Tag Archives: The Iliad

“Gods play a part in humans’ affairs, which I think is unfair…”

The plural “gods” suggests (accurately) that he was writing about the Greek and Roman gods, who certainly did play a part in humans’ affairs, and frequently were the humans’ affairs. Zeus in particular was pretty busy in the affair department. Less literally, many of the other gods took sides in human conflicts and manipulated events to suit themselves, or their adherents (or whoever had provided the most fragrant barbecue).

Readers who admire Hector and have little sympathy for Achilles in The Iliad tend to feel strongly about the gods’ meddling. They are probably inclined to find it unfair.

My student isn’t just taking sides, though; he has a good reason for his opinion:

“Gods play a part in humans’ affairs, which I think is unfair because they are inevitably immortal and won’t be affected.”

I agree with him! Intervening in a situation in a way that is sure to victimize—perhaps severely and irrevocably—one side may sometimes be justified; but when the intervenor knows all along that he or she cannot be harmed in the process or as a consequence, “unfair” is a word that can reasonably come to mind.

What gives a reader pause here is the word “inevitably.” Perhaps my student meant “invariably”? Actually, if the lore, legends, and teachings are to be believed, not all gods are immortal. Pan dies. Nietzsche even proclaimed of the great Western god (although he and countless thinkers since have made the statement far more nuanced and complex than it sounded), “Gott ist tot.” Ragnarök gets rid of them wholesale. So, depending on the god or gods one chooses, that immortality may not be “inevitable.”

And usually when we say “inevitably,” we imply that efforts have been made or could be made, all in vain. So have any gods tried to avoid being, or stop being, immortal? We might mention Jesus here, but his death was the precondition for his resurrection and therefore although painful, risk-free. Yes, death certainly affected him in the moment, and changed his physical being; but it didn’t alter his immortality.

Would my student yell “NO FAIR!” at someone who claimed to “have God on our side”? Should we recall all those championships and medals won, according to their winners, “with God’s help”? Didn’t they have an unfair advantage?

Next time some god shows up at your house wanting to kibbitz, should you tell him or her to move along and stay out of the affairs of mortals, “go back to your own kind”? Well, being human, I’d probably feel that my side was the right side, and welcome the aid of the divine to make sure things turned out “right.” That would be only fair.

Worked for Achilles.

“Achilleus is pist.”

This statement antedates spellcheck, or at least the spellcheck feature that underlines dubious words. The writer is clearly oblivious not only to his spelling error but also to his error of diction, or tone.

With great energy, simplicity, and confidence, my student is writing about The Iliad, that stately epic poem about war, glory, and loss. Together with The Odyssey, it defines the epic—not only its form and subject but also its stature. Heroic, that’s what an epic is supposed to be, in every dimension.

So my student reads about the rage of Achilleus that follows on Agamemnon’s autocratic and self-centered distribution of the spoils of war—and of Achilleus’ “prize” woman in particular. This anger is so great that despite his hunger for glory in battle, and despite his supposed loyalty to the Greek confederation that has come to Troy to take back Helen, the kidnapped wife of Menelaus, Achilleus sits stubborn in his tent and refuses to join the battle even when the tide turns against the Greeks and everyone pleads with him.

Admirers of Achilleus and those sympathetic with his need for respect would say he’s in high dudgeon, or in a towering rage. Those readers who prefer Hektor’s brand of heroism (of which I am one) would say Achilleus is throwing an heroic temper tantrum, or having a big sulk.

My student makes a different choice. Is it some perverse delicacy of mind that keeps him from spelling out “pissed,” or does he think there are two different words depending on whether there is urine involved or only spleen—or does he actually think that’s how the (single) word is spelled?

At any rate, even “royally pissed” would have more dignity than my student has allowed this “hero”: he has managed to trivialize Achilleus, or infantilize him, or unclass him, in a single stroke. All that might be epic is piddled away.

Next time you’re feeling pissed, picture my student’s word. Tell yourself you’re pist. It will probably tickle you so that you cheer right up.

On this amphora, posted at http://www.miscellanies.org/eng3993/weeknine/bookone.html, you can see the pist Achilleus at center, next to the hanging helmet.