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  • Homer

The Iliad - critical review

The entirety of The Iliad is surrounded by the juxtaposition of the mortals compared to the immortal Gods. All the mortals are aware of their ultimate fate: to die, but what remains important is what they can do within this fate. This is where the idea of the hero arises, as it becomes necessarily connected to death. This contrast of the mortals and immortals is also encapsulated through the presentation of mortal compared to immortal women, which initiates questions on society and its influence on the pure form of humans. Therefore, through this overriding split present in every page of the Iliad, questions are introduced on society, gender and the hero.

Firstly, the contrast of the presentation of immortal and mortal woman was something that really stood out to me when reading The Iliad. Mortal woman are presented as passive and of lower ability, potentiality and status than men. This can be seen through the presentation of Hector's wife, Andromache, who passively waits, 'in wailing in lamentation', for Hector to return from war and care and protect his family. Andromache addresses herself to Hector as "your doomed wife", stating that "when I lose you, it would be better to sink down under the earth. There will be no other comfort let for me." The phrase "sink down under the earth" presents her worthlessness without the accompany of her husband, which matches the description of her "wailing in lamentation" as she waits for him. Furthermore, the fact she addresses herself as "your doomed wife" shows this self-awareness of gender roles woman had, as she seems to be both accepting and embracing it, instead of recognising the unjustness of it. This suggests that within society the perception of women was widely accepted. This presentation of mortal woman can be looked at further through the fighters act of comparing others to women to insult them. Menelaos is described to stand and speak to the Archains, "scorning them to shame", stating "Oh, you braggarts, mere woman of Archaia now, no longer men!" The phrase "no longer men" accompanied with "mere" confirms the inferiority woman have compared to men, as Menealous seems to want to portray they have decreased in value so drastically. This is echoed when Hector addresses Diomedes, stating "you turn out to be no better than a woman. Off with you, you poor puppet!" Through Hector describing him as both a "woman" and a "poor puppet", he connects the two metaphors, suggesting that a "poor puppet" is the same level as a woman, or that a woman is in fact merely a poor puppet. This shows the lack of autonomy and power that mortal women have. This idea is further shown through Diomedes addressing Alexandros, who wounded him, saying that "it troubles me as much as if a woman had hit me, or a silly child." This connection of similes has the same effect, as it suggests "woman" and "silly child" are on the same level of power and authority, suggesting that woman would be no use fighting in the war, as they would provoke little pain and therefore cause little effect. Women are merely used for an incentive for men to fight: as the reasoning for the fighting in the first place is having possession of Helen through marriage, the idealised form of beauty, and that "the prize for the beaten man" is a woman, which "they valued her at four oxen." Therefore, mortal woman are presented as not only passive but merely for the benefit or use of men. They are incapable on their own, shown through Andromache, and presented as both powerless and ignorant: the opposite of the presentation of a hero, meaning their value and identity is decided and labelled by men: both through their use in their insults and literally valuing them, in this case, "four oxen."

This is starkly juxtaposed with the presentation of immortal women. Immortal women seem to have power and influence over the fighters, superior to mortal men and equal to many other of the immortal men. This can be seen through the fact Athena is the protector of Diomedes, as she states "I stand at your side and protect you." This echoes the role of Hector in his relationship with his wife, directly contrasting the different status' of mortal and immortal women: as shown through the active verb of immortals having the power and authority to "protect" mortal men. This authority of immortal women is also shown through the equality they seem to have with other immortal men, as Hephaistos declares that Thetis "saved me" and therefore he must "repay lovely haired Thetis the debt for my life." Therefore, through the use of the verb "repay" and noun "debt" there is this suggestion of no distinction or barrier between immortal men and women. This power is seen through their ability to fight and intervene with the war. An example of this is through the order to "set Athene at him, the goddess of spoil - she is the one who most often brings him to inglorious pain." Here, not only does it show Athena's ability, but the superlative "most often" shows she is superior to others. This is mirrored further through the quotations "the bright-eyed goddess Athene was pleased she was the god he prayed to before all the others. She put strength in his shoulders and knees" and that she "took up her spear, the huge, heavy, massive spear with which she brings low the ranks of men." The phrase "before all the others" again shows this superiority Athena, a female God, has to many of the other immortals: her gender does not bound her to inferiority as does it with mortal women. Furthermore, the triadic structure 'huge, heavy, massive' describing Athena's spear, along with the active verb phrases "put strength in his shoulders" and "took up her spear", suggests her potentiality and ability in fighting. This is proved when she "hit[s] furious Ares on the neck" and laughs "in triumph over him: 'you poor fool, you cannot have thought at all how much greater strength I can claim than you, if you try to match your powers against me." It could be interpreted that this quotation, especially her address to Ares "you fool", explains the reasoning as to why immortal woman are both superior to mortal men and have no boundaries due to their gender: because they are more knowledgeable. This contrasts to Hector's wife, Andromache's, statement that she will "sink down under the earth" in the absence of her husband, and the connection of women to "poor puppets." Therefore, this creates the idea that knowledge is as powerful as physical strength: and the reason mortal women are not powerful is due to their lack of knowledge, instead of their lack of strength. It therefore could be interpreted that it is being suggested that these gender roles are created by society itself. Mortal women's role is due to their lack of accessibility to education and knowledge, making them powerless and "puppets" to their more knowledgeable, and therefore stronger, husbands. This can be justified due to the immortal women being portrayed as physically strong and able, creating the idea that it is not their physical build that weakens mortal women in society but instead their ignorance. Therefore, the contrast of mortal and immortal women could be interpreted as an explanation to women's roles in Archaean society and perhaps even urging the contemporary listeners or readers to think about the reasoning for this perspective of women.

This idea of mortals contrasted with immortals introduces the idea of fate, in which mortals are powerless against their predestined fate that the immortals have set for them. We can see this idea through the quotation "fate, I tell you, is something no man is ever freed from, whether brave man or coward, from the first moment of his birth." The verb phrase "freed from" suggests a negative tone to fate, and creates the idea that mortals are held prisoner to it, creating a sense of helplessness. Furthermore, the ultimate fate that all mortal men are subject to is what mainly defines the difference between mortals and immortals. Agamemnon states that "the hateful doom that feel to me at my very birth has gasped for me and swallowed me: and it is your own fate too, godlike Achilleus, to be killed under the wall of wealthy Troy." The adjective "hateful" and verbs "gasped" and "swallowed" further strenghts the negative tone of their passiveness and inability to change the human will. The adjective "godlike" is often used to described Achilleus, but in this case, it explains why it can only be a simile - since he is subject to the fate of death. Achilles himself recognises this as he says "death and strong Fate are there for me also: there will be a dawn, or an evening, or a noonday when some man will take my life too". This self-consciousness of our fate is what characterises humanity, as we are both aware that we are alive, and that someday we will not be.

This idea of mortals being subject to death leads on to the interesting portrayal of the identity of the 'Hero', as someone who has to win glory before reaching their fate. We can see this through the telling of Achilleus two possible fates. Achilleus states 'If I say here and fight [..] gone is my homecoming, but my glory will never die: and if I come back to my dear native land, then gone is my great glory, but my life will stretch long and the end of death will not overtake me quickly." This long passage portrays the tension between human and immortal control. The active verbs "fight" and phrase "if I come back to my dear native land" shows human autonomy in making decisions within the ultimate fate of death. This contrasts with "gone is my homecoming" and "death will not overtake me", which personifies death, showing it's ultimate superiority to humanity, but Achilleus' consciousness of this shows that humans do have autonomy within this. Furthermore, Achilleus' potentiality to create "glory" that "will never die", shows that humans themselves may not be as powerful as the God's due to their mortality, but they can create something just as authoritative as the immortals. However, it could be suggested that Homer presents this ability to earn glory as something learnt, instead of a natural inclination. This could be shown through Hector's statement: " I have learnt always to be brave and to fight in the forefront of the Trojans, winning great glory for my father and for myself" compared to the description of Hector's son, who "shrank back crying against the breast of his girdled nurse, terrified at the sight of his own father." This fear that Hector's son has at the sight of his father dressed in clothes to fight supports the idea that Hector "learnt" always to be brave. This choice of verb suggests this idea that bravery to win glory is not something natural, but instead, the natural urge is to "shrink back crying" in fear. This idea makes the identity of the hero more admirable, as it is an active decision, instead of a compulsion, to act in this way.

However, glory through fighting isn't shown to be the ultimate key to the identity of the 'Hero.' Even though Achilleus is described as 'heroic' throughout, it could be suggested that his becoming of 'The Hero' isn't achieved until the end due to his violent and amoral attitude. He is described as "no sweet-minded man, no gentle heart, but a man in full fury" and compared to a "monstrous fire rages through the deep valleys on a parched mountainside, and the think forest burns as the wind drives the flame billowing all over" as he "stormed with his spear […] like some inhuman being […] with blood spattering his invincible hands". This invincibility is suggested as something supernatural, instead of impressive, through the adjectives "monstrous" and "inhuman", as well as using metaphors that destroy the natural, such as "thick forest burns." This tension between the natural and the unnatural is further created through the statement that the river "had anger deepening in his heart, and pondered in his mind how he might stop godlike Achilleus in his murderous work, and protect the Trojans from destruction." Therefore, although he is fighting and therefore earning glory through bravery, the portrayal of him against the natural supports the idea that this technique of earning glory is "learnt" and therefore could be suggested unnatural, suggesting this is why he does not become the ultimate hero until the end of the poem. In the end of the poem, Achilles shows morality and sympathy. It states that "Achilleus cried for his own father, and then again for Patroklos" and grants Old Priam's wish to bury his father: "I will hold back the fighting for the time that you ask". This crying for the love of his father echoes the child of Hector earlier in the poem, which further supports the idea this is a natural part of humanity. Here we see Achilleus learning and practising pity, as he stops the vicious fighting (a practice and attitude that was "learnt") to allow moral justice for another human, Hector. Therefore, Homer portrays the heroic identity as not someone who merely applies this "learnt" attribute of constant bravery and presence in fighting, but also draws upon the importance of the foundation of human inclination: emotion.

Therefore, The Iliad comments on not only what it means to be human, but what it should mean, and is still relevent in society today. The juxtaposition of mortal and immortal woman could be interpreted as an urge to treat women more equally and justifiably. Furthermore, the contrast of Achilleus winning glory through "monstrous" acts: aggression and fighting, something portrayed as not ingrained in the human condition, compared to emotional acts, suggests a plea to return to human's purest form and skills: the ability to communicate and sympathise. The presentation of immortals as ultimately superior to mortals, due to our perishability, can still be meaningful in our secular society today: as it urges human's to create an impact that will surpass our own days, and take control of our lives, within the ultimate fate that all of us are aware of.

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