I have been reading the extremely graphic action in Book XX as Achilles finally gets into the field and unleashes his terrible wrath on the Trojans after an inconclusive exchange with Aeneas. Throughout the ages, the Iliad has been the vade mecum of many a warrior or military strategist, from Alexander up to the more recent participants of the Iraq ‘event’ of 2003 and possibly even Afghanistan with its Operation ‘Achilles’ against Taliban enclaves. It is probably a fruitless exercise to try to decide whether Homer (whoever he was individually or collectively over time) was pro or anti war (I suspect the best answer would be- both) – but the death/carnage scenes impress me with two things, one is their graphically detailed, almost anatomically surgical presentation – the other is their literary function in the work as a whole. I was struck by this when I first read sections of the epic many years ago, I suspect I found it quite exhilarating and exciting and didn’t delve too much into the futility and horror of war tropes that Homer also masterfully hints at. What is the detail for I wondered? Perhaps it is for the vicarious pleasure of the readers or descendants of the slayers revelling in the destruction of the loser and following Achilles vaunts with a hearty cheer like football fans when their side scores a goal? Or for the descendants of the victims who wanted closure in knowing exactly how their hero and the founder of their city/deme died? Maybe it acted as a mnemonic so that the bard/s could recall the section more easily with stand out gory details like this. The first to fall is Ophition – compared with the slaughters that follow, a relatively clean felling:
‘First he killed Iphition son of Otrynteus, a leader of many people whom a naiad nymph had borne to Otrynteus waster of cities, in the district [dêmos] of Hyde under the snowy heights of Mount Tmolos. Achilles struck him full on the head as he was coming on towards him, and split it clean in two; whereon he fell heavily to the ground and Achilles vaunted over him saying, "You be low, son of Otrynteus, mighty hero; your death is here, but your lineage is on the Gygaean lake where your father's estate lies, by Hyllos, rich in fish, and the eddying waters of Hermos.’
Note the vaunt over the fallen dead. It’s not quite urinating on the body of the defeated but here we see the ritualized taunting of the slain enemy, contrasting the aristocrat’s high estate in life, his lineage and wealth with his split corpse lying on the dust at Achilles sandaled feet. This taunting is an intrinsic feature of Homeric combat and confrontation scenes – the verbal squaring up (see Aeneas before as well as Hector) before and after combat.
It is found in a lot of epic military literature – I have been reading a Japanese medieval war chronicle (The Taiheiki 13-14th C AD) and in the course of the many battle encounters, great warriors have their speeches and taunts before they launch into action to become slayer and slain. Meanwhile back in the Iliad, Demeleon and others bite the dust:
‘Achilles killed Demoleon, a valiant man of war and son to Antenor. He struck him on the temple through his bronze-cheeked helmet. The helmet did not stay the spear, but it went right on, crushing the bone so that the brain inside was shed in all directions, and his lust of fighting was ended.’
‘Then he struck Hippodamas in the midriff as he was springing down from his chariot in front of him, and trying to escape. He breathed his last, bellowing like a bull bellows when young men are dragging him to offer him in sacrifice to the King of Helike, and the heart of the earth-shaker is glad; even so did he bellow as he lay dying.’
The detail ratchets up a notch, Homer literally follows the trajectory of the death blow through to its gory conclusion and we also have a vivid image in the Hippodamas’ death scene of the intense and very realistic suffering of a stomach/chest wound – the horror as the fallen warrior dies and the extreme agony and suffering expressed by the simile of the sacrificial Bull bellowing in fear, suffering and outraged agony at his fate. Achilles is just getting into his stride now and his bloodlust is well and truly up:
‘Achilles then went in pursuit of Polydoros son of Priam, whom his father had always forbidden to fight because he was the youngest of his sons, the one he loved best, and the fastest runner. He, in his folly and showing off the excellence [aretê] of his speed, was rushing about among front ranks until he lost his life, for Achilles struck him in the middle of the back as he was darting past him: he struck him just at the golden fastenings of his belt and where the two pieces of the double breastplate overlapped. The point of the spear pierced him through and came out by the navel, whereon he fell groaning on to his knees and a cloud of darkness overshadowed him as he sank holding his entrails in his hands.’
The detail extends to a technical knowledge of the armour and I think it’s these little touches that prove the lie to those commentators who try to picture Homer as an armchair warrior. The detail, wherever it has come from (either Homer or embellishments as the long epic developed and was improved as it was handed down from generation to generation of bard) shows an uncommon intimacy with the equipment that the warrior went into the field with. A lesser poet could have got away with a more imaginative gloss but this touch makes the description extremely realistic and conveys a layer of authenticity rarely found in other epic poetry. In the next round of attacks, Achilles fells Drypos and Demoukhos, Laogonos and Dardonos one after another, almost as an afterthought..very swift and with minimum fuss – ‘clean kills’ as the modern terminology would have it.
‘On this he struck Dryops with his spear, about the middle of his neck, and he fell headlong at his feet. There he let him lie and stayed Demoukhos son of Philetor, a man both brave and of great stature, by hitting him on the knee with a spear; then he smote him with his sword and killed him. After this he sprang on Laogonos and Dardanos, sons of Bias, and threw them from their chariot, the one with a blow from a thrown spear, while the other he cut down in hand-to-hand fight.’
And most movingly and tragically, the pitiful and pitiable death of Tros – his name symbolic, prefiguring the merciless destruction of the city of Troy, an act that was outside the scope of Iliad but a theme which Virgil takes up with consummate artistry and empathy in his epic the Aeneid.
‘There was also Tros the son of Alastor - he came up to Achilles and clasped his knees in the hope that he would spare him and not kill him but let him go, because they were both of the same age. Fool, he might have known that he should not prevail with him, for the man was in no mood for pity or forbearance but was in grim earnest. Therefore when Tros laid hold of his knees and sought a hearing for his prayers, Achilles drove his sword into his liver, and the liver came rolling out, while his bosom was all covered with the black blood that welled from the wound. Thus did death close his eyes as he lay lifeless.’
This scene is especially tragic and emphasizes the hubris that Achilles displays in not giving quarter to the supplicant fellow noble warrior, and the pathetic image of the defenceless victim hugging the knees of the victor begging vainly for his life. How many times must this actual scene have played out in all wars through all the ages? I always find this scene/image very moving and it sticks in my mind as a passage where Homer starkly underlines the great tragedy and cruelty of war. But Achilles has no time for such indulgences as pity when he is full attack mode and moves on to his next hapless targets.
‘Achilles then went up to Moulios and struck him on the ear with a spear and the bronze spear-head came right out at the other ear. He also struck Echeklos son of Agenor on the head with his sword, which became warm with the blood, while death and stern fate closed the eyes of Echeklos. Next in order the bronze point of his spear wounded Deukalion in the fore-arm where the sinews of the elbow are united, whereon he waited Achilles' onset with his arm hanging down and death staring him in the face. Achilles cut his head off with a blow from his sword and flung it helmet and all away from him and the marrow came oozing out of his backbone as he lay. He then went in pursuit of Rhigmos, noble son of Peires, who had come from fertile Thrace, and struck him through the middle with a spear which fixed itself in his belly, so that he fell headlong from his chariot. He also speared Areithoos squire [therapôn] to Rhigmos in the back as he was turning his horses in flight, and thrust him from his chariot, while the horses were struck with panic’
Moulios gets his head skewered; Deukalion is rendered non-combatant by hamstringing the arm (if that’s the correct term) and then promptly decapitated. Not only that but we have the fantastically gory image of the marrow oozing out of the spinal column post-beheading. Wild stuff!! The descriptions again show anatomical (black or red blood depending on where it issued from) knowledge or at least field experience either first hand or from men that had seen combat and could inform the workings of the epic as it was created and later embellished.
I wonder if the epic (Mark 1 for arguments sake) started out fairly heroic but relatively non gory and the ‘details’ were added by successive generations of war-experienced audiences as they sought more vivid and evocative detail with which to improve the telling and retelling of the epic as it was sung at the wine-soaked hearth fires of great lords and warriors in successive and increasingly war-like ages to come.
Prowess in battle and the recording of heroic acts is nothing new or unique of course, but the point I am making in this post lies in Homer’s (unique level of detail I would offer) attention to combat detail. I think it’s unique to Homer but I may be wrong. If you know of any other epic that has a similar level of detail and demonstrably not a distant ancestor of Homer – let me know. As I have done earlier with the medieval Japanese war literature (gunki monogatari), you may have to leave Europe to find it.
Hopefully I will recover from all this excitement and get back to with some more commentary on XXI.