Western literature begins with Homer’s Iliad, indisputably one of the greatest war poems. We read Homer in three ways: as a poet, a historian, and a contemporary. The bard is to the West what Vyasa and Valmiki are to us. Alexander the Great, writes Plutarch in Greek Lives, always carried with him a copy of the Iliad during his military expeditions and kept it under the pillow every night. He regarded the poem as his most valued possession, a handbook on the art of war, a foundational text for the Greeks. Homer has inspired millions from Alexander and Aeschylus to Derek Walcott and Madeline Miller.
Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, once said, ‘We all are eating crumbs from the great table of Homer.’ The Nobel Laureate Walcott adapted the story of the Iliad in his modern epic Omeros (1990). The title Omeros is the Greek name for the poet Homer. In Walcott’s version, Achilles and Hector are not great warriors but humble fishermen and Helen is not a queen but a beautiful housekeeper. Madeline Miller’s novel The Song of Achilles (2011) is a retelling of the Iliad that focuses on Achilles’s friendship with Patroclus.
Achilles, the son of a goddess and a man, is the hero of Homer’s text, which revolves around the theme of his anger. The first word in western literature is rage and the first epic warns us against the dangers of violent rage and offers lessons in empathy and self-restraint. Written around the eighth century BC, it tells the story of the last few days of a ten-year-long battle fought between the Greeks and the Trojans. The origins of the war can be traced to the story of a golden apple with an inscription: ‘To the Fairest’. Three Greek goddesses – Athena, Hera and Aphrodite – start squabbling over the apple.
Greek myths represent gods as jealous, petty, frivolous, quarrelsome and vengeful. Homeric gods live on mount Olympus and look upon humans as playthings. Shakespeare, perhaps, was inspired by Homer when he wrote in King Lear (1606) : ‘As flies are to wanton boys are we to the gods,/ They kill us for their sport.’
The aforesaid goddesses appoint Paris, the prince of Troy, to be the judge. The prince awards the apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. In exchange for this favour, she makes Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, fall in love with him. Helen, already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, elopes with Paris, who was her husband’s guest. Breaking the rules of hospitality, Paris takes her to Troy, his own kingdom.
Outraged, Menelaus seeks the help of his elder brother Agamemnon, and together they raise an army to punish the Trojans. For nine long years the Greeks lay siege to the fort of Troy without success and this is where Homer starts his story in medias res. Agamemnon, the commander of Greek army, takes away Achilles’s female captive Briseis. The semi-divine warrior is infuriated and decides to withdraw from the battle. But when Hector kills his friend and companion, Patroclus, Achilles returns to the battlefield, killing Hector and dragging his body around the city walls. Despite knowing that if he kills Hector, his death is inevitable, he chooses friendship and revenge over life.
This incident exposes rage as shortsighted and self-destructive. Greeks were always wary of irrational passion. When Zeno in the third century BC Athens, therefore, founded the philosophical school of Stoicism, urging people to maintain calmness in the face of adversity and prosperity, he became widely popular. Stoicism is strikingly similar to the Indian concept of sthitapragya, a state of mind in which an individual is not affected by either sorrow or happiness.
But Priam is anything but stoic. His heart is aggrieved at his son’s death. He stealthily enters the enemy’s tent to reclaim his son’s dead body. The old man reminds the Greek hero of his father. Priam weeps for his deceased son Hector whereas Achilles sheds tears for his father. Achilles wisely decides not to bring the disfigured body into Priam’s presence before washing it properly, lest Priam’s fury might provoke the warrior to kill the old man. This is a classic case of the use of reason to guard against one’s irrational passion that Plutarch so eloquently approves of. This powerful scene inspired the Australian writer David Malouf to write a novel titled Ransom (2009).
The story remains incomplete and ends with a truce to arrange funeral rites for Hector. Other sources tell us about the Trojan horse, sack of Troy and killing of Achilles by Paris. It was perhaps this Homeric celebration of reconciliation that made Walcott write in Omeros: ‘We shall all heal.’ Homer emphasizes healing and never dehumanizes the enemy. Rather, he shows that Greeks and Trojans speak the same language, worship the same gods, long for glory and most importantly, want the war to end so that they can return to their families. This larger ethical framework is the guiding principle behind the poem.
No one knows who Homer was. We don’t even know for sure whether he wrote the epics generally attributed to him. The problem has persisted because unlike Indian epics in which the poets actively participate as characters, early western epics lack a distinctive poetic presence. In fact, the historicity of Troy remained doubtful until the 1870s when the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated and discovered the ruins of the city in Turkey, including Priam’s palace.
Historians believe that the story of the Iliad was set in the Bronze Age, around the twelfth century BC. It was orally circulated and recited by performers called rhapsodes till the eighth century BC, the Iron Age, when the Greeks adapted the alphabet of Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) and Homer presumably wrote it down. His epic opens a fascinating window onto the past. The French historian Michel Pastoureau in his book Blue: The History of a Colour (2000) argues that blue would not be used as water’s colour until the 17th century. In the Iliad, the sea is depicted as wine dark. The ancient poet continues to mesmerize historians and common readers alike across India and the world.
Arthur Lillie, a British soldier, did a comparative study of Homer and the Ramayana in his book Rama and Homer (1912). The grief of Ravan’s wife Mandodari reminds Lillie of the pain of Hector’s wife Andromache. Both wives urge their husbands not to fight, having a premonition of the disastrous outcome of war. Hector knows he will die and Troy will be destroyed but he prefers the death of a hero to being disgraced as a coward. Soldiers going to the battlefield even today empathise with Hector’s anxieties, fears and wish for an honourable death. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that they carried copies of the Iliad during the World Wars and the Vietnam War. Futility and horrors of war are perhaps the most important messages of the greatest anti-war poem in western literature.
(Lalit Kumar is a translator and columnist. Currently, he teaches English at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi. )