Schein, Seth L. The Mortal Heroes: An Introduction to Homer's Iliad. Berkley: U. of California P, 1984.


One important group of gods is almost entirely absent from the Iliad: the gods of the Chthonic: (thon ik: gods or spirits of the underworld) Earth religion. It has been shown that long before Homer, this religion, not that of the Olympian sky-gods, was dominant in Greece. The great realities of this religion were "Earth, procreation, blood, and death," and its main divinities were groups of primeval goddesses such as the Moirai, "Fates"; the Keres, "Death Spirits"; and the Erinyes, "Furies." These goddesses were thought to administer sacred rules that, in effect, were principles of order and limit in society and the cosmos; they angrily punished with vengeance any transgressors of these rules and this order. . . . The mechanism by which the Chthonic divinities effect their vengeance and maintain order is magical. A person who has suffered wrong calls on them and curses the wrongdoer; this curse releases the Furies. The most serious transgressions are those committed against persons connected by blood kinship (46).

The Homeric Greek words usually translated as "fate" are moira, its variant form moros, and its synonym aisa. These words literally mean "allotment" or "portion," or "share" as of land or booty, although Moros is often used for someone's death or doom. Unlike the Latin word fatum, from which "fate" is derived, moira, moros, and aisa do not mean a thing said or, by extension, a predetermined course of events--a meaning of fate that has been strengthened for us by Christian notions of predestination, as well as by the artistic concepts such as the "tragedy of fate." When we translate these Greek words as "fate" we must avoid importing with the translation a concept of destiny that is in no way Homeric . . . . From the human point of view in the Iliad, only when something happens to someone does he realize (or Homer tells us) that it was his Moira And though the gods know what will happen, they do not directly cause it, or bring it about . . . . While a god never causes moira there are occasional passages where a god prevents it from happening prematurely or inopportunely. In these instances Homer says something almost happened beyond portion. Zeus considers saving Hektor, but the other gods won't approve of it. While Zeus clearly is able to change a moira, at the same time, paradoxically,he cannot do so for the same reason that other things do not happen beyond portion: that is not the way the traditional story goes, and any change in the tradition is inconceivable for both poet and audience (62-64).

In the world of the poem, war is the medium for human existence and achievement; bravery and excellence in battle win honor and glory and thus endow life and meaning. Heroes affirm their greatness by the brilliance and efficiency with which they kill. The flashing action of a warrior's triumph represents the fullest realization of human potential, despite the pain and loss for the victim, his family, and his community. Some glory can be won, too, by dying bravely, in an act that sums up and puts a seal on life lived in accordance with the generally acknowledged standards of heroic excellence (arete) . . . . The main reason why winning honor and glory in war can endow life with meaning is that in the world of the Iliad there is no significant afterlife. . . . The word psuche, usually translated "soul," has none of the intellectual or spiritual significance that it came to have for later Greeks and for the West. Etymologically, psuche seems to mean "wind-breath." In the Iliad it is simply an entity that, when it is in a human body, makes that body alive, and that, when a person is killed, departs to Hades; there it is a ghost, with no significant or mental existence. The psuche is not particularly important for Homer, who in 1.3-5 contrasts the psuches hurled to Hades to the selves left as prey for dogs and birds. This conception of the body as the "self" both accounts for Homer's much greater concern with what happens to bodies than with what happens to "souls" and explains his characters' sense that what counts is what one can do and win and suffer in the only life there is for a mortal. Therefore, for Homer, a hero is one who lives and dies in pursuit of honor and glory, a mortal who fights and dies with no afterlife as his reward other than the glory of celebration in epic song . . . . By contrast, since the gods by definition are unchanging and immortal, they can neither win or lose significant glory. Since they cannot die, they risk nothing; for this reason, their existence, compared with that of mortals, is trivial. They emphasize by contrast the seriousness of the human condition, in which winning honor and glory alone makes a brief life meaningful and enables an individual to stand out in his own and in others' eyes. Winning honor and glory makes life meaningful also because of the social value system. Thus Achilles feels he has been robbed of the honor he has earned when Agamemnon takes Brieses. This honor is not merely an abstraction; its basic meaning is "price" or "value" in a tangible sense. Those who win such tangible honors also win honor conceived abstractly; from this comes their kleos, "glory" and "reputation," what is said about them near and far, even when they are dead. There is no real alternative. Life is lived and death is died according to this code of values: to be fully human--that is, to be a hero--means to kill or be killed for honor and glory. The human situation might well be called tragic, because the very activity--killing--that confers honor and glory necessarily involves the death not only of other warriors who live and die by the same values as their conquerors, but eventually, in most cases, also of the conquerors themselves. . . . This fact indicates the cost as well as the rewards of the heroism Homer celebrates (68-72).

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