Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 6

The Iliad ends with the hero’s impending death, but that never takes place. In fact, no other hero arises—though Homer easily could have talked more about Paris and emphasized his killing Achilles—and Achilles’ death seems to be the end. Achilles’ death has a finality about it, but he is not converted into a deity or worshipped after he dies. The account of the death of Sarpedon is parallel in several ways to the death of Hector (Zeus debating to thwart their fates to rescue them, his love for them, Athena/Hera’s words to Zeus, etc.). Sarpedon, however, seems to have had the burial near that of a deity, while Hector does not (his body is desecrated instead).

The Iliad, as stated before, is about competition and strife and how destructive those are. Times such as the funeral games and the description of Achilles’ shield reflect peaceful and civilized times, times in community and of peaceful resolution when disputes arise. For example, the funeral games bring competition, but the disagreements that arise from it are settled in a gentlemanly fashion.

The gods seem to be able to do something about fate: they are not hopelessly bound to it, particularly because they don’t know the specifics of fate. This comes across with Zeus’ words about intervening on Hector’s behalf. Apparently, Zeus could have helped Hector, but because of some greater decree or plan, he chose not to do it. The same is the case with the other gods.

In Book XVII, when Hector puts on Achilles’ armor, Zeus talks of the prince’s death, saying that even though Hector would die soon, Zeus would now give him glory for a brief time (449). Then Ares “comes into Hector” and strengthens him for the battle. It seems that in the context of battle, at least, humans participate in the divine precisely when they are the strongest and seek glory for themselves. Courage and strength and fighting ability make them godlike. In fact, the more strong and frenzied Achilles becomes, the more godlike he seems to become, and the more destructive, as well. The scene of Achilles battling the river shows the greatness of the gods, and yet how they still have to submit to fate. Here the river is not personified. The river is actually a god, so some magic or mysterious thing is evident in this section. Fate and the Furies are pre-Olympian gods, and though the Olympian gods rule at the time of The Iliad, the pre-Olympian gods still are around and still have power (491).

Homer uses the vocatives of the narrator (towards Patroclus and Menelaus) at times of intense emotion. Other poetic devices of feeling include the narrator recalling an earlier time—such as when Achilles remembers a former time with Patroclus while Patroclus is dead—or by presenting someone who does not know of the death of a loved one (Helen looking for her brothers, Achilles in the camp waiting for Patroclus, and Andromache preparing a bath for Hector).

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