Let’s get one thing clear: this is not your grandmammy’s Iliad. You’ve probably snored through a few excruciating lectures about “the subtle mastery of Homer’s poetic scansion.” Please. This is not some prissy love sonnet. This is a poem in which 12-foot-tall he-men use rusty bronze spears, devastating serrated blades, and boulders the size of tractors to rip each other to shreds over a stolen girlfriend in the most brutal and gratuitous cage match known to history. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reclaiming the Iliad in the name of awesome, with a series of posts designed to brush the dust off of Homer’s epic proto-action-movie. First up: the 10 most stomach-turning kills in the war between Troy and Greece, from least to most disgusting. All the translations are my own. All the bloodshed is Homer’s.
1. Twelve Sleeping Trojans: Gutted by Night
The fact that this is the least gory item on this list should tell you something about the upcoming mayhem. When the Greeks lose their star fighter, Achilles, they’re playing at a serious handicap. In desperation, they send two undercover operatives, Diomedes and Odysseus, to slaughter the Trojans in their sleep. It’s a low blow, but it gets the job done: while the Trojans are cuddled up all snug, the two Greeks eviscerate twelve of them, spilling their guts on the ground. “Unholy shrieking rose from them as they died,” Homer says, “and the ground ran red with their blood.”
2. Leucus: The “Accidental” Crotch Shot
With Achilles sulking over his girlfriend, the Trojan war goes pretty FUBAR for a while. Book 4 is a no-holds-barred bloodbath — Hera, who’s insatiably thirsty for Trojan blood, sends her fellow-goddess Athena to earth to bring the pain, and a lawless mêlée erupts. In the chaos, the Trojan prince Antiphos misses the mark when he throws his spear at the Greek hero, Ajax. Instead he gores poor little “Leucus, Odysseus’ buddy.” Homer doesn’t dwell on it, but he says Leucus gets shafted right in the βουβών, a word that means “groin” or worse, “glands.” That’s gotta hurt.
3. Lycaon: No Mercy
Homer’s heroes may be musclebound giants, but Achilles is the Chuck Norris of them all, meaning grown men pee their pants and snivel for their lives when he’s around. In book 21, the Trojan Lycaon sees Achilles and falls to his knees, squealing, “don’t hurt me! My daddy’s rich! He’ll pay you just PLEASE DON’T HURT ME” (not a literal translation but pretty close). Achilles briefly considers the tears and snot pouring down Lycaon’s face, then cleaves him from shoulder to sternum, “and the black blood gushed out and drenched the ground.” And that is a literal translation.
4. Hector: Serious Overkill
You just don’t get Achilles angry. You won’t like him when he’s angry. You don’t steal his girlfriend. And you sure the hell do not gloat over slaughtering his best pal, as the Trojan prince Hector did. At the climax of the poem, Achilles strips Hector naked, watches him blubber for mercy, calls him a dog, and guts him. But it’s not enough: Achilles shoves a rope through the tendons of Hector’s ankles, ties them to a chariot, and drags his mangled corpse around Troy in a gruesome victory lap. That’s how Troy learned: you do not. Mess. With. Achilles.
5. Deucalion: Heads Will Roll
Before he gets his revenge on Hector, Achilles lays some serious hurt down on the Trojans for cutting up his best friend. Blind with rage, the Greek champion hacks his way through wave upon wave of fighters, splitting necks open, stabbing livers, and slicing faces in half. The gnarliest is Deucalion, whose head he severs with a single blow. The head full-on goes flying “far away, helmet and all,” while the body stays tottering where it is spewing marrow and gunk from the spine. I promise I’m not making this stuff up.
6. Chersidamas: Right in the ‘Nads
Odysseus (who later gets his own sequel), gets abandoned deep in Trojan territory in book 11 when all his pals lose their nerve. Ready to die rather than surrender, Odysseus goes on an epic killing spree to fight his way out of the ambush, laying Trojans flat left and right. When Chersidamas jumps out of his chariot for an aerial attack, Odysseus sticks him right in the family jewels with his spear mid-leap. Chersidamas, “hurtling to the dust,” lays flat and bleeds out on the ground. Getting gored in the nuts will do that to you.
7. Cebriones: Biting the Dust
Cebriones, the Trojan charioteer, is a moving target. That’s why it’s so impressive when the Greeks’ second-string hero, Patroclus, heaves a boulder at him and hits him square in the forehead. What happens next isn’t pretty: “his bones didn’t hold; his eyeballs tumbled into the dust on the ground at his feet.” As Cebriones falls out of his chariot and face-plants in the dirt next to his severed eyeballs, Patroclus says something along the lines of, “hey Cebriones, nice diving, twinkletoes!” Not a lot of sympathy for a guy whose skull he’s just crushed like a tin can.
8. Lycon: Hanging by a Thread
The Greeks’ MVP, Achilles, spends most of the war on the sidelines, but eventually he sends in a pinch hitter, Patroclus, to take his place. When Patroclus comes on the field dressed as Achilles in book 16, the Greeks think their star quarterback is back off the bench, and they get pumped way up. So they start kicking butt and taking names, and one of those names is Lycon, a Trojan who gets his head sliced clean off — almost. Homer emphasizes that a single flap of skin holds fast, and Lycon’s head stays just barely dangling from his neck. Eugh.(16.335-41)
9. Pandarus: Spear to the FACE
In book 5, Athena fires up the B-list Greek captain Diomedes, and he goes Super Saiyan, coming from behind to tear through Trojans like tissue paper. His grizzliest kill comes when two dudes charge him full tilt in a chariot. Diomedes’ wingman begs him to run, but he growls, “don’t talk to me about fear.” Then he digs in his heels and skewers Pandarus, who’s driving the chariot, with a spear that pierces “his nostrils . . . and shattered his pearly whites, and . . . severed the root of his tongue, and the spearhead burst out the base of his chin.” Nasty.
10. Erymas: Eat Spear, Trojan!
Nothing even comes close to this one. In Homer’s words: “Idomeneus [the Greek] gored Erymas [the Trojan] in the mouth with a bronze spear. And the copper shaft punched out the other side from underneath his brains, and cracked the white bones in two. And his teeth rattled, and his eyes welled up with blood, which bubbled up out of his mouth and down out of his nostrils.” Hands-down the most gruesome mutilation in the whole poem. It takes a sick imagination to write a death scene like that. But to write 255 of them, apparently, takes a genius.
Those are my picks — but there are 245 other ruthless slaughters to choose from. Does someone else deserve the top spots? Greek Myth Comix just released this slick comprehensive infographic about death in the Iliad. Their rankings are different than mine — who do you think is right? Hash it out in the comments, and tune in next time for a look at the most blood-pumping scenes in the poem, and what it means to be a hero in the highest-octane war story ever told.