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The Relation of Religious Mythology to the Conduct of War in Homer's Iliad

 Bruce R. Magee
Greek 4915: The Iliad
Dr. Robert Edgeworth
July 1990

Despite its position as one of the fundamental documents of western civilization, the Idiad is in many ways almost incomprehensible to the modern western mind. Its incomprehensibility results not only from the passage of time but also from a basic shift in the mythic paradigms by which we interpret warfare. James Aho identifies two basic types of holy war myths: the immanentist-cosmological type and the transcendent-historical type (11). After a brief examination of the present influence of the transcendent-historical war myth on our culture, this paper focuses on the war myth in the Iliad. The thesis of this paper is that the Iliad best matches the immanentist-cosmological war myth.

The purpose of transcendent-historical warfare is to redeem the fallen world by restoring it to a proper relation to a transcendent god. Adherents believe in the possibility of historical advancement as their god establishes his justice (Aho 145-151). Aho traces the roots of the transcendent-historical myth to ancient Hebraism, from which it spread to Christianity (excluding medieval Catholicism) and Islam (Aho 11). According to Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, this attitude had undergone secularization in the west, but the structure of the myth remains intact in Communism, Nazism, and the American monomyth. In America for example, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” represents a stage of civil religion. Despite secularization the mythic structure has remained intact in subsequent wars as we have sought to fight the war to end all wars, to make the world safe for democracy, to overcome the Evil Empire, and to solve a domestic drug problem through Operation Just Cause (Jewett and Lawrence 25-45).

The immanentist-cosmological holy war is similar to the transcendent-historical one in that both seek to preserve νομός — ἄνομός (nomos — anomos, law vs lawless, order vs disorder) in the face of and to reunify the human with the divine. Both also exhibit a relationship between the mythological and operational aspects of war’s symbolism. The differences in the ways wars are fought in the two mythical systems are interrelated to their divergent views of reality. The immanentist-cosmological myth stresses the presence of the divine in the cosmos, with the result that it differs from the transcendent-historical type in motives for war, attitudes toward war, and approved ways of fighting (Aho 10-12).

Mythological Religious
Symbolism in the Iliad

According to Aho immanentist-cosmological religions ground reality in the feminine principle, which they identify with the earth. The Magna Mater is generally both womb and tomb, the source and end of life. Unlike Yahweh, the Magna Mater is not distinct from the world, but immanent in it (Aho 21). The earth itself is lifeless until the fecundating sun and rain gods bring life (Aho 22-23). The Greek mythology underlying the Iliad closely matches Aho’s definition. Night arose from the primordial chaos, then gave birth to the sky and the earth. These latter two mated to produce life. Within such a realm, evil and human suffering represent a disruption of the order. If humans fail to submit the the cosmic way, then the world is in danger of slipping back into chaos (Aho 22). The microcosm of the individual and the mesocosm of the society must be kept in line with the macrocosm of the universe if order is to be preserved. The purpose of holy war is to restore the balance when it has been lost (Aho 34).

The dramatic tensions in the Iliad result from a disruption of microcosms and mesocosms that leads to a disruption in the macrocosm. The wrath (μῆνις, mēnis) of Achilles, which is a microcosmic disruption, forms the dominant motif of the whole poem (Homer, ed. Leaf and Bayfield xv). This internal state results from a disruption in the mesocosm as Achilles and Agamemnon argue over Briseis. However, she is only the occasion of the argument; their real dispute is over the degree of honor (τιμή, timē) due to each one (Lloyd-Jones 11). This internal division parallels the broader social division that occasioned the Trojan war. Paris took Helen from her husband and his host Menelaus. Violating his host brought the involvement of Zeus Xeinios, who protects the law of host and guest. An injury to a host or guest injures Zeus’s honor (τιμή, timē), producing a macrocosmic imbalance (Lloyd-Jones 5). The gods themselves choose sides between the Trojans and the Greeks, exacerbating the cosmic division. Hera, Athena, Hephaestus, and Poseidon favor the Greeks; Ares, Apollo, Artemis, and Aphrodite favor the Trojans. Zeus himself tends to favor Hector and the Trojans, but he also favors Achilles (Homer; trans. Smith and Miller, xv). The Trojan side produces another imbalance when Pandarus breaks the truce and offends Zeus Horkios, the protector of oaths (Lloyd-Jones 7). Thus the Trojans are doomed to eventual destruction, but that destruction is delayed until the internal division within the Greek ranks can be resolved. The resolution of this internal division comes when Achilles finally becomes more angry at the enemy than at Menelaus, finding the proper vent for his wrath (19. 40-100). This cosmic division reaches its climax at the point when Achilles returns to the war. To keep him from sweeping the Trojans away too easily, Zeus sends the gods to assist their respective sides (20. 1-75).

The redemption sought through immanentist-cosmological holy war is the alignment of the individual and the society with the divine (Aho 34). The Iliad exhibits this redemptive alignment in its climax, when Achilles and Priam mourn their dead together and recognize the brotherhood underlying their enmity, indicating a mesocosmic breakthrough (24. 480-590). Achilles is finally able to discharge his wrath and grief, achieving personal maturity. Thus the war has achieved its purpose, and the Iliad can end complete. From a transcendent-historical point of view, the Iliad would be incomplete, for the war was not yet over. Only in the immanentist-cosmological war myth does the ending come at a proper point.

Military Ethics and the Operation
of War in the Iliad

The operational aspects of war’s religious symbolism involves the appropriate motives for war, the proper attitudes toward war, and the approved ways of fighting (Aho 10). Since the Iliad presupposes an immanentist-cosmological religion, we would expect the operational aspect of warfare in the Iliad to reflect those presuppositions. Aho points out that such mythic systems prescribe how soldiers should act and feel in war but do not necessarily reflect how they actually do act and feel (29).

The preceding discussion of mythological religious symbolism in the Iliad has already touched on the proper motives for war. The warrior fights to help save the world from the evil of chaos and to gain personal maturity (Aho 29). Through war he tries to align himself and his society with cosmic reality. In the Iliad, the Greeks’ motivation in the siege arises from Paris’ and Pandarus’ injury of their honor (τιμή, timē), which is also Achilles’ motivation in his struggle with Agamemnon.

Attitudes toward warfare is a fundamental differences between the immanentist-cosmological and transcendent-historical mythological outlooks. The transcendent-historical myth sees warfare as work, as a means to an end other than itself. Therefore death and injury are liabilities to be avoided if possible (Aho 12). In immanentist-cosmological warfare, warfare is play, an end in itself. Killing and dying in war are ends in themselves; the proper soldier willingly “dies with his boots on” in battle (Aho 12).

Aho makes a distinction between the popular concept of play as limited to nonserious fun and the sociological definition of play as activity engaged in as an end in itself. Thus any sacred liturgy is play, including the liturgy of holy war. For the Greeks to consider war a form of play was to make it one of the most solemn and significant of human activities (Aho 29-32). Aho illustrates this thesis with the meanings of ludus, ‘game’ (31). The Greek word with parallel importance in the Greek culture was ἀγών (agōn, contest). The Greeks applied this word to sporting events, legal trials, political contests, and even wars (Liddell and Scott 10), and it serves as the basis for several English words (agony, agonistic, antagonist, and protagonist, etc.) and institutions (democracy comes from the idea of letting people compete. Contestants and combatants struggled against one another for glory (κῦδος, kudos) and honor (τιμή, timē). As a type of play, the violent contest was not to be avoided, but rather joyfully and unselfconsciously entered as one would enter a dance or game (Aho 31). Hector is a capable warrior who nevertheless fights for the wrong reasons, who fightsbecause he wishes to protect his family and his city. War is thus not play for him but work in the pursuit of the larger goal of preserving his city. He also maintains the desire for self-preservation on the brink of his show-down with Achilles as he considers making a deal with Achilles (22. 99-130). Although Achilles early on questions the ethos of holy war, when he finally does enter the fray, he does so with proper self-abandon. As he exults over the defeated Hector, he boasts that he does not care about how or when his own death may come, exhibiting the proper warrior spirit.

Lie thou dead; my fate will I accept whenso Zeus willeth to bring it to pass and the other immortal gods. (22. 365-366)

The attitude of self-abandon and play mark Achilles as the warrior superior to Hector, who was more inclined to see war as work and death as an end to be avoided if possible. Ironically, our culture’s shift to a transcendent-historical war ethic has valorized Hector’s values. Leaf and Bayfield note that modern readers are more likely to sympathize with Hector than Achilles.

Fighting a hopeless fight for his country against gods as well as against the mightiest of heroes, he [Hector] presents himself in a far nobler light than Achilles, whose strength is helped by divine aid denied to his enemy, and whose overmastering motive is not patriotism but the gratification of a private revenge. (521)

Leaf and Bayfield recognize that modern society values different attitudes in warriors. Sam Keen describes this shift in warriors’ attitudes.

The ancient warrior needed massive physical strength and agility, a passionate hatred, and an ability to relish killing. He was either fierce, proud, arrogant, dominating, boastful, comfortable with cruelty, or dead. The modern warrior, by contrast, must be a specialist, coolheaded and emotionally detached. (72)

Not only has the attitude toward war changed, but so have the accepted methods of war. The method of war includes both the style and substance of warfare (Aho 10). The style of war involves the non-combat formalities that surround the battle; the substance involves the conduct of the battle itself. Both the style and the substance of war should reflect the attitude toward war as work or play. True play is set off from the ordinary world in various ways, including spatial, temporal, and normative boundaries (Aho 32). As a man of the war camp, Achilles exhibits this divorce from ordinary life better than Hector the city-dweller. Hector has his father, mother, siblings, wife, and child surrounding him. His presence in a larger society prevents him from forgetting self and transcending this life in the fashion valorized in a work that treats war as play. Another important aspect of the style of war is the manner in which warriors decorate themselves. In modern warfare, the warrior’s dress and training is designed to dehumanize him. Thus soldiers wear identical haircuts and uniforms so that they will have all have one (uni) form. The term “G. I. Joe” indicates the soldier’s interchangability with the next General Issue Joe. "Forcing men to march to a single cadence and to dress in ways that eradicated all distinctions, removed the element of individuality that was essential to heroic warfare" (Keen 83). The manner of dress in the Idiad reflects the heroic nature of the conflict. The decorations on costumes, armor, and weapons serve to distinguish the individual warriors from all other warriors, to make him an individual. The almost endless and, to the modern mind, tedious focus on how the warriors dress in the Iliad reaches its climax when 250 lines are devoted to a new suit of armor for Achilles (18. 367-617). This outfit serves to distinguish Achilles as an individual hero, not as part of a military unit. Achilles would be completely out of place in a modern professional army because of his individualism. If a junior officer in such an army refused to obey the general and also commanded his troops not to obey, he would be severely disciplined if not shot.

The substance of warfare in the Iliad also reflects the stress on the individual hero. Individual duels such as the ones that begin and end the Iliad would be unthinkable in modern warfare, although the suggestion occasionally crops up that it might not be a bad idea to allow generals and heads of state to do the fighting themselves. However, the work ethic of war demands that we use every available means of destroying the enemy and eliminates limited warfare, in theory if not in practice. Playful war, on the other hand, is often limited. In the Iliad, both sides frequently sacrifice pure military strategy. Thus the frequent references to warriors who get killed trying to drag off dead comrades by the heels culminate in the interminable battle for Patroclus’ body, when his body becomes the goal of the battle and strategic considerations fall by the wayside (17. 123- 18. 242). Toward the end of the Iliad, in an act that seems incredible to the work-oriented reader, the Greeks stop the war to have burial ceremonies and games for Patroclus (23. 1-897).

Limited warfare serves several purposes in the Iliad. In playful warfare, a warrior who breaks the rules of engagement may win the battle, but he loses his manhood (Aho 34). Thus Achilles turned down human assistance in his fight with Hector because he wanted all the kudos for himself (22. 205-207). Another reason for fighting by the rules is that so doing puts the gods on one’s own side. Breaking the rules is a departure from the cosmic way into anomos and chaos (Aho 22). Although Achilles wishes that he could eat the flesh of Hector and threatens to feed Hector’s flesh to the dogs (22. 346-349), he ultimately does neither of these because doing so would put him beyond the pale of the conduct of holy war and would cut him off from the divine.

A final reason for limited battles in playful war is the recognition of good in the enemy and evil in one’s own side. This viewpoint is again foreign to the work ethic of war, which in pure form sees the enemy as totally evil and one’s own side as completely in tune with the transcendent deity’s will. “The Hebraic, Muslim, and Reformation Protestant soldier, in identifying his cause with the perfect righteousness of God, uses the very ferocity of his violence as a confirmation of his own purity” (Aho 33). It is the recognition of sin on one’s own side that leads one to be careful lest he overstep the bounds (Aho 33). In its customs, its pantheon, and its social makeup, Troy is much like a Greek city; the Greeks do not see Trojans as barbarian outsiders. The Iliad places great emphasis on the warrior’s recognition of himself in the enemy and of the enemy within himself. Although the Trojans are to blame for the war since Paris took Helen from Menelaus, Agamemnon causes a similar division within the Greeks’ ranks by taking Briseis from Achilles; thereafter, the Greeks share in the Trojans’ pollution. Achilles’ wrath further taints the Greeks’ efforts; although he stops just short of desecrating the body of Hector too much and just short of killing a his guest Priam, he constantly pushes the limits of the heroic soldier and threatens to plunge his side into chaos. He constantly threatens to go “beyond fate” (20. 30).

As the leading warriors for their respective sides, Achilles and Hector are parallel heroes. Their similarity becomes clear when Hector dons the armor he stripped from Patroclus, for that armor belonged to Achilles, who loaned it to Patroclus for the battle. Figure 3 is an illustration the relationships among Achilles, Hector, and their two closest advisors, Patroclus and Pulydamus. The contrasts among these men are as important as the similarities. Patroclus urges Achilles to return to the battle; Pulydamus urges Hector to retreat. Both heroes ignore the advise, much to their later regret. Hector goes out to battle despite (or because of) his wish to remain in the city and to be at peace. Achilles remains in his tent because of his anger at a fellow warrior, and only comes out when grief and anger over the death of Patroclus drives him out.

The identification of the enemy in the warrior and of the warrior in the enemy reaches its climax in the meeting between Achilles and Priam (24. 475-676). In this meeting, Priam becomes a surrogate for Achilles’ father and Achilles for Priam’s son. This recognition has a cathartic effect on Achilles, who at last is able to come to terms with his wrath and his grief. A macho man who is accustomed to subsuming his grief in anger, Achilles finally deals with the grief underlying his wrath, and is able to let go of both. This breakthrough allows Achilles to achieve the goal of immanentist-cosmological warfare, which is the alignment of the personal and the communal with the divine. He exhibits communal maturity by eating with his enemy, by giving him lodging for the night, and by negotiating a temporary truce to allow Priam to bury Hector. He demonstrates his submission to the divine through his account of Zeus’ two jars of woes and one jar of blessing, wherein mortals receive either a mixture of woes and joys, or simply receive pure woes. It is a mark of his maturity that he can now accept the woes with the joys, that he can submit to reality as it exists within the Iliad. Achilles may have a life that is short and violent, but he is able to achieve a measure of transcendence in that life by recognizing the brotherhood of his enemy and submitting to the ways of the gods. Thus he fulfills the purpose of cosmological-immanentist holy war and marks himself as the true hero of the Iliad.


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