Saturday, April 2, 2011

Blood, Guts, and War: The Iliad

Lately, I have allowed more time for reading and less time for blogging.  I found myself in a mess of a reading pile, trying to complete four completely diverse books at once without making any real progress.  So I put my nose to the grindstone and polished them off one by one.  I hope I did not lose any of you followers while I was doing this, but it needed to be done!

One of these books was Homer's epic poem, The Iliad.  This book was my inspiration for starting a "To-Read" list about seven years ago, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've only just completed it.  When I read The Odyssey, I promised myself I would read the other epic because I had enjoyed Odysseus's adventures so much.  Thus, I wooed it in bookstores, settled it on my own bookshelf, and stroked it longingly to no avail for these past seven years.  Somehow, it became this ominous text floating on my To-Read list that I never quite approached.  There's no logical reason for it; I've read much more challenging and lengthier books in place of it. I wonder if any of you have a book like that on your mental checklist, or maybe I'm just a little crazy.

Anyway, as I finally settled in Homer's meter, I realized that this epic poem was nothing like I anticipated.  The whole scope of the story takes place in the heat of battle.  When it begins, the war has already been raging, and when it ends, the war is not yet complete.  All of those famous stories about Paris seducing Helen and Odysseus creating the Trojan horse are not to be found in The Iliad itself.  Instead, the poem is devoted purely and unabashedly to gruesome battle and bloodshed.

I get the feeling that people in today's society believe that our sense of gore is much more heightened than ever before.  However, these people have clearly not encountered Homer, who wrote somewhere around the 8th century BCE.  His descriptions are so graphically full of gore and fighting that every film version I've ever seen of it now appears paltry in comparison.  So for fun, I thought I'd pick out some of the most wonderfully awful descriptions he uses.  Amazingly, I think Homer manages to kill people in a different and creatively gruesome way every time.  But I should warn you - you might not want to read them if you are faint of heart.

"When Meriones, giving chase, caught up with him, he lunged with his spear, and the point went in the right buttock, under the bone, and into the bladder beneath." (Bk V)

"Phyleus' son Meges, renowned as a spearman, drew near and hurled his sharp spear through the nape of this man's neck.  The point cut off his tongue at its root and lodged between his teeth, and Pedaeus fell in the dust and bit the cold bronze." (Bk V)

"Then bringing his huge sword down on the collarbone of the other, he sheared his shoulder clean off from the neck and back." (Bk V)

"Not without great effort could a man of our generation, no matter how young or strong, so much as lift it with both of his hands, but Ajax raised it up high and hurled it down, smashing the four-hornet helmet and crushing the skull of Epicles, who pitched from the wall like a diver, as spirit took leave of his bones." (Bk XII)

"But not in vain did Deiphobus let the lance fly from his powerful hand, for he struck Hippasus' son in the liver under the midriff, and immediately unstrung his knees." (Bk XIII)

"But Meriones came at him hotly and hurled his spear in between his privates and navel, where Ares is cruelest to suffering mortals.  Deeply he planted it there, and Adamas leaned toward the shaft, writhing about it like a stubborn bull that herdsmen rope in the hills and drag away resisting.  So Adamas twisted and writhed for a while, but not very long - just until the warring Meriones came and wrenched the spear from his gut.  Then darkness enveloped his eyes." (Bk XIII)

Well, I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  And if you want to explore 400 pages of this, just check out the book.  :)

1 comment:

James Chan said...

What is your view on why Homer writes such brutal, gruesome depictions of "fighters killing, fighters killed" scenes? I find The Iliad very painful to read, but I am determined to finish reading this book. In between horrible images of wonton butchering, Homer inserts wisdom and the lilt of helpless humans trying to balance between the joy of life and the suffering that comes with being alive. This lilt is what keeps me reading. James Chan, Philadelphia