Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 3

The Iliad, Books 9-16

Zeus’ will seems unfathomable. Why does he cause so much trouble raising up Hector, granting victory to the Trojans, killing Patroclus, and then shifting the glory to the Acheans? Why does Zeus need to kill his own son, Sarpedon? It seems that the gods are just as baffled about Zeus’s will as men are. They do not seem to understand it, and they are constantly balking against it (Book XV). It seems, however, that it is precisely their attempts to subvert Zeus’s will that actually accomplishes it, much like Oedipus Rex’s efforts to avoid his fate led him to fulfill it.

Up to Book XV, one character toward which the reader is most sympathetic is Nestor. In Book XVI, Patroclus appears as a character that the reader comes to love as well as Nestor. In fact, up to this point in the story, it seems that the narrator has never addressed the characters directly, but he does this with Patroclus. This preferential treatment sets the character off as special, and the reader who until now has admired Hector and sided with the Trojans, may now easily turn his sympathies over to the Achaeans because of the death of Patroclus. That Apollo and Zeus strip Patroclus of his armor—leaving him vulnerable to Euphorbus and to Hector—also causes the reader to shift his sympathy towards Patroclus, the greathearted. It seems as though the story leads the reader to accept the will of Zeus, whereas in the beginning, the reader may have balked at it, just as the gods do.

Fate seems to be over everyone, including the gods. Achilles is said to have “two fates,” (265 [410]) but what does that mean? Book XVI refers to the “will of fate” (435 [707]), does this imply that fate is personal or is this just a personification? Some places refer to fate as a goddess, so perhaps it’s a personification here.

Concerning deity and what makes gods different from men, what makes Zeus as great as he is? He tells Poseidon in Book XV that he is greater and that he is the firstborn, too. Was he born greater than Poseidon? Was it acquired (i.e., did he become strong by some means)? If Poseidon and Hades are equals of Zeus, why don’t they rule (393-94)? Is it right for Zeus to be arrogant, as Poseidon declaims Zeus is (393) or is it his right because he is greater? Moreover, does Zeus act for his own interest or is he acting on the interest of men? Whose greater good is in view when it comes to Zeus’s will? Is there a greater good in view or does Zeus decree things based on capriciousness?

Two curiosity questions that I have left are the following: Who are “the gods beneath the ground that circle Cronus” (395)? And what does it mean that “the Furies always stand by the older brothers” (394)?

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