A tale of ancient greece

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The Iliad Background

The Iliad is the story of Achilles, or, as it is often called, “the tragedy of Achilles,” and how he brings disaster upon himself through his anger. Although parts of the Iliad have nothing to do with Achilles, he is the central figure, or the medium through which Homer conveys the poem's theme. Homer takes his audience on a moral journey, as Achilles comes face to face with his own humanity. This is perhaps the main reason the Iliad transcends the limits of time, place, and gender to speak to all human beings. Everyone must come to terms with how and why to live and how to face death.

Achilles was the son of the mortal Peleus and the goddess Thetis (the sea goddess). He was the mightiest of the Achaeans (a Greek clan) who fought in the Trojan War, and was the hero of Homer's Iliad.

Achilles was very brave and undefeatable in battle – almost immortal, in fact. There are two stories that explain why Achilles was so resistant to death:

Story 1:

Thetis, Achilles’ goddess-mother, wanted to burn away the human part of her son; so she placed him upon a fiery altar. Peleus, Achilles’ father, intervened just in time, but an angry Thetis abandoned her son and husband.

Story 2:

Thetis, Achilles’ goddess-mother, wanted to make her son immune to death. So she held him by the heel and dipped him into the River Styx to make him immortal. Thus, the only vulnerable (weak) spot on Achilles’ body was his tendon where his mother held him as she dipped him into the waters of death.

There was a prophecy given about Achilles’ destiny while he was still a boy. A prophet named Calchas prophesied that the city of Troy would not be conquered by any other Greek state without Achilles’ help. However, Thetis knew that if her son went to Troy, Achilles would die an early death. So she sent him to the court of Lycomedes, in Scyros where he was hidden and disguised as a young girl. Achilles' disguise was finally discovered by Odysseus. Eventually, Achilles went willingly with Odysseus to fight the Trojan War, leading a host of his father's Myrmidons (another Greek clan) and accompanied by his tutor Phoenix and his close friend Patroclus.
The Trojan War began as a result of events that took place at the wedding of King Peleus and Thetis (Achilles parents) many years earlier……
The wedding took place in Troy in the presence of King Priam and his sons Hector and Paris. While Hector was the best warrior in Troy, Paris was known as the handsomest man in all the known world. This pretty boy was asked by Zeus to judge a divine “beauty contest” of sorts. A golden apple would be given to the most beautiful goddess present – Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite.
Hera offered Paris ultimate power if he picked her; Athena promised to make him the wealthiest man alive, and Aphrodite promised to give Paris Helen – the most beautiful woman alive. {Nevermind that she was already married to King Menelaus of Sparta……}
Paris, of course, picked Aphrodite, and she helped him to steal Helen from her husband’s home and whisk her away to Troy, his boyhood home. This decision had many dire consequences. First, it turned the goddesses Athena and Hera against the Trojans. Second, it caused King Menelaus to enlists the help of his brother Agamemnon (King of Mycenae) and declare war against Troy.
The Greek state of Mycenae and their allies already had control of almost all the city-states in the Aegean Sea – except Troy. So Agamemnon saw it as a perfect opportunity to expand his empire and for his brother to avenge his loss. Needless to say, Menelaus launched 1,000 ships – commanded by Greek kings and their armies – to get Helen back. Thus, the Trojan War began.
Menelaus, and Agamemnon also enlist the help of two other Greek kings – Odysseus and Achilles. Achilles was somewhat reluctant to join in the fight. He had no interest in politics, but he was interested in making a name for himself as a great warrior. Despite the prophecy that he would not return from war, Achilles wanted to go down in history.
While at war, Achilles became very angry at Agamemnon over a girl (you’ll just have to wait to read the story to find out the juicy details!) Achilles refused to fight, and returned home in a pout. The Greeks needed his strength to win battles, but all of the rewards they had to offer could not entice him to return. However, he allowed his best friend – Patroclus – to fight in his place. When Achilles received word that his friend Patroclus was killed by Hector – the Trojan hero – he returned to battle, swearing revenge on Hector. To be continued . . .

The ancient Greeks ascribed the Iliad and the Odyssey, their two oldest, monumental epic poems, to Homer, whom they called simply "The Poet." Nothing certain is known about Homer's life. His name, which means "hostage," gives no clue to his origins, since small wars and raids between neighboring city-states and towns were frequent in ancient Greece, and prisoners were routinely held for ransom of sold into slavery. Homer is commonly referred to as the "Ionian bard," or poet; more than likely, he came from Ionia in the eastern Mediterranean
Legend has it that Homer was blind. This legend may have some basis in fact; if he lived to be an old man, he may simply have become blind. However, the idea of Homer's blindness may have arisen because of its symbolic implications. The Greeks contrasted inner vision with physical vision, that a “second sight” was a gift from the gods to make up for a loss of physical sight. Also, Homer's image - the blind bard singing the myths of his people - is a striking symbol for the beginning of Western literature.
Although it is not known for certain when Homer lived, the Iliad was almost certainly composed late in the 8th century B.C. Historically, however, both the Iliad and the Odyssey take place in a long-past heroic age known as the Late Bronze Age. Homer did not create the plot of characters of the epics he is credited with writing; rather, he inherited the stories of those epics. Generations of Greeks had preserved orally the subject matter of the Iliad and the Odyssey - the story of the Trojan War and the heroic mythology that pervades both poems.
The Iliad was, in fact, considered historical fact: children in the fifth century B.C. memorized large sections of the poem and practiced the ethical codes that Homer presents. Athenians even claimed the Homeric gods and heroes as founders or champions of Athens and its people. Homer's epics also had a tremendous influence on later generations of Greek writers. Greek lyric poets, dramatists, and philosophers considered themselves Homer's heirs, drawing on his work either to imitate it or to argue with it.
Just as the oral tradition supplied Homer with a vast body of legend, it also provided him with the form and structure in which to express the legend. Although Homer was free to choose and shape the elements of the story according to his own vision, his language, meter, and style were formulaic. Over time, bards had developed a common fund of expressions, phrases, and descriptions that fit the rhythms of the epic verse line. These conventions became the building blocks of the epic genre.
Homer begins the Iliad powerfully by stating the epic's theme and invoking on of the Muses. The Muses are nine goddesses in Greek mythology who were believed to preside over all forms of art and science. The poet calls on the Muse to inspire him with the material he needs to tell the story. This type of opening is one of the defining features of a Homeric epic.
Homer observes another epic convention by beginning the story "in medias res," which is Latin for "in the middle of things." Reading a Greek epic from the beginning is like tuning in to a story already in progress, in that many of the story's events have already taken place. Information about those events is revealed later in the poem through flashbacks and other narrative devices. Homer could begin his poems in medias res because the general outline of the plot and the main characters would have been already familiar to his audience
The particular demands of composing and listening to oral poetry gave rise to the use of stock descriptive words of phrases, such as "brilliant Achilles," or "Hector breaker of horses." These epithets, often compound adjectives like "blazing-eyed Athena," allowed the poet to describe an object or a character quickly and economically, in terms his audience would recognize. Homeric epithets and other formulaic language may have helped the poet shape his story and compose while reciting, and the repetition of familiar expressions also would have helped the audience follow the narrative.

The gods and goddesses of Homer's epics often would take contradictory sides in human affairs and would interfere with mortals in ways that sometimes seemed helpful while at other times seemed unfair. Humans were constantly at the gods' mercy, and many Greeks would blame misfortunes upon an angry god or goddess who had been displeased by the actions of some human soul.
To protect themselves from the vengeance of angry gods, Greeks practiced ritual sacrifices. The ritual sacrifice of animals was a common practice. Normally, only certain parts of the slaughtered animals were burned. Among these were the fatty parts that make aromatic smoke sacrificers hoped would reach the gods; the remaining meat was shared among the people. When the entire animals was burned, the sacrifice was called a holocaust, which means "wholly burned" in Greek.
Sometimes larger, more substantial sacrifices were necessary. A hecatomb is the sacrifice of one hundred animals (usually oxen, sheep, or goats), although the term may be used to refer to any large sacrifice. Other times, a human sacrifice was required, as in the case of Agamemnon's daughter who was slain in order to appease the goddess Artemis and ensure a safe voyage to Troy. Agamemnon himself was said to have bragged that he had slain his child to help a war.
Throughout the Iliad, reciprocity, hospitality, and exchange are the glue that holds a society together, mending the cracks that would split it apart. Exchanging gifts and services is the way "xenia" works, the guest-host relationship in ancient Greece that binds together people not related by blood or clan.
Early in the sixth book of the Iliad, the heroes Glaucus and Diomedes come together to fight. Before engaging in battle, each ascertain the other's identity. The two men discover that their ancestors had established a bond of xenia. Realizing that they are bound to uphold the ancestral bond, the two warriors vow not to fight each other and exchange armor as a gesture of friendship.
Refusing to take part in the system threatens to shake the foundations of civilized community. Likewise, Greeks who would withhold hospitality to other Greeks or traveling strangers risked angering the gods and goddesses, who often traveled in disguise and would be offended if hospitality were not given.
In ancient Greece, oaths were sworn to solemnize promises or threats and to formalize official relationships between individuals, clans, or states. The gods were called on to witness the intentions of the speaker; if the speaker violated his oath, the gods would punish him.

As warfare is presented in the Iliad, there are several options in dealing with a dead opponent. The winner might strip the armor of the vanquished warrior and then return the body. The returning of the vanquished hero to his homeland was important to the ancient Greeks, and warriors would often go to great lengths to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades.
The Greeks placed such importance upon burying the dead that they believed departed souls would return to haunt the living if, in death, they did not receive a proper burial. In the context of formal mourning, only women sang funeral dirges (songs). The men would play "funeral games" - games of skill and chance to honor the fallen warrior.
All of these cultural influences can be seen in Homer’s rendition of The Iliad.

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