War
The War resulted from the Judgment of Paris–a myth involving Achilles’ parents, the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite (called Juno, Minerva, and Venus in our text), and the mortal Trojan, Paris. Essentially, the goddess Thetis, who would become Achilles’ mother, married a mortal named Peleus; all the gods and goddesses of Olympus and the other Greek gods and goddesses were invited. Except Eris, goddess of discord, because she caused trouble.
Being insulted, Eris had her revenge–she created a golden apple inscribed with a Greek word meaning ‘To the Fairest of All’ and rolled it into the wedding. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple, and appealed to Zeus to settle the dispute. As Hera was his wife and sister, Athena his daughter, and Aphrodite, his … cousin I guess you would call her–she was born from the ocean after Cronos castrated his father Uranus and threw the genitals into the sea–Zeus wanted no part of this dispute. Paris was chosen because he was seen as an honorable mortal because he fairly dealt with the god Apollo in a different dispute.
All three of the goddesses offered bribes; Hera, queen of the gods, offered power–the crown of Europe and Asia; Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, offered skill and wisdom in battle; Aphrodite offered beauty and love: Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite and claimed Helen as his wife.
Problem was, Helen was already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. After Paris stole Helen and brought her to Troy, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon declare war on Troy and unite the city-states of Greece to their cause. They recruit Odysseus, Achilles, and other great Greek heroes to fight Troy. The Trojan War would last 10 years, only ending (after the events of The Iliad) when Odysseus creates the Trojan Horse, which allows the Greeks to get inside the great Troy gates.
It took another 10 years for Odysseus to get home to Ithaka–detailed in The Odyssey.
Peter Paul Reubens depicted the Judgment of Paris in his painting seen here (Links to an external site.).
The goddesses are lined up: Athena, next to her discarded armor; Aphrodite, attended by her son Eros (also known as Cupid); and Hera wearing a golden crown. Paris holds up the golden apple.
The War has been used in countless works of art, poems, plays, films, sculpture, music, etc. In the 20th Century, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats imagined the moment of Zeus raping Leda in his poem ‘Leda and the Swan (Links to an external site.)‘ to focus on the horror of that moment as well as the devastation of the War (be forewarned, it’s a graphic and disturbing poem that is not required reading for this course, but does offer a modern view/context to Homer’s work). And the American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) also re-imagined that scene in her poem ‘Leda (Links to an external site.)‘ (less graphic perhaps but no less disturbing).
Why do you think this moment remains so powerful for artists?
Features/Forms in Homer’s Poetry
While our version of the poem is rendered in a modern prose style, the original Homeric Poetry has the following features:
- Invocation of the Muse—asking for help from the gods to sing and write well in line 2–Calliope was the goddes of epic poetry and the poet is asking for her help in making a great work.We see this in the first lines, ‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus,that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.’
- The use of titles and epithets like ‘Grey-eyed Goddess,’ ‘White-Armed Goddess,’ ‘Clever Odysseus.’ This was done to give the person reciting the poem a neumonic device to remember lines.
- The “Homeric Catalog”: Lists of names, weapons, Achilles’ shield as described in Book XVII etc.
- Scenes of horror juxtaposed with touching, tender scenes. See for example the scene when Hector greets his son and scares the boy to death before taking off his helmet and the boy becomes happy. See also the scene when Achilles receives Paris after killing Hector. Both men lost someone they loved. Both are grieving and share a tender moment in their grief.
- Homecoming–key theme throughout Greek literature–also a theme The Odyssey. The idea of getting home to wife and children as well as the idea of defending home. Seen in one of Achilles’ fates: returning home, but without his battle won glory–but he can live a long life.
- Glory, won especially on the battlefield–Fame, notoriety, and going down in history all key for the this theme. Seen in Achilles’ other fate: he can live a short life, dying on the battlefield, but he will earn great fame and glory. He chooses this fate, going down in history as a great warrior. Paris, who kills Achilles, gets no glory for this because he doesn’t face Achilles face to face but instead shoots him from behind. (there’s a whole forum on this point)
- Honor and Respect–due especially to one’s betters or superiors, to the gods, and to those who win glory on the battlefield. (there’s a whole forum on this point)
- Rage/Fury/Wrath–a key theme that opens the open–Achilles is full of wrath and rage because of his sense of dishonor because of Agamemnon’s actions. The Gods too are wrathful–Poseidon keeps Odysseus from reaching home for 10 years after Troy, Apollo rains plague and death down on the Greeks at Troy, Athena tricks Hector into facing Achilles and certain death, etc. See for example Athena’s rage, Hector’s rage against Patroclus, and Achilles’ rage upon Hector.
- Fate–Once a fate is set, no chance of change in Greek culture–the fates are settled and that’s it–even the other Gods do not/cannot change the Fates. Achilles must choose between two fates and two fates only: Going home without honor, or honor and legendary glory, but dying young on the battlefield.
Respect vs. Honor/Glory
How do these idea differ both in The Iliad and in your mind?
A key for the Greeks is that glory is won, honor is displayed and received. Honor is shown to guests, to superiors, to the gods, etc. Achilles, e.g., shows respect and proper honor to Priam despite being enemies in the War.
But Achilles did not honor Hector and in fact loses his honor because he dishonors Hector’s body Hector did not honor Patroclus.
Picking Sides in the Trojan War
I’d say both sides have heroes, their reasons for going to war, and are both wrong in going to war–so typical of wars in general.
Homer, like most great writers and poets, gives no easy answers. Can we apply images and lessons from the Iliad to our current wars?
The Trojan War, like the recent and on-going wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, lasted ten years. Does it compare to Vietnam, the Great War (World War 1) or WW2 in your mind? How so? How not?
The Gods joing the fray on both sides–we are told in Book XX that, “Juno, Pallas Minerva, earth-encircling Neptune, Mercury bringer of good luck and excellent in all cunning—all these joined the host that came from the ships; with them also came Vulcan in all his glory, limping, but yet with his thin legs plying lustily under him. Mars of gleaming helmet joined the Trojans, and with him Apollo of locks unshorn, and the archer goddess Diana, Leto, Xanthus, and laughter-loving Venus.” It becomes, aside from Jupiter/Jove/Zeus, a family affair and civil war.
What do you think of these gods and how they enter this human affair–especially Zeus’ role as literal progenitar of the conflict who refuses to take a side in this horror he creates through this lust and rape?
Achilles vs. Hector
The conflict in the story builds to its climax in the fight between to the two greatest heroes on each side, Achilles and Hector, in Book XX. The narration we have in this version is pretty graphic–this version of the poem spares little detail of the damage that swords, spears, and shields can do to human bodies–what do you think of these depictions? Is this entertaining? Or perhaps meant to show that war is not so entertaining and fun as stories (especially in modern Hollywood) would have us believe, but utterly destructive and dehumanizing.
Achilles’ rage comes from the killing of his friend and most beloved comrade, Patroclus, by Hector in a section of the story we’re not looking at.
In his dying breaths, Hector asks Achilles to accept the ransom for his body and treat it with respect–as a fallen equal, but Achilles, to his shame in the eyes of the gods and certainly it is suggested to us the reader, will have none of.
Achilles drags Hector’s body like a dog many times around Patroclus’ tomb and around the Gates of Troy. He attempts to defile Hector’s corpse (Apollo, Troy’s protector, keeps the body from being destroyed). Does this make Achilles less heroic? Does it matter?
Achilles is then killed by Paris in a way that, to the Greeks at least, was cowardly–Paris doesn’t face Achilles as an equal with sword and spear, but he hides behind Achilles and shoots him in the leg with an arrow.
Paris receives no honor or glory for the kill, Achilles is buried with honor and glory for killing Hector and so many other Trojans.
Themes in The Iliad
It is a story of how men and gods fight for glory and fame–often to know or even despite their fates–and try to either defend of get home. It’s like much of war itself in all ages and times–the soldiers often, as I understand it, often develop a cynical sense that one’s fate is already sealed–you’ll either get home or you won’t and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But getting home is the chief desire–we see this in Achilles and the other warriors, I think, in The Iliad. Glory and honor then come far down the list of possible achievements–more so in the Greek literature than in real life, I imagine. Every United States’ Medal of Honor winner I’ve heard speak (and I met several at their annual convention one year during grad school) all say that they deserved their medals far less than others they knew, and accepted the Medal of Honor only on behalf of those who didn’t come home.
So what can we say about such themes in Homer’s poem? How does the poem handle issues like predestination and fate? How does it handle the issue of the nature of war as a good thing in a general sense, but an absolute horror in the particulars?
Other thoughts on broad themes or specific scenes/characters in the work?
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
In the introduction to the work in our anthology, our editors write, “In Confucian thinking, everyone has an assigned place in society, with strict expectations for behavior that could potentially limit creative/unusual responses. Sun Tzu’s approach to warfare is Daoist in nature, rather than Confucian ‘by adapting oneself to one’s situation, rather than rigidly holding fast to how one thinks things should be, one is able to recognize the fluidity of conditions and act upon them decisively’ (Mark).”
Early on, Sun Tzu writes,
“The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. 4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and Discipline. 5, 6. The MORAL LAW causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger. 7. HEAVEN signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons. 8. EARTH comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death. 9. The COMMANDER stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness. 10. By METHOD AND DISCIPLINE are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.”
What do you think of this as organizing principles for a society? What is the role of justice?
How does this view of war and society compare and contrast to that which we see in the six books of The Iliad we’ve read this week?
What other points of Sun Tzu’s treatise seem useful to us–in what contexts? Why do you think that business schools, law schools, and modern military academies like West Point and Annapolis teach this work?
No words limit. This text is free and Open-Source: https://ung.edu/university-press/books/compact-anthology-world-literature.php (Links to an external site.)