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"The Iliad" an Investigation of the Heroic Ethic

A discussion of the effect of the Heroic Ethic as it manifested itself in Homer's Ancient Greek Society

?The Iliad,? an Investigation of the Heroic Ethic
Beth Shenker

Throughout history, people have pondered the question of human mortality. In examining the issue, the Ancient Greeks, came to the conclusion that there are two spheres of immortality: that which is reserved for the Gods and that which can be attained by mere mortals. The Gods are destined to eternal youth and life; however, for humans who are predestined to die, this existence is impossible to attain. Rather, humans must strive to gain everlasting honor, the only form of immortality available to them.
It is this idea that Homer seeks to expound in his epic poem, ?The Iliad.? Throughout his poem, Homer depicts the degree to which honor plays a role in the lives of the Greeks, and the manner in which they are willing to sacrifice in order to reach their goal. This theme manifests itself from the outset of the work, as ?The Iliad,? is set during the Trojan war, a particularly long and bloody war, fought not over political differences, not over boundary disagreements and not to protect the nation. Rather, it was a war fought to defend and uphold the honor of one individual, Menelaous whose wife had been stolen from him by the Trojan prince, Paris.
This is the value that suffuses the narrative of ?The Iliad.? According to the axioms of Greek society, one must defend his status and prevent shame from being brought upon him, at all costs. ??[M]y father, he sent me to troy, and urged upon me repeated injunctions, to be always among the bravest and hold my head above others, not shaming the generation of my fathers?? (VI 206-9) This is the Greek bible, the guide to proper decorum. A man?s honor, and the honor which he brings his father, is paramount.
Hektor, the bravest of the Trojan warriors, is a patent example of the extent to which the principles of Ancient Greek society permeated the thoughts and actions of those who lived in it. During the course of the battle, Hektor returns home in order to visit his wife. It is here that he is faced with the choice that all warriors must contend with: remain at home and lead a long life of peace and anonymity or return to battle and earn honor. Hektor?s wife, knowing that a return to battle is the equivalent of death, entreats her husband to remain at home, ??you have no pity?on me?who soon must be your widow?and for me it would be far better to sink into the earth when I have lost you?? (VI 406-8) Hektor claims that despite his worry about abandoning his wife and son, he is unable to stay at home as ??I would feel deep shame before the Trojans?if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting; and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant?winning for my own self great glory and for my father.? (VI 441-45) The need to attain human immortality is so imbedded in Hektor?s psyche, that even the knowledge that his actions will leave his son an orphan and his wife a widow, is unable to convince him to relinquish his quest for everlasting honor and glory.
This is the society in which Homer?s protagonist, Achilleus, is born, raised and lives. It is therefore no wonder that he to is guided by the light of the heroic ethic, believing that his mission in life is to attain honor and remembrance.
Achilleus himself states, ?[s]ince my mother you bore me to be a man with a short life?grant me honor at least.? (I 352-54) Achilleus knows that he, unlike his immortal mother, resides in the mortal sphere and is granted only a short life as, ? [a] man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who does much,? (IX 320) all men are destined to die. Achilleus, however, does not wish to die a man who has done nothing, a man who will never be remembered. Rather, he wishes to attain immortality, in the face of mortality, by attaining everlasting honor.
It is this dogged desire to reap honor and accolades that leads Achilleus to reject a life of peace and longevity and opt for a life of ??hazard of battle.? (IX 323) It is for this reason that Achilleus is drawn to battle in the Trojan War. He, ??did not come for the sake of the Trojan spearmen to fight against them?,? since to him, ??they had done nothing?? (I 152-53) Rather, Achilleus joins the battle since fighting in this war is sure to bring him honor and fame.
Achilleus?s anger, however, puts his life?s mission into limbo. When Agamemonon dishonors Achilleus by taking away his prize, Briseis, Achilleus refuses to fight, as a ?punishment? to the king. ? Now I am returning to Pthia, since it is much better to go home again with my curved ships, and I am minded to no longer stay here dishonored and pile up your wealth and luxury.? (I169-71) Achilleus?s fury at having been disrespected, leads him to retreat from battle and thereby relinquish his quest for immortal honor. Furthermore, as Achilleus removes himself from the physical battle in which he was engaged, he enters into an internal battle, a war against his drive toward immortality.
Achilleus is now forced to battle with his two choices: he knows that if he chooses to fight, he will definitely die, but will also gain great glory, a level of immortality. If he leaves, however, he will lead a long and peaceful life, but will die unknown. ? I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either if I stay here and fight?my return home is gone but my glory shall be everlasting; but if I return home the excellence of my glory is gone but there will be a long life?? (IX 410-15) Faced with the prospect of his own untimely death, Achilleus begins to question that which has been weaved into his moral fiber, the heroic ethic.
Not only does he seem to doubt the value of honor, but he also seems to be willing to vanquish his quest for glory. ?And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back home again?? (IX 417-18) Achilleus, the warrior, the taker of life, the one who was willing to endanger his own life in the pursuit of immortality, seems almost to have gained a new appreciation for life itself and not just its end result. ? Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but man?s life cannot come back again?? (IX 405-8)
Achilleus attempts to separate himself from the Greek culture, to spurn that which has been his lifeblood. However, Achilleus?s desire for honor and need to achieve immortality, is so powerful and so much a part of his instinct for self-preservation, that he is unable to sever his ties with society and its value systems.
The death of Achilleus?s companion is the catalyst, the weapon that causes Achilleus to lose his inner battle and once again turn his thoughts to the physical battle. The demise of Patrokolos reminds Achilleus of his imminent physical mortality, ??for not even the strength of Herdyles fled away from destruction?his fate beat him under,? (XVIII 115-19) and thus reawakens his desire for human immortality.
Achilleus curses his anger, ??why I wish that strife would vanish away from among Gods and mortals?So it was here that the lord of men Agamemonon angered me,? (XVIII 107-11) as it was this rage that led him to give up his quest for immortal honor. Achilleus has come to terms with ??the fate which has been wrought for me, shall lie still when I am dead.? (XVIII 120-21) Thus, he is willing to ??let all this be a thing of the past, and for all our sorrow beat down by force the anger deeply within us,? (XVIII 112-13) in order that he may ??win excellent glory?? (XVIII 121) Achilleus, once again, chooses to sacrifice all for the sake of honor, as he tells his mother, ??do not hold me back from the fight, though you love me you will not persuade me.? (XVIII 121) Now that Achilleus has fully embraced the ethics of his society, and thus has agreed to reenter the battle, like Hektor, nothing can stop him, not even the affection of his mother.
In order to reclaim his honor, Achilleus chooses death. He insists on pursuing Hektor despite his mother?s warning, ??it is decreed your death must come soon after Hektor?s.? (XVIII 96) When Achilleus meets Hektor on the battlefield, he is in fact coming to fight the last vestiges of his inner battle, to fight himself. Not only is Hektor wearing the armor of Achilleus, but he also represents Achilleus?s conflict, as he to was forced to make the choice between long life and honor. When Achilleus kills Hektor he also destroys all possibility within himself of being able to return home and lead a long life.
Indeed, Achilleus has completed his metamorphosis. When after he rejoins the battle Achilleus is faced with the prospect of being killed by the swirling river, he calls out, ?[f]ather Zeus, no God could endure to save me from the river who am so pitiful. And what will become of me?? I wish now Hektor had killed me, the greatest man grown in this place. A brave man would have been the slayer, as the slain was a brave man. But now this is a dismal death that I am doomed to be caught in, trapped in a big river as if I were a boy and a swineherd?? (XXI 273-82) At one point, while faced with the ??doorways of death,? (IX 312) Achilleus questioned the value of the heroic ethic. Now that Patrokolos?s death has caused him to once again espouse the values of his society, and literally dedicate his life to the pursuit of everlasting honor, Achilleus no longer fears his own demise. Rather, he fears dying the death of the unknown, of the swineherd, a death without glory.

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