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Meanings of the Iliad
Retellings for the past, present, and future
The story of the Iliad can be told in many ways. Each telling renders its own set of interpretations.
How will the piece be seen in the future? As one of the greatest works of civilization? As remnants of a more primitive age?
To approach that question, we should look at how it's been understood in the past.
Glorious Heroes and Gods
The battlefields outside of the walls of the great city of Troy are pastures for great Gods and Men.
It is here where Athena shows her wisdom and Odysseus his craft. Apollo manifests his formability and Hector proves his heroism.
The best life is a glorious one, where one's deeds echo throughout all time. A life where one takes full advantage of the opportunities the Gods have provided.
Achilles chose glory over comfort and the Iliad is the testament of his choice.
Troy was a fount of immortality, for those who would seize it.
Nietzsche contrasted slave morality to master morality, warrior ethics to priestly ethics.
The warrior is strong and beautiful. With his prodigious abilities, he shapes the world according to his needs.
Contrast that with the priest, who lives by dogma. His power is subject to being able to convince others to follow and comply.
In Nietzsche's time, the state and, of course, the church was full of talkers instead of doers.
The Iliad is an exploration of warrior morality. Here, to be good is to be beautiful and strong. To be evil is to be cowardly, weak, and ugly.
On one level, it's a celebration of the master. In the modern era, the underdog wins. In the Iliad, they are defeated. There is no focus on oppressed slaves. The priests’ power is dependent on warrior gods.
There are virtues to such a life. The warrior defends their people and crushes their enemies. Yet there are dangers. Is the list of Achille’s fallen foes impressive work and glorious work or stupid tragedy? Refusal to lose face results in the death of Patroclus and many other Achaeans.
So is it endorsement or condemnation?
The End of The Age of Heroes
Gods were never to play such an active role in war again. Never again would they fight side by side with men. Instead, they would act indirectly, moving wars through visions or acts of nature. But some say they are dead.
The Iliad is a picture of the world ruled by the caprices of Gods, instead of the randomness of nature and cruelty of man. When the gods leave, so does the magic and sacred.
Warrior Peasant's Tale
Of course, the Iliad is a product of warrior peasants. Relatively poor and illiterate people. It weaves a tale they would find entertaining. Like every other warrior culture in history, they worshipped the warrior and beautiful maiden. That’s it.
Their lives were full of superstition. They didn't understand disease. Their ethics were primitive. There was no notion of rights. Even their sense of history was impoverished. They didn’t believe in progress.
Achilles' mistreatment of Hector's corpse is so distasteful because it refuses Hector's safe passage to the next life, where he will be worshipped by his ancestors. More superstition.
And why has the poem lasted so long?
Roberto Calasso once said:
Every notion of progress is refuted by the existence of the Iliad. The perfection of the first step makes any idea of progressive ascension ridiculous.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
There are no shortcuts to perfection. High art requires sacrifice.
Real Men Cry
Achilles cries at the death of his friend, Patroclus. Later, Odysseus cries again and again.
The Antiwar Manifesto
Death and pain. A story that ends in a funeral.
If it continued it would end in the sacking of a city. A sacking which is shameful, even for the warrior Greeks.
Achean and Trojan alike lose loved ones. Achilles chose glory over life, but the Odyssey shows the truer side of the man. One which prefers the life of a nameless peasant worthless fame. Fame and glory, words to excite young men to throw their life away.
In this reading, the work shows the allure, but ultimate emptiness of violence.
Gods spoke and acted through men. The Iliad offers a portal into this way of being human. Odysseus isn't just guided by Athena, Athena acts through him. Apollo doesn't stand aside Paris, helping him aim, Paris's movements are done by Apollo.
More radically, Man has no rational, decision-making center. That role is played by gods.
This isn't mere narrative, it's a scientific hypothesis.
Achilles' isn't a person in the modern sense. He's a vessel for the Gods.
The humans in the Iliad are conscious and aware of their environment, but they experience thoughts like hallucinations of a foreign voice. The concept of a self, of an agent, was yet to be developed.
Achilles and Agamemnon aren’t merely furious and proud, they don’t have the capacity for resisting their anger and pride.
No woman is treated well in the Iliad. It's not kind to anyone. But the women have it worse. The median outcome is having one's loved ones slaughtered and enslaved.
The only woman allowed the glory of men is an innocent girl sacrificed for the sake of their war.
Recent works revisit the Iliad and render the invisible visible. Giving voice to the voiceless, as they say. The Silence of the Girls shows Briseis’ perspective. A princess turned queen who is given no words. A Thousand Ships paints Patroclus not as a treasured and loyal friend but as a rapist.
The Iliad will last as long as civilization does.
Which of these stories will carry the future?
Modern sensibilities celebrate war less. Educated classes are increasingly above it.
The Iliad may have deep themes, but they can't be deep enough to clear the stain of slavery and wanton killing.
The rejection of the Iliad, leaves it to those who take on it's darker themes as counterculture.
That's one-way things could go.
But the internet, if it enables anything, will continue to support niching. Perhaps carving separate spaces for audiences that support the variety of meanings. And – and this is crucial – many more.
We'll likely see talented writers and major studios taking another stab at the story.
The results will be imperfect and, in that way, will mirror the work.
Let's hope that they will also be great.