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Sunday, September 22, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 24: The Will of Zeus)

When the last page of the Iliad is turned the reader comes to these closing lines: “So they performed the funeral rites of Hector, tamer of horses.” We would do well to go back and see how this whole sad story began: “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…” We’ve seen the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles. We’ve seen its devastation. We’ve seen many Greeks and Trojans hurled down to their final destiny in the house of Hades. But have we really seen the will of Zeus being done? What exactly was accomplished by all this brutality and tragedy on the beaches of Troy? A broader question comes to mind regarding the meaning of history. Is there a purpose and meaning behind history? Or is it all just random human activity playing itself out on the world stage? From the very beginning of the Iliad Homer ponders what “the will of Zeus” can be.
“Providence” is the term for the idea that there is, in fact, purpose and meaning in history. Merriam-Webster defines Providence as “God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny.” Homer believed that Zeus was the power sustaining and guiding human destiny because “the will of Zeus was accomplished…” Another great poet, Shakespeare, wasn’t so sure. In Shakespeare there’s no Zeus to thank if things go well and no Zeus to blame if things go badly. For example, in his play about Antony and Cleopatra one of the three powerful politicians in the Roman civil war was Pompey. Pompey says “If the great gods be just, they shall assist the deeds of justest men.” The key word here is IF. Pompey believes that the gods are good and will help good men. And most readers would agree that Pompey was a good man. But that didn’t prevent him from ending up as the victim of an assassin. No, for Shakespeare the burden is squarely on people to make wise decisions. The gods will not step in to intervene if we make foolish ones. In another scene of the play Cleopatra fled a great naval battle and Antony follows her with his ships. The critical battle is lost and the times look dark. Cleopatra consults the old veteran warrior Enobarbus for advice: “CLEOPATRA: What shall we do, Enobarbus? ENOBARBUS: Think, and die. CLEOPATRA: Is Antony or we in fault for this? ENOBARBUS: Antony only, that would make his will Lord of his reason. What though you fled from that great face of war, whose several ranges frighted each other? Why should he follow? The itch of his affection should not then have nick'd his captainship…” Whose fault is it that Antony and Cleopatra’s side lost? Not the gods. It wasn’t Poseidon or any other god who stepped in and helped the other side. It was Antony’s poor judgment that lost the battle.
Shakespeare was a great poet and student of human nature. But so was Homer. Homer’s view finds expression when Achilles says to the old Trojan king, Priam: “The gods have spun the thread of fate for wretched mortals: we live in sorrow, while they are free from care. Two urns stand in Zeus’ palace containing the experiences he grants mortals, one holds blessings, the other ills. Those who receive a mixture of the two meet with good and ill… But from the moment that the heavenly gods brought this wretched war upon you, all has turned to battle and slaughter. Endure, let your heart not grieve forever, Sorrowing for your son will achieve nothing, you’ll not bring him back to life, though life will bring you other sorrows.’ This is great poetry. Homer’s vision is simple. Zeus has two urns: one is good, the other one evil. If we get the good one: be thankful. If we get evil: endure, life will bring much sorrow. The will of Zeus is hard but there is divine purpose in the Iliad. It started with Achilles’ anger and ended with Hector’s death.


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