Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 5

The Iliad, Books XVII-XXIV

As happened before the death of Sarpedon, Zeus again debates whether to let Hector die or to save him and defy fate. Instead of Hera protesting against Zeus for thinking about this, Book XXII has Athena mouthing the same statements the goddess queen protested. In reply to Athena, Zeus tells her that nothing he had just said was meant in earnest (547). What does this mean? Is it merely that Zeus cannot control fate, and therefore, though he desires to save Hector, in fact, he cannot? Zeus adds that he means Athena “all the good will in the world.” Does that mean, then, that he does not mean Hector’s good will? Whose good is Zeus pursuing?

This section deals heavily with the notion of human responsibility vs. external forces, like intervention of the gods and fate. Agamemnon reiterates in Book XIX that the gods blinded him and that he is not to blame for making Achilles angry (491, 493). Artemis, in Book XXI blames Hera for the entire war (536), and yet all the gods are expectant to see whether the Achaeans will win prematurely, against fate. In other words, even the gods don’t seem to know definitely what or when someone’s fate will be fulfilled (537). This lack of knowledge, both in humans and in gods, spurs people on to have courage. Since they don’t know whether fate or the gods will be on their side and cause them to win, they are encouraged to aim for something that may even be too hard for them. For example, both Agenor and Hector dare to go against Achilles at different times because they know that the gods give the victory and hope that the gods will help them win over mighty Achilles (538, 545). Had Hector definitely known that he did not have a chance against Achilles, he would not have had the courage to go up against his enemy.

The Iliad certainly seems to emphasize friendships and family relations. Fathers are revered, and soldiers are often described as sons of a particular person. Even Priam uses Achilles’ remembrance of his father to soften Achilles to give up Hector’s body. An interesting account in Book XX is Aeneas’ relating of his lineage as he is fighting with Achilles (510-511). It seems like an odd intervention in the middle of the battle, but this appears to be the closest hint at the subject of the Aeneid. The account of the forging on Achilles’ shield in Book XVIII also seems somewhat superfluous, though poetic. What is its function?

Finally, the book concludes with the burial of Hector. Indeed, the ending is tragic, and the last person to bemoan Hector’s death is Helen, the one for which the battle rages. Though Achilles’ death is imminent, nothing is mentioned of Paris: Paris does not seem to be a hero. Despite rage and killing, Hector and Achilles are presented as pious men who revered the gods, and therefore, seem to be the models in these areas. Both are also spoken of as full of beauty (553, 609) and godlike.

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