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Archive for January, 2011

Why Men Do Stupid Things

January 11, 2011 Leave a comment

In the Back to the Future movies, Marty McFly can be made to do anything anybody wants him to do simply by calling him ‘chicken’. This same principle is also at work in The Iliad, and gives rise to the major turning point of the the entire work.

In Book 17, Glaucus basically calls Hector a big chicken for letting Patroclus kill Sarpedon and running away from Ajax before he could take his body for proper burial. In true Marty McFly fashion, Hector responds by ‘proving’ his bravery to Glaucus: He strips Achilles’ armor from the dead body of Patroclus and puts it on himself.

This is a stupid idea. When Achilles hears about this outrage and desecration, he finally decides to fight. Specifically, he wants Hector dead.

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No Honor for the Gods

January 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Homer has a much lower view of the gods than his contemporary/predecessor Hesiod. Whereas Hesiod often goes out of his way to describe Zeus as an all-powerful, calm and collected lord over creation, Homer seems to go out of his way to describe him as a fickle, honorless, brat.

Throughout The Iliad, people are constantly offering up prayers and sacrifices, only to be roundly ignored by Zeus. There is a sense that these petitions are little more than worthless – he’s just going to do what he wants to do anyway. Even his wife Hera only gets what she wants by having to seduce and trick him.

Early in the story, the two sides of the war swear an oath to Zeus that a temporary truce be established between them. Not long after this, the warrior Pandarus blatantly breaks the oath and kills a man anyway. Agamemnon is incensed at this, but feels reassured by the fact that Zeus will take revenge on Pandarus for breaking the oath sworn in his name.

But in actuality, it was Zeus himself who sent Athena to make Pandaurs break the oath in the first place. Agamemnon smugly thinks that Zeus will take care of Pandarus, while unbeknownst to him, Zeus was the very one to blame for breaking his own oath!

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The Humanity of Hector

January 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Hector is the polar opposite of Achilles. He is not necessarily the ‘hero’ of the story, but he is Homer’s portrait of the true man.

Whereas Achilles has eschewed all ties to family, honor, patriotism, camaraderie, relationships, and self-sacrifice, Hector embodies them all perfectly. Relationships and his fellow man are what Hector is all about. In Book 6, we get a glimpse into his life as he says farewell to his wife and son to go out to battle. Nothing even remotely like this is offered for Achilles.

Hector’s prayer to Zeus at his departure is bittersweet. You can almost tell that even Hector himself knows he won’t be returning (he hints earlier that he thinks Troy will fall). Nevertheless, Hector asks that his wife, Andromache, and his child, Astyanax, be spared. It is a terribly sad moment in the story, as the readers are well aware that by the end of the war, little Astyanax will have been thrown from the walls of Troy and killed, and Achilles’ own son will have raped and taken Andomache for his concubine.

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The Inhumanity of Achilles

January 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Achilles rejects all ties to his fellow human beings in Book 9. It is here that Homer makes it clear he has gone past the point any mortal should go. The trio of Phoenix, Odysseus and Ajax attempt to get him to join the fight, but Achilles refuses all proposals.

There is nothing now that can persuade Achilles. He is his own entity. Achilles no longer cares for anything. He has achieved a certain sense of power simply by shrugging off all human responsibility, compassion, and any sense of duty to his fellow man.

To be sure, there is definitely an unmistakable power that can be obtained by following Achilles’ example. What can a teacher do to a student who no longer cares about school? What can a parent do to a child who doesn’t care about being punished? I use the word ‘inhuman’ to describe this attitude because it separates a person from the rest of the species and their interactions together. It is the ultimate elevation of self over all. Many times this attitude is lauded by poets and philosophers, but most of the time it shouldn’t be.

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