Saturday, August 4, 2012

Diomedes fights the gods - Book 5 - The gods and their proxy battles

A note on the violence in the poem

In Book 4, we saw that the battle had started and battle means violence and bloodshed. So from book 5, there is a marked shift in tone and there are a lot of disturbing events described. It sounds crude and inhuman when I say this, but war today has become kind of sanitized than it was say a 100 years ago. Actually, ever since the advent of archery as a major component of the army, close range combat has gradually become reduced. And with the advancements(?) in air warfare and long range missiles, it can be said that very rarely do close range face to face combat happen. A soldier 1000 miles away in another continent can be vaporized in a few minutes, not knowing why and who did it, actually probably not even feeling anything at all. One moment he is there, the next he is no more. Yes, modern warfare does not make the end result any less gruesome, but  we cannot even imagine something like 'Battle of the Somme' (during WWI) now. The period of 'The Iliad' was one of pretty much primitive (from today's standards) weaponry. Most of the battles happen using the spear, axe, sword and in some cases even rocks. Archers are mentioned but in brief. But the battle happens in extremely close range, where you can feel the breath of you opponent on your face. And so, in keeping with the times Homer does not spare anything while describing the battles. The descriptions are  extremely violent,gruesome but none of it is gratuitous whose aim is to only shock the listener. The violence is in par with the times when men (giants actually) fought in close range in great anger and in some cases terror, which can cause even more violence than mere anger. This has to be kept in mind when a violent death like

"With that he hurled and Athena drove the shaft
and it split the archer's nose between the eyes-
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin"


"the famous spearman struck behind his skull,
just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing
straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue-
he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze."

is described. Tongues, chins cut into two, noses, teeth broken, definitely not for the squeamish listener (reader). Bronze seems to be the preferred metal for the weapons as it is described in most places, with very few references to Iron, giving an indication that the period described in the poem belongs to the bronze age. There are also few references to Gold and we come to know that it was even then highly valued. 

Another thing to be noted during the description of battle and death is that there is almost no glorification of the dead warriors, no mention of a glorious after life, like say the 'Valhalla' of the Norse mythology, a great hall where the fallen warriors in combat are taken to. Here once the darkness takes over the warrior that's it, it's the end, nothing more and nothing else. The standard life cycle of a warrior is accepted as one where he kills other warriors until the day he himself is killed, as Homer tells us about 2 Greeks 'Orsilochus' and 'Crethon', both in the prime of their youth and

"Fresh as two young lions off on the mountain ridges,
twins reared by a lioness deep in the dark glades,
that ravage shepherd's steadings, mauling the cattle
and fat sheep till it's their turn to die - hacked down
by the cleaving bronze blades in the shepherd's hands.
So here the twins were laid low at Aeneas hands,
down they crashed like lofty pine trees axed."

Life among the men is equated to the life among animals, where you kill until you yourself are killed. This is the destiny of a warrior. But there is another interesting thing to note in the above stanza. In this, as well as in other stanzas, the similes used mostly refer to 'mountains', 'shepherds', 'goats', 'goatherds', 'mountain lions' with very few references to farmers. This again indicates that the community then was probably a predominantly 'pastoral' (with emphasis on livestock) one rather than an agricultural (growing crops) one. 

Though there is no glorification of death, there are a couple of things that a warrior fears most on his death. Death as such does not faze him much as he knows it will happen eventually, neither does he think about the after life. But what about his family, his parents, wife, children and other loved ones hundreds/thousands of miles away, waiting anxiously for his return. He is never going to see them again, his body one among the many clustered in the battle field, his family will not even get to see his remains. This is one of the great sorrows of the war as Homer tells us of a father who loses his two sons

"The son of Tydeus killed the two of them on the spot,
he ripped the dear life out of both and left their father
tears and wrenching grief. Now he'd never welcome
his two sons from war, alive in the flesh,
and distant kin would carve apart their birthright"

A sobering thought that is bound to reduce the heady intoxication and blood lust that war can provoke in one. The other fear a warrior has is probably more terrifying to him, it is the fear of the enemy desecrating his body after his death, tearing away his armor and weapons, stripping bare of any pending dignity that he may have after death. It is also paradoxically what a warrior wants to do when he kills someone, he wants to strip of the armor, shield and other weapons but is very afraid that the same thing would be done to him and tries to avoid it, going as far running back to his tent to die in peace and dignity. Here he is not worried that he is going to die, but rather he is kind of happy that he body will not be violated. Throughout the poem it is a code among warriors to help retrieve their fallen friend's body and ensure that no harm is done to it as Aeneas the Trojan warrior does when his friend dies.

"Aeneas sprang down with his shield and heavy spear,
fearing the Argives might just drag away the corpse,
somehow, somewhere. Aeneas straddled the body-
proud in his fighting power like some lion-
shielded the corpse with spear and round buckler,
burning to kill off any man who met him face-face-face"

A noble deed from Aeneas wanting to preserve the corpse, but it can be counter productive too as he himself is hurt badly in his attempt in doing so. Today it may all seem silly to us, all this desecration of the corpse, but when one thinks of all the advanced methods of killing that we have no got, we understand that we are no less violent or more civilized than the ancient Greeks.

Book 5 - The Gods battle it out 

The battle is on and we know that Hera and Athena are on the side of Greeks while Apollo and Aphrodite support the Trojans. Ares is concerned only with his blood lust and has no permanent affiliation. Zeus of course has his own plans. Now, Athena goes to Ares and convinces him to stay away from the battle saying

"why not let these mortals fight it out for themselves?
Let Zeus give glory to either side he chooses.
We'll stay clear and escape the Father's rage."

So Ares backs off. Athena is not known as the God of war strategy for nothing as after convincing Ares, she goes ahead to give her support to Diomedes and

"She set the man ablaze, his shield and helmet flaming
with tireless fire like the star that flames at harvest,
bathed in the Ocean, rising up to outshine all other starts.
Such fire Athena blazed from Tydides head and shoulders,
drove him into the center where the masses struggled on."

(Tydides refers to Diomedes, son of Tydeus. In many cases, the same person is referred to by his name or a variation of his father's name)

Strengthened by the goddess, Diomedes wreaks havoc among the Trojans killing with impunity. Athena gives him full freedom except to fight the gods themselves, even in that, allowing him to hurt Aphrodite if need be when she says

"you must not fight the immortal powers head-on,
all but one of the deathless gods, that is-
if Aphrodite daughter of Zeus slips into battle,
she's the one to stab with your sharp bronze spear!"

Here we see the extent of jealousy and hatred among the gods themselves as they use the mortals as pawns to the their scores. So Diomedes even hurts Aphrodite when
"He gouged her just where the wristbone joins the palm" and even taunts her

"Daughter of Zeus, give up the war, your lust for carnage!
So, it's not enough that your lure defenseless women
to their fighting? Haunting the fighting are you?
Now I think you'll cringe at the hint of war
if you get wind of battle far away"

She is saved by Apollo. Aphrodite then does what even the gods do when they are hurt (i.e) go to their mother for consolation. So does
"The deathless Aphrodite sank in Dione's lap
and her mother, folding her daughter in her arms,
stroked her gently, whispered her name..."

This is a touching scene, a hurt daughter (even if she is a goddess) being consoled by her mother and it makes feel good when we see that the gods themselves are in need of consolation sometimes.

Apollo then enters the battle on the Trojans side and Diomedes thinks of backing off as he knows that fighting the gods will only result in his downfall, even if Athena supports him now. Wise move by him. Apollo then saves the Trojan soldiers and then goes to Ares asking him to re-enter the battle asking him to assault Diomedes. Ares, always on the lookout for a battle and bloodshed complies and joins the battle again. Now with Ares on the Trojans side, the battle is more even. Diomedes however proceeds further until he comes face to face with Ares,

"Ares there-
and for all his war cries Diomedes shrank at the sight,
as a man at a loss, helpless, crossing a vast plain
halts short at a river rapids surging out to sea,
takes one look at the water roaring up in foam
and springs back with a leap. So he recoiled,

The beauty here is how Homer describes the manner in Diomedes backed up, the image of a sudden powerful flow of water and the shocked man recoiling. The whole poem is full of such terrible beauty, where you know what you are seeing is terrible, but one from which you can't take your eyes off.

As Diomedes backs off not wanting to fight Ares, the Trojans now gain the upper hand. Will Hera allow it? Not at all and she tells Athena to go to the Greek's aid. Both of them get ready and there is a incredibly descriptive stanza that shows us how Athena wears her war gear.

"Then Athena, child of Zeus whose shield is thunder,
letting fall her supple robe at the Father's threshold-
rich brocade, the stitched with her own hands labor-
donned the battle-shirt of the lord of lightning,
buckled her breastplate geared for wrenching war
and over her shoulders slung her shield, all tassels
flaring terror-
Then over her brows Athena placed her her gold helmet
fronted with four knobs and forked with twin horns,
engraved with the fighting men of a hundred towns.
Then onto the flaming chariot Pallas set her feet
and seized her spear - weighted, heavy, the massive shaft

Whew, the archetypal Amazon. Xena, who is she? When Athena gets ready for battle no one can match her. Hera then goes to Zeus complaining about Ares.

"..Father Zeus, look-
aren't you incensed at Ares and all his brutal work?
Killing so many brave Achaeans for no good reason,
not a shred of decency, just to wound my heart!
the goddess of love and Apollo lord of the silver bow:
they loosed this manic Ares - he has no sense of justice.
Father Zeus- I wonder if you would fume at me
if I hurled a stunning blow at the god of war
and drove him from the fighting?

Look at her cunning. When she and Athena kill Trojans it is for a good reason, but when their side is at the receiving she goes complaining to Zeus. For all the power of the gods, they all submit to Zeus, that's why she asks his permission to fight Ares. Zeus then allows Athena to fight Ares. Athena then wants Diomedes to fight Ares, which he refuses as he does not want to fight the gods. Here comes a comical stanza where Athena abuses Ares as

".. Just look at the maniac,
born for disaster, double-dealing, lying two faced god-"

Emboldened by Athena, Diomedes does fight Ares and attacks him with his spear
"deep in Ares bowels where the belt cinched him tight."

Ares is hurt and now it is his turn to go running to Zeus complaining that 
".. Father Zeus,
aren't you incensed to see such violent brutal work?
But that girl-
you never block her way with a word or action, never,
you spur her on, since you, you gave her birth
Just look at this reckless Diomedes now-

This above stanza is pretty much what Hera complained to Zeus, with only the characters complained about changed. This gives a taste of reality among all the gods, thunder etc, a feeling of comfort that the family of the gods have the issue sibling rivalry, jealousy like that of the mortals and in both cases, they all go the Father/Zeus to solve their problems. But Zeus, that cunning god of gods, he must have enjoyed a hearty laugh seeing the gods fight it out on behalf of the mortals, seeing his plan proceeding just as he planned. However, he does not care much for the wounds of Ares and orders him to get treated, not much compassion from his for his son of whom he says

"You-I hate you most of all the Olympian gods.
Always dear to your heart,
strife, yes, and battles, the bloody grind of war.
You have your mother's uncontrollable rage - incorrigible,
that Hera-"

Even while scolding other, Zeus cannot stop taking a dig at his wife Hera :). Hera and Athena also return to the heavens having successfully stopped Ares. Now that the gods have had enough of their proxy battles and withdrawn, it's up to the mortals now to fight without any help from the gods. How will the battle now turn?

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