The Idea of Revenge in the Iliad and the Odyssey

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey we encounter vengeance exacted by the protagonists.

In the Iliad, a poem explicitly about the “rage” or “wrath” of Achilles, we discover the rage that follows from the sorrow for the death of a loved one. In Books XV and XVI, the beloved companion, Patroclus, is killed by Hector of Troy who strips the beautiful armor of Achilles from his body. The Trojans proceed to defile and abuse the body of Patroclus. Upon hearing this news, Achilles is overcome with grief and sorrow, soon followed by rage -a desire to exact revenge upon Hector. His motives are guided by a will for requital. He longs to inflict an equal or greater amount of suffering on Hector. As a warrior, Achilles knows only vengeance, not justice. He is not governed by laws, or nomos, but rather justice belongs to the stronger man. Notably, the victory in the war to conquer Troy does not go to “swift-footed” Achilles, but instead to “long-enduring” Odysseus who devises the famous wooden horse plot to bring destruction to Troy.

However, in the Odyssey we discover vengeance of a similar kind. After 20 long years, Odysseus returns home from his ventures to rocky Ithaca where a cohort of suitors live in his palace, eat his food, and bathe themselves in excess and luxury hoping to court Penelope, his wife. Although, like Achilles, Odysseus is furious with rage, he cloaks himself in disguise as an old beggar. He tells false tales of his adventures:

“Falsehoods all,
but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth” (Book XIX 235-236)

Even to his close comrades and loyal supporters, he remains disguised. Revealing oneself is dangerous, threatening to elude the enduring qualities of the king of Ithaca. Even to his own wife, Odysseus’s identity stays hidden until the opportune moment of revelation when he violently destroys the suitors in a bloodbath.

Unlike Achilles, Odysseus has tact. His guile separates him from the wrathful warrior, who is left vulnerable by his exposed heel. Odysseus, on the other hand, is careful not to risk his enduring name by leaving any part of his plot open to exposure. Unlike in the Iliad, where the audience feels sorrow for the death of Hector as well as Patroclus, in the Odyssey we are gratified by the revenge exacted on the suitors. The Homeric decision to introduce the audience to both sides of the Trojan war, taking us both behind the walls of Priam and also into the tents of the Achaeans, is characteristically different from the one-sided poem about “a man” that is revealed in the Odyssey. We are given a clear hero in the Odyssey, like Orestes in in his triumphant return, Odysseus reclaims his throne and exacts his vengeance.

On the Homeric Question

The question of Homer’s authenticity has sprung forth in our age as a uniquely modern desire to discover the true sole source for the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Could these poems have actually been the creation of one man? Or are they merely the works of many hands? At the root of this question, lies a deep cultural longing and anxiety to unearth a single author, one unique authority, behind which the epics were inspired, sung, and later written down. The problem is not unlike the question of Mosaic authenticity. By seeking one author, or at least by seeking a satisfying answer to the question of authorship, we look for justification for the texts. In our age, with the rise of the internet, there is great power in anonymity, and we moderns actually have great difficulty in accepting ambiguous authorship. We prefer to know an author’s name, see his face, diagnose his psychology, so we can put him on trial, and thereby examine the “social political context” in which he was writing. However, our demand to demonstrable proofs finds no kinship in antiquity. Among the multitude of texts attributed to Homeros and the Homeric body of literature –later delineated by Pausanias and others– we search in vain to locate the origins of these vitally important works. We can only find approximations that will not, in the long run, suffice. Therefore, we modern scientific-minded researchers must find alternatives to quench our thirst for comforting answers.

However, does this dissatisfaction render it impossible to credibly believe in the mythological story of Homeros? After all, we find greater ease in accepting that the Homeric texts are mere products of a cultural milieu –emerging from a rich Greek tradition of oral poetry. From this, we might survey the scene and dust our hands clean of any further need for inquiry –the author is the public, itself. There is no individual agency because great high-minded classical works simply emerge out of populist demands. Under this manner of thinking, Homer is nothing other than a word representing a truth we confirm for ourselves –namely that history proceeds dialectically, and that great works of art emerge from a democratic body politic. But what of the truth of mythology, itself? Is there not any truth to mythos which extends beyond what many have called the socio-political-historical context? For example, when Homer is accepted throughout the Greek world to be the author of the texts in question, can we not accept an element of truth in this widespread “historical fact”? Or also, when the Christian narrative of the death of Christ is accepted throughout the Western world, is this not evidence of a kind of truth? Why must we ask ourselves for criteria to justify the myth, rather than accepting its significance as justification enough? Again, we find ourselves run aground with the infinite multitude of cultural impulses that might lead us to believe in such a truth. The closest we are willing to venture is into the realm of probability (i.e. the “likely story” as in Plato’s Timaeus).

At any rate, underlying this modern question of Homeric authorship is not simply a need to find a single person who can be responsible for the texts, rather it is the need to find a psychology behind the authorship. Who was Homer? Why did he write these texts? What did he believe? These are all personal and psychological questions that demand answers in order to accept modern standards. Homer’s authority is not justified on its own account. Instead, a reader demands a psychoanalysis be performed on the probability of Homer’s life. The texts, the Iliad and the Odyssey, again become subordinate to the account of the author.

In seeking answers to these questions, our scientists dig for evidence, linguists search for cultural inconsistencies, professors teach the improbability of Homer. We cannot find justification for Homer, only possibilities and improbabilities. While we possess the texts as evidence of a bygone age, they do not come coupled with a biography of the author. We have only the inheritance of classical antiquity to rely on.

However, for the most part, we do not deny the greatness of the texts: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other hymns attributed classically to Homer. It is not as if we believe the artist (or artists) had strung together a series of unrelated thoughts –a mosaic or montage that happened to fall into place by the work of many hands. Rather we accept that Homeric literature forms a whole, it is consistent, and is a work of beauty. For why else would we call it Homeric? This awe-inspiring beauty and symmetry found in Homer implies that it must have been the work of a very profound poet or poets, as consistency is rarely found among the works of many hands. Therefore, we moderns believe these texts to be the work of a great poet – just not Homer.

“Homerus” by Rembrandt in 1663

We tell ourselves, gloomily, not to accept the Homeric, the Orphic, or the Bacchic, because they are mere mythos. Yet deep down we accept a grain of truth to these stories. If the myths are mere “social constructions,” as is commonly accepted, we then convince ourselves both that there is a dull and dry story confirmed only by evidence, and we also tacitly accept that “social constructions” still have locations deeper than their social context –they are not entirely fabricated out of rumors. Consider a coin passed through many hands (Nietzsche, Homer and Classical Philology 1910). As it proceeds, the coin, perhaps bearing the face of Alexander the Great, is steadily worn by the passage of time. Yet, the vital significance of the coin, itself, remains. Similarly, consider the Homeric epics –once sung by traveling bards throughout the Hellenic world. Did the first bard, whom we call Homer, have a perfect recollection of each line and stanza before performing the Iliad for his first Greek audience? And then, following on this absurd insinuation, did the first scribe recall perfectly each verse and stanza to be replicated authentically onto tortoise shells and papyrus scrolls? An affirmative answer to these questions cannot be believed by a thinking person, unless he relies on divine revelation of some kind. However, the Homeric works make no claims to divine revelation, and instead they present a far more human-centered cosmos than, say, the books of the Torah.

Therefore, the Homeric works cannot be the products of perfect algorithms –the Iliad was not borne out of a full and complete thought, that was put to song, which was then committed to memory, and then eventually captured perfectly on paper, as if in a museum. Rather, the Homeric works and the Homeric identity are organic, living impulses. Homer is an enduring poet, perhaps the most enduring poet, because his epics find homes, even today, in modern impulses. We have not yet capitulated to modern advancements and relinquished our memory of the naked truth of antiquity. We may, from time to time, find ourselves in a stasis, condescending to the noble Achaean warrior-chieftains, but we still cannot let go of our deeply held Homeric roots.

In our relentlessly Quixotic quest to discover the one authentic Homer, the blind bard, we should tread lightly in pursuing the answer. Otherwise we may find ourselves blinded, like Oedipus. Let us, instead, relinquish the need to unearth the original Homer, and his prove his falsity. Let us, instead, embrace the life-giving truths embodied within the Homeric corpus, and guide our inquiry into the enduring nature of Homeros. Far greater truth, goodness, and beauty can be found therein.

Political Philosophy in the Iliad

Book Two of the Iliad is perhaps the most politically revealing passage found in Homeric literature. Recall our heroes, a confederacy of Achaean princes feuding with one another. Despite being united under the arrogant leadership of Agamemnon, who is regularly deemed “the shepherd of the people,” the Achaeans are found squabbling over property. They have banded together to form a collective whole composed of many distinct parts to confront the strong walls of Ilium (Troy). Paris, son of Priam and brother of Hector, has wrongfully eloped with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and this gross degradation of Menelaus’s honor causes a series of tribal treaties to be invoked, compelling the greater Achaean territories to embark upon war with Troy. Helen is the most dangerous creature in the text, an object of immense beauty who impels terrible destruction. She makes inferior men like Paris a slave to their passions. However, in the ninth year of this war, Agamemnon and Achilles are confronted with reasons to return home before Menelaus’s wife is rightfully returned to him. The question of whether Helen is still worth pursuing is raised.

After receiving a deceitful Dream from Zeus, Agamemnon gathers his counsel of princes. He speaks first to the leaders, then to the masses, convincing them to return home from Ilium. Remarkably, throughout the proceedings, the Greek body politic is civil –the Greeks are listeners. Each man speaks in his own turn. Homer, as the teacher of the Greeks, presents a highly civilized model for a future culture. Mimesis requires politics as the crucial foundation from which to create. Recall similar scenes, such as the promise of friendship exchanged by Glaucos and Diomedes of Argos with one another in Book VI, or the exchange of gifts between mortal enemies Ajax and Hector in Book VII.

Amidst this political struggle, Odysseus emerges as the model statesman, the ideal prince. Beckoned by wise Athena, Odysseus moves through the masses of people restraining them. Confronting both kings and men of influence, Odysseus speaks softly in an attempt to persuade them of the need to continue fighting. Toward the loud masses of men, Odysseus forcibly strikes them with his staff. Odysseus, the most cunning of the Greeks, behaves differently toward the noisy crowd than he does toward the leaders of men. His purpose is to marshal the men in support of war, and in order to best shepherd the people, Odysseus employs a combination of speech and force, persuasion and compulsion. Perhaps this is why Homer explicitly identifies Odysseus as “the equal of Zeus in counsel” (Book II, 169).

“The Love of Paris and Helen” by Jacques-Louis David in 1788

As the title of the text reveals to us, the book is about the city. The birth of Greek identity. Broadly speaking, the Iliad acknowledges and reveals to us the concealed forces that govern our actions and reactions, as they are apportioned to the city. For example, Eris and Envy are ever present gods to the Greek mind. Conflict and pain are necessary forces that govern life. For the Greeks, the Iliad reveals to us our inner human pains and envies, as our churning desires manifest themselves in both war and peace. Rather than denying and suppressing our inner drive toward arete, the Homeric politeia acknowledges envy, spite, anger, and honor as elemental life-yielding truths. Each Greek leader believes himself to be the best of men, and a competition of excellence necessarily ensues. A timocratic politeia begins to develop –each caring not for his own individual self-preservation, but rather for his honor and respect. Each man believes he is owed due goods so that he may not lose his respect and honor. Agamemnon believes he is the best of men because he rules the largest number. Achilles believes he is the best of men because he is the mightiest warrior. Odysseus seeks no justification for his excellence. He is both wily and wise, so much so, that he “knows” the voice of Athena when she speaks to him. Much like the serpent in Genesis, Odysseus is “cunning,” and a leader of men. When Thersites of the “endless speech” who was the “ugliest man” (Book II, 210-216) verbally abuses Agamemnon, Odysseus publicly threatens him and strikes Thersites, forcing a tear in his eye as the Achaeans laugh. We moderns must resist the urge to read this passage as tragicomic, lest we find ourselves in a dizzying Quixotic bind. To the classical audience, it is a merely comic scene. The Greek citizen laughs in the face of weakness, like that of Thersites. Hellenism shows no kindness toward the meek and mild. How foreign is this kind of laughter to the modern mind!

However, the Homeric tale leads us not only into the Achaean camp, but also behind the walls of the Trojan city. Here, in Troy we encounter the aging Priam, the shining strength of Hector, and the weakness of Paris, sometimes called Alexandros. Hector is an equally admirable hero to any of those we find in the Achaean camp. He is determined to preserve his city’s honor, Hector leads the Trojan armies despite his younger brother’s impassioned disrespect for custom. After young Paris is swept away from battling with Menelaus over possession of Helen, Hector enters the mighty gates of Ilium and berates Paris. More than three times he addresses Paris as, “Strange man.” Paris is a stranger not only to nomos, but also to his own brother. His disrespect for law is foreign to the people of Ilium. The downfall of Troy comes in the decision to protect this stranger, a native son, who follows the wayward whims of his heart over the political demands of the city. He poses a threat to the honor of the city, and is thus a potential weakness.

A careful examination of where Homer’s temporal presentation leads is also helpful. During scenes of politics, the author recollects the moment. It is presented to the audience in the past tense. However, during scenes of battle, the author often uses the word “now” to indicate urgency or immediacy. Politics is better understood in reverse, knowledge comes when one engages in the activity of recollection –and knowledge of things political is the highest form of knowledge attained within the city. The chaotic motion of the battle makes it more difficult and dizzying to have knowledge in the moment. In order to understand political things, men must climb higher than the ground-level to survey the scene. They must stand on high mountains, to see things a little more clearly. Men must also have space and order to recollect things past.

A 1st century fresco found in the house of a tragic poet on Pompeii depicting Achilles surrendering Briseis

Politics escapes none in the Iliad, not even the gods. Zeus is compelled to balance the wishes of Hera, Athena supports the Achaeans, Ares is easily angered by the battalions. The will of each god also comes into conflict with the humans in their war, and their politics. However, the frivolity of the gods binds the fate of the warriors. The humans fight one another to become “like the gods” and yet they surpass even the gods in their desire to be best. Not even the gods can stop the strong-willed Greeks. Their competing inner intentions are embroiled to overcome the status of being human, of the finality of life. The highest political thing to the Greeks, honor, transcends the value of self-preservation, and they fight to overcome death. The gods are envious of the humans and the terminal finitude to their lives. They live an existential life wherein the character and quality of death can cause angst. Our heroes ask themselves: How will I die? When will I die? For what purpose will I die? Achilles must decide between dying honorably in battle or returning home for a lengthy but forgotten life.

Therefore, Homer exposes to us not merely the dynamics of the city, but also the underlying tensions that form the body politic. The Iliad reveals to us our nature. The inner competing wills that lie beneath the politeia.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.