Well, the climax of Homer’s Iliad is finally reached in Books 21 and 22. We see Achilleus descend into burning fury, and become more and more an inhuman force of nature. We observe him also almost pay strongly for his delusions in both being chased by the wave of a powerful river, Xanthos/Skamandros, but also chasing down a god he thought was a man (Apollo). We see the famous theomachy or fight between the gods on Achaian and Trojan side, and even more famously we see the resolution of Hektor to stand and fight Achilleus, his moment of terror and flight, and then his deception and death–followed most famously by his being dragged behind Achilleus’ chariot in an act of unspeakable cruelty. All this was considered today during our eighth conversation with students.
During Book 21 we discover that Achilleus was once glad to catch men and ransom them into slavery (Lykaon, for example), but that now, especially in the cases of Polydoros, Lykaon, and Asteropaios (who gives his lineage in a way most similar to Glaukos from Book 6), Achilleus will spare no Trojan, especially those who are the sons of Priam. He says directly 21.99-113:
“Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it. In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny then it was the way of my heart’s choice to be sparing of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them. Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam. So, friend [philos], you die also. Why all this clamour about it? Patroklos is also dead, who was better by far than you are. Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal? Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny, and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also either by spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring.”
Truly, the charge made of him by both Patroklos (16.33-35) and Aias (9.630-633) of him being pitiless has become true. He is changed even in character from the sort of youthful rage he endured earlier in the text to a being consumed and represented by fire (19.15-18; 19.375-380). He can do naught but consume, ravage, and destroy–whether it be the warrior’s ethical code, funerary rites of defeated heroes, or the lives of those who knees he unstrings, Achilleus loses more and more humanity as he gives in further and further to his desperate wrath, a passion beyond belief, unchecked by the mediocrity of average human abilities. He refuses food (19.200-214; 19.305-309), eschews kingly gifts (19.146-153), and in fact likens himself to Zeus (22.186-199) and to fate (21.99-103).
There are, however, reminders of Achilleus’ mortality: Athene must infuse him with nectar and ambrosia so that he does not weaken from hunger and thirst (19.349-356); Skamandros the river god almost drowns him before Hera sends Hephaistos to Achilleus’ rescue (21.240-380), and Apollo deceives him by taking the shape of Agenor and leading Achilleus from the Trojan wall during a crucial Trojan retreat (21.590-611). As inhuman as Achilleus becomes, his mortality and human limitations are constantly present, though subtly expressed. It is a unique situation that a man with such a divine pedigree (his mother is a Nereid (sea-nymph) and his paternal great-grandfather is Zeus), and he is nearly invulnerable, has sacked 23 cities, and causes such great fear in his opponents that his mere yell can cause enough disorientation and confusion for men (12) to die. And yet as he embraces his god-like gift for killing, so does he speed his exit from the world in completely giving himself over to his fate to die a young man, full of glory. The students rightly ask, though he becomes less and less human, does Achilleus become more divine? Largely, the answer was no–though he more and more reflects a force of nature, that force is naturalistic, without conscience, and animal-like, or fire-like, as one suggested.
Although the theomachy or battle of the gods occurs in Book 21, it interestingly enough did not catch the attention of the students. Certainly, they enjoyed Hephaistos lighting Xanthos, the river, on fire and steaming his liquid body. And no student was without a smirk in reading aloud of Athene striking Ares with a stone in laying him out over seven acres, followed immediately by her striking Aphrodite on the breast. They thought Apollo refusing to fight Poseidon was “lame”, though Apollo sounds so similar to Glaukos, a mortal, from Book 6 in likening mortals to leaves: “Shaker of the earth, you would have me be as one without prudence (saophrona) if I am to fight even you for the sake of insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but then again fade away and are dead. Therefore let us with all speed give up this quarrel and let the mortals fight their own battles.” (22.462-467) Though, it is worth noting that the theme again of the temporary nature of human life is referenced with disparity, and that such quotes are really mounting up. Book 15, too, Athene, reminds us of the mortal nature of man: “Therefore I ask of you to give up your anger for your son. By now some other, better of his strength and hands than your son was, has been killed, or will soon be killed; and it is a hard thing to rescue all the generation and seed of all mortals.” (15.138-141) And Hera to Zeus in Book 16.440-442: “Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him?” The students are getting the point: all mortals, including them, must some day die, and they see Achilleus, consumed by rage and fiery emotion, hurtling helter-skelter towards his end, they have also seen him for the divided and pensive man his was in Book 9. Ultimately, the answer of how to live with the knowledge of death is not solved for the students by Achilleus, but the question, at least, is asked so that they know even the most divine of men was faced with the deepest existential question we know: “how should we then live?”
We then come to the stunning climax or anti-climax of the whole poem in Book 22: the death and desecration of Hektor. The moment is climactic in that all the story, at least since Book 16 (and really even the prophecy in Book 15.62-70), has been leading up to a battle between Hektor and Achilleus, never mind the fact that Aias has thoroughly thrashed Hektor twice already (7.244-276 ;14.409-420). The fight, too, is strange in that it is intricately set up. It is not, like the one on one combats between Paris and Menelaos or Hektor and Aias set up from the beginning, but rather comes about “naturally” but also with great interference from Athene. Hektor first chooses, finally, to stand and fight against Achilleus, but upon seeing Achilleus up close, he runs (22.131-167), and perhaps the most beautiful simile of the poem follows after several others: “As in a dream a man is not able to follow one who runs from him, nor can the runner escape, nor the other pursue him, so he could not run him down in his speed, nor the other get clear.” (22.199-201) This is hardly Hektor’s finest moment; nor is it highly courageous when Athene tricks him into standing alone against Achilleus by likening herself to Hektor’s brother Deiphobos, so that Hektor need not fear fighting Achilleus alone. Nor, yet, is it Hektor’s finest moment either when he tries to barter with Achilleus that whoever wins return the body of the fallen to his side (22.251-259). Hektor is no coward, but when Achilleus says “Hektor, argue me no agreements. I cannot forgive you. As there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions, nor wolves and lambs…” (22.261-263) one sees just how terrifyingly predatory Achilleus has become. He is divine in his strength and pitiless in his aspect. Even the great Trojan hero, perhaps in a moment of sobriety, knowing there is no escape for him, finds himself, like a lamb, attempting to reason with what was once a man, but is now something vastly different.
The fight itself is short. Achilleus throws and misses with a spear-cast which Athene returns to him (22.275-278) (why she finds this necessary to do is beyond the students and me). And Hektor then strikes the shield of Achilleus, but like Aineias before him, the great shield Hephaistos wrought for Achilleus turns the spear away. Hektor then experiences his moment of ultimate doom in turning to Deiphobos for his spear just to realize that Deiphobos is not there and that he must have been tricked by a god. (22.293-305) He faces death admirably, at last: “But now my death is upon me. Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious, but do some big thing first, that men to come shall know of it.” (22. 303-305) Hektor, like Patroklos and Sarpedon dies honorably in the eyes of the students.
The students, then, are far less forgiving of Achilleus’ stringing “thongs of leather” through the heels of Hektor and dragging him through the dust behind his chariot in front of the city he loved and defended as his horrified people and family watch. There is some evidence that Hektor would have despoiled the body of Patroklos, however, and the students did notice that in Book 17.125-128: “But Hektor, when he had stripped from Patroklos the glorious armour, dragged at him, meaning to cut head from his shoulders with the sharp bronze, to haul off the body and give it to the dogs of Troy;” So, sagaciously, the students suggested that Achilleus had a similar intention to Hektor, but he simply had the means necessary to carry out his malicious wish. This certainly says something strong for the benefits of having normal human limitations. But a counter, if not a strong one, is that Achilleus almost certainly did not know the intent of Hektor to despoil Patroklos’ body, and even if Hektor did so, it would not be out of pure avarice and inhuman anger, but as a tactic motivated to attack the morale of the Achaians while rallying the battle spirit of the other Trojan men fighting for the protection of their home. So while the battle itself is somewhat anticlimactic (I do tell the students that the battle between Achilleus and Memnon, at least as told by Quintus of Smyrna in his Posthomerica, goes all day), it does bring Achilleus’ inhuman passion to the fore. He is unlimited by the wills and morals of other men, and ultimately, he uses this not to help others, but to tarnish his own image and the body of a beloved hero. In this moment, Achilleus becomes impossibly distant and unsympathetic to us. Perhaps in Book 24 he will find some redemption, in his own self-made underworld.