“Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls. . .”
The first great work of Western literature is a magnificent poem recounting the story of the final stages of the Trojan War—one of the central legends of ancient Greek, and later European, culture. Tales surrounding the Trojan War constitute a vast and interwoven cycle of Greek poems, plays, myths and artwork: the rape of Leda by Zeus; the Golden Apple and the Judgement of Paris; the Oath of Tyndareus; the abduction (or seduction) by Paris of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships”; the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis; the siege of Troy, its fall, and the death of Achilles. The Trojan War, too, is the starting point for Homer’s Odyssey, one of the many stories of the aftermath of this culturally-scarring war.
The Iliad takes place over just a few pivotal weeks near the end of the Greeks’ ten-year siege of Troy. The invading Greek army’s greatest warrior, Achilles, withdraws from the fighting after a dispute with their leader Agamemnon, bringing the threat of defeat and destruction upon the Greeks. His action precipitates devastating results for both sides, ultimately leading to the fall of Troy itself.
Though memorable for its scenes of bloody battle and the squabbling of the gods on Olympus, the Iliad exudes an intense humanity, infusing a tragic longing for peace amid the seeming inevitability of war and destruction. Homer invites us to put ourselves into the world of the war: a place no one wants to be, where the gods seem unpredictable, and where there\’s a genuine question of whether justice is anywhere to be found. We are challenged to take seriously the warriors\’ values of honor and glory, which may be very different from values we hold.
The Iliad asks basic questions about what really matters: about what is worth living—and dying—for. It confronts us with fundamental questions about honor, community, justice, love, and loyalty, as the story’s characters search to make sense of their own mortality.
- Six meeting study
- Recommended edition: Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles, introduction by Bernard Knox; Penguin Classics; ISBN-13: 978-014027536
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