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The Iliad: Greek Epic

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  • 2:06 Xenia
  • 4:09 Paris and Helen
  • 5:18 Wrath of Achilles
  • 8:38 Death of Patroclus
  • 11:59 Themes
  • 12:38 Death of Achilles
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture traces the history of Greek epics. It then examines the central themes of 'The Iliad': Xenia, Achilles' wrath, and his quest for immortality. The plot of 'The Iliad' is summarized and attention is drawn to themes from the Sumerian tradition.

Greek Epics vs. Sumerian Epics

As we learned in the Epic of Gilgamesh lecture, epic is the oldest surviving form of literature. By the time the Greeks had gotten their alphabet sorted out, people had been writing epics for over 2000 years.

Perhaps the first things written in Greek were two epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Though the Greeks attributed these stories to the blind poet Homer, we're not even sure there ever was a Homer. It is likely the tales were centuries old before they were ever written down.

They are mythologized tales of the bronze age, of Mycenae and Trojans. These epics probably began being told during the dark age that followed the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 B.C.E., when literacy had all but disappeared. They were transmitted via an oral tradition, told and retold, with parts added and parts forgotten until, finally, someone was able to write them down.

Even in the written version, The Iliad and Odyssey retain signs of the oral tradition that forged them. The very fact that they are poems tells us that people were meant to recite these massive poems from memory. Unlike the Epic of Gilgamesh, which took up all of 12 tablets and totaled no more than 3,000 lines, The Odyssey is four times longer, with over 12,000 lines, while The Iliad is five times as long, containing 15,000 lines of verse.

To aid in memory, the bards who recited these tales created formulaic stock phrases like 'He fell thunderously and his armor clattered upon him' and stock epithets for characters like 'brave Achilles' and 'clever Odysseus.' Even with these aids, it is hard to imagine someone memorizing a poem that would take days to recite in full. The fact that a people committed so long and nuanced a story to memory is a wonder in and of itself.

So let us take a look at the first of these two epics: The Iliad.

Thetis dipped young Achilles in the waters of her father
Thetis Dipping Achilles

The Concept of Xenia

Despite its incredible length, The Iliad is really just about two things. First, the Greek concept of Xenia, or hospitality to strangers. And second, the Wrath of Achilles. The Trojan War is simply the setting for these concepts to play themselves out.

The concept of Xenia is an unfamiliar one to modern audiences. It is essentially a divine law, governed by Zeus himself, that says you must offer hospitality to traveling strangers. This seems strange and dangerous to us. Yet in the ancient world, especially the Bronze Age world, and especially in the rugged mountains of Greece, it was not lone strangers who were dangerous, but the whole world. This was a time and place where laws extended no further than the sight of a city. Wild animals and bandits roamed the wilderness. And travelers had no guarantee of a bed to sleep in or a hot meal. There was no Motel 6 to 'leave the light on for them.' Shelter had to be found when and where it was available.

Hence the incredible importance of Xenia in this age. Without the guarantee of hospitality along the way, no one would travel at all. The benefits of Xenia are not limited to the guest; the host gains as much as the guest from a visit: news of the outside world, a break in the monotony of daily life, and a friend abroad.

That these guest- friendships meant something is evident from an exchange between two combatants on opposite sides of the Trojan War. Diomedes and Glaucus, upon reciting their lineages, realize that Glaucus' grandfather had once hosted Diomedes' grandfather as a guest. Based upon that ancient, generations-old friendship, the two agree not to fight each other. Glaucus even goes so far as to exchange his golden armor for Diomedes' bronze armor in token of that friendship.

Yet though Xenia brought this Trojan and this Greek together, the same law of Xenia had started the Greek invasion in the first place.

Paris and Helen

Paris, a prince of Troy, had claimed guest right, through Xenia, at the house of Menelaus, brother to Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae. Little did Menelaus know that his guest was planning to rob him, not of jewels or treasure, but of his wife. Menelaus' wife was none other than Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

Depiction of the battle between Achilles and Hector
Hector vs Achilles

Paris had been promised Helen by the goddess Aphrodite, to sway his vote in a divine beauty pageant. (Don't believe me? Look up the myth of the golden apple.) Paris had come to the house of Menelaus to claim his prize. By running away with Helen, Paris had done more than violate the sanctity of Menelaus' marriage, he had abused the sacred bond between host and guest. Had Paris simply kidnapped Helen while she was out for a stroll, there likely would never have been a Trojan War. It was the fact that he committed this offence while a guest in Menelaus' house that demanded retribution.

That is essentially how the Trojan War started. Yet The Iliad itself does not start with the story of Paris' violation of Xenia.

The Wrath of Achilles

The Iliad begins with the Wrath of Achilles. Indeed, 'wrath of Achilles' are the first words of the epic.

So what is Achilles so angry about? Achilles is angry because he has to die. We all have trouble dealing with our own mortality, but we at least can take comfort in the fact that everybody dies. Achilles has no such comfort.

Achilles has the goddess Thetis for a mother. As an immortal, Thetis will never grow old or die, but her son will. This upsets her, so she does everything she can to make her child immortal. When he was born, Thetis dipped the infant Achilles in the waters of her father, making him invulnerable everywhere but the heel where she held him.

This invincibility, combined with his divine speed and strength, make Achilles the greatest warrior on the field. Yet despite all of her protection, Achilles remains mortal. And as a mortal, the closest thing to immortality Achilles can hope for is to earn eternal honor and fame. This harkens back to the Sumerian epic, in which Gilgamesh, distraught at losing the plant of youth, takes comfort in the fact that his legacy will live on in the city of Uruk.

In short, with an immortal for a mother, Achilles is fixated on his own mortality. Yet honor is the only form of immortality available to mortal men. That is why he has come to Troy, to win honor and glory on the battlefield.

Agamemnon and Achilles

Yet the leader of this expedition, Agamemnon, king of the great city of Mycenae, dishonors Achilles. As King of the Myrmidons, Achilles had claimed the Princess Briseis as a prize of war from an earlier battle. Agamemnon takes Briseis away from Achilles. Despite being a prisoner, Briseis is very upset at parting with Achilles, suggesting that the two really loved each other.

Achilles drags the body of Hector behind his chariot
Achilles Dragging Hector

Enraged by this affront to his dignity, Achilles refuses to fight. What good is dying for glory if his honor can be insulted by a man who is clearly his inferior? In his rage, Achilles cries to his mommy.

Thetis is likewise upset at the mistreatment her baby must endure at the hands of his inferior. She complains to Zeus himself, who owes her a favor. Though Zeus is angry at the Trojans for violating Xenia, he agrees to let the Trojans defeat the Greeks, so long as Achilles refuses to fight, so that Agamemnon will have to appreciate Achilles and beg him to fight for them. To obtain eternal fame, Achilles must rescue the Greeks from the brink of destruction and lead them to victory.

Zeus is true to his word. To ensure the destruction and slaughter of the Greeks, he sends Agamemnon a false dream, prophesying the easy destruction of the Trojans at the hands of the Greeks. This is a big break from the Sumerian tradition in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which dreams are always true, if correctly interpreted.

Emboldened by his dream, Agamemnon begins a disastrous assault on Troy, that ends up with the Trojans fighting the Greeks all the way back to their boats. Fearing defeat, Agamemnon sends an envoy with a peace offering to Achilles, but Achilles rejects the apology.

The Death of Patroclus

Desperate to turn the tide, Achilles' comrade (and lover), Patroclus dons Achilles armor and leads the Myrmidons in the hope that the Trojans will think him Achilles and take flight. Though the Trojans are not fooled, Patroclus' killing spree still drives the Trojans back to their own walls. In the end, Patroclus is killed by Hector, who takes Achilles' fine armor as a trophy.

Achilles does not take Patroclus' death well. He is beset with grief and self-loathing, knowing that his own hateful pride had brought about his lover's death. The Greeks call a cease fire for both sides to care for their dead, which the Trojans accept. After a series of funeral games, and appeals from his compatriots and Agamemnon, Achilles finally agrees to return to the battlefield, not to repay the insult done Menelaus, but to avenge Patroclus.

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