Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Body of Ymir

The worship of elemental gods and songs of heroes did not die out with the rise of Christendom. In the Norse lands, the pagan gods endured. Even as late as the thirteenth century AD, the adventures of Thor and the stories of giants, terrible monsters, gods, Dwarfs and Elves flourished. Indeed many words in the English language are more Norse than Roman. The day of the week, Thursday, takes its name from the thunder god Thor and means Thor’s Day. The time of year, Easter, takes its name from the Northern goddess Ēostre, and it is indeed from the worship of this goddess that the tradition of the Easter egg has been drawn. Thriving long after the mythologies of Greece, Rome and Egypt, Norse mythology is as diverse and enthralling as it is influential. So let us begin at the beginning itself, and discover how the world came into being.
At the birth of time, there was a great void of nothingness, and it was called Ginnungagap. To the north of Ginnungagap were the dark and frozen wastes of that place called Niflheim, in which all evil things would dwell. In the south lay Múspell, a fiery domain which burned with heat so intense that only the Fire Giants could live there. One day the fires of Múspell met the ice of Niflheim:

         “ And when the breath of heat met the rime, so that it melted and dripped,
           life was quickened from the yeast-drops, by the power of that which sent the heat,
           and became a man’s form. And that man is named Ymir. ”
                                                                             - THE BIRTH OF YMIR

Audumla suckles Ymir
Painting by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard.
So was born the Frost Giant Ymir, first of the jötunn, or race of giants with whom the gods are at everlasting war. Ymir slept, and a sweat came upon him. From the sweat in his left armpit was born a male and female giant, from the union of his two feet another giant was born and it was from these three that all the jötunn were descended. But also from the shards of Niflheim and sparks of Múspell was born the cow Audumla. Four streams ran from her udders, and it was from this milk that Ymir found sustenance.

Odin, King of the Gods
Engraver unknown.
The primordial cow then begun to lick the salty ice blocks which had formed.  At the end of the first day, a man’s hair emerged from the ice. At the end of the second day, a whole head had emerged. Then after the third day a whole man was there. His name was Búri, the first god born into existence, and it was from him that all the Aesir (war gods) and the Vanir (fertility gods) were descended. Búri produced a son, Borr, who in turn begot three sons; Vili, Vé and Odin. Mightiest of the three brothers, it was Odin who would be the most powerful and rule one day as King of the Gods. But the jötunn were a cruel race, and Ymir was evil. Odin lead his brothers and warred upon the giants, killing Ymir and bathing the cosmos in his blood. Indeed so intense was the flow of blood from the dead giant, all the jötunn were drowned in it, except for Bergelmir, the grandson of Ymir. So ever after the jötunn and the gods were at war, and will be until the judgement. Now here we have a major difference between Norse mythology and that of the Classical civilisations. In the stories of Greece, everything happened in the past. In Norse legend however, the mythology is past, present and future. The stories lay out clearly how the world was created and how it will end, in a cataclysmic war known as Ragnarök (The Twilight of the Gods). Many feuds and enemies are made among the gods, giants and monsters, which will all be unleashed at Ragnarök. But that is for a future post, so I return to the creation.
From the body of Ymir, Odin and his brothers created the cosmos. From his blood was made the lakes and oceans which surround the world, from his flesh the Earth, from his bones the mountains and crags, from his brains the clouds and from his teeth the rocks. From the maggots which crawled in his rotten form were born the dwarfs. Odin and his brothers then took the skull of Ymir and of it crafted the Heavens, and in each corner they set a dwarf. The names of these dwarfs were North, South, East and West. The brothers then took the sparks and embers which burst forth from Múspell, and from these created the Sun, the Moon and the stars which illuminated the Heavens and the Earth. The Earth was divided into nine Worlds, each home to a different race, yet all bound in the mighty World Tree, Yggdrasill. But populated by only the gods, the jötunn, and the dwarfs, the world had not yet given birth to men.

“ When the sons of Borr were walking along the sea-strand,
   they found two trees and shaped men of them:
   the first gave them spirit and life;
   the second, wit and feeling;
   the third, form, speech, hearing and sight.
  They gave them clothing and names: the male was called Askr,
  and the female Embla, and of them mankind was begotten. ”
                                          - ODIN AND HIS BROTHERS GIVE SHAPE TO MAN

Sköll and Hati chase the Sun and Moon
Drawing by John Charles Dollman.
There was born one man called Mundilfari, who was so proud of his son and daughter that he named them Sun and Moon. The gods were angered by this insolence, and condemned Sun to drive a chariot across the Heavens which pulled the true Sun, and Moon to drive the chariot which pulled the true Moon at the end of the day. Sun is chased across the sky by Sköll, a fell wolf, and Moon by Hati, the brother of Sköll. It is written that at Ragnarök, they will finally catch their prey, and the Sun and Moon will be devoured. Now that the passage of time had been decreed, the gods created Midgard, one of the nine worlds, which was the realm of men. It was protected from Jötunheim (or ‘home of the jötunn’) by the eyebrows of Ymir, which the gods set around it. For themselves, the gods built a mighty citadel, Asgard, which is connected to Midgard by the rainbow bridge known as Bifrost. The world had now been created, and gods and men began to be born.

The stories which lay out the course of Norse mythology are all contained rather nicely in a twelfth century work, known as the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson. The whole work is very readable, and also not excessive in length. The work is therefore easily contained in one book, which is available from Amazon (There is no Oxford World's Classics version):

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(A fast paced version well suited to the casual reader)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Horatius at the Bridge

The rolling hills of Etruria
Photograph by the author
The birth of the Republic was a defining moment in the history of Rome, and marked a key turning point in the lives of its people. Since the founding of the City in 753 BC, Rome had seen the rule of Seven Great Kings, and had risen from a group of mud huts on the Palatine Hill to the first city in Latium. But two hundred and forty four years after the founding of the city, mobilised by the propaganda of Lucius Junius Brutus, the people of Rome had cast out their seventh King – Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, known infamously to history as Tarquin the Proud. Denounced as an arrogant tyrant, Tarquin had returned from a campaign one day to find the Gates of Rome sealed before him and the people jeering from the walls. Enraged, the King turned to his kin, the Etruscan peoples, to aid him in taking back his rightful throne. What later followed would be a conflict which would give rise to many heroes of the Republic, first among whom was the man who stood alone against the might of Etruria in defence of his city – Publius Horatius ‘Cocles’ (a name he bore in commemoration of an eye he lost in war).
Immortalised only seconds after his valiant defense, the fortitude of Horatius captured the visions of many great writers and poets of Rome and Greece. There was a time when every English schoolboy learned to memorise the words of one of my all time favourite works -Lord Macaulay’s famous poem Horatius. One man, one Roman against impossible odds, it was a golden age of older days, when heroes abounded and petty squabbles were not yet born, and legends were forged.
The King and his family were forced to flee Rome before the mob, and called on the might of the Etruscan League for aid. Many great cities answered Tarquin’s summons, including the powerful cities of Veii and Tarquinii, but greatest of all was the city of Clusium, and its widely renowned King Lars Porsenna. Seeing the danger, should Rome’s new idea of a Republic spread to other cities, Lars Porsenna raised his countrymen to war:

                                          “ Lars Porsenna of Clusium
                                                    By the Nine Gods he swore
                                            That the great House of Tarquin
                                                    Should suffer wrong no more.
                                            By the Nine Gods he swore it,
                                                    And named a trysting day,
                                            And bade his messengers ride forth,
                                                    East and West and South and North,
                                            To summon his array. ”
                                                              - LARS PORSENNA ROUSES ETRURIA TO WAR

Thus Etruria’s might marched on the young city of Rome. Within the city, panic abounded as the Republic sent forth its men to meet Porsenna, but was overrun on the Janiculum Hill. “The enemy forces came pouring down the Hill, while the Roman troops, throwing away their weapons, were behaving more like an undisciplined rabble than a fighting force”. The broken men fled across the great bridge, the Pons Sublicius, but among them one man stood firm:

Engraving by Hendrik Goltzius

               “ Then out spake brave Horatius,
                           The Captain of the Gate:
                 'To every man upon this earth
                            Death cometh soon or late.
                  And how can men die better
                            Than facing fearful odds,
                  For the ashes of his fathers,
                            And the temples of his gods, ”
                          - HORATIUS STANDS FIRM
Horatius stands alone
Painting in the Capitoline Museums
Among his fleeing countrymen, two men – Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius – turned at his words, ashamed to abandon his side. The three pledged their lives to hold the Bridge, until it be destroyed behind them. Lest the Etruscans take the Bridge and the City itself, wealth and class no longer divided Rome, as senator and plebeian alike began to tear apart the timbers of the Bridge. Amused at the three men stood before them, many times the Etruscans charged, and many times the three threw them back. Soon the Bridge began to creak and groan, and Horatius bade loyal Lartius and Herminius to flee to the city, as he alone stood as the last planks fell. Cries flew from the city calling Horatius to return before the hour grew late, but the mighty warrior stood firm and dared Etruria's finest to take arms against him:

  “ For the pursuers, looking upon him as a madman who was courting death,
    Dared no longer come to grips with him... But standing massed at a distance,
    They hurled spears, javelins, and large stones at him,
    And those who were not supplied with these threw the swords and bucklers of the slain. ”
                                                     - THE ETRUSCANS TRY TO OVERCOME HORATIUS

Horatius mocked his foes as tyrant’s slaves and careless of their own liberty, and challenged all among them to single combat. The Etruscans were struck dumb at the sight before them, for:

                                             “ Alone stood brave Horatius,
                                                         But constant still in mind;
                                               Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
                                                        And the broad flood behind.
                                              ‘Down with him!’ cried false Sextus,
                                                       With a smile on his pale face.
                                              ‘Now yield thee’, cried Lars Porsenna,
                                                      ‘Now yield thee to our grace’. ”
                                                                 - HORATIUS STANDS DEFIANT

The great man’s wounds grew grave, as lance and arrow pierced his flesh. The air was rent with a mighty crack as Pons Sublicius crashed into the Tiber. His ploy successful, Horatius raised his eyes to the Heavens with prayer:

The goddess Roma spurs on Horatius
Painting by Charles Le Brun
                                         “ ‘Oh Tiber! Father Tiber!
                                                      To whom the Romans pray,
                                             A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms
                                                      Take thou in charge this day!’
                                             So he spake, and speaking sheathed
                                                      The good sword by his side,
                                              And with his harness on his back,
                                                       Plunged headlong in the tide. ”
                                                              - HORATIUS PRAYS TO FATHER TIBER

A shout of triumph from the city, as their saviour crossed the Tiber, a moan of despair from their foe. But the currents of the Tiber were strong, and the wounded hero fought hard to reach the Latin banks:

                                          “ ‘Curse on him!’ qouth false Sextus;
                                                     ‘Will not the villain drown?
                                              But for this stay, ere close of day
                                                      We should have sacked the town!’
                                             ‘Heaven help!’ quoth Lars Porsenna
                                                     ‘And bring him safe to shore;
                                              For such a gallant feat of arms
                                                      Was never seen before. ”
                                                               - LARS PORSENNA ADMIRES HORATIUS

People rushed from their homes to see brave Horatius, sure they were of the mortality of his wounds. But Horatius lived and was hailed a hero of the Republic. A bronze statue was raised to him in the most prominent part of the Forum, and to him was gifted as much land as he could drive a plough around in one day. Rome was saved, but the siege continued, and pestilence struck the Seven Hills. The blockade began to hit home, and starvation became the norm, yet for all their toil, each man ensured that one among them would not die for want of food.
The story of Horatius was legendary in Ancient times, it is no less so in modern times. Lord Macaulay's poem was responsible for the rise in the popularity of the legend once more, and is a personal favourite of my own. The story can be found in many sources, all of which can be acquired very easily from Amazon:
United Kingdom
A Roman Account:
The Early History of Rome: Bks. 1-5 (Penguin Classics)
(The full story of the Rise of Rome, including the defence of Horatius)
A Greek Account:
Roman Antiquities: v.3: Vol 3 (Loeb Classical Library)
(An account of the legendary rise of Rome from a Romanised Greek perspective)
Lord Macaulay's Poem:
Lays of Ancient Rome (Dodo Press)
(An iconic and expertly crafted poetic retelling) 
United States
A Roman Account:
Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5)
(The full story of the Rise of Rome, including the defence of Horatius)
A Greek Account:
Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Roman Antiquities, Volume III, Books V-VI, 48 (Loeb Classical Library No. 357)
(An account of the legendary rise of Rome from a Romanised Greek perspective)
Lord Macaulay's Poem:
The Lays of Ancient Rome
(An iconic and expertly crafted poetic retelling) 

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

"Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven"

Satan (from the Hebrew הַשָׂטָן meaning ‘the Adversary’) is for all of us, whether faithful or not, the supreme embodiment of evil. Many names we know Him by; Lucifer, the Enemy, the Antichrist, Samael, the Fallen One and the Devil are a few of the more well known. Yet by whatever name we call him, to all He is evil incarnate. Unsurprisingly, our shared culture is awash with imagery and legend about the First Traitor. The greatest epic written in the English language, Paradise Lost, takes as its focus the tale of Satan, and the temptation of Adam and Eve which cursed humanity forever (known as the Fall of Man). Almost four hundred years old, John Milton’s great work easily eclipses Shakespeare as the first among English authors in my eyes. Now we look to the opening of the story, a story which takes as its purpose ‘to justify the ways of God to men’, and turn to an infamous speech epitomised by the oft quoted line ‘Better to Reign in Hell than Serve in Heaven’.

Satan is thrown down from Heaven
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

“ He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell... ”

Once the brightest, most beautiful and greatest of all the Archangels of Heaven, Lucifer (from the Latin lux meaning ‘light’ and fero meaning ‘bringer’, giving one of Lucifer’s other names – the Morning Star) as he was then known possessed but one weakness. Gravest of all the sins was Pride, and Lucifer had dared to lead an open war against God himself for control of Heaven. Fully one third of the angelic host sided with the Morning Star, and the War in Heaven was begun. The loyalist angels, lead by the Archangel Michael, had the power and blessing of God and triumphed over the Fallen Ones. The Archangel Michael himself cast Satan (as Lucifer became known after his betrayal) from Heaven, as God condemned the Morning Star and his followers to Hell. Why, you wonder, did Lucifer rebel against God? This I will explain in a future post, as Milton too opens his work in media res (in the middle of action) and leaves us in wonder. You will be most surprised at how curiously compelling Satan’s motivation was...

Satan awoke in the Lake of Fire, and was overcome with lamentation for his loss of Heaven, his own Paradise Lost. Surrounded with the Darkness of the Pit and the sulphurous Inferno, what many do not realise is that Hell was as much a torment for Satan as it was for sinners. Satan turned and saw Beelzebub, his second in command, stir. He too is grieved at their lot, banished from the plains of Heaven where they as angels belong. Beelzebub rages against God, ‘Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy, sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heav’n’. Then Satan consoles him, and soothes his lieutenant:

The Melancholy of Satan
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

“ Fall’n Cherub, to be weak is miserable
Doing or suffering: but of this be sure,
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end... ”

Satan pledges that now they must seek to ease their suffering, and ‘overcome this dire calamity, what reinforcement we may gain from hope, if not what resolution from despair’. Invigored, Beelzebub rises from the Lake of Fire. Other Fallen Angels awake, and begin to rise at the words of their accursed prince:

                                “ Is this the region, the soil, the clime,
                                  Said then the lost Archangel, this the seat
                                  That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
                                   For that celestial light?... Farewell happy fields
                                  Where joy forever dwells: hail horrors,
                                   Hail Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell... ”
                                                              - SATAN MOURNS THE LOSS OF HEAVEN

Transfixed by the Morning Star’s words, the tragedy of Satan is unveiled at the most famous of his exhortations:

                                “ The mind is its own place, and in itself

                                   Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

                                   What matter where, if I be still the same,

                                   And what should I be, all but less than he

                                   Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

                                   We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

                                   Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

                                   Here we may reign secure, and in my choice

                                   To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

                                   Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n. ”

                                                            - SATAN CONSOLES HIS FOLLOWERS

For the Classicists among you, perhaps you may notice an echo of Achilles’ lamentation here, when Odysseus spies his ghost in the Underworld? Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a servant in a poor man’s house on Earth than a king of kings down in Hades. Now Satan calls to his Fallen legions and, in droves, his faithful angels emerge from the Pit. Many names we hear, and some described:

                                “ First Moloch, horrid king besmeared with blood

                                  Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears,

                                  Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud

                                  Their children’s cries unheard,

                                  that passed through fire to his grim idol. ”

                                                           - THE FALLEN ANGELS RALLY TO THEIR LEADER

Azazel unfurls Satan’s banner, thousands more rise into the air, and ‘with them rose a forest huge of spears: and thronging helms appeared, and serried shields in thick array of depth immeasurable’. Standing above them all was their dread Commander, brightness still clinging to the Morning Star. Yet in the Fallen One’s face:

Satan calls forth His defeated Legions
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

“ Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care

Sat on his faded cheek, but under the brows

Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride

Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast

Signs of remorse and passion to behold

The fellows of his crime... ”


Satan fires the passion of his legions, praising their valour, and willing them on to rise again, ‘For this infernal pit shall never hold celestial spirits in bondage’. The Legions scream their approval at His words, drawing:

                             “ Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
                               Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
                               Far round illuminated Hell: highly they raged
                              Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms
                              Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
                              Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav’n. ”
                                                 - THE FALLEN ANGELS SCREAM IN DEFIANCE UNTO GOD
But how did this come to pass? What was it that caused God’s greatest creation to Fall? How did He rally so many to his cause? This is only the beginning of Paradise Lost. In future posts, we shall return to this great work, and discover how the pride of one being caused so much pain and anguish, not among the angelic host alone, but also in man.

Paradise Lost is widely regarded as 'England's epic', written in English by an English poet. It is indeed questionable why England's national writer is Shakespeare next to Paradise Lost, which is a rival for Dante's Divine Comedy (which I will certainly be looking at in future posts). It is available in many texts, all available easily and at a fantastic deal at Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Olympian Gods in Arms

The Trojan War, even three thousand years after the great city lay in smoking ruins, remains the most famous war in history. This war was the baptism of Achilles, arguably the greatest warrior ever born, a hero even in his own short lifetime, who commanded the favour of the mightiest gods of Olympus. Where Achilles charged, his enemies fled. When roused to war, when the thrill of battle had taken hold, he was unstoppable. Countless cities fell to his wrath and the prowess of the Myrmidons, the finest soldiers in Greece who bowed only to the great warrior. Homer’s great poem, The Iliad, granted Achilles the immortality that he so yearned, fusing his legend into the memory of man for eternity. The Trojan War, however, was as much a struggle amongst the gods as it was a war of men. 
         “Sing Goddess of the rage, sing of 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,”
                                                                                    - HOMER OPENS HIS GREAT STORY

Thetis, the mother of Achilles, pleads with Zeus
to avenge her son's humiliation
Painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
So begins Homer’s great epic. Like many great heroes of legend, Achilles was as proud as he was relentless. It is indeed Achilles’ pride and his eventual salvation which form the essence of The Iliad’s greatness. When Apollo (god of the Sun, truth, archery, healing and disease) looses his deadly arrows upon the Achaean (Homer’s term to encompass all the Greeks at Troy) camp, a great plague strikes the Greeks. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and High King of all the Greeks, consults an Oracle as to the origin of Apollo’s anger. The Oracle tells the High King that Apollo is enraged that Agamemnon has taken a girl, Chryseis as his slave. Chryseis’ father was a priest of Apollo in a city that the Achaeans had sacked earlier, and pleaded to Apollo for her return. Humiliated, Agamemnon releases the girl. At the sack of that city however, Achilles had acquired a woman, Briseis, as part of his war spoils. Agamemnon decided to steal Briseis for himself, and orders Achilles to yield. But the proud Achilles was angered. Indeed, Achilles would have thrust his sword into the High King, had not Athena (goddess of wisdom and strategy), come down from Olympus and stayed his hand. Humiliated in front of the whole Greek force, Achilles withdraws from the war, leaving the Greeks to fend for themselves against the onslaught of the Trojan Prince Hector, greatest of the fifty sons of Priam – King of Troy.
Untold thousands fall on the Achaean and Trojan sides, including many great heroes, as Achilles nursed his wounded pride. Olympus itself was divided, Zeus favoured the Trojans (yet had ordained that the Achaeans would eventually triumph), so too did Ares (the god of war), Apollo and Aphrodite (the goddess of lust). Spearheading the Greek cause were Athena and Hera (Queen of the gods) and at times, Poseidon (the god of the sea). Many of the heroes on both sides were themselves of divine descent. Hector was descended, through Priam, from Zeus himself. Aeneas (who would one day become the progenitor of the Roman race) was the son of Aphrodite, as well as being of Trojan royal lineage and a relative of Hector. Diomedes, a mighty Greek hero second in war only to Achilles himself, was the nephew of Heracles. Sarpedon, one of the mightiest Trojan heroes, was the son of Zeus. Many times the gods intervened in battle to spare their kin, or as in the case of Ares, partake in the war for love of slaughter.
With the absence of Achilles, the Achaean ranks buckled under the Trojan assault, led by the godlike Prince of Troy and the god of war himself. Pitying the Greek cause, Athena granted her blessing to the towering Diomedes, of the line of Tydeus and King of Argos;

            “She set the man ablaze, his shield and helmet flaming
          With tireless fire like the star that flames at harvest,
                     Bathed in the Ocean, rising up to outshine all other stars.”
                                                               - ATHENA BLESSES DIOMEDES

The formidable champion tore through the Trojan ranks, as captain after captain, soldier after soldier, all fell to Diomedes' rage. Spotting Aeneas, Diomedes bellowed his war cry and:

Diomedes wounds Aphrodite
Painting by Arthur Fitger.
“Hefted a boulder in his hands, a tremendous feat-
No two men could lift it, weak as men are now,
But all on his own he raised it high with ease,   
Flung it and struck Aeneas’ thigh where the hipbone
Turns inside the pelvis, the joint they call the cup…”     

There and then, Aeneas would have been slain, had Aphrodite not raced down from Olympus’ heights and taken her son to safety. Guided on by Athena’s hand, Diomedes then dared to strike a god. Taunting the weak goddess, Diomedes thrust his great spear through Aphrodite’s wrist. With a cry of pain, she dropped her son and limped back to Olympus, as Apollo bore Aeneas to safety. Enraged, Diomedes charged the Archer god:

            “Three times he charged, frenzied to bring him down,
                 Three times Apollo battered his gleaming shield back…
‘Think Diomedes, shrink back now!                         
Enough of this madness – striving with the gods.     
We are not of the same breed, we never will be,     
the deathless gods and men who walk the earth’.”  
                                       - DIOMEDES ENGAGES THE SUN GOD

Away from the fighting Apollo swept the wounded Aeneas, and he called on Ares to staunch Diomedes’ wrath. A Trojan arrow struck Achaea's champion, yet the hero fought on, sending many a Trojan to Hades’ Halls.
Then, appearing from afar, Diomedes laid eyes on Ares himself, who lead the Trojan charge. The Achaeans fell in droves at Ares’ spear, and a ripple of fear spread through the Greek ranks. Hera implored Zeus to halt the slaughter, and so the Thunderer sent forth his daughter Athena. Even great Diomedes baulked at facing such a foe, until Athena’s blessing came forth and brought courage anew. Athena mounted his chariot and ordered Diomedes to advance. Few men would dare to face a god, yet now a mortal man and the god of war himself took arms upon each other:

            “The two of them closing fast, charging face to face,
                  And the god thrust first, over Tydides’ yoke and reins,
            With bronze spear burning to take the fighter’s life”
                                             - ARES CHARGES DIOMEDES

Yet one’s chance of survival is often aided when one has the favour of a goddess. Athena deflected the blow and hurled Ares’ spear aside. Diomedes yelled his war cry, and Athena guided his hand:

“Lunging out with his own bronze spear and Pallas rammed it home,
Deep in Ares’ bowels where the belt cinched him tight.                 
There Diomedes aimed and stabbed, he gouged him down             
his glistening flesh and wrenched the spear back out                      
and the brazen god of war let loose a shriek, roaring,                     
thundering loud as nine, ten thousand soldiers                                
shriek with Ares’ combat fury when massive armies clash.             
A shudder swept all ranks, Trojans and Argives both,                    
Terror-struck by the shriek the god let loose,                                
Ares whose lust for slaughter never dies...”                                   
                                                - DIOMEDES WOUNDS THE GOD OF WAR

Ares - The Lord of War
Roman copy of a Greek original.
The lord of war tore back to Olympus’ heights, for a god cannot die. The balance of war restored, triumphant Athena followed. But the Prince of Troy still stood, and routed battalion after battalion of Achaea’s finest. Not even the great Diomedes, towering Ajax or cunning Odysseus could face the son of Priam down.  The War of Troy, it seemed, lay in Trojan hands...
The Iliad is the cornerstone of Western literature. All Greeks looked back to Troy. In the same way that the English may think of King Arthur, this was the foundation of Greece. It united the people in a time when civil war was rife and men fought for cities not nations. One day, the descendants of Aeneas would found a small settlement on the banks of a river called the Tiber, a settlement to which the known world would one day bow...

The Iliad is the first and greatest work of epic literature. I will look in future posts at other memorable episodes of this great story. I thoroughly recommend that it be amongst your book collection, it really is a masterpiece of literature. It is available very easily from Amazon:
United Kingdom
Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)

United States
Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)