The Iliad: a tragic nightmare?

Last year I challenged myself to read the Iliad, that I downloaded in electronic version from Gutenberg. I read on and on, there were many a beautiful image and moving metaphors, but along the way I somehow lost the momentum. The truth is: I was sick with all the gory deaths, painstakingly listed and described with modus operandi sometimes similar to a forensic report.

I know from reading history books that I should care about heroes’ moral strength and duty, and see their sacrifice as grand and valuable. Yet I am a reader of the XXI century, and two worldwide wars and several genocides have cast a shadow on my own vision.

As I see Trojans and Danaans fighting for eight years for a cause that has lost all meaning (who still really cares about Helen?), I see trenches of the WWI, with soldiers covered with mud launching yet another assault for no other reason than maybe finding revenge for the death caused during the previous assault. Useless death and absolute destruction. When I read about the Danaans vowing to continue the war until the last Trojan, his wife and children are destroyed, I rather think of a genocide. And as I am no Trojan nor a Danaan, I don’t see why one side would win over the other.

In the book XVII that I am currently reading, Patroclus’ dead body is the cause of a terrible confrontation: his friends stay by the body to protect it: “As a cow stands lowing over her first calf, even so did yellow-haired Menelaus bestride Patroclus” and the other side claims it, demanding his helmet as a spoil and a proof of victory.

“Hector had stripped Patroclus of his armour, and was dragging him away to cut off his head and take the body to fling before the dogs of Troy. But Ajax came up with his shield like wall before him, on which Hector withdrew under shelter of his men, and sprang on to his chariot, giving the armour over to the Trojans to take to the city, as a great trophy for himself; Ajax, therefore, covered the body of Patroclus with his broad shield and bestrode him; as a lion stands over his whelps if hunters have come upon him in a forest when he is with his little ones–in the pride and fierceness of his strength he draws his knit brows down till they cover his eyes–even so did Ajax bestride the body of Patroclus, and by his side stood Menelaus son of Atreus, nursing great sorrow in his heart.” 

This strenuous struggle bringing back and forth a dead body, for which countless other people die, is very painful to read. I feel that I’m missing out on something here and need some background information. I heard that Jean-Pierre Vernant, a French historian, specialized in Greek mythology and philosophy, has recently died. I have been always meaning to read another book of his, so I will search in this direction first. Can you recommend me a good book about the Iliad or the Greek way of life?

3 thoughts on “The Iliad: a tragic nightmare?

  1. Homer by Barry B. Powell is a very good introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Recommended reading for survery courses in Greek Epic. A quick and easy read, but it will give you an understanding of where the Greeks were coming from.

  2. Thanks very much, Poodlerat and Dorothy!
    I got a few references from Sylvia too: Ancient Epic Poetry, by Charles Rowan Beye and A Companion to the Iliad by Malcolm M. Willcock. But sigh, none of those 2 were in any public library around here.
    Next time I’ll look for Powell’s Homer then. In the meantime, I found a fictional biography of Hector by Jacqueline de Romilly…

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