Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…
This month I am reading The Iliad for the 10 yr reading plan. The last time I read The Iliad was about 13 years ago so it definitely feels like the first time all over again. What fun! I love that the story is mostly a surprise to me now but I keep having these flash visions of my tiny gray-haired Greco-Roman Civ teacher jumping around the room and raving about kleos and how it all comes down to kleos.
Kleos is Greek for honor/glory and in the beginning of The Iliad it is the whole reason why Agamemnon and Achilles get in their fight in the first place. In Homer’s Greece, after a war, whatever the conquering army has managed to steal, loot, and plunder gets divided up between the victorious heroes and adds to each warrior’s kleos. Naturally, the women are some of the highest prizes. (Just an aside, I have often wondered if this is where we get our expression “trophy wife”.)
When Book One opens, Agamemnon and the armies fighting with him have recently divided up some war spoils which include a priest’s daughter named Chryseis, who was given to Agamemnon. Well, Chyseis’s father is so upset at losing her that he comes to Agamemnon with ransom and begs for her release. Agamemnon refuses and the priest calls down the wrath of Apollo onto Agamemnon’s army.
I can’t help loving the instant justice of this. Agamemnon had the chance to be merciful, he was even offered a ransom in exchange but he refuses and is immediately punished. How nice would it be to just point out someone’s wrongdoing and have some god swoop down and rain arrows on that person for their unnecessary nasty behavior? It would be so satisfying wouldn’t it?
So after Apollo’s wrath has gone on for a bit too long, Achilles (who is fighting with Agamemnon but heads up his own troops, the Myrmidons) gets a little irritated. Agamemnon’s selfishness is causing a lot of death and destruction for all those around him and Achilles would just like him to step up and be a better man. Instead, Agamemnon says he will only return Chyseis if he can take the woman that Achilles was given. Achilles gets doubly pissed here because really, they are all there fighting this long and awful war just because of Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus (husband of Helen, who has been abducted by Paris).
Achilles loses Briseis (and she certainly doesn’t seem at all happy to be led away to Agamemnon’s tent) and as a result he vows to quit fighting. He calls upon his mother, the goddess Thetis, to convince Zeus to help the Trojans win the war so that Agamemnon and his armies will acknowledge how much they needed Achilles.
This kleos thing is a pretty big deal after all. As I understand it, for a warrior, their kleos was a tangible, visible measure of their worth as a fighter and/or protector. By taking Briseis, Agamemnon is making it clear that he is worth more than Achilles. Which Achilles argues is simply not true at all. Achilles points out that Agamemnon takes the war spoils for doing basically nothing while Achilles is out getting wounded and beat-up.
whenever we sack some wealthy Trojan stronghold / my arms bear the brunt of the raw, savage fighting, / true, but when it comes to dividing up the plunder / the lion’s share is yours, and back I go to my ships, / clutching some scrap, some pittance that I love, / when I have fought to exhaustion
Reading Book One last night made me laugh a little – here are all these big, warrior men arguing (I won’t say whining, but I could) about women and recognition. About who gets what and who is more important. And when something goes wrong, Achilles goes running to…his mother. In some sense they sound a bit like spoiled kids fighting over their toys on a playground-battleground. But at the same time, The Iliad is about rage. Real, dangerous, violent and destructive rage. It is about pride and about loss. Homer’s poem makes it clear from the first page that war and tragedy are inseparable, and that glory and honor are kind of beside the point. People, loved ones, will die. What could be worse than that?