Sunday, 18 November 2012

Portsmouth Point Poetry – War and Humanity in 'The Iliad'

by George Laver

Priam (left) pleads with Achilles (centre) for the return of
the body of his son, Hector (below). (source:
"Now Priam spoke to him: “Achilles, remember your father; one who
Is of years like mine, and at the doorway of sorrowful old age.
Surely he, when he hears of you and that you are still living
Is gladdened within his heart and all his days he is hopeful
That he will see his beloved son come home.
. . . I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through,
I have put my lips to the hand of the man who has killed my children.”
. . . Priam sat huddled at the feet of Achilles and wept for Hector,
And Achilles wept now for his own father and now again for Patroclus,
And took the old man by the hand and set him
On his feet again, in pity for the grey head and grey beard.
. . . And called his serving maids to wash the body and anoint it.
“Come then sir, you may take your beloved son back
To Troy and mourn for him; and he will be much lamented.”

(from Book 24 of The Iliad by Homer, c. 750 BC --- translation by Richmond Lattimore)

Since Remembrance Sunday will still undoubtedly be fresh in all of our memories, it seems fitting that this week’s entry should deal in some way with the theme of war.

Homer is widely regarded as the greatest of the ancient Greek poets. The exact time period in which he lived and wrote is still the subject of debate, but it is believed that he was active some time during the seventh or eighth century BC. The Iliad, set during the last of the ten years of the Greeks’ mythical siege of Troy, is recognized as one of the earliest works of Western literature. It recounts the battles and events occurring over the course of the weeks in which the action takes place, while simultaneously portraying the quarrel between Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army, and the heroic warrior Achilles.

Nowadays, it seems normal to talk about the tragedy of war in terms of statistics and figures; who, for instance, is not reminded of the figure of six million victims by a mention of the Holocaust? The Iliad is set at a time when such technologies of mass-slaughter as those used during the Second World War were still thousands of years from being developed. Rather than being able to wipe out distant swathes of people from inside a building or an armoured vehicle, or from an aeroplane, the soldiers of the Trojan War had to engage individual foes no further away from them than the ends of their spears.
In the extract above, Achilles, who has killed Hector, is confronted by Priam, the father of his victim, and is forced to consider the tragic consequences of his actions. It is perhaps because of the intimacy of the ancient battles that Achilles is able to comprehend the personal and emotional impact which war carries for the relatives of its casualties. As modern readers, we are reminded of the fact that wars cannot simply be judged based on the facts and figures; behind every death, there is a grieving father, mother, partner or child who has lost one of the most important people in their life. The final lines, in which Hector's body is washed (in a ceremony of purification) and anointed with oil (an act of sanctification emphasising that, in the words of William Blake, "everything that lives is holy") exemplify a sense of respect which seems in danger of being lost in the sheer vastness, complexity and physical detachment of much modern warfare.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting article, George. Your comment that "respect . . . seems in danger of being lost" is particularly timely, as we see the IDF, in the current Israel-Gaza situation, offering "points" for sharing their blog content with other users of social media; if you visit the IDF site 10 times you get a "Consistent" badge, if you visit it a further number of times you get promoted to "Research Officer". This "gamification" of a war that involves the real deaths and injuries of both Palestinians and Israelis (in a region not so far, geographically, from the site of ancient Troy) suggests exactly the distancing you refer to in your piece.


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