Between the Drops of Blood, Shining Like Rubies:

Caitlin McQueen illustration

Illustration by Caitlin McQueen

A Short Version of the Iliad

“No conjecture can be hazarded as to how the smallest particle of matter became so imbued with faith that it must be considered as the beginning of life, or as to what such faith is, except that it is the very essence of all things, and that it has no foundation.”
—Samuel Butler, Life and Habit, pp. 105-106

***

The Iliad concerns an expedition of a large army drawn from all over the Greek peninsula and Crete and the other islands, against Troy, a non–Greek city on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. The expeditionary army was led by Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae. Mycenae was the most powerful and the most famous of the kingdoms of the Greek–speaking world and had a loose leadership over the others. The later Greeks called themselves “Hellenes” and called the Greek speakers of Agamemnon’s time “Akhaians.”

The war supposedly lasted ten years, and the events that became the Iliad took place in the tenth year. Up until now most of the fighting had been fairly formal and had had only limited objectives. Quarter was granted to those who asked for it, and prisoners were given back in return for ransom. Dead enemy warriors were respectfully given back to their people with their armor on. The two sides were more concerned with maintaining a presence in the field than with making an all–out effort. A large number of the Akhaians were involved in secondary raids and did not continually face the Trojans, and Trojan allies doubtless came and went. When engagements were fought, it is probable that normally only part of the available forces on each side were involved. Their object was to discourage and intimidate the enemy rather than to destroy him; these very formal affairs were more concerned with threat and display than with slaughter.

Most of the warriors who actually participated in a “battle,” a formalized skirmish really, merely stood in a crowd and shouted and waited for an opportunity to throw one of their two spears. Throwing spears did a lot of damage when they hit, they were much heavier than arrows, and when they were skillfully thrown they could cut through body armor and make a big hole in what was behind it. But few warriors could throw with enough force to penetrate a shield, and alert targets were quite capable of dodging. Further, spears were much more likely to hit and penetrate when they were thrown at close range, and in most encounters most of the mass of spearmen never got all that close to an enemy. Throwing spears were expensive and not easy to retrieve, most spearmen in an average encounter probably did not throw at all. They did not make much psychological or material impact as individuals.

The nobles were a different matter altogether. They did not act en masse but as individuals. They usually stood in the front rank of their followers, but they were likely to strike out independently to challenge enemy nobles or shrink back into the crowd if the odds seemed too stiff. According to Homer, only nobles engaged in these one–to–one duels, that may be an exaggeration or it may have been that formal dueling was something only gentlemen had the right to do. Normally, these duels were not simply what happened when two noble warriors from different sides bumped into one another, as they often are in the Iliad. Normally they were quite special, a single duel was probably the main event of any given skirmish. In nine years of war, the two most famous warriors from either side had faced each other only once. These duels took place between two massive, cheering audiences, and their psychological impact was enormous. Epic poetry universally emphasizes individuals at the expense of the mass, but even allowing for that we can easily believe that individual nobles were militarily more significant than a very large number of commoners, and the number of commoners would not have been as large as Homer describes. A few of the most effective noble warriors on either side could decide the course of the war.

Even in a general encounter, the nobles tended to be much more mobile and to fight at closer range, close enough to retrieve their spears after they threw them. But actual hand-to-hand fighting was rare. They did sometimes use their spears for thrusting and they used their swords, but they much preferred to stand back and throw and swords were considered a last resort. There were archers too and many arrow wounds, but their fairly primitive bows were much more likely to wound than kill and archers did not have a great impact on the fighting. Most engagements involved some missile weapons, a great many threats and much noise and relatively little blood, and very few warriors exposed themselves more than necessary.

The situation at Troy was unusual in that the warring parties were not neighbors, as participants in primitive warfare usually are, and in that both parties were cut off from their livelihoods. The Akhaians had had to cross the sea and were a long way from their fields and herds. The Trojan army consisted largely of allies from other districts. These had to be fed and rewarded and the Trojan economic system could not support them indefinitely, even if it was able to function normally which probably it was not. For a long time it must have been assumed that eventually one side would become intimidated or discouraged or would have to go back to work.

None of these things happened. No one was intimidated and no one was discouraged. And the Trojans had vast accumulated wealth, and the Akhaians supported themselves through viking raids on half the settlements in the East Aegean. But neither of these sources of income would last forever, everyone was running out of time, everyone had lost friends or acquaintances, everyone was thoroughly sick of the war and no one knew how to end it. Then the best warrior on the Akhaian side retired, seriously unbalancing the situation, that was Achilleus, the leader of the Myrmidones, or Ant People. The Akhaians became more defensive and the Trojans became more aggressive. The Akhaians and Trojans made one last attempt to end the war with a duel. The duel’s result was arguable, and then a Trojan archer violated the truce.

Tensions that had been building for nine years exploded like a volcano. Quarter was no longer given, dead enemy warriors were treated with hatred and contempt. They were stripped of their armor and left naked on the field or dragged into the enemy camp and mutilated. The opposing crowds of warriors no longer stood apart, but mingled and fought face–to–face, and they were no longer conservative about taking serious risks. They intended to keep on killing until everyone on the other side was dead. Probably more people were killed within a few days than had died during the whole previous nine years of fighting. That at least, is the way Homeros tells the story, and it is not implausible. The Achilleus, the warrior who had retired, was drawn back into the fighting, and the result was the Iliad.

***

At the beginning of the Bronze Age, Greece was invaded by peoples from the North. They were the descendants of the forest–dwellers of Europe and the Stone Age horsemen of the western steppes. They were still Old Europeans, and though they were a well–developed people, what they developed was not civilization. We have a pretty good idea of what they were like, to a large extent of what we were like.

To begin with, they seem to have regarded time as linear rather than cyclical. Linear means that what happens now cannot be redeemed or repeated, cyclical means that what happens now is doomed to happen again and again. That does not mean that they held linear time as an abstract concept. Indeed in theory, at least some of them may have seen time as a cycle. What that does mean is that somewhere in their blood they assumed that the world did not run in cycles, that a painful and evil world would not necessarily become good in time, that the forces of darkness do not necessarily reverse themselves, that the world can become more and more evil and more evil still, until there is nothing left, that the world can end, finally and absolutely and that it will.

They had cyclical concepts of time. They understood a concept of reincarnation, and stanza 24 of the Lay of Grimnir in the Poetic Edda gives us a fragment of the immense cycles of cosmic destruction and rebirth that we find in Hindu thought. But if pre–Christian pre–Roman Europeans were indeed familiar with such cyclical cosmologies, they did not concern themselves with the cosmic, the “universal” and the abstract so much as with that which can be immediately and individually perceived. All the emphasis was placed on the part of the cycle that would involve utter destruction, and that was never far away. “Certainly, the druids say that day will come again, and that is our battle cry. But we who are gathered around this fire will never see it. We will die in the darkness when the fire dwindles, long before sunrise.”

These were not pious people. They tended to assume that the things that made life good and worthwhile and even possible existed because of their own effort. The only light they had was the light they made, when that went out there was nothing else. Then the natural order of things would take over and that would be darkness. They recognized few virtues other than courage and personal loyalty, but these could be carried far beyond anything that would be considered reasonable or even sane.

***

A Holy man approached the Akhaian camp. His name was Chryses, he carried the serpent-staff of Apollo in his hands, he was a priest of Apollo. And he brought a huge ransom to buy back his daughter, Chryseis, who had been captured by the Akhaians.

Agamemnon, High King of the Akhaians, insulted him and drove him off, and so Apollo sent a plague among the Akhaians. One aspect of Apollo was the power of disease and healing.

The Akhaians held a council, and Kalchas, the chief of their seers, said that the plague was killing them because Agamemnon had insulted Apollo. Kalchas said the plague would pass after Agamemnon had made large sacrifices to Apollo and after he had given the girl back to her father.

The difficulty with this was that the girl had been Agamemnon’s share of the spoil of the most recent raid, and Agamemnon considered it demeaning that he, the High King, should lose his share of the spoil. He expressed his opinion of Kalchas and Kalchas’ judgment and then said that what must be must be, but one of the other Akhaian kings must in turn pass his share of the spoil to Agamemnon.

Achilleus objected to Agamemnon’s pettiness, and with no particular tact. It was apparent that there was no great love between Achilleus and Agamemnon. Achilleus was the leader of the contingent of Myrmidones, or Ant People, from Thessaly

Agamemnon said that in that case he would take the girl, Briseis, who had been Achilleus’ share.

Achilleus was on the point of killing the High King when Athena, the power of wisdom, entered his mind, and he confined himself to remarks regarding Agamemnon’s courage, energy, spirit, fitness to be king, etc., and after referring to Agamennon as “bitch-face,” (Iliad, I, 159) Achilleus left the assembly, burning with shame. Achilleus was only nineteen, he was the youngest of the Akhaian chiefs, and that was apparent now. But he was also the most formidable Akhaian warrior. If Agamemnon thought he could beat Hektor and the Trojans without Achilleus, then he had better be prepared to do it, because Achilleus wasn’t going to fight anymore. And he didn’t.

Hektor was a prince of Troy. He was the most dangerous fighter in the Trojan army, and its effective leader.

Achilleus was closer to the Gods than were any of the other Akhaians. Zeus decided to bring death and pain to the Akhaians to preserve Achilleus’ honor, just as Apollo had brought them death and pain to preserve the honor of Chryses.

Zeus decided that the Akhaians should be defeated. There was no doubt as to whose side he was on. He threw thunderbolts against the Akhaian army and caused the Trojans to rout it. Agamemnon was the High King, the shepherd of the host, and he could see quite clearly that God was on the side of those who wanted to destroy his people. This was not a case of God punishing his chosen people, this was a case of God choosing the other side. Agamemnon told his people that the will of God was clear and God is too strong to be opposed. They would never take Troy, they should leave now while their ships were still unburned and while they still had their lives. When Agamemnon had only faced the Trojans he had not been afraid, but now he was confronted with the virtually infinite power of Zeus, and he was terrified. They could not fight Zeus, “Zeus is too strong.” (Iliad, IX, 23)

Diomedes was king of Argos. Diomedes had certainly noticed the thunderbolts, since a number of them had been directed at him. However he did not discuss them, he simply said that Agamemnon could turn back if he liked, the whole army could turn back. He would not turn back under any circumstances whatever, and he was quite willing to take on the entire Trojan army alone should that prove necessary. The assembled Akhaian army shouted its approval, no one was going to leave. If Agamemnon had been king of a single realm he might have gathered his people and left. But he was the High King, the father of all the Akhaians, if the army insisted on staying he could not leave it, even if he could have borne the shame of doing so. If God was on the other side, Agamemnon’s people were not.

Agamemnon stared at the campfires of the victorious Trojans, and they seemed as bright and as vast as the Milky Way. He tore his hair, and he stared at the silent heavens of the God who was his enemy.

The sun rose and the Trojans advanced across the plain, confident in their strength. Zeus would cause only a temporary defeat for the Akhaians, but that was not apparent to either side now. It was the will of God that Agamemnon’s people should die, and Agamemnon couldn’t fight God, God is too strong. Agamemnon watched God’s armies rolling toward him. He stared at them through the hollow circles of his bronze mask, from under his horned helmet, from behind his serpent armor, from behind his Gorgon shield. He wanted to run, he could not run. His hands trembled as he grasped his spear, he had trouble controlling his legs as he walked to his chariot, his whole body trembled, the air around him trembled with the sound of thunder. Everyone could hear it. (Iliad, XI, 32-46)

Agamemnon was the most erratic and in some ways the most vulnerable of the Akhaian heroes. He was wounded, he was splattered with blood, he slashed at every Trojan he could reach, he never stopped screaming. (Iliad, XI, 168-169) He tore at the Trojans wherever they were most numerous, wherever they were bravest or most dangerous. Fewer and fewer of the Trojans dared to face him. They stopped advancing and began retreating, and they began to run. Agamemnon chased them all the way back to their walls, killing all of them that he could catch. Even Hektor, the most dangerous of all the Trojans and normally one of the least cautious, even Hektor avoided Agamemnon that day.

God had intended to scatter the Akhaians and drive them back to their ships. Agamemnon deliberately and successfully thwarted God’s will. God’s only response was to keep a thunderbolt ready in case Agamemnon seemed likely to completely defeat the Trojan army or capture the city gate. Further, God advised Hektor to stay away from Agamemnon for the time being. And certainly neither God nor anyone else regarded Agamemnon’s act as blasphemy.

Islam is submission to the Will of God. If a traditional Islamic army saw that it was going to be defeated, it would quite often fall apart completely. Everything was determined by the Will of God. And if it was judged that God, in His Wisdom, had decreed victory for the enemy, then nothing further was attempted. Christians of this period, say, the tenth century AD, tended to do the same thing. Nothing mattered except whose side God was on.

Agamemnon was quite aware that he was fighting against the will of God and that he would inevitably lose. He was in no sense being rebellious. It would never have occurred to him to defy God because, like any of the Akhaians, it had never occurred to him to submit. Agamemnon and Diomedes and the Akhaian army as a whole all openly defied what they knew to be the will of Zeus. Everyone was conscious of doing this. But no one openly mentioned it that would be disrespectful. Diomedes only talked about fighting the Trojans, although he was quite aware of who was behind them. Submission to the will of God was not part of the Hellenic religion, respect and honor was. When they were conceived as supernatural beings, the Olympian Gods would crush those who insulted them, and they crushed those who harmed that which they treasured, but they were not concerned with obedience and rebellion as later ages would understand the terms. They were concerned with love and honor, and Agamemnon’s act was an expression of both.

The Hebrews and the Hellenes had very different conceptions of the Sacred Man, the Man of Faith. According to the Hebrews, God asked the Sacred Man to sacrifice his son; without question or hesitation the Sacred Man drew his knife in order to do so. God asked the Hellenic Sacred Man to sacrifice his son; the Hellenic Sacred Man drew his knife and waited for God to take his son over his dead body.

The Hellenes did not conceive of the Gods as regarding such an action as sinful, quite the contrary. And such an action has nothing to do with rebellion, it has to do with the son. Such an action is likely to be the Sacred Man’s last, and he has no hope of actually preventing God from taking his son. But then hope can be dispensed with, Faith cannot be.

Agamemnon’s wounds finally drained his strength and he had to leave the battle. The Hellenes regarded him as a flawed character and he was. At times he seriously missed the mark, but he did not miss on this occasion.

***

The fighting continued and the Akhaians were clearly losing. Most of the Akhaian kings were wounded and no longer able to fight. Many of the other Akhaians were wounded as well, and they were fewer. They were not making it without Achilleus.

Agamemnon did what he had to do, as he always did. He sent apologies to Achilleus. He returned Briseis and swore an oath that he had not touched her. He sent enormously rich gifts. He offered some of his richest lands and best cities. He gave Achilleus the choice of any of his daughters.

Achilleus said no, none of this tempted him. Ten times all that Agamemnon possessed would not tempt him, no woman that lived, no matter how beautiful or competent, would tempt him. He was sick of risking his life in a war that was not his personal concern. Someone else could have the glory, he would go home. Fate’s reward to all men is the same, and it is the same whether one goes to war or stays home. The worthless and the noble, those who do great things and those who accomplish nothing, Fate’s gift is the same to all, and that gift is death. A man possesses nothing but his life, and the world’s opinion is not worth one moment of it. He says this in both Iliad, IX, 315-320 and Odyssey, XI, 489-491.

At various times, various people among the Akhaians and the Trojans tried to get out of this terrible situation, very few of them wanted it. Why are we doing this? Give this silly woman back to her husband or forget about her entirely. Let us go home and enjoy our children.

Nobody got out. Whatever their intentions were, their paths always led back to the slaughter. They were driven by forces too powerful to resist, and one of the strongest of these was shame.

Shame drove Achilleus too. He was in conflict with the others and had physically separated himself, but conflict was a normal part of Akhaian society and he was no more isolated than any of the others were likely to be at one time or another. In the midst of his anger, he had been very much society’s child.

But he was out of that now, now that he had stepped out of the war he was waking up. He began to realize that all he really possessed was time, and he was not about to barter any of that for more fame and wealth than he already had. At this point it is not too late for him, he is still in control of his Fate. He will prepare to leave in the morning.

But now Phoenix is asking him to stay, and Phoenix has been like a second father to him and Achilleus has been like his son. Will Achilleus now abandon him to the mercy of a merciless enemy? Achilleus says that he and Phoenix can talk about the matter the next day, his departure is no longer mentioned. Then his friend Aias appeals to him, not with wealth or glory, but as his guest and as his friend. Achilleus seems close to giving in, but he says that his anger at Agamemnon will not cool. We hear no more talk of his leaving the next day and he makes no preparations, he will remain until it is too late. (Iliad, IX, 604-655)

The Akhaians fought on as best they could, but the Trojans broke into their camp. Led by Aias, the best of their surviving kings, they made a stand with their backs to the ships. Hektor and the Trojans smashed against them again and again.

The Trojans were furies. These people had come to kill their sons and sell their wives, and now they were at the Trojan’s mercy. The Trojans foamed at their mouths, Hektor’s body glowed like a hot coal, his heart pumped fire. (Iliad, XV, 592-593 & 607 & 623)

Then the Akhaians broke, they fell back to the ships. But still they did not scatter. When they did, that would be the end.

They stood by the ships. They fought desperately to keep the Trojans and their torches from the ships. They gave no further ground, there was none to give. Aias would not move an inch. Once during another fight, the Goddess Athena stood by him and tried to give him the heart not to falter. He said, “My Lady, help the other Akhaians, where I stand the line will not break.” (Sophokles, Aias, 774-775) As long as he stood firm no one would run. Then Hektor hacked off the end of his spear and he had to back away. The Akhaians wavered. A Trojan touched a pitch-caulked ship with fire. It exploded into flames. This was the last moment. And at that moment Achilleus and his Myrmidones attacked from the flank.

Or so it seemed. The man had on Achilleus’ armor and Achilleus’ helmet with the facemask and the four horns, and he fought like a demon. But in fact he was Achilleus’ closest friend, Patroklos.

***

Achilleus had not forgiven Agamemnon and he would not fight. But he was not preparing to leave either. He had said he would not fight, unless the enemy should burn any of his ships. And he did nothing towards putting those ships out to sea. He sat in his tent and paced and watched the distant battle and the dead and wounded being carried away. It was obvious that the Akhaians were in serious danger. If Achilleus was to stay alive much longer, he should not be watching this. Even now it was almost too late.

He saw a wounded man being carried out of the battle by someone he knew. And he impulsively asked Patroklos to find out who the wounded man was. Patroklos found the man in a tent being well cared for. He was asked to stay and rest a while, he was offered good company, food and drink. But Patroklos dared not stay, especially now when Achilleus was less than calm. “You know how he is, a dangerous man, quick to accuse without cause.” (Iliad, XI, 653-654) He must return at once with the information Achilleus has asked for.

But then he met Eurypylos, limping away from the battle with blood flowing from an arrow wound. Eurypylos had no one to care for him and Patroklos knew that. And so Achilleus had to wait a long time for his news.

Now the Akhaians stood with their backs to the ships. Patroklos left Eurypylos, and he went back and he stood before Achilleus. And his face was wet with tears.

Achilleus asked, was he a little girl to cry so?

Patroklos said nearly all the best fighters were wounded. There were medicines for that, but who could do anything for the sickness Achilleus had? The situation was not complex, if Achilleus didn’t do something everybody was going to die. If Achilleus would not go himself, at least let Patroklos put on Achilleus’ armor and fight in his place.

Patroklos had always been known more for his gentleness than for any desire to lead armies and kill people. Achilleus felt his anger evaporate. But he could not bring himself to fight. Firstly, he was still asleep and he could not forget his petty quarrel with Agamemnon. Secondly, he was awake, he knew quite well that Fate was closing in on him, he should have left before now. If he became involved in the war now, his Fate was sealed, darkness would swallow him. He did not want to die.

But he could not deny Patroklos. He gave Patroklos his armor and Patroklos led his followers into the battle. The Myrmidones had been in an agony to fight, they had held back only out of respect for Achilleus.

The Trojans were shocked. Just when they thought they had won, their worst nightmare came screaming down at them like a harpy. The Akhaians took heart and attacked. Hektor and the Trojans retreated from the ships in total confusion. They had battered their way into the walled Akhaian camp, now those walls were a trap and they thought they were lucky to escape it. But part of the army, including the contingent of Lykaones or Wolf People, did not escape. They were surrounded and cut off from the gate.

The Wolf People were among Troy’s most valuable allies, but Hektor had just escaped a trap and was not enthusiastic about going back into it. Then the king of the Wolf People was killed, and the Akhaians were humiliating him by stripping off his armor. We have mentioned that in the last few days this had become customary. They would try to drag his naked body away to feed it to the dogs. Death was inevitable, but dishonor was another matter. Hektor charged back into the camp and fought beside the Lykaones.

Then Hektor saw that God had turned his power to the side of the Akhaians, and he called to the Trojans to retreat. They did that, in better order this time, and Patroklos and the Akhaians chased them back across the battle plain. Patroklos fought like a hurricane, but the God Apollo struck him and he fell from his chariot. Here, Apollo has nothing to do with consciousness or healing, etc. He is here simply a powerful, supernatural being on the side of the Trojans.

Then Patroklos was struck a second time, and he could only stand, dazed and unknowing, while Hektor slaughtered him. Patroklos lay paralyzed with torn intestines, the last thing he heard was Hektor asking him why a childish fool like Patroklos had challenged Hektor and the warriors of Troy.

Patroklos managed to say that there was no need for Hektor to exult in his power. Hektor had not broken his strength, Fate had, and Hektor too would lay broken and dying before long. And then he passed into blackness. (Iliad, XVI, 843-854)

Now Hektor tried to drag the body away to Troy to feed it to the dogs. And the Akhaians were quite ready to die to a man before they would allow that. And the Akhaians and the Trojans stood face to face, they stood over the body and butchered one another for a long time, and the Akhaians were clearly losing. The battle was so furious that it raised a huge cloud of dust and one man could barely see another. Spears flew blindly, but the Trojan spears struck men and the Akhaian spears only tore the earth. It was obvious to everyone that God was helping the Trojans again. Menalaos, Agamemnon’s brother, raised his voice and said, “Father Zeus. Deliver us from this mist, make the sky clear, grant that we might see with our eyes. Since it pleases you to kill us, let us die in the sun.” (Iliad, XVII, 645-647)

***

A messenger found Achilleus. He told Achilleus that his friend was dead, that Hektor had stripped his armor, and that now Hektor was trying to drag the naked body back to Troy, to feed it to the dogs. Achilleus felt his way through the blackness until he recognized the messenger. Then he recognized his mother, Thetis, a Goddess who dwelt in the sea.

His mother asked him what he would do. She reminded him that it was his Fate to die soon after Hektor did. He knew his Fate quite well, and he knew that this was his last chance. This was theoretically a crossroad in his Fate. At such points a mortal could make a choice that would determine the future events of his life and of the lives of others, his Fate was not yet sealed. At this point he could choose to go home, forget about Patroklos, see his son again, his father, enjoy his future grandchildren, spend the rest of his life as king and protector of his homeland, loved by all, honored almost as a God for the deeds he has done so far. Hades will not go away, it will wait patiently for him. He is young and strong, he has his whole life before him. There is no need to enter the lifeless existence of the afterworld sooner than necessary. If he stayed, his death was not probable—it was absolutely certain and it would come soon.

Certainly he could go home. All he had to do was become someone other than who he was. It was not a real decision for him, and he didn’t pretend that it was. The day before, he had had two alternatives before him that he could have willfully chosen, he was not sharply conscious of this choice but he had it. But now the force that would kill him had been affecting him since his conversation with Phoenix. He no longer had two real alternatives; if that is freedom he did not have it. His Fate was sealed the moment Patroklos died. He did not now act according to his will in this sense, but according to his nature, physis. (See Sophokles, Philoketes, 874 & 902-903 & 950; See also Pindar, Olympian II, 86 and Olympian IX, 100) All he could do now was follow his path or do nothing, be himself or be nothing at all. He had that choice and he made it. A free man does not act arbitrarily or according to his whim or his desire, but according to his nature. The act of a free will is an act in accordance with The Law.

“Now I will go to find Hektor, the murderer of he whom I loved most. I accept the Ker and the time of its coming, whenever Zeus and the other immortal Gods will to bring it to pass.” (Iliad, XVIII, 114-116) The Ker is the spirit that brings death.

The day before, he had come to understand that wealth, power, glory, the esteem of others, all that is a dream. We are alive; nothing but that is real. Nothing is important but our lives. And yet now it seemed that something was more important than life itself. It is that something that he had now become, completely. He would never grow old, he would never again be capable of pettiness. Everything profane and mediocre had burned away from him. For the first time, at this moment, he was completely awake, completely alive, completely human.

And at this moment he wished that he had never been born. (Iliad, XVIII, 86-87) Let’s run that by again: For the first time, at this moment, he was completely awake, complete alive, completely human. And at this moment he wished that he had never been born. He wished that war and strife would vanish utterly, “and anger that sets a man to grow hard, no matter how great his understanding, that swarms like smoke inside his chest, that is sweeter to him than dripping honey.” (Iliad, XVIII, 107-110) This petty anger that had been so sweet to him, this is what had killed Patroklos. (Iliad, XVIII, 101-103)

Agamemnon was the king, the father, the shepherd of the host, Aias was the strong man, the unshakable. Diomedes was the insatiable fighter, he cheerfully fought the War God himself. Odysseus was the man of craft and skill and strategy, beloved of Athena. But Achilleus was the Sacred Man. He was what the Iliad was all about. The Gods filled every nerve and every muscle in his body. They flowed in his veins, they shone from his eyes. They were visible in his step and in his gesture.

Now the Akhaian army is in full retreat. They have got the body and the honor of Patroklos away from the Trojans and they are trying to get back to their walled camp. But the Trojans are on their heels like wolverines, and they are drawing closer to the men who are carrying Patroklos. Aias leads the defense, where he stands the Akhaians hold firm. But elsewhere they are cracking. Many have thrown away their weapons and run screaming for the ships. The Akhaian army is falling apart.

Achilleus walks onto the battlefield. His armor has been lost, he has no weapon, he is naked. The Gods fill every muscle and every nerve. They flow in his veins, they shine from his eyes. They are visible in his step and in his gesture. They fill his lungs and they form in his mouth and the air screams around him, and his war-scream tears open the blood-red sky, above the agony of the earth. (Iliad, XVIII, 215-227)

The Trojans freeze or stumble or turn and run and crash into one another. Several are impaled on the spears of the men behind them.

The Trojans were driven from the field. The body that had been Patroklos was slowly carried back to Achilleus’ tent, born on the shoulders of Akhaian kings. Achilleus followed beside it. His face was wet and streaming, he could not stop his tears. He wept all through the night, and dawn found him exhausted and asleep in his friend’s dead arms. (Iliad, XIX, 4-5) We are reminded that he was nineteen.

All he could do for Patroklos now was honor him. And that meant cremating his body in an honorable manner and killing the man who has killed him. Achilleus’ mother, the Goddess, would guard the body from maggots and animals. Now he would kill Hektor, he would kill him two or three times if possible.

Zeus, the Lord, the Ruler of the Universe, had just devoted a considerable amount of his time and effort exclusively to looking after Achilleus’ affairs. He had done all this interfering in the course of the war entirely for Achilleus’ benefit. That didn’t mean very much to Achilleus now. Obviously. And Achilleus said that it didn’t mean very much. (Iliad, XVIII, 79-80) It did not occur to the Lord to become offended.

The Akhaian leaders assembled at dawn. Odysseus the practical man, the survivor, said that they should eat something before attacking. One cannot fight properly without strength in one’s bones.

Achilleus the Sacred Man, the man who would never grow old, the man who had no intention of surviving, said that Hektor had not yet assumed his proper place in the underworld, and they could think about eating after he had done so.

Odysseus said that the Akhaians were mortal and in spite of their wills, they were incapable of accomplishing anything without food.

Achilleus said if it must be, so be it. But he could not concern himself with day to day affairs until Hektor had eaten the point of his spear. Achilleus ate no mortal food, the Gods in his blood and his bones were his strength.

Odysseus had another practical problem in mind as well. Agamemnon wanted to give Achilleus the reconciliation gifts that he had promised earlier. Achilleus didn’t care about all that junk one way or another, and he didn’t want to slow down long enough to receive it. Odysseus allowed the army to eat and prevented another quarrel between Achilleus and Agamemnon at the same time. Odysseus understood politics, strategy, craft and tact. Achilleus no longer understood anything petty, be it wealth or Agamemnon’s pride.

In the Iliad, Odysseus and Achilleus are contrasting characters. But in the Odyssey, we find that they both come down to the same thing. The Goddess Kalypso offered Odysseus immortality if only he would stay with her. He could spend eternity as a Godlike being, free from pain and want, and passionately adored by a Goddess. The Goddess is an improvement over the paradises of popular religions. I grant that neither Goddesses nor paradises are what they seem, but that is not in question here. We are to take Kalypso’s offer at its face, as a real, eternal paradise.

Odysseus was not interested. He rejected an eternity of bliss in order to spend a little more time with his wife, Penelopea, who was already old enough to have a grown son. No, to be more precise, he rejected an eternity of bliss for a small chance of spending a little more time with someone who loved him. Odysseus was nothing if not clear minded. (Odyssey, V, 1-281)

The Akhaian army attacked. Or rather it tried to keep up with Achilleus while he attacked. The Trojans had lately become accustomed to victory and they were not defeated now, they were shattered. They tried to run but Achilleus caught and killed them, and no one living could run faster than Achilleus. Some of the Trojans were taken alive. They were too shocked to know where they were or how to use their weapons, they simply allowed themselves to be led away. A few won eternal fame (posthumous) by daring to stand and try to fight Achilleus.

Apollo distracted Achilleus long enough for all the surviving Trojans to reach the safety of the city walls. Only Hektor stood alone outside the gate. His wiser brother Poulydamas had warned him and all the Trojans to hide behind the walls today. Hektor would not listen. Just the day before, Hektor had had the Akhaians with their backs to the ships. If Achilleus had finally stopped sulking so much the better, the Trojans would serve him as they had the others. That is what Hektor had said, his people had listened. And as a result, a significant proportion of them were dead. Achilleus was dangerous enough on a normal day, but today no one mortal could face him and no one successfully had, including Hektor.

Hektor’s mother and father pleaded to him from the walls. If you love us come inside, if you die the city is lost. Fight Achilleus when he is more like a normal man, and when you have friends at your back. How can we take care of you if you die out there alone? How can we close your eyes? Achilleus will feed you to the dogs.

Hektor wanted to go inside. Achilleus was a speck in the distance, but he was the fastest runner in the world and he was growing larger. Everyone would say that Hektor had destroyed his people through his arrogance and they would be right. He would rather die twisting on the end of a spear than face that. The war was lost, it was only a matter of time before the Trojans were defeated completely. Hektor would throw down his weapons and offer Achilleus terms. Achilleus was no longer a speck, he was growing larger very quickly. Hektor would give back Helen, he would give all the wealth the Trojans had, and that was still considerable. But Achilleus might not even break stride, Achilleus might kill him unarmed, as if he were not a man. His father, his wife, his son would have to live or die according to their Fate. He could do nothing but stand and fight. (Iliad, XXII, 99-130)

Hektor had no more time to deliberate, Achilleus was here. Hektor lost his nerve and ran. But then he stood again and fought, and he entered the afterworld.

All the Trojans were inside the walls or hiding elsewhere. No one dared come out. No one dared object as Achilleus bore Hektor’s body back to the Akhaian camp.

Then Achilleus buried Patroklos with the highest possible honors, and he killed twelve Trojan prisoners by the pyre. Then he tied the killer’s body behind his chariot, and with tears streaming from his eyes he dragged it around and around. This was to be Hektor’s funeral. Apollo shielded Hektor’s body from the rocks of the plain and kept it from being physically torn. He could not entirely protect it from the insult. (Iliad, XXIV, 9-21)

If this were a tragedy it would end here, if it were a melodrama Achilleus would be saved somehow. The story does not end here, and Achilleus is not saved. He will not find peace, he will go farther still. This is an important point, he will not revert back to his former “normal” state of mind, he will go farther still.

***

Priam, the king of Troy, the father of Hektor, had smeared his body with feces. Achilleus had killed a number of his sons and now the noblest of them all was dead and dishonored, and Priam no longer wanted to live. But then it came into his mind that whatever happened, he must save his son’s honor. The bronze spears of his warriors could not do it, he must try to recover his son’s honor by sacrificing his own, and probably his life as well. He must go alone to the Akhaian camp and beg the man who had killed his children.

He rode through the city in his mule cart, and his people followed behind him. And light was in their eyes and in their faces because they knew that their king was made of iron. And their eyes were wet with tears and cries of agony formed in their throats because they knew they were following in their king’s funeral train.

The Gods guided Priam to Achilleus’ tent, unknown to the other Akhaians. Priam clasped Achilleus’ knees and put his lips to Achilleus’ hand in the traditional gesture of supplication. He begged Achilleus to think of his own father in Thessaly. He said Achilleus’ father must be the same age as himself, and what would the old man’s life be worth if anything happened to Achilleus? Priam had no way of knowing that Achilleus was about to die. Priam told how many of his fifty sons had been killed, many of them by Achilleus. Then he said, “I raise up my hand to the face of he who has killed my children.” (Iliad, XXIV, 506)

Achilleus thought of his father whom he would never see again and he wept. And he thought of Patroklos and he continued to weep. And Priam thought of Hektor and he wept. And nothing was said for a long time. And Achilleus gazed in wonder at this feeble old man with the belly of iron, and he raised him to his feet.

Even before he saw Priam it had come into Achilleus’ mind that even an enemy’s honor is Sacred, and that what he was doing to Hektor’s body was against the heart of the Gods.

Now Achilleus was speaking kind words to Priam, and Priam saw that he was going to receive gentleness instead of sharp knives. He asked Achilleus not to make him sit in a chair any longer while his son was near. He urged Achilleus to give up Hektor for the great ransom of precious things that Priam had brought, and to go back to his homeland.

Achilleus’ face grew dark. Achilleus said he could see the heart of the Gods quite clearly and had no need of instruction. He further pointed out that it was a sacrilege to kill a guest and that he had no wish to commit a sacrilege.

Priam shut up. His face was pale.

Odysseus would have kept the old king and demanded an enormous ransom. But Achilleus was who he was, and he treated Priam with the greatest possible respect. And he gave Priam back the body of his son. He was careful to keep Hektor’s face covered, he was afraid the old man might become enraged and that he would have to kill him.

Achilleus asked Priam how many days would be required to bury Hektor with honor.

And Priam answered, “Twelve days.”

And Achilleus said, “Then for that many days we will not attack you.” (Iliad, XXIV, 659-670: The actual speech is longer.) He said Priam could leave the next morning and take Hektor’s body with him. He had Hektor washed and anointed and covered with fine clothes. He honored Priam with a feast and he showed the old man to his sleeping quarters.

But Priam was afraid that the other Akhaians would learn that he was there, or perhaps that Achilleus would change his mind. And he stole away in the night and took the body with him. Achilleus did not change his mind. The Akhaians kept the truce for twelve days, Achilleus saw to it. Hektor was buried with honor.

This is how the Iliad ends, we now know everything we need to know about Achilleus. The singer leaves the story of Achilleus’ death for another time. In the Iliad, his death is not important except in that it is imminent. The incident of his death does not matter in itself, it comes out of nowhere on an arrow.

***

Freedom is obedience to The Law.: “Genuine personality is always the Fate that has been
determined by one’s own character and trusts this determination as if it were the law of God, even
though it is, as the ordinary man would say, only an individual feeling. The fact that a great many who
go their own way are thus destroyed means nothing. A man who has such a personality must listen to his
own law … He listens to the voice, and so he is shut out and isolated, as he has decided to follow the
law that flames from his inner being. ‘His own law, everyone will cry,’ but he knows better, it is The
Law.”
—Carl Jung
Psychologische Abhardlunge, Vol. IV, pp. 194 & 198
Collected Works, Vol. XVII, pp. 175-176 & 178

***

The Ramayana was composed in North India not long after the time of Alexander’s invasion, or to be more exact, during the time of the Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria that lay on India’s northwest border. Greek armies from Bactria conquered a large part of North India, and Hellenic princes ruled small Indian states from roughly 180 BC to 30 BC. The Ramayana and the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata were both made during this time. The basic plot of the Ramayana is similar to that of the Iliad and one of its principle characters, Hanuman, is quite similar to Achilleus. The basic plot of the Mahabharata is somewhat similar to that of the Thebaid, the story of the Seven Against Thebes, and the Mahabharata’s main character dies from an arrow wound in the heel. Hanuman and Achilleus are identical in the most essential aspects of their characters, and they are both the embodiment of Faith. I’ll repeat that: Achilleus and Hanuman are both the embodiment of Faith. Faith is what the Iliad is about; Faith is the essence of everything and relies on nothing.

***

Ravana was the king of the Rakashasas, the demon race. He stole Sita, wife of Rama, prince of Ayodhya. He took her across the ocean to Sri Lanka, the city of the demons, and he kept her there.

Hanuman had always been a monkey. But then he met Rama and he had never been so awake as he was then, because he had never loved anyone as much as he loved Rama, and for the first time all the power in him was awake. He leaped across the ocean to Sir Lanka, and he entered the demon city alone.

As he leaped, a sea demon clutched at his shadow on the ocean and held it, and she tried to pull him into her jaws. Arcs of blue lightning crackled from his eyes and from his mouth and from the tips of his fingers and lightning glowed from beneath his fur. All of his power converged into a single point, and he tore into the demon’s mouth and he tore down her throat and he tore into her heart and he burst it.

He flew on like the wind. He entered the heart of the demon city, and he found Sita. And he told her not to lose faith, not to become corrupt. Rama was coming. And he brought light back into her eyes. And he became half flesh and half lightning, and he fought the regiment of demons that guarded her and annihilated them. He wanted the demons to remember his visit, and he tore away a marble column from the temple of the city’s Goddess, and he leaped to the roof of the temple and he spun the column like a fire drill. And the temple blazed and exploded and half the rooftops of Sri Lanka dissolved in the flame.

He returned to Rama. And Rama’s gaze had become vacant and his grip had become weak and he was certain that Sita was lost forever and so was his life. Hanuman’s brow wrinkled, and Hanuman said nothing but he thought, “Your woman is in hell, and you have nothing to do but indulge in these dirty little fears?”

Rama woke from his daze. “What! What did you say?”

“I said, don’t be afraid to love.”

And Hanuman would not allow Rama to whither, and together they raised an army of bears and monkeys, and they besieged Sri Lanka, and they broke the demons, and they brought Sita home.

And Rama gave Hanuman an armband. It was one of the heirlooms of the Solar Kings, it was old beyond imagination, passed on from father to son, from king to king, for uncounted generations. It was the last of the treasures from the elder days. An artist of unequaled power had set its precious stones in pure gold, forming patterns and colors of incomparable beauty. It was irreplaceable, it was beyond price. Even the Gods would never make anything like this again. This is what Rama gave to Hanuman.

Hanuman peered at it, turned it over, bit it, pried out the precious gems one by one, and finally he broke it into small pieces and carefully studied each piece. He said, “What did you give me this for? Your name isn’t on it anywhere.”

And Hanuman tore his skin, and he stripped all the skin from his chest. And he tore away the muscles from his chest, one by one, and he showed Rama his skeleton, and his ivory skeleton glistened in the sun. And Rama’s name was written on his bones. Between the drops of blood, shining like rubies. And Hanuman said, “It’s nothing. I’m your friend, that’s all.”