I wasn’t ready for “The Iliad” when I first read it as a freshman in college. My intellect was still very adolescent, too easily captivated by the exploits of gods and heroes (a certain Rick Riordan fan had I been born a few decades later) to appreciate the deeper significance of epic. I was stubborn as well, and my paper on fate — an embarassing screed about how the gods were the ones controlling all the action, a silly argument which only received a passing grade due to the dilligence of my research — was proof that the effort of reading Homer’s work was lost on me.
Many years later, after reading hundreds more books and sharpening my critical skills, I can appreciate “The Iliad” for the complex work that it is, a work that can’t be adequately analyzed in a blog post. But individual moments, of which there are so many, can and should be celebrated.
Book Eighteen contains a moving lament from Thetis, the sea-goddess mother of Achilles. Greece’s most powerful warrior Achilles had withdrawn from the assault on Troy back in Book One, and in his absence his dear friend Patrocolus is killed. Thetis knows her son will respond by rejoining the battle, an act that will lead to his violent death (unlike other Homeric heroes, Achilles is given the choice to go back home and live a long peaceful life without honor, or rejoin the battle and perish in glory in the land of Ilium). Achilles has called out to her from his sorrow, and as she prepares to leave her sisters Thetis cries (text below copied from the Richmond Lattimore translation):
Ah me, my sorrow, the bitterness in this best of child-bearing,
since I gave birth to a son who was without fault and powerful,
conspicuous among heroes; and he shot up like a young tree,
and I nurtured him, like a tree grown in the pride of the orchard.
I sent him away with the curved ships into the land of Ilion
to fight with the Trojans; but I shall never again receive him
won home again to his country and into the house of Peleus.
Yet while I see him live and he looks on the sunlight, he has
sorrows, and though I go to him I can do nothing to help him.
Yet I shall go, to look on my dear son, and to listen
to the sorrow that has come to him as he stays back from the fighting.
Perhaps I needed to have children of my own before I could appreciate passages like this, appreciate both the love and sorrow expressed, appeciate how one cannot live without the other. For whatever reason, I can now read “The Iliad” and see beyond the battle, recognize a part of myself in the thoughts and feelings expressed by the humans and the oh-so-human gods.