One of the most defining aspects of our humanity is love. We are creatures of affectivity made in love for love. It is the recognition of this fact that makes Homer so eternal: his heroes are heroes of love. In a cosmos governed by lust, strife, and war, the loving deeds of our Homeric heroes stand out.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are heroic poems that have endured through the millennia. The primary subjects of the Iliad and Odyssey are Achilles and Odysseus, though much time is spent discussing and detailing the deeds of other heroes: Hector, Priam, and Diomedes most especially in the Iliad, and Penelope and Telemachus in the Odyssey. But Homer’s heroes, at least the heroes who are the primary subjects of the epics, scandalously break the established archetype of the hero provided by Hesiod and the heroic archetypes of other Greek heroic works and medieval heroic poems. When reading Homer, we are witnesses to a grand, and enduring, psychological shift in consciousness as to who heroes are and what makes one heroic.
What makes a classic, well, a classic? It is easy and superficial to point to old dead white men having chosen certain works to stand atop the list. It is equally easy and superficial to point to antiquarianism as another answer. While it is true that many classics have extensive age to them, having stood up against that ultimate test—time—there are many newer and more recent works that have entered the lexicon of “classic” and earned their spot alongside Homer, Virgil, or Shakespeare. In attempting to understand what makes a classic we must begin with the human condition since the classics of the humanities invariably deal with the human condition.
The humanities pertain to us. That is why it is essential to study the humanities. Before you can change the world, you need to understand yourself. St. Augustine said it best in the Confessions, “Noverim te, noverim me.” When addressing the human condition there seems to me, at least, three essential aspects of human nature: rationality, language, and love. We are said to be the rational animal—something shared among pagan philosophers and the Biblicists. We are also the language animals; language is something deeply human, something intensely intimate, and undeniably the glue that binds a society together in understanding. What is often played down is the most defining aspect of our humanity: love. We are creatures of affectivity made in love for love.
The classics capture the human condition when they deal with the dynamic reality of love and strife. From Homer and Virgil to Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy, the classics always seem to have this tension between love and strife moving their pages onward to the conclusion. Indeed, what makes a classic a classic is the ability to manifest this reality of love and strife in unforgettable, heart-wrenching, and soul-stirring stories.
Hesiod and the Masculine Heroic Ideal
Greek tradition maintains that Hesiod and Homer were rivals. Hesiod defeated Homer in a poetry competition when he recited a passage from Works and Days about the practical nature of life and farming. Homer, though he inspired the crowd with a description of the Greek army drawn up for battle from the Iliad, was awarded second prize because the judges disliked the non-pragmatic passage he supposedly sung.
Yet Hesiod is hardly remembered next to Homer, and if he is, he is remembered for the Theogony and not Works and Days. The Theogony is a sublime poem through and through. Longinus articulated the first definition of the sublime as that which “leads . . . to ecstasy.” Edmund Burke, in his famous aesthetic treatise An Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, followed up on this ancient outlook writing, “the sublime . . . is . . . the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” and “has terror for its basis.” The Theogony is sublime because the poem is about graphic sex, lust, and violence on a cosmic scale.
Hesiod opens the poem with the traditional invocation of the muses, “From the Muses of Helicon let us bring our singing, that haunt Helicon’s great and holy mountain, and dance on their soft feet round the violet-dark spring and the altar of the mighty son of Kronos . . . From there they go forth, veiled in thick mist, and walk by night, uttering beautiful voice, singing of Zeus who bears the aegis.” Singing and dancing, we moderns may have forgotten, are intrinsically sexual acts. Birds and fish sing and dance, or gyrate their bodies, to attract mates. The sexual overtures of the poem are right from the beginning and culminate most violently and spectacularly in the castration of Uranus and the birth of Aphrodite.
But Hesiod’s opening invocation also informs us of the subject of praise: Zeus. Zeus is a god and not a mortal human. This is going to stand in stark contrast to Homer who sings of two mortal men in his epics, two epics which depict equally nefarious gods as does Hesiod, and an epic where our hero must escape the clutches of goddesses to return to a mortal, but loving, wife.
The Theogony can be broken down into three identifiable sections. There is an opening prologue which begins with the pious invocation of the muses and the naming of the subject of praise. Then the poem shifts to tell the story of Zeus by detailing his genealogy—all the way back to the primordial deities. The second part of the Theogony mostly centers on Uranus’ sexual predation upon Gaia which leads to the birth of Kronos, who is the father of Zeus, and his overthrow of Kronos which serves as the genesis of the Olympians and ends with the birth of Zeus. The final part of Hesiod’s classic details the ascendency of Zeus in the cosmos of strife as he wages war against the Titans, rallies the Olympians to victory, then slays the monster Typhoeus and takes his place at the head of the pantheon. The slaying of Typhoeus ends the chaoskampf that has governed Hesiod’s sublime masterpiece.
As one reads the Theogony it is unmistakable what are the heroic deeds which the muses, dancers, singers, indeed, the poet, sing of: deeds of masculine violence and, faute de mieux, military prowess. Zeus is celebrated because he led the Olympians to victory against Kronos and the Titans and slayed the terrible serpentine monster Typhoeus. Zeus sets the archetypal pattern of the male hero—the hero who is courageous and victorious in struggle and slays monsters. This is the general archetypal pattern for the demi-god heroes of Greek mythology and even the chanson de geste poems of early medieval Christendom.
Homer’s Inversion of the Heroic Ideal
“Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” Thus opens Homer’s Iliad. “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” Thus opens Homer’s Odyssey. Unlike Hesiod’s Theogony, Homer’s two epics do not invoke muses in any religious festival setting and do not have gods as their subject of praise. Instead, Homer somewhat blasphemously and radically sings of mortal men. The muses are invoked, but the context of the openings nowhere imply religious festivities as does Hesiod’s opening. Rather, the openings capture the power of memory—Homer’s openings imply memory and consciousness.
Homer’s epics are heroic poems. They follow the heroic pattern rooted in Mycenean oral culture which sung of heroic deeds of men long dead but eternally present in the memories of the living. (Heroes live and die in the memories of the living generation.) But we do not know the extent of the oral basis for the Iliad and Odyssey. We do know the Greek settlers, led by Athens, settled in Ionia during the Ionian migration—Homer was a native of Ionia, but his ancestors were from the mainland. Homer’s two epics are also composed in Ionian hexameter, which had already come to serve as the basis for epic poetry in the Greek world (Hesiod’s epics are also composed in Ionian hexameter). But if tradition is a guide for us, the oral basis for the Iliad and Odyssey probably centered on the military and masculine exploits of Achilles and Odysseus. That is what makes Homer’s poetry so shocking, so scandalous, and so eternal—he subverts this ideal and instead presents heroes whose greatest deeds are deeds of love.
Death surrounds the Iliad. Men die left and right. Their entrails spill out over the fields of Troy. As Simone Weil wrote in L’Iliade ou le poème de la force, her masterful short interpretation of Homer during the outbreak of the Second World War, “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad, is force.” Homer goes into substantive detail describing these deaths brought about by force, “Meriones killed Phereclus—son of Tecton . . . Meriones caught him quickly, running him down hard and speared him low in the right buttock—the point pounding under the pelvis, jabbed and pierced the bladder—he dropped to his knees, screaming, death swirling round him.” Almost immediately after this moment, Homer gives another grizzly description of death on the field, “Meges killed Pedaeus, Antenor’s son, a bastard boy but lovely Theano nursed him with close, loving care like her own children . . . Meges . . . struck behind his skull, just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue—he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze.” Homer’s death descriptions follow the pattern of naming the victim and their lineage, in doing so he sensitizes us to the violence of the war.
The men who die are sons, fathers, husbands, and lovers. They are given names and faces to remind us that these poor souls who died were just like us. Homer’s death descriptions are not a celebration of violence but a subtle repudiation of it. After all, it is not the death scenes that we remember and move us to tears. The heroic deeds of war are overshadowed by the, admittedly, brief deeds of loving compassion that intersplice the poem.
The Iliad is the song of Achilles, but rage-filled Achilles is not unleashed in war and bloodshed until very late in the book. This is a very important thing to recognize since the work is a song of heroic poetry; yet if military exploits were the focus of the greatness of Achilles then Homer would have certainly detailed the earlier exploits of Achilles during the prior ten years of war where he slew thousands upon thousands of Trojan warriors. Instead, the military exploits of Achilles recounted in the Iliad—though bloody—are comparatively few. After news reaches Achilles of the death of his beloved companion, Patroclus, the boiling rage that had been slowly simmering in the Argive warrior from Agamemnon’s earlier theft of Briseis explodes in terrible fury. Achilles dons his shield, spear, armor, and marches out to war. Force may be a moving spirit in the poem, but it is neither the true subject—nor, necessarily, is Achilles, but what Achilles comes to embody by poem’s end.
During the infamous rage of Achilles, where he slaughters Trojans left and right and spills their entrails and blood over the sands of Troy, a young prince of Troy lays down his arms and throws himself at the feet of Achilles begging for mercy. Lycaon, who knows Achilles (having been enslaved by him earlier in the war), dishonorably begs and weeps for mercy. In a domineering position, Achilles mercilessly shrugs off the pleas from the young prince and slices him open; Lycaon’s blood spills out onto the sands of Troy which have become bathed in blood. Achilles vows to wipe out the seed of Priam from the earth. He then proceeds to kill Hector and ravage his body.
The three most moving deeds of the poem are Hector’s embrace of his terrified and infant son on the walls of Troy; Priam’s courageous journey into the tent of Achilles to retrieve the body of Hector; Achilles’ mercy toward Priam as the two weep together and he returns the dead body of a son to a loving father (notwithstanding Achilles giving Patroclus his war arms in hope that it will preserve him in battle). None of these moments, which are defining moments in Homer’s epic, entail masculine slaughter. For all the images of war, these images of compassionate love are the most moving and most memorable—they are the moments that remain with us when hearing, or reading, Homer’s epic recounted.
Indeed, the image of a defenseless Trojan at the feet of Achilles is recapitulated in that most moving conclusion of Homer’s epic. Priam throws himself at the feet of Achilles just as Lycaon had done. We have seen this image earlier. We also know of the new vow Achilles has just made. Now Achilles has the opportunity to complete his vow by killing the very head of the family whom he despises.
Instead of slaying Priam as he did Lycaon (and Hector, among many others), Achilles breaks down in loving compassion toward the father. What sparked Achilles’ forgiving love were memories of his father’s love for him. In Priam’s courageous love to retrieve the body of Hector, Achilles is reminded of his own father and an image, a memory, of love instead of war arises. The love that has been (re)kindled in Achilles breaks his heart of stone. Achilles lifts up the old King of Troy and they weep together in embrace.
For a poem that has been surrounded by war, strife, and force writ large, these brief moments of endearing love stand out. There were no moments of love in Hesiod’s Theogony. Strife governed the Hesiodic cosmos. Strife is very much present, if not the primary governing force in the Homeric cosmos as well. However, Homer opens the cosmos to a healing love which brings unity and calm in the midst of a war-torn and hateful world. That is the enduring power of Homer. Homer is, in my estimation, the first humanist of the Western tradition. Homer locates the healing love of the cosmos not in faraway and illusory gods but in mortal humans and their agency.
Although we know, as Homer’s audience knew, that Achilles was still to be killed, Troy burned, and Priam to die, the conclusion of the Iliad is so perfect and complete because the poem which begins in rage and filled with war ends in a moment of peace brought forth by love. The peace won in love, however brief, is so sweet we cannot help but cry and feel the conclusion proper despite knowing what is to come. Moreover, the poem is about the metamorphosis of Achilles from strife-filled and rageful, indeed, hateful, killer into a forgiving lover who brings healing to the world. Hector, whose name in Greek means “one who holds together,” held together—until his unhinging and death toward the end of the epic—the two worlds of love and strife. The unhinging of Hector and his death throws the world back into utter chaos until Achilles, learning love in the presence of Priam, restores the two worlds and orders his rage to love and brings forth a temporary moment of peace.
The Odyssey is the shorter and less complex of Homer’s two epics, but is still an undisputed masterpiece of Western literature and an equally moving tale of love in the midst of chaotic struggle. Odysseus was a great warrior and captain of the Greek army during the Trojan War. His martial exploits are recounted in the Iliad, but the song that bears his name has nothing to do with the Trojan War. Instead, the heroic deeds that Homer sings about in the Odyssey are the loving deeds Odysseus engages in to try and save his men and return home to his faithful wife and son. Like with the Iliad and Achilles, if the Odyssey wanted to recount the military exploits of Odysseus it certainly could have. Instead, Homer chooses to focus on an agonizing journey home to a loving son and faithful wife.
While Penelope is the undeniable heroine of the poem, for had Penelope betrayed the bond of marriage (and therefore, the bond of love) as Clytemnestra did to Agamemnon, then there would have been no happy reunion after securing the household from power-hungry suitors (really, usurpers) who have no love for Penelope but simply court her for their own political ends. Yet Odysseus could have easily stayed in bed with Circe or Calypso. Time and again Odysseus is tempted with the illusory fantasy of perfect sex and endless pleasure.
It is easy to condemn Odysseus for his actions, but we must remember the illusory unreality of the goddesses who tempt Odysseus and his overcoming of both. Circe is the greater villain of the two goddesses who detain Odysseus on his journey home, but what compelled Odysseus to venture into the tempting lair of Circe was his love for his fellow men who had been captured by the temptress witch.
Odysseus is perhaps most easily critiqued for his seven-year elopement with the beautiful goddess Calypso. But the relationship between Calypso and Odysseus is more one-way than consensual. It is Calypso who lusts after Odysseus and wants to make him her husband. Greek mythology has many stories of a divine lusting after a mortal, and it usually always ends badly for the mortal.
Homer doesn’t mention any children that the two had. This is important irrespective of later embellishments by the Greek literary tradition because Homer’s song of Odysseus is also Homer’s song, and what is contained is what Homer wants us to remember. Despite the carnal perfection that Odysseus dwells in, his love for Penelope overcomes the cold embrace of Calypso. Calypso and her supposed paradise represent the ideal carnal heaven of abundant pleasure. But it is not a loving place.
Love draws two flesh together as one and brings closure. This is what we have already seen in the Iliad with Hector’s unveiling of himself to Astyanax as father and son embrace in love which brings peace to the terrified infant on the walls of Troy, and the love shared between Achilles and Priam as they embrace and their embrace in love brings the temporary peace that the Iliad ends with. The opposite is true between Calypso and Odysseus. The embrace is cold. It doesn’t bring closure or peace. It brings anxiety and a yearning for true love, marital fidelity—something that only a mortal, not a divine, can provide. The images of love we have witnessed in the Iliad, recapitulated in this part of the Odyssey, do not bring the same conclusions as before. And that is Homer’s subtle point of informing us that the relationship between Calypso and Odysseus are not truly loving.
The fact that Odysseus yearns for the embrace of Penelope, a mortal woman, rather than the embrace of a divine-like Calypso is also a scandalous moment to recognize in reading Homer. All the moments of love in his two epics are between mortals. The gods are incapable of love from Homer’s pen. The love that binds the world and heals the world is the love shared between humans who are consecrated to return to the dust from which they came. This reality of the love which Homer sings of also, in my mind, reveals his humanism.
Odysseus subsequently leaves Calypso and sails to Ithaca. As we know, Odysseus makes landfall and embraces his son once more. He devises a plan to dispatch the lustful and scheming “suitors” and free Penelope from the captivity she is in under their attempted predatory advances. Odysseus and Penelope are reunited in embrace; a family torn apart in war is united in love. The heroic deed that the Odyssey sings of is the love that drew a husband to a wife (and son) which brought unity from the division sown in war. It is fitting that the Odyssey ends with Athena, the goddess of reason, establishing the peace and preventing rage from overwhelming the island. That it is the goddess of reason is also not unnoteworthy—love is, possibly on this account, something rational. This would also make Homer stand out in the ancient world where love was generally scorned as something entirely irrational.
Heroes of Love
What makes Homer so eternal is the fact that his heroes are heroes of love. We forget Diomedes, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, even though they are all central characters of the Iliad (we forget them because their most “heroic” deeds are all deeds predicated on strife). We hold Helen, Paris, and Clytemnestra in contempt for their actions—examples of what not to do. Yet we remember Hector, Priam, Achilles, and Odysseus. We must now ask why do we remember these heroes so fondly?
From Homer’s pen, we remember our heroes for their gallant, truly heroic, deeds of love. Their deeds truly are heroic and exceptional because they are the exceptions. In a cosmos governed by lust, strife, and war, the terrible and gruesome force that guides Hesiod’s Theogony and Weil is right to recognize as a prime moving spirit in Homer, the loving deeds of our Homeric heroes stand out. The love they exude bring moments of peace in a war-torn and chaotic world unleashed by lust.
The heroic archetypes we are familiar with, the archetype set down by Hesiod in the Theogony, are subverted by Homer. While Homer’s two epics have strife permeating the stories, love breaks into the cosmos of strife and offers peace and healing. Homer’s epics are classics precisely because they capture the realities of love and strife, those most essential components of the human condition. Yet the true enduring enchantment of Homer is how he celebrates love instead of violence; compassion instead of hate; peace instead of war. Both poems are long and arduous struggles to find love and the most elusive byproduct of love: peace. Once love is found, both poems end on a note of peace.
Homer gives us a glimpse of the beatific vision and the long sought-after desire for serenity brought forth in love. Homer’s poems are sublime, but the sublime is superseded by the beautiful. That Homer’s works are simultaneously sublime and beautiful testifies to Homer’s endurance after nearly three millennia. The heroes of love live forever in our memories and their actions instruct us as to what is truly heroic.
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The featured image is “Priam Begging the Body of Hector from Achilles” (1824) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (1806-1858), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.