Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Homer's Iliad: Grief, Rage, and Fate

A good friend of mine recently started up a support group we call "A Spiritual Conversation About Mental Illness." At my first meeting, one of the members happened to bring up Old English poetry. The bleak times, he explained, set new standards for the expression of what can best be described as fatalistic lament.

I whipped out my iPhone, and on Wikipedia found this verse circa 991 AD:

Thought shall be the harder, the heart the keener, courage the greater, as our strength lessens.
Here lies our leader all cut down, the valiant man in the dust;
always may he mourn who now thinks to turn away from this warplay.
I am old, I will not go away, but I plan to lie down by the side of my lord, by the man so dearly loved.

I couldn't help but think of Homer's Iliad, the product of a no less fatalistic age:

"Rage - Sing, goddess, the rage ..." begins the epic.

It's nine years into the Siege of Troy. The Greeks (Achaeans) have been driven back to their ships, but Achilles Son of Peleus is sulking in his tent, refusing to fight. Finally, he consents to his dearest friend Patroclus going into battle in his stead, outfitted in his armor. Patroclus is predictably killed (and stripped of his armor) by the Trojan commander Hector, son of Priam King of Troy. On hearing the news (from the Rieu translation), Achilles ...

... picked up the dark dust in both his hands and poured it on his head. He soiled his comely face with it, and filthy ashes settled on his scented tunic. He cast himself on the earth and lay there like a fallen giant, fouling his hair and tearing it out with his own hands.

Thus sets the scene for the greatest temper tantrum in all of literature. Clad in splendid new armor conveniently forged by the god Hephaestus, Achilles sets out on his own rendezvous with destiny. To exact his revenge will seal his own fate, maybe not today, but very soon. The gods have already determined this. Achilles is fully cognizant of this fact, but such is his grief and rage that even his goddess mother Thetis realizes there is no stopping her son.

We pick up on the action, in progress:

Thus Achilles ran amok with his spear, like a driving wind that whirls the flames this way and that way ... He chased his victims with the fury of a fiend, and the earth was dark with blood ... And the son of Peleus pressed on in search of glory, bespattering his unconquerable hands with gore.

Such is the force of his rage that he does battle with the river God Xanthus and vents his spleen in a face-to-face encounter with the God Apollo, who has been lending a divine assist to the Trojans: "Much as I should like to pay you out, if only I had the power."

Finally, he gets his chance to take out his anger on Hector:

"Lions do not come to terms with men, nor does the wolf see eye to eye with the lamb - they are enemies to the end," taking care to deliver an exclamation point with a spear through the neck. "So now the dogs will maul and mangle you ..."

It's not over. Achilles strips Hector of his armor (actually Achilles' original armor that Hector had stripped from Patroclus) and lashes his body by the feet to his chariot and "with a touch of the whip started his horses."

Priam and his wife Hecube witness the spectacle from the walls, but no one informs Hector's wife, Andromache, who is in her chambers awaiting her husband's return. The sound of laments from nearby draws her outside, just in time to witness her loved one's body being drawn toward the Achaean lines.

For the next nine days, Achilles drags Hector's body around Patroclus' funeral bier. Finally, the god Hermes persuades Achilles to allow Priam to bring his son's body back for a proper funeral. Thus ...

Dawn came once more, lighting the East with rosy hands, and saw people flock together at illustrious Hector's pyre ... Then they collected his white bones, lamenting as they worked, with many a big tear running down their cheeks. They took the bones, wrapped them in soft purple cloths and put them in a golden chest ...

Homer ends his account with:

"Such were the funeral rites for Hector, tamer of horses."

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