Even in an epic poem, some scenes are more epic than others, and a few scenes just blow the top of your head clean off. The Iliad is packed with those scenes, and this week I’m bringing the five greatest hits to a theater near you. This is part two of my five-part series dusting off the awesome in the Iliad — last week I laid out the poem’s ten nastiest deaths. This week, I want to dig in a little more and think about one of the poem’s core ideas: heroism. What makes a hero? It’s a question we’re still asking, but Homer knew better than anyone what turns a man into a legend. So here they are: the Iliad’s five most intense scenes (each with my own translation, which you can read by clicking on the title), and some comments on the image they carve out of what it means to be awesome. Get out the popcorn.
When the gods go to war, you get your sorry self out of the way. Ares especially is the jacked-up juggernaut of them all, a bristling mountain of rusty bronze blades and throbbing muscles fueled by a raw thirst for carnage. But the Greek hero Diomedes charges full-tilt into Ares’ onslaught — an unheard-of and suicidally ballsy move. When the dust clears, Diomedes has done the unthinkable: he’s scored a hit and drawn divine blood. In the standoff that follows, Ares stares down the human who dared to stand up to him and retreats into the darkened sky.
What it All Means: Heroes stand up to death
Homer’s heroes strain against the boundaries of being mortal. True: the gods wield forces like flood, disease, and war, against which the strongest men alive are “like leaves,” wiped mercilessly off the earth without exception. But for Homer, the courage of a hero makes him stronger than his fear of death, and almost lets him defy the forces of nature. That’s why men like Diomedes are on par with Ares, why they can fight against gods and even wound them. A Homeric hero’s courage turns him into more than a man: it makes him a legend. And legends outlive death.
It’s crunch time for the Greeks, and their strategy session has devolved into an embarrassing fiasco. Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief, and Achilles, his hothead maverick star general, are red in the face, bickering over women. Achilles is inches away from drawing his sword on his superior officer. Nobody moves — if he attacks it means utter chaos, a complete disintegration of military discipline. At the last possible instant, as he’s unsheathing his sword, the goddess of wisdom yanks Achilles back by the hair, talking him down until his anger cools. Achilles shoves his sword back in his sheath and walks it off.
What it All Means: Heroes use their heads
Heroism in the Iliad is more than brute strength. Despite their massive raw power and testosterone, heroes are singled out above their equally brawny companions because they can reason; they’re capable of wrestling their momentary anger into submission to preserve order. Achilles is uniquely blessed by Wisdom: it whispers in his ear and, even in the grips of his brute rage, he listens. That’s what makes him semi-divine, not his rippling biceps: in a world of tribal savagery, leaders like Achilles are elevated, chosen to fight their animal impulses and follow, however imperfectly, in the footsteps of the gods.
Hector, Troy’s last great hope, knows he’s living on borrowed time: Achilles is unbeatable, and Troy’s days are numbered. But even so, he can’t run from his duty — he has to put up a doomed final fight in the name of honor. Gearing up for the final showdown, he meets his wife on the city walls, and silently they both know it’s the last time they’ll see one another. Hector embraces his weeping wife fiercely, makes a desperate prayer that his son will live to see manhood, then straps on his helmet and marches out to his death.
What it All Means: Heroes are vulnerable
For Homer, being a hero means staying human against all odds. Faced with his impossibly painful duty, it would be far easier for Hector to deaden his emotions and choke them down. But he never does — he never abandons one inch of his intimate, vulnerable love for his wife. He acknowledges the full scope of the horror that his death will mean for the woman who depends on him. But what makes him a hero is that he can bear that burden and then give his whole frail, human self — grief and all — to the service of a greater good.
In his blind rage after Hector kills his best friend, Achilles hacks his way to the walls of Troy, piling up a gruesome stack of corpses. He lays down such unholy carnage that Troy’s enormous river, the Scamander, feels the pain, and groans at Achilles to stop. Too crazed with bloodlust to listen, Achilles takes on the river itself, leaping headlong into the water to try and conquer its enormous strength. Pounded by wave after wave and soaked to the bone, Achilles hacks away at the thrashing waters until the Scamander overpowers him and sends him running.
What it All Means: Heroes are a little crazy
There’s a madness to heroism in the Iliad. Being human means being up against austere and unassailable gods, at the mercy of hurricanes, fires, and above all your own certain death. But being a hero means stubbornly, insanely daring to defy those forces. Achilles knows he’ll die if he fights, but he still fights with his whole heart, as if he could win. Watching him beat back the river, you can almost believe that somehow, impossibly, he will win. The tragedy of the poem is that we know he can’t: “the gods,” says Homer, “are still more powerful than men.”
For the entire war, the gods are straining eagerly at the borders of Olympus, itching to get a taste of action. Zeus restrains them as long as he can, but when the final fight gets underway and Troy’s fate is sealed, he calls all bets off. The gods come roaring onto the field with hair-raising battle cries, shaking the earth to its foundations and knocking the Trojan and Greek armies up against one another like giant schoolboys playing with toy soldiers. They take sides and pair off in devastating divine match-ups, and the battle that ensues is catastrophic.
What it All Means: Heroism is worth it
This one moment redeems all the tragic sacrifice of Homeric heroism. For all their immortal perfection, the gods are desperate to take part in human war and pain. That’s because death — the same death that widows Hector’s wife — gives human life significance that gods can’t attain. Clashes between cold abstract forces like War and Love are meaningless without mortality: who cares who gets hit if nobody can die? Death creates the opportunity for courage; the chance to die bravely is a chance at glory. And for Homer, glory makes a man more than a god: it makes him a hero.
And with that, the lines are open. What does heroism mean today? Could we use a little more of Homer’s unshakeable sense of valor these days? More importantly, did I leave out your favorite scene? If so, take me to task for it in the comments — if you bring up a good scene and ask nicely I’ll even write you a translation of it! Tune in next week for part three, when I think about Homeric heroes and pro sports, just in time for football season.