If ever there were a world meant to make one feel small it would be Homer’s. As one reads through the lines of his Iliad and Odyssey, time and time again one observes that which could never be observed: semi-divine heroes and absolute monarchs; creatures of unstoppable might or gargantuan size, and gods on high, beyond all things mortal, except for, of course, the affairs of man. The question thus arises, what might one learn from such untouchable and unbelievable characters, creatures, and gods? What could one learn from say Achilleus and Agamemnon, the Cyclopes and the Sirens, and Zeus and his distinguished family? Let us find out.
One meets Achilleus and Agamemnon in the first seven lines of Homer’s Iliad:
“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.” (Iliad Bk I 1-7, Lattimore tr.)
The rest of the story, though featuring gods, machinations, and bouts with and decisions about iron-clad fate, is essentially an off-shooting from these first lines. All that happens during the course of the Iliad stems from the strife between Agamemnon and Achilleus. Achilleus, the semi-divine and near invincible son of Thetis, the Nereid, conqueror of twenty-three cities, and Agamemnon, lord of Mycenae and Argos, leader of 100 ships, and the field marshal of the 1000 ships of the Achaian fleet. These men are giants in the truest sense of the word. However, they are both profoundly human in that they are childish and emotionally weak–and that their emotions lead them both to smallness and perdition from mightiness and grandeur.
Agamemnon, by dishonoring Achilleus in the first book (by taking his concubine, Briseis), loses his greatest warrior–the only warrior keeping Hektor of Troy from routing the Achaians, burning their fleet, and sending Agamemnon’s name into posterity as the king who lost the biggest war in history–Ignominy for the price of one girl.* Achilleus, on the other hand, knows that he has two destinies and that one includes his sky-borne fame:
“For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.” (Iliad Bk IX 405-416, Lattimore tr.)
And though Achilleus valued glory above all else in the time before the Iliad, the disrespect Agamemnon paid him has made him question the whole heroic code of conduct–so much so that he dared to speak: “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honor, the brave with the weaklings.” (Iliad Bk IX 318-320, Lattimore tr.) Achilleus, though he may be making a cogent point, has become surly and self-absorbed. He now matches the covetousness of Agamemnon with his own rage and his own self-interested pursuit of whichever destiny suits him best.
Both Agamemnon and Achilleus are beyond human in their gifts and abilities, and yet both are so small and so utterly human in that they are controlled and harnessed by their emotions, rather than vice versa. Perhaps divine gifts are not always quite so divine as they seem, especially when one considers Achilleus and Agamemnon in light of Nestor and Odysseus, who, though wise and cunning, respectively, held nowhere near as much physical or political power. Both men, though, make it home alive and well, and both are still lauded to this day.
The monstrous then rears its ugly head in Homer’s Odyssey. Though the Iliad featured many semi-divine warriors (Sarpedon, Achilleus, Memnon (technically after), Tlepolemos, Aeneas, etc…) it is Homer’s Odyssey which showcases monsters as invincible and irresistible as forces of nature. On the one hand, there is the Lotus Flower of the Lotus Eaters, which causes all men who consume it to forget themselves and their homecoming, and then there is the sweet and all-knowing song of the Sirens which all men succumb to if they hear it. One sees also giant and uncivilized murderers like Polyphemos, the Cyclops and Antiphates and his Laistrygones, who happen to kill 10/11 of Odysseus’ men. There are then also more selective or limited monsters–still as irresistibly powerful: Circe with her “malignant drugs” which cause Odysseus’ men to turn to swine (only Hermes’ advice to eat the divine plant “Moly” saves Odysseus from this fate), or Skylla and her killing with her six vicious heads, and Charybdis who swallows the salt-sea and all that travels across her whirlpool’s edge.
Truly, what lessons could be learned from the Lotus Eaters and Sirens? Is it that certain forces, precisely because of their pleasant nature, will always be beyond human will and control? Or perhaps, when encountering the Cyclopes and Laistrygones, what the price of false expectations and assumptions is? Or is it that no amount of human physical strength will win out in certain situations? Again with Skylla and Charybdis, does one learn that in life there will be times when one is faced by decisions where pain and suffering will be the result of either path, and one must choose the lesser of two significant evils? And then Circe, and the power some divinity, or some pursuit may have to turn men into baser animals, pigs. These monsters exist within Homer’s Odyssey not as simple and imaginative fanfare, but as illustrations of situations, events, and conditions that are at once beyond human control, and universally and commonly present in the life of any man or woman.
Having seen magnificent men and monstrous creatures, let us now consider the gods. As early as the end of Book I of Homer’s Iliad one has the opportunity to see the consort and relationships between the gods and the necessity for peace between them. After Achilleus begs his mother, Thetis, to have Zeus honor him because the Achaians, and specifically Agamemnon, have dishonored him, Thetis flies to Zeus in heaven to request that he give honor to her poor son, Achilleus.Though Zeus is loath to go against the will of his wife Hera (Hera, Poseidon, and Athene are all staunch supporters of the Achaians), Thetis reminds him of the time that she freed him from the clutches of the same three gods/goddesses and restored him to power. Zeus then nods his head, and immediately after Thetis flies off, Hera starts berating him, in all too familiar way, for consorting with Thetis and no doubt hurting her plans to destroy Troy. Zeus replies to her with a show of force that would become common throughout the Iliad:
“Dear lady, I never escape you, you are always full of suspicion.
Yet thus you can accomplish nothing surely, but be more
distant from my heart than ever, and it will be the worse for you.
If what you say is true, then that is the way I wish it.
But go then, sit down in silence, and do as I tell you,
for fear all the gods, as many as are on Olympos, can do nothing
if I come close and lay my unconquerable hands upon you.” (Iliad Bk 561-567, Lattimore tr.)
Hephaistos, son of Hera, and by some accounts Zeus as well, steps between the two, reminding them that gods ought not to quarrel on the behalf of mortals and that there will be no pleasure in feasting because “vile things will be uppermost”. Hephaistos then reminds Hera of the power of Zeus and how he once threw Hephaistos off of Olympos–who had stepped between Zeus and Hera–so that he fell from the sky for an entire day until plummeted to the earth of the island of Lemnos (an image repeated by Lucifer in Book I of Milton’s Paradise Lost). (One can read the whole exchange here.)
Although the basic foundation of morality and politics does appear to be the absolute power of Zeus, if one looks closely, that looks more like starting point for the interactions of the gods than it does an ending point. For one, Zeus goes against the will of his wife in order to honor a debt he has to Thetis. Is honoring a debt something that an all-powerful and tyrannical ruler is required to do by law? Certainly no law above him could bring this about; it is his own code applied to himself–and it takes the form of honoring a debt, or a favor done for him, above honoring the will of his own wife. This is a very interesting insight into the ways of politics as exemplified by the gods. For if he is all powerful, why does Zeus feel the need to act politically at all? And if an all-powerful god acts politically, honoring debts, listening to reason, and refusing at all times to assert his power, is one to understand that a human, far less powerful, ought to do the same? Does one imagine that haughty Agamemnon would honor a debt that would cause him any discomfort at all? Was not the entire ordeal between him and Achilleus brought about precisely because he would not be without “every honor” a leader deserves?
Secondly, what is Hephaistos’ role on Olympos here? He already knows that he is risking severe physical punishment (he either limps because he was thrown by Zeus off Olympos or because he was born deformed, depending on account) by standing between Zeus and Hera, but it is telling that he plays the role of peacemaker. He reminds Hera of the power of Zeus so that Zeus need not express his power himself. Again this is a lesson both Achilleus and Agamemnon could learn from. Agamemnon expresses his power by taking the concubine of Achilleus. And Achilleus nearly expressed his power by reaching to pull his sword and kill Agamemnon until Athene pulls his hair to stop him from acting rashly (Bk I 197-200). Nestor steps between the two men and he calms their emotions for a moment, but where Hephaistos brings the gods to peace, Nestor only prevents further immediate physical and disastrous conflict. The damage to the relationship between Achilleus and Agamemnon, though, is done. It seems that as human as the gods can be, in terms of having emotions and acting violently, that at least in the first book of Homer’s Iliad they are capable of a peace or political order that the men below are not.
*One is almost tempted to observe the subtle and pervading presence of women’s power in the Homer, but that is the subject of another essay soon to come