Honor in The Iliad

Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.

Honor plays a large role in the daily life and religion of Greek culture, and the great Greek epic the Iliad has much to say about it. This lesson will cover the theme of honor in Homer's Iliad.

The Iliad

Homer's Iliad, is a late eighth century B.C.E epic poem, and is thought to have been the beginning of Greek literature, along with its companion, the Odyssey. The poem was written during a time of oral tradition, which means it was originally meant for recitation, and not for reading. The Iliad is based on the great warrior, Achilles, and the battles that were fought during the Trojan War.

Honor and Greek Culture

Honor is a very important part of life for Greek culture, as it was valued more than life. The denial of honor was seen as the greatest of human tragedies. This was often referred to as a shame culture, where the worth of warriors was placed on their gaining reputation for heroic acts or deeds. How you were perceived, formed your identity, and essentially, formed your worth. This is where the Iliad comes in, as the denial of honor was the theme of the poem.

Honor and The Iliad

Denial of honor is paramount when it comes to the characters of Homer's Iliad. We see examples of excess and extremes when it comes to dishonor, and subsequent punishment, for those who show said dishonor. As mentioned, the theme of the poem is based on the greatest human tragedy in Greek culture, the denial of honor. The plot and events of the play depict the extremes to which humans, and gods alike, will go to in order to attain the sought after immortal reputation of honor.

Achilles and Agamemnon

Both of these men are excessive when it comes to ego, and the need for honor. Agamemnon is not always a strong leader, and he does not always make the best decisions for his army. Achilles is known as the greatest warrior of all time, so the Achaeans rely on him for battle. The epic tale begins with Agamemnon making the ultimate no-no in Greek culture, as he dishonors Achilles in front of others by saying he will take the girl Achilles was gifted with.

Achilles is furious he has been publicly stripped of his honor, so he leaves the army and refuses to fight for the Achaeans. Thetis, Achilles' mother, asks Zeus to intervene. Zeus agrees to give the Trojans the upper hand so the Achaeans will have no choice but to come to Achilles and beg for his return to the war.

Achilles and Patroclus

While Achilles still refuses to join the war, despite seeing the Achaeans lose, he does allow his closest friend, Patroclus, to wear his armor and rescue ships. Upon seeing who they believe to be Achilles, Hector and many of his men retreat. Patroclus chases after Hector, but Apollo strikes him, and he is left defenseless. Even though Hector deals the final blow, Patroclus states it was the gods and destiny that have killed him. Achilles is beside himself with grief; he vows to kill Hector and slaughter Trojans.

Achilles steps away from his pride, and away from the idea that he needs to reclaim the honor Agamemnon had taken away from him. His focus is now on killing Hector and punishing the Trojans for the death of Patroclus. As evidenced in the scenes proceeding Hector's death, Achilles is no longer concerned with honor; he is concerned with vengeance.

Hector

Hector takes his role as Trojan lead prince with great pride. While, he is unknowingly given limited advantage from the gods, Hector continually pushed forward seeking victory for himself and his men, such as when he battles Ajax, whom he fears, until the gods call an end to the fight. Hector never forgot his his first responsibility as a soldier, even when his wife's begged him to stay off of the battle field.

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