Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Truce erupts in war - Book 4 - The alliances between the gods

Terminology in the poem

Throughout 'The Iliad' the same mortal/god/group is referred to in different ways which could be a bit confusing. So here is a list of several names being used to refer to the same thing. 

1. Argives/Achaeans - refers to the Greeks
2. Athena/Pallas - refers to the Greek warrior goddess 'Athena'
3. Sons of Atreus - refers to  Agamemnon and MenelausSome times both are also referred to as Atrides.
4. Son of Cronus - Zeus

The Greek Gods and their interest in the Trojan war

Before we get into Book 4, lets get a quick understanding of the the Greek gods, the dynamics of the relationships between the gods, between gods and mortals and also their stand on the Trojan war. The first thing that strikes one as he reads the Greek myths is that the gods are egoistical and whimsical lot. They are always on the lookout for perceived insults to them by other gods or mortals and quick to offer retribution for what they see as insults. For e.g. if someone forgets to provide an offering before starting a task, he is doomed. At the core of this lies the insecurity of the Gods, towards each other as well as towards mortals. The reason for this insecurity could be due to the manner in which they became gods themselves, (i.e) overthrowing their father 'Cronus' under the leadership of Zeus. So they are always on the lookout for usurpers to their power. Anyone who challenges them is destined to be destroyed. 'Prometheus', a Titan (not a man) is given a punishment of everlasting torment by Zeus for giving Fire to mankind. You would generally associate gods being happy with such an activity which actually helps others, but the Greek god's didn't see it that way. For them  Prometheus disobeyed them and hence had to suffer it's consequences. Jealousy is another driving force for the gods, Hera in particular. She is always jealous of the affairs had by Zeus and tries to punish the women involved in it and also children sired by Zeus. Even 'Heracles', the greatest Greek mythical hero (and son of Zeus) had to suffer due to this. So the mortals are always in fear of offending the gods, sometimes unknowingly but still suffering for it. It is interesting to note that though the gods are in disharmony, the Greeks themselves do not show any favoritism when it comes to gods. They worship and give offerings to all of them. You never read about Greeks squabbling about whether Ares (Mars) or Apollo is great, or whether Athena or Hera is great. Of course, the one thing that is accepted by everyone including the gods is that Zeus is the supreme power. In fact, even the other gods refer to him as 'father', a term of respect mainly rather than indicating any such relationship. (Even Hera addresses him as father)

In contrast if you take, say the Hindu gods, who themselves are in harmony most of the time, you can see the followers attacking each other, disparaging each other, for instance the endless debates between the  'Shaivites' (followers of Shiva) and 'Vaishnavites' (followers of Vishnu). Or even take a monotheistic religion like Christianity where there are a lot of theological differences. But the ancient Greeks do not seem to have had such conflicts. Of course, if they had indulged in it, it would have hurt them only. The gods may themselves be in conflict, but heaven forbid if a mortal offends one of them, the entire set of gods would be onto the mortal in a flash.

As far as the Trojan war is concerned lets see the alliances formed between the gods. As we saw in the previous post, Paris chose 'Aphrodite' as the most beautiful one over 'Hera' and 'Athena'. Aphrodite helped Paris seduce Helen and then the war started. So Aphrodite is at the side of Troy as is Apollo. Hera and Athena obviously are on the side of the Greeks as they want revenge for Paris's insult. Zeus of course is the supreme God, a puppeteer who manipulates both mortals and even the gods themselves, depending on his whims and fancies. As we saw in the first book, he has given his word to 'Thetis' (mother of Achilles) that he would destroy the Greeks to such an extent that they would realize the worth of Achilles. So he is on the side of Trojans for now.

To summarize, the major gods in action in the poem are

1. Zeus - The god of gods. Sides by both Greeks and Trojans as he guides the events to their conclusion.
2. Hera - His consort (and also sister by birth) and on the side of Greeks
3. Athena - His daughter and on the side of Greeks
4. Aphrodite - Goddess of love and on the side of Trojans
5. Apollo - Son of Zeus, the archer god and on the side of Trojans. He is also god who can cause diseases (as we saw in Book 1)
6. Ares - God of war. Blood thirsty, he is mainly on the side of Trojans, but his main concern is with bloodletting in the battle field rather than any permanent affiliation to any one side.

Book 4

At the end of Book 3, we heard the Greeks demanding that Helen be given back to them. At the beginning of book 4, the scene shifts to Olympia where the gods have gathered. Zeus, that randy goat is enjoying the conflict between the gods. You can almost hear him chuckling heartily when he teases Hera and Athena saying

"Look at them-sitting apart, watching the dueling.
So they take their pleasure. But Aphrodite here
with her everlasting laughter always stands by Paris 
and drives the deadly spirits from her man. Why,
just now she plucked him away, she saved his life
when he thought his end had come..."

How do Athena and Hera react to it. Obviously both are pissed at both Aphrodite and Zeus, but dare not show their anger fully. Hera instead of showing an anger, makes a plea when she says

"what are you saying? How can you think of making
all my labor worthless, all gone for nothing

But Zeus gets angry at this and rages at Hera, agreeing to her demand but also includes a threat to her when he says

"don't let this quarrel breed some towering clash
between us both, pitting you and me in conflict.
One more thing - take it to hear, I urge you
Whenever I am bent on tearing down some city
filled with men you love- to please myself-
never attempt to thwart my fury, Hera,

The last lines are the key when Zeus says that, though he agrees with Hera wanting to destroy Troy, on the other hand, Hera should not intervene when Zeus later decides to destroy cities whom Hera loves very much. Hera takes up Zeus on this matter. She is so filled with hatred towards Troy that she is okay with Zeus destroying her most loved cities, if only he allows Troy to be destroyed. (It may seem that Hera has to put with with whatever Zeus, but as we will see later, she manages to get around Zeus several times, achieving what she wants).

"Excellent! The three cities that love best of all
are Argos and Sparta, Mycenae with streets as broad as Troy's.
Raze them-whenever they stir the hatred in your heart.
My cities... I will never rise in their defense,"

These are 2 gods playing around with the destiny of several cities, coming to an agreement which is mostly based on what would be beneficial to each of them and not based on the merits/demerits of the cities concerned. In this one can see that the Greek concept of destiny is quite different from that of the East, where destiny is set in stone from birth. In ancient Greece too, there are such destinies like that of Achilles who is doomed to death at Troy right from his childhood. But there are situations where based on the god's state of mind at that particular time, the destinies shift shape. Whether it is joy or sorrow, the mortals can never be sure that it will be permanent. The best thing is to be humble, worship the gods and enjoy the good things till they last.

So with the gods agreed, Athena is sent to the Trojan lines to trick the Trojans into breaking the peace. She does it successfully when she incites 'Pandarus' a master archer to fire at Menelaus. (We have seen gods reaching out to the warriors, Helen in the previous books too? You may wonder how the gods go in the middle of battle and speak to the warriors, or how do they go to the royal rooms and speak to Helen. They take the form of other men/women or in some cases appear only to the concerned person). 'Pandarus' fires an arrow at Menelaus. What a bow he does have, built from the horn of a goat. Goat, you may think what an immense goat which Homer explains as

"The horns on its head ran sixteen hands in length

A huge goat indeed. The arrow hits Menelaus like

"The shaft pierced the tight belt's twisted thongs,
piercing the blazoned plates, piercing the guard
he wore to shield his loins and block the spears,
his best defense-the shaft pierced even this,
the tip of the weapon grazing the man's flesh,
and dark blood came spurting from the wound"

Of course, can Athena let her men die? She quickly shifts to the Greek side and just about saves Menelaus. That's why she deflects the arrow and it only grazes the skin, though even that causes great pain. If you think that the above stanza is a graphical description of violence, then wait till the future books. Homer holds back no punches (pun intended) when describing the war. Hera's plan however has succeeded. It is now the Trojans who have broken the truce and they have to pay for it (never mind the fact that Athena tricked them in the first place). The  Greeks are understandably furious now and out for revenge. The Greeks and Trojans approach each other and

"At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder-
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and clash of war"

When war starts can death be far behind and

"Antilochus was the first to kill a Trojan captain,
tough on the front lines, Thalysias' son Echepolus.
Antilochus thrust first, speared the horsehair helmet
right at the ridge, and the bronze spearpoint lodge
in the man's forehead, smashing through his skull 
and the dark came whirling down across his eyes -

Gruesome violence yes, but note the last line. In the entire poem 'death' is depicted as darkness, with the darkness surrounding the warrior, or dark coming whirling down etc. It the motif for death in the poem.

As the battle rages on and

"That day ranks of Trojans, ranks of Achaean fighters
sprawled there side-by-side, facedown in the dust."

we will take a break and see in Book 5 as to in whose favor it turns.

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