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)

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