Why Read ‘The Iliad’ by Homer?
The Iliad by Homer narrates the battle of Troy which was a ‘do and die’ story of great warriors like Achilles. Although the epic poem is full of death and destruction, there was a battle code followed by the Greeks and the Trojans, that ensured respect to the slain warriors and mercy and compassion for the widows, orphans and old parents of the warriors. The author, Carlo Rey Lacsamana, laments the fact that this merciful compassion is missing in modern warfare.
There is not a page in Homer’s Iliad that is not bloodstained. It is a battle-frenzy book like the daily cycle of news of a bomb explosion in the Middle East or of police brutality anywhere else. But unlike the deafening cacophony of television news, Homer sings in a dark corner of a bookshelf thousands of years ago with a heartbroken voice gazing up to the heavens. When a blind man sings, we listen. And what do we hear?
War: that “men’s business,” that “brutal, ferocious thing,” men armed with spears and shields, men bringing death and destruction, men dividing the spoils, men enslaving children and women. If you are thinking of Palestine, Kurdistan, Syria, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Uighur Muslims in Western China, Black Lives Matter protests in America, the War on Drugs in the Philippines, the image is not that far-fetched. There is nothing new under the sun.
It is difficult to be indifferent before Homer when he sings of “men slaying, and men slain.” Is not Homer most aware of that primal instinct for gladiatorial combat inherent in men? Listen to the boasting conversation between Meriones and Idomeneus—such male talk is a forerunner to the dry, hostile, bureaucratic vernacular of today’s well-dressed warmongers:
“Spear, is it? You will find one spear, or twenty spears, standing in a row in my hut—Trojan spears which I take from their dead. It is not my notion of fighting to stand half a mile away. So, I have quite a stock of spears and shields and shining corselets.
“Meriones said to this:
“So have I! Plenty of Trojan spears in my hut and in my ship! But all a long way off. I don’t forget my duty any more than you do, let me tell you! Whenever there is a fight, there I am in front. Perhaps some of our people may not notice me, but I am sure you know it.”
Not even the most high-tech computerized graphics in war and adventure movies today can compare to the poetry, poignancy, and terror as when Homer dramatizes with anatomic exactitude a battle:
“Sarpedon cast, and the spear passed over Patroclos’ left shoulder without touching. Patroclos followed up, and there was no mistake about his cast: he struck where the midriff encloses the beating heart. Sarpedon fell, as an oak tree falls or a poplar, or a tall pine felled by a woodman to make a ship’s mast: so, he lay in front of his horses and chariot, moaning and clutching at the bloody dust.”
No other war narrative in the history of literature describes death with such breathtaking calmness: “then darkness came over his eyes.”
In Homer’s wars the gods took sides and took pity. In today’s wars the powerful act like gods and none take pity. In Homer the dead were honored and given proper mourning; today, the dead are dishonored as economic refuse, mourned by their fellow dead and the dying. Achilles’ lofty pronouncement that “life is worth more than all the wealth” is today transfigured in the language of our current economic system as “wealth is worth more than all life.”
In a time as troubled as ours, where the lust for power finds sublimation in geopolitical pursuits, where the technological grandeur of modern weaponry renders the slayer and the slain both faceless through the most efficacious destruction imaginable, it is precisely in a time like this that literature invites us to contemplate the meaning of life. And Homer’s voice is as urgent as ever.
Perhaps only a blind man can grasp the horrifying landscape of war and the absurdity of man’s lust for power. That with glory and fame come mourning and lamentation; that beside wealth and spoils there are widows, orphans, ruins, rubbles, and wailings; that warlike courage is no more virtuous than gentleness and kindness as when the old man King Priam lifts his hand to caress the face of his son’s—Hector’s murderer; and he, Achilles, rises from his feet and raises the old man by the hand “pitying his white hairs and white head” saying, “our life is all sorrow.”
In the achievement of heroism, an achievement made absurd by senseless cruelty and death, grief becomes the obstinate radiance of the meaning of life. It is the murmuring that wrenches doubt from the drill call of manly ambition and war and destruction. It is through the heart-wrenching lament of the women of Troy in the last pages of the Iliad that we learn to approach our humanity. It is the passionate fellowship of grief that bequeaths us the impossible condition of forgiveness. Literature is an effort of grief.
Who are we to forgive in the face of uncontainable crimes and unceasing disasters? Maybe forgiveness is the true strength. It takes more courage and heart to forgive than to slay.
Perhaps the ultimate meaning of history lies not in the battles waged, whether won or lost, but rather in the fleeting glimpses of mercy in the face of enormous injustice and cruelty.