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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 13-16)

The second half of The Iliad gets down to some serious fighting between the two armies. By now the reader has to ponder whether this is really a war between men for the sake of Helen or if it’s really a showdown between the gods for the sake of their own pride. In Book 13 we find out that “Poseidon pitied the Greeks who were being overcome by the Trojans and he was furiously angry with Zeus.” But on the other hand “Zeus was minded to give victory to the Trojans and to Hector so as to do honor to fleet Achilles.” What makes this situation tense is the fact that Poseidon and Zeus are not only gods, they’re also brothers: “Both of them were of the same race and country but Zeus was elder born and knew more.” They’re squabbling like a couple of teenage brothers but they have the power of immortal gods. This can’t be good for men. When the Greek gods start squabbling the men tend to suffer. When Poseidon and Zeus argue, men get killed: “Thus then did these two devise a knot of war and battle that none could unloose or break and set both sides tugging at it, to the failing of men’s knees beneath them.”

Not only is Zeus fighting with his brother, he’s also married to his sister – Hera. Incest didn’t seem to be a big problem with the Greek gods. The marriage doesn’t seem to be particularly fulfilling, at least to Hera. In Book 14 we find that she “turned her eyes to Zeus as he sat on the topmost crests of many-fountained Ida and loathed him.” Hera may loathe him but Zeus is still king of all the gods who dwell on Olympus. She has to live with him and because the gods are immortal she has to live with him forever. But Hera’s no dummy. She didn’t get to be queen for nothing. Zeus may be more powerful than all the other gods put together but Hera knows how to use a different kind of power – the power of sex. Zeus seems to be particularly vulnerable to sexual temptation and Hera knows it. So she dresses up in a sexy outfit to go visit him on Mt. Ida where Zeus could “set his eyes upon her. As soon as he did so he became inflamed with the same passionate desire for her that he had felt when they had first enjoyed each other’s embraces and slept with one another without their dear parents knowing anything about it.” Zeus is so turned on by Hera that he woos her by telling her that “Never yet have I been so overpowered by passion neither for goddess nor mortal woman as I am at the moment for you – not even when I was in love with…” Then he starts reeling off the names of many women he’s slept with before. Some are other goddesses and some are mortal women. It doesn’t seem to occur to Zeus that Hera might not want to hear about all that before they go to bed. His philandering is one of the reasons she loathes him.

What is the reader to make of all this? What kind of gods are these anyway? They seem more like cartoon characters. And yet this is the divine backdrop of a tough war. Homer is clear that war’s a brutal business. But what’s his personal opinion about war? It could be that war is essentially senseless – the result of the mere whims of gods who have no better morals than human beings, and even worse than some mortals. Homer might be saying that war’s the result of some inborn human instinct to kill. Both Greek and Trojan warriors taunt their enemies, even when there’s no need for it. Or is Homer saying that sexuality and aggression are interrelated and this relationship leads to large-scale conflict? Paris steals Menelaus’ wife; the Greeks come after Helen; Agamemnon takes Briseis away from Achilles; Hera seduces Zeus. The Iliad is not a story for the kids.


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