21 September, 2007
Like any good college student, I'm reading the Iliad for my first literature class. I'm getting far more out of it than I ever did at 14, and I'm genuinely enjoying it now. The poetry of Lattimore's translation is much easier to appreciate now, as are small details such as Hektor's laughter when playing with his son, Zeus' constant fear of Hera, etc. I also am beginning to see the story for what it says as well (although I stick to my opinion that you should read every book you are going to study at least once as a pure story before going ahead and tearing into it deeply). What strikes me most in this reading is the emphasis on the tension between immortality and mortality, between heroism and common destiny for death.
In the Iliad, one is heroic by winning glory, for the purposes of immortalizing one's name. There is a constant tension between immortality and mortality; the gods and the humans. Heroes can attain to a form of "godlikeness"; they can overawe other men and supersede standards set for "mere humans". They can even defy their mortality for a while with acts which bring glory. But they are mortal nonetheless, and cannot attain too far towards the status of the gods without becoming hubristic.
Book 5 of the epic brings up some interesting points along this line. At this point, the warrior Diomedes is coming into his own as a hero. Athene, towards the opening of the book, "takes the mist away from his eyes" so that he can distinguish between god and mortal, and not mistakenly fight a being too strong for him. Intriguingly enough, this image of mist in the eyes usually refers to those who are dying. When Athene removes the mist from the Diomedes' eyes, she is, I believe, removing some part of the shroud of mortality and giving the hero a glimpse into the realm of the gods.
With this power, Diomedes is not only able to avoid the gods when he needs to. At times, with Athene's approval, he even dares to face other gods in battle: he stabs Aphrodite, and wounds even the strong god of war, Ares. Yet Athene's help is crucial here.
When Aphrodite returns to Olympus with her wound, her mother comforts her with he dire prediction: "the heart of Tydeus' son knows nothing of how that man who fights the immortals lives for no long time." (5.407) It becomes clearer that only Athene's help keeps Diomedes' daring from becoming pure hubris when Apollo warns the hero away. "Take care, give back, son of Tydeus, and strive no longer / to make yourself like the gods in mind, since never the same is / the breed of gods, who are immortal, and men who walk groundling." (5.440)
Man's heroism can only go so far in likening him to the immortals. There is the hard fact of his mortality underlying all the glory, all the grandeur, and all the godlike appearance of a hero.