In this episode of Literary Tales we contrast Homer’s
Iliad against Hesiod’s Theogony to reveal the stark break from the poetic past and how Homer’s Iliad is really a cosmic epic of love and forgiveness caught in the rapture of war. I have written extensively on the Iliad (and Homer, more generally) for numerous publications. Links to various Homeric essays can be found at the bottom of this page.
Francisco Bayeu y Subías, “Olympus: Battle of the Titans,” 1764.
The Iliad is set in the context of the final weeks of the Trojan Wars. Despite that, Achilles only fights in three of the books. It is easy to mistake the Iliad as a war epic. While Homer doesn’t shun away from the sublime and agonistic cosmos he inhabited, he also offers intersplicing images and episodes of loving grandeur to offset the pain and horror of war. Finding these moments of love, compassion, and kindness are essential to understanding Homer’s message.
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Judgement of Paris,” ca. 1636. The mythological backstory to the Trojan War is the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis which was disrupted by the tossing of the Apple of Discord to sow division by the goddess Eris. Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite quarrel over who is the most voluptuous and beautiful goddess. Zeus decides to allow Paris to choose so as to unleash a war on the Trojans to help de-populate the earth. At least that is the complete and mature explanation contained in Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca ( The Library of Greek Mythology).
Karl Friedrich Deckler, “The Farewell of Hector.” Hector is one of the heroes of the Iliad and most discussed characters in Homeric scholarship. Some have gone as far as to claim that the sacrificial and filial ethos of Hector is the true ethic of the Iliad. I must disagree, however. It is undeniable that Hector exudes a filial love and piety that wins our hearts. However, Homer also reveals the limits of filial love in a war-torn world. Love moves through filial relationships, but the love that heals the broken world must extend beyond the family. Nevertheless, Homer does portray Hector in a very positive light. The touching scene with Hector and his family is one of the most memorable in all the epic.
Charles Antoine, “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737. The rage of Achilles is the subject of the poem and it reaches full gale in Books 20, 21, and 22 when Achilles storms out of his tent, armed with a new shield, spear, and sword, and wreaks havoc over the entire world. He mercilessly slays Lycaon then kills Hector. However, the fury of Achilles eventually subsides when Priam visits him in his tent, revealing for us the most magnanimous act of heroism in the whole poem…
Peter Paul Rubens, “Achilles Defeats Hector,” 1632. The duel of Achilles and Hector is one of the most memorable in all Western history. Hector, the great defender of Troy, is slain by the passionate fury of Achilles. A note, here, on art interpretation. Religious and Mythological paintings formed out of the Catholic tradition (Renaissance and Baroque especially) use colors to signify meaning. Red is the symbolic color of passion, or love, and is draped over Achilles to signify (in this particular instance) his passionate rage. Orange is the symbolic color of experience and order, authority, and is seen draped over Hector. For reasons that are too complicated to get into here, the Roman to Christian reception of the heroes of the Iliad preferred Hector to Achilles. Hector, after all, was considered one of the Nine Worthies of the Medieval World and was placed among the righteous souls in Limbo in Dante’s Inferno. Overhead flies the goddess Athena who helped Achilles win his duel against Hector.
Jacques-Louis David, “Funeral Games for Patroclus,” 1778. Patroclus, in my reading, is the great hero of the Iliad who shapes the direction of the love which Homer sings of: compassionate kindness. The death of Patroclus drives epic to its conclusion. Note, again, the color symbolism. Patroclus is draped in orangish-yellow signifying his authority and experience while being held in mourning by Achilles, who is again covered in red. Some of the most significant, loving, and touching moments of the Iliad involve Patroclus: his healing of Eurypylus, the Greek defense of his body, and Briseis’ lament over his dead body. Patroclus’ healing of Eurypylus and the lament of Briseis reveal Patroclus’ tender, kind, and loving character which also reappears in the memory of Achilles at the end of the poem.
Alexander Ivanov, “Priam Asking Achilles for Hector’s Body,” 1824. The concluding movement of the epic is Achilles’ return of the body of Hector to Priam and the peace he bestows to his avowed enemy. This act of forgiving love is the greatest act of heroism in the whole poem. We will note the color symbolism again: Priam, in his aged wisdom, is draped in orange. Achilles, once more, in red. He is also wearing green. Green usually signifies life. This is appropriate for this moment in the Iliad since Achilles bestows life, peace, to his enemies at the end of the Iliad. Although we know how the rest of the story goes, Homer ends his magisterial epic with the funeral of Hector and the healing of the shattered world in the peace granted by Achilles through his act of forgiving love.
Jacques-Louis David, “Andromache Mourning Hector,” 1783.
Sebastiano Conca, “The Vision of Aeneas in the Elysian Fields,” ca. 1740. Aeneas was a major hero among the Trojans and became the mythical founder of Rome in later Latin mythology. Homer ends his epic on a note of peace and healing instead of the burning and destruction of Troy. This is significant for us, as readers, to realize. Additionally, the final image on the Shield of Achilles is of the pastoral idyll in green pastures and flowing waters with men, women, boys, and girls all singing and dancing together in joyous peace. Homer, therefore, subtly informs us throughout the poem how to arrive at this blessed vision of Elysium: love, primarily a love governed by kindness reaching fullest heroic stature in forgiveness.
I am currently composing a manuscript on Homer’s
Iliad. I write on Homer (and the Greek classics) quite extensively. Here you can find some of my writings on Homer that have been published for public readership:
Reading Homer: From Here to Eternity (1 June 2020)
Achilles, Priam, and the Redemptive Power of Forgiveness (6 April 2020)
Heroes of Love (15 January 2020)
Homer’s “Iliad” and the Shield of Love and Strife (8 August 2019)
Homer’s Epic of the Family (16 October 2018)