Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Death Sentences: Some Thoughts on the Iliad

Although the wrath of Achilles propels the plot of the Iliad, the Iliad is a poem of death. Because so many people die in the Iliad, I think it would be a rewarding exercise to go through and see how death is described. Outside of A killed B or A slayed B or rather straightforward terminology, death is emerges, floats about, darts here and there throughout the poem. Death often appears personified with a capital D. Death appears as an ever-present force lurking throughout the pages. It is the most powerful force for the mortal heroes, but it is also the most elusive. It is ever-present, but, as we shall see, it is a mist. It cannot be fully grasped even as it is ubiquitous.

Once again, death, as a necessary prominent theme in a poem of war, appears right at the beginning. It is the result and necessary corollary to Achilles' wrath:
Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus
(trans. Lattimore, with some emendations)
Here the death that is the result of Achilles' wrath is the hurling of strong souls to the house of Hades. One can almost imagine them, once run through with a sword, arrow, or spear, being thrown down to visit the god of the underworld in his palace from which no soul returns. Indeed, one of the most common ways to depict death (outside of "kill" and "slay") in the Iliad is the descent (or "hurling") of the soul (or "life breath from his limbs") to the "underworld," the "house of Hades," or the "house of Death" (e.g., VI.19, 284-5, 487-9; VII.129-31).

Meanwhile, their bodies become food for dogs and birds. How similar in imagery to that other great poet, Shakespeare, who speaks so freely of death in winged words. In Hamlet, for instance, in the "to be or not to be" speech or when Hamlet refers to Polonius' dead body as wormfood or in the scene with the gravediggers. Indeed, this play is also a long meditation on death with some of the most beautiful "death sentences" in the English language.

At this point in the Illiad death has made its introduction, but has yet to attain its own agency. Take the following "death sentence":
He dropped, screaming, to his knees, and death was a mist about him. (V.69)
Who "he" is almost does not matter. He is one of the many faces Homer brings up with momentary clarity only to fall back into a rather undifferentiated background, whether of the legions of the Achaians, the Trojans, or the dead. "He" happens to be Phereklos, who built the Trojan ships used by Paris / Alexander when he visited Sparta and first saw Helen. Phereklos, in that sense, built the very ship that would deliver him his doom. The sentence itself, as it is rendered wonderfully by Lattimore, slows down the action. Chopping up the sentence into four basic elements (the "cola") brings the scene into slow motion culminating in the ubiquitous death that no one can ensnare, but, instead, it envelops all: he his knees...and death was a mist about him. One is slowed down in order to sense this all-encompassing onset of death. The quiet "mist" of death eerily offsets the screaming. It is the impregnable "dark death" (VII.254).

It is fated death. Death and fate are inextricably intertwined in the Iliad. Death comes to all, and it comes to all at the time Fate has declared. No one can speed up or slow down cold Fate's death sentence. As Hektor tells his wife, Andromache:
No man is going to hurl me to Hades, unless it is fated,
but as for fate, I think that no man yet has escaped it
once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward. (VI.487-9)
Death and Fate, like time (Kronos), consume all. None escapes them, or has yet to escape fate and death. There is no such thing as "untimely death" in the Iliad, for all death, whether in war or old age, is by Fate's decree. All must go down to the House of Death. All must visit that "undiscover'd country" from which none return. All, even Achilles the greatest hero of them all, must be hurled into the Death's house, enveloped by the unknown darkness of Death's ever-present, un-graspable mist.

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