Saturday, August 4, 2012

Terminology in 'The Illiad'/Greek gods and their alliances/Violence

As I write about the books in the Illiad, there are some recurring points that would be better understood if there is a common post for them. So this post tries to detail those points and other things that would help in better understanding of the poem. These are gleaned from the individual posts on the books.

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
5. Diomedes - Tydeus's son
6. King of Mycenae - Mycenae was the capital of Agamemnon. Mycenae's king refers to him
7 .team - This term refers to a group of horses in the poem, typically a chariot drawn by horses. 

The Greek Gods and their interest in the Trojan war

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.
7. Poseidon - God of the ocean and causer of earthquakes. No permanent affiliation.

Zeus the puppeteer 

We know that Zeus is supreme power, lording it over the mortals and even the gods. He could be said to be the god of the gods. But the official pecking order of the Gods does not designate him as the supreme power. When Zeus overthrew Cronus with his brothers/sisters, the sky and heaven were to be in his control, the seas under the control of Poseidon and the underworld to be under the power of Hades. So theoretically Poseidon and Hades are the equal of Zeus. The earth was supposed to be common for all of them. But throughout the Greek myths we can see that this agreement is not followed always. It is Zeus who wields the most power even in the earth and in some cases in the seas and underworld too. Though the earth is said to be common, if Zeus does not agree with what a God wants to do a mortal there, then he will intervene and stop it. But on the other hand once Zeus has decided on a mortals fate no God can intervene. It doesn't mean that the Gods are totally subservient to him, they are many times on the verge of the revolt. But they finally desist from fighting with him explicitly as they know that he will finally outwit them somehow. We see several Hollywood movies where Hades and Poseidon are revolting against Zeus. In these Zeus is shown as a benevolent god who is under threat from the other unscrupulous gods. But that's not the case. The gods are not better or worse than each other. In fact one could term Zeus as a despot who rules over the entire universe with an iron hand.

The reason why Zeus wields so much power even over the other gods is that he is not just a brute who wields his thunder and destroys everyone. He is a cunning god who uses his brains as much as he uses his brawn. You can read innumerable instances of Zeus use his brain to outfox the mortals as well as the other gods. He even manipulates the other gods into doing what he wants without they themselves realizing what they are doing. On the other hand one cannot see such cunning in say Hades or the other gods. Zeus too is sometimes outwitted by the gods (particularly Hera) but they are far and in between. That's why the gods themselves refer to him as 'father' a term of endearment and respect rather than implying any such relationship.

The Greeks and their sacrifices of the Gods

As the Greeks seem to be gaining an upper hand, Hector is advised to go to Troy and ask his mother to pray to Athena, giving her offerings of 

"and take a robe, the largest, loveliest robe
that she can find throughout the royal halls,
a gift that far and away she prizes most herself,
and spread it out across the sleek-haired goddess kness.
Then promise to sacrifice twelve heifers in her shrine,
yearlings never broken, if only she'll pity Troy,"

The concept of 'sacrifice' is very important to the ancient Greeks (and of course to all ancient communities). When you are starting something new or completing something successfully or wanted something to turn in your favor, the Greeks always invoked the Gods  making sacrificial offerings to them. Not just even, even when a feast is being held the first offering is to the gods. Now, the offerings too have to be of quality good enough to satisfy the Gods, if it's a feast the best roasted parts of the meat and the purest wine is given to the Gods and only the rest is consumed by them. The Gods themselves look upon these sacrifices as very important and necessary. The slightest misstep by the mortal while making the sacrifices can result in great misery brought upon them by the Gods. It's not necessary that you totally forget about the offerings to be done, even if the offering is of poor quality you are doomed.

Violence in the Iliad

In Book 4, we see 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.

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