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Defying the Gods

Mortals taking authority in The Illiad

I have found two character I can respect in The Illiad.

One is not a hero. They are not Achilles or Agamemnon nor are they Odysseus or Aeneas or even Diomedes.

It is Helen, the “cause” of the war herself. Only Helen, of all the great heroes of the poem, only Helen, at least during the first quarter, will stand up to the gods. In particular she stands up to Aphrodite. She stands up to the goddess who ruined Helen’s life and reputation and led her to abandon her husband’s bed for another just so the goddess could soothe her ego by winning a golden apple.

Does Menelaus stand up to any of the gods, even though one of them conspired to steel his wife as a bribe for the judge in a divine beauty pageant. Did Menelaus stand up to that same goddess when shen stole his rival away as Menelaus was about to win in fair combat?

Does anyone stand up to Athena for deceiving into restarting hostilities?

Does anyone stand up to Apollo for creating a false Aeneas to rally his men while doing emergency healing on a man felled in fair combat?

No, all the heroes, with one exception, accept the machinations of the gods without question.

“Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?
Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?
Where will you drive me next?

Book III, lines 460-463

Helen does not. When ordered by Aphrodite to attend to her husband Paris she challenges the goddess to attend him instead. Why should Helen attend the man Aphrodite loves so much among mortals. The most telling part of the challenge is when she suggests Aphrodite give up the deathless life of the gods to be Paris’s wife. With this part of the challenge she becomes the first character in the poem to confront any of the gods on their apparent lack of compassion or even basic understanding for mortal men.

Well, to to him yourself – you hover beside him!
Abandon the gods’ high high road and be a mortal!
Never set foot again on Mount Olympus, never! –
suffer for Paris, protect Paris, for eternity…
until he makes you his wedded wife – that or his slave

Book III, lines 470-474

The goddess’s response illuminates how the gods do not lack understanding, but do lack compassion. Aphrodite knows at least some of the trials mortals, a noble mortal woman, would face. She knows what would pain Helen. The goddess knows how to destroy Helen and responds to Helen’s challenge with the threat to use that knowledge.

She gives in to Aphrodite’s threats in the end, but at no point does obey and accept without resisting. In that refusal to give the goddess blind obedience without question she puts herself above all the heroes. When we move back to the battlefields after her confrontation with Aphrodite in Book IV the contrast of her behavior to Diomedes blind following of the commands of Athena.

Yet Diomedes conforming to the goddess’s commands does not spare him her wraith when he follows them. While she changes her tone when he points out she is following her commands given that very afternoon, the fact he needed to remind her what they were shows how the motives of the gods when intervening are self-serving and shallow.

“Well I know you, Goddess, daughter of storming Zeus,
and so I will tell you all, gladly. I’ll hide nothing.
It’s not some lifeless fear that paralyzes me now,
no flinching from combat either.
It’s your own command still ringing in my ears,

Book V, lines 940-944

The other character who stands out is Hector, introduced in full in Book VI. Hector seems to glimpse both his fate and the fate of his city.

“For I must go home to see my people first,
to visit my own dear wife and my baby son.
Who knows if I will ever come back to them again? –
or the deathless gods will strike me down at last
at the hands of Argive fighters.”

Book Vi, lines 435-439

For in heart and soul I also know this well:
the day will come when sacred Troy must die,
Priam must die and all his people with him,

Book VI, lines 530-533

Yet he does not accept fate passively. Instead, Hector defines how he will behave and how people will remember him. Hector sees a value in choosing to act. He invokes the gods and pray they give him what he would in life, but he does not sit and await assistance from Zeus as does Achilles. Instead, after requesting Zeus grant him the chance to see his son grown he returns to the field of battle.

“Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
and one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!’

Book VI, lines 568-57`

Hector provides a strong contrast to his brother, Paris, who was awarded Helen by Aphrodite. Paris is much more a companion in his actions to Agamemnon. Like the great king of the Greeks, the best portion is awarded to Paris, and he will allow other men to die to keep it. Hector accuses him of such malingering to his face and Paris not only cannot deny it, but must endure Helen, his prize from the gods, agreeing.

“I wish I had been the wife of a better man, someone
alive to outrage, the withering scorn of men.
This one has no steadiness in his spirit,
not now, he never will!”

Book VI, lines 415-418

At least Achilles refusal to fight is a response, if a childish one, to how he was deprived of the prizes he had earned. Paris refuses to fight without being shamed even as he has a prize he never won, but got by taking the best bride from a divinity.

I was tempted to image a Troy led by a Hector who had won Helen for his wife when all the Greeks had contended for her. Perhaps Hector’s character is why the gods arrayed against Troy. Its greatest hero is a man who understands that who he is and how he will be remembered is in his hand, not the hands of the gods. They may set his fate and ensure his death, but it is his choices that will make it a brave warrior or a coward. It is his choices that will see him remembered as a man of honor or a man of shame.

The gods may ordain his death, but they cannot ordain his ordinariness.

Helen is not as strong, but that may be because of the difference in how she stands in direct opposition to a goddess. Hector, although facing a fate decreed by the gods, still only faces other mortal heroes in combat. Helen confronts a goddess to her face. I cannot fault her for being less resolute in the face of threats that would be actionable in modern police terminology, when they are delivered by a deathless goddess. Add in the goddess in question has already ruined Helen’s life by her actions and such surrender to threats is more understandable.

So, here we are, a quarter of the way through The Illiad and we have characters I can support. I know the fate of all the major characters well beyond The Illiad for those who survive. Currently, it seems only Hector, his wife and son, and Helen whose fates are undeserved.

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One Comment

  1. TRX TRX

    That reminds me of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” The first time I read it, I was taken in by the glitz. The second time I read it, I realized every single character was a waste of skin. The third time I read it – actually, listening to the audio version that time – I realized that there were two characters that redeemed the story. And they were just incidental.

    Early on, we encounter Hiro, a “vat-grown ninja assassin” who is kept in cold storage between missions. Hiro is just a meat machine, not a whole person; he was programmed from birth for his work. But he is also an innocent; he doesn’t know any better… and within the limits of his programming, he exhibits restraint and a form of kindness.

    Later, we’re introduced to Maelcum, a drug addict from a religious commune, assigned by his tribal elders to act as Case’s pilot and bodyguard. He’s not even operating entirely within normal reality, but he accepts the responsibility; “I and I are the Rastafarian Navy.” He’s entirely unsuited for his mission and knows it, but he gives it his best shot.

    Hiro and Maelcum meet. Hiro takes Maelcum down between two sentences, not even part of the scene other than background color. As far as the storyline went, it might as well not have even been mentioned. Yet… these were two honorable men fulfilling their commitments.

    The characters drop out of the story shortly after. I doubt Gibson actually intended them to be anything other than color, and his summary dismissal of their meeting showed he didn’t view their encounter as anything noteworthy. Yet there is is, a vignette worthy of Akira Kurosawa, glittering from a festering pile of garbage.

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