Spirituality and Homer’s Iliad
One of the things that has long fascinated me about religion and spirituality are the many similarities among different belief systems. I’m talking about the similarities that reach beyond dogma; those things which bring people to a specific spiritual path or indeed to any spiritual path. It was therefore a real privilege and pleasure when I was able to attend a class that addresses just these points here in Minneapolis, at Metropolitan University called, The Spiritual Journey. The class is taught by Mary Shaw, professor of theology.
The class outlined ten themes ¹ of spirituality which can be found in all religions or spiritual paths. Over the many weeks of the class we looked for and found these themes in such diverse religions as Judaism, ancient Christianity, Native American Spirituality, Islam and Buddhism. We also looked at the themes and how they applied to Wicca, Taoism, Hinduism, the teachings of Carl Jung and the mysticism of Joseph Campbell.
I began to wonder some time later during a class on Mythology if the ten themes could be found within Hellenismos. One of the problems with Hellenismos is that there is no one book, no one dogma and no one philosophy. How then to apply ten themes? We were studying Homer’s Iliad, and I decided that if the Iliad were a text of a myth that not only told a story, but had some religious context, then within the Iliad I could find those themes which I’d learned could be found in all religions.
It is first necessary to understand the Iliad as one of the foundation myths of Hellenismos, not just an attempt by a primitive people to understand the world around them. Although all religions exist partially as a way to help humankind understand the workings of the world, universe and their or our place within it. The fact that the ancient Greeks also developed philosophy and a tradition of debate which included debating the validity of the myths does not lessen the fact that these myths, both those from Homer and Hesiod, as well as others, formed the base of Greek religion in ancient times, and therefore forms the base of modern Hellenismos.
It is important to note that by the time the Iliad was committed to paper ancient Greek religion was already well developed, rituals, ceremonies and rights of passage were a recognized part of ancient Greek culture. Whether the Iliad was changed to reflect this deliberately or not, is not something we can know; but that the poetic epic was adjusted to audiences of the day is almost assured, as this is the way of humankind historically.
Theme One: Naming and Discerning the Divine
The first theme of the ten, that of naming and discerning the divine is fulfilled at the very beginning of the Iliad. Zeus is mentioned by name in the first stanza in a way that recognizes him as a powerful being. “…and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.” The second stanza names Zeus’ son Apollon and names him a God. “What God drove them to fight with such a fury?” The poet asks, then answers, “Apollon the son of Zeus and Leto.” Immediately after this sentence we find the second part of the first theme; discerning the divine. In this examination discerning means to perceive or what does Homer see these deities as? Apollon is seen as an avenging spirit and the bringer of plague when His priest’s request is denied by the Greeks. Homer tells us that most of the Greeks agreed to grant the priest’s request; through the characters of the story the poet tells us that the release of prisoners for ransom is an acceptable tradition and that Agamemnon is in the wrong to deny the priest’s plea, and thus risks the wrath of the God.
By line twenty-five at least two deities have been named and some idea of Their nature imparted to us. Throughout the remainder of the poem we will meet many of the rest of the pantheon of the ancient Greeks, and learn much of Their natures and Their spheres of influence, both within the confines of the poem’s context and outside the story. Hera is shown as the wife of Zeus, but not the mother of Apollon; thus we learn that Zeus is known for his many affairs and Hera for her jealousy about them. There are many epithets for each God or Goddess throughout the poem further defining how the ancient Greeks perceived them. Athena is called grey eyed and flashing eyed, tireless one; all these ways that describe how the Greeks perceived Her.
How a deity is named and perceived in myth or other stories tells us only part of what we need to know about them from a religious view; whether the deity is seen as transcendent or immanent is important as well.
Theme Two: Transcendence or Immanence
In the Iliad the Gods, Goddesses, demi-gods and other immortals and semi-immortals are a part of the world and therefore immanent. Apollon leaves the home of the gods to bring a plague upon the Greek army in answer to Chryses’ prayer. Athena, at the behest of Hera, talks Achilles out of killing Agamemnon even grapping his hair and forcing him to listen to her, “Rearing behind him Pallas seized his fiery hair.” Thetis a water nymph and mother to Achilles asks Zeus to take Achilles’ side in his argument with Agamemnon. Which is a reference to another side of the immanence of the Greek deities, several of them have sons among the Greeks and Trojans alike, their involvement in the war isn’t just that of mortal and immortal but that of family, mostly parent to child.
The Gods and Goddesses take sides in the war, driven by allegiances of blood, friendship and patronage. That they can choose to remain apart of the world is apparent in their actions when Zeus at one point orders them all to stay out of the conflict, (an order several of them ignore, especially Hera). In this way the poem shows us that they could have stayed out of the war, but there is proof in the story that these deities have long been part of the world and involved in the affairs of mortals. Zeus has chosen Paris, a mortal, to judge between three Goddesses, Paris is then rewarded by Aphrodite, (one of the three Goddesses) with the gift of Helen, a daughter of Zeus. Aphrodite also has a son in the conflict, Aeneas; another thing which brings the Goddess further into the war and therefore into the world.
Theme Three: Nature and the Divine
The evidence in the Iliad of how the ancient Greeks saw their deities is shown abundantly. One of the spiritual themes that is far less shown is how nature and the divine are seen. How do the two interact, if they interact at all? One part of the story that touches on nature is when Achilles is filling the waters of the river Xanthus, (portrayed as a deity) with corpses and blood, thus polluting it. The river God asks him to stop and when Achilles refused the God surges up and chases Achilles. Clean water has always been a concern of most cultures, without it humans die, this part of the story seems to be an admonition to keep corpses and other unclean things from fouling rivers even in battle.
Theme Four: False Self versus Authentic Self
Most religions have some guides as to how a person reconciles the false self and the authentic self. The false self being the self that adheres to the norms of society and the authentic self being that which is true to the needs of one’s self and one’s beliefs. Because the Iliad is a tale of war it is not immediately clear who is expressing their false self and who is expressing their authentic self.
One of the first tasks we must undertake to discover this theme is to first decide what the Greeks valued and if these things are apparent in the story. Two of the things which the Greeks respect which are central to the story are; respecting the bonds of hospitality, which Paris breaks and being true to one’s oaths, the Trojans break this one. Achilles on the other hand makes an oath that he will not return to the fight and keeps it for most of the story. These two practices which the ancient Greeks valued are represented in the Iliad by the actions of the characters. It is in the dilemmas facing both Hector and Achilles that we see the struggle between the two selves. Both men know that should they follow their destinies they will die and both question their destiny, Achilles says, “Mother tells me, the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet, that two fates bear me on to the day of death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies…” Even in Paris’ choice we can find the conflict of the true self and the false self, Paris chose selfishly ignoring the laws of guest and family taking something that wasn’t his, even if granted by a Goddess. Aphrodite herself chose selfishly, ignoring the laws given by Zeus about how a guest should act.
Theme Five: The Individual and Community
Eventually Achilles rejoins the battle and kills Hector, both men giving up their individual wants and adhering to the needs of the false self, as many in the conflict chose to giving into the wants of the community. In the Iliad the theme of individual and community and how religion directs this choice is shown many times, and in many ways. First there are two distinct communities; though they are similar they are different. The Trojans and their allies are one, Paris, Hector, Priam are members of that community. The Greeks, a combination of armies led by different kings, (two of which are related to each other), are another community, although they are slightly less cohesive than the Trojans. The conflict itself is about what is good for the community, The Greeks can not allow an insult to go unanswered; the Trojans have to protect their own, even though he is in the wrong. The poet tells us through the story that individual needs and wants, and in this case of women rights, are subsumed by the needs of the community. It is important to protect the interests of the community far more than it is to protect the interests of the individual. In the taking of sides the gods may seem at first to be supporting individuals, but they actually support the two sides or two communities in the war.
Theme Six: Gender in Religious Language and Experience
Life roles based on gender are often proscribed by religions, how a person acts, dresses and what is expected of them are usually based more on religious tenets than any other social structure. In the Iliad the role of females is clearly shown to be different than that of males, this is not a society of equals. Even among the immortals gender roles are unequal; Zeus admonishes Hera his wife and sister, “…If what you say is true, that must be my pleasure. Now go sit down. Be quiet now. Obey my orders, for fear the gods, however many Olympus holds, are powerless to protect you when I come to throttle you with my irresistible hands.” Zeus’ role as father and ruler is reinforced by the god Hephaestus, who says, “I urge you, mother-you know that I am right-work back into his good graces, so the Father, our beloved Father will never wheel on us again, send our banquets crashing!”
Zeus is not just ruler and father, he is to be feared, catered to and cajoled when angry, for no one in the family will be at peace unless he is happy. In the Iliad males whether immortal or mortal stand far above females in the social and religious order. The lot of mortal females is also shown in the Iliad first Helen, the Chryseis and Briseis are taken from their families and given to others as prizes, counted among the jewels, gold and other treasure the warriors contend over. Their status before the conflict, in Chryseis’ case as a priestess, is not of importance to the men who have taken them. Another clue to the status of women in the tale is that many times the fact that the warriors have sons in far off places is mentioned, but little is said about their daughters. Only when someone’s daughter is offered or taken as prize are they mentioned or important. If the Iliad reflects the religion of ancient Greece, then women are seen as property, their status and worth linked to that of the men they marry or in some other way belong to.
Theme Seven: Ethical and Social Concerns
Was the status of women a social concern in the time of Homer of from some time afterwards when the poem was preformed? Or is the chief concern stated in the opening stanza: “Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds,…” The ancient Greeks lived in an almost constant state of war, yet in the Iliad in several places the reasons for those wars and what they cost in pain, suffering and death is enumerated. What is more, the poem doesn’t actually glorify this; it gives bloody details, talks of pain and agony, but leaves the question of the worth of this destruction to the listener or reader. At one point Athena and Apollon decide that there has been enough death and they want a battle between just two men. If death in battle is glorious why would two of the Immortals reject it? Or is it that war is a continuation of chaos, something both these deities abhor? The Iliad doesn’t give answers to this, only raises the question; which from a religious standpoint is exactly as it should be.
Theme Eight: Metaphor, Symbol and Myth
Metaphor, symbol and myth are the tools which religions use to teach the adherents of that religion the ethics and concerns of the religion. The Iliad is rife with metaphor and symbols and it is a myth. Most of the nature imagery in the poem is metaphor; Odysseus calls the land of Argos “stallion-land” stallions were much prized for their strength, beauty and fecundity, so he compliments the men of Argos. In his speech he talks about an omen they all witnessed, when a snake appeared to them at a sacrifice, devoured nine birds and then was turned to stone by Zeus; the omen so Odysseus tells them, stands for the nine years it will take them to win the battle with the Trojans. The snake represents them, the birds the years and that the snake turns to stone their eventual victory.
Nature symbols are used to depict the armies and often times individuals characters, “…and the armies gave a deep resounding roar like the waves crashing against a cliff when the South Wind whips it, bearing down, some craggy headland jutting out to sea-the waves will never leave it in peace, thrashed by gales that hit from every quarter, breakers left and right.” The army is shown by this to be a powerful and inescapable though chaotic force.
The Iliad is itself a myth or teaching story, it exists not just as a history of a war that may or may not have happened, but as a means for people to examine the values and ethics of ancient Greek religion. It is interesting that it offers no answers, makes no suggestions about how to live a life, only points out choices, some very clearly and others in a metaphorical or symbolic way. Paris’ choice of Aphrodite as most beautiful of the three goddesses; Achilles’ choices of a long life in obscurity or a short life of glory and remembrance; Hector’s choice of duty to his city and his duty to himself, the reader, (listener) is left to debate the wisdom of these choices on their own.
Theme Nine: Spiritual Path or Progress on the Journey
It is in these choices that a person progresses on any spiritual journey or path, the Iliad illustrates this well, mostly in Achilles choices. In his words we see his anger, his vanity, his bitterness about his impending death and his grief over the death of Patroclus. “All those burning desires Olympian Zeus has brought to pass for me-but what joy to me now? My dear comrade’s dead-Patroclus-the man I loved beyond all other comrades, loved as my own life-I’ve lost him…My spirit rebels-I’ve lost the will to live, to take my stand in the world of men-unless, before all else, Hector’s battered down by my spear and gasps away his life, the blood-price for Patroclus.”
There is love in the Iliad as well, Phoenix, who refuses to leave Achilles when asked to, Patroclus’ sorrow and grief over the dead Greeks, these are things the reader can identify with. One or the reasons that myths survive as long as they do is that they remain valid, that validity exists because myths like the Iliad, the Odyssey and others have characters who face life choices that are recognizable to the audience. In a religious myth this is especially important as it points out what is a moral choice and what is not.
Achilles in his rage made a selfish and immoral choice; for pride he stood by and let many be killed who might not have been had he remained in the conflict, it took the death of one close to him to make him realize his mistake; an age old lesson.
Theme Ten: Ritual and Practice
One of the main themes of any religion is that of ritual and practice and here too the Iliad gives us many examples. In the very opening after being denied his appeal to ransom his daughter, Chryses prays to Apollon, “Hear me Apollo! God of the silver bow who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct-lord in power of Tenedos-Smintheus, god of the plague! If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart, ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass. Pay the Danaans back-your arrows for my tears”
In this small section we learn how the gods and goddesses are to be addressed and prayed to. First there is the extolling of the god’s virtues, Chryses calls Him the God of the silver bow, he calls upon a specific virtue; God of the plague. Then the priest reminds the God of past favors and devotions, “roofed a shrine to please your heart…burned the long rich bones…” and finally he asks for something in return, “pay the Danaans back…” this same formula is repeated later by Agamemnon when he asks for Zeus’ favor.
The two instances differ in that Apollon gives Chryses what he has asked for completely, while Zeus grants Agamemnon only part of his request, showing that though ritual is followed the results are not guaranteed by immanent Immortals. Other rituals shown in the myth are those which surround the disposal of the dead; the treatment of the body after death is important. Stripping the body is an insult to the dead and to their communities.
Using these ten themes of spirituality one is able to look at the Iliad as a religious myth and see the value it held for the ancient Greeks. It is also possible to look at it in perspective to the moral values of today, both in the mainstream monotheistic religions and in the alternative reconstructionist religions of modern polytheists.
The Iliad outlines many of the virtues, values and life choices faced by mortals. It also talks about the relationship between mortal and mortal; and mortal and Immortal. It addresses the nature of the immortal and divine, it names the divine and tells us the way the ancient Greeks discerned the divine. It gives us insight into the nature of the false self and the authentic self as the ancient Greeks saw it. It also gives insight into the roles of the individual, the community and gender in both religious and secular life. Ritual practices are outlined and there are examples of them clearly stated. Ethical concerns are spoken of in depth through the many speeches given by many characters. Most importantly the spiritual paths of those involved are spoken of and it is from these parts that mortals can gain inspiration and knowledge of a right way to live, orthopraxy, which the Greeks who came after the time of the Iliad held to be more important than orthodoxy.
For those of us practicing modern Hellenismos the Iliad gives us insight into the ancient structure of our religion. More importantly by being able to apply these ten themes which can be found in monotheistic religions as well as other accepted and documented spiritual paths, Hellenismos can be seen to pass a recognizable standard into what a religion or spiritual system must contain.
¹ Ten themes of spirituality taken from Mary Shaw’s class, “The Spiritual Journey” taught at Metropolitan State University; Religious Studies.
The Iliad / Homer; translated by Robert Fagles, with introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. Penguin Books; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (1998)