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The Iliad | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is the significance of Hector running around Troy three times in Book 22 of The Iliad?

After Patroclus's death in his battle with the Trojans, Achilles has the Myrmidons drive around his body three times to mourn and show respect for the dead man. It is no coincidence that Hector likewise runs around the city of Troy three times as he flees Achilles. By doing so he unintentionally echoes the mourning ritual, foreshadowing and symbolically mourning the impending events of his own death and the destruction of Troy. In addition, the number three is often associated with balance in contrast to the number two, which implies opposing forces. There are three ruling brothers—Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades—and there are three muses, fates, furies, graces, gorgons, and so on in Greek mythology. In both cases, Achilles and Hector may invoke the number three as a cosmic plea to restore balance that has been disrupted by opposition.

Based on what happens to those who wear it, what might Achilles's armor symbolize in The Iliad?

The armor seems to symbolize fate, almost acting as an instrument of doom for anyone but Achilles because both Hector and Patroclus are wearing it when they meet their fated deaths. After his anger forces him to withdraw from battle, Achilles never again fights in his old armor; it is only worn by other people, specifically Patroclus and Hector. Patroclus wears Achilles's armor with his permission in Book 16, and it seems to serve him well for a while. However, it is stripped from him by the god Apollo so his fate to be killed can be fulfilled. There is an awareness he has gone too far by ignoring Achilles's injunction of breaking off the fight and returning to the ships after chasing the Trojans from the ships and ending the threat to the Achaeans. Patroclus is Achilles's friend, trusted adviser, and a good warrior, but he cannot match Achilles in battle and should not press his luck so far against Hector. Hector then takes possession of Achilles's armor, putting it on immediately in a fit of pride. Zeus says in Book 17 he has taken it "against all rights" and foretells his death, foreshadowing that the armor will play a significant role in it. It is still extraordinary armor and protects him from a spear thrust to the chest in Book 17. But when Hector duels with Achilles in Book 24, the armor indeed contributes to his death. Because Achilles knows the armor well, he is easily able to find a weak spot to strike through.

Based on evidence in The Iliad, is it honorable for Hector to run away from Achilles in Book 22?

Running from a fight is generally considered dishonorable in the Greek concept of honor described in The Iliad. In Book 17 Glaucus rebukes Hector for running from the battle over Sarpedon's corpse: "That empty glory of yours a runner's glory,/a scurrying girl's at that." However, Homer doesn't do much to condemn Hector's flight in Book 22. The only hint of dishonor is an epic simile comparing Achilles's pursuit of Hector to a hawk plunging toward a "cringing dove." Hector and Achilles running are compared to a footrace, a component of the games that allowed men to gain prizes and honor in peacetime. Zeus displays the most sympathy for Hector as he is running away from Achilles. He suggests to the other gods that Hector be saved, and then the poet increases the gravity of the race by emphasizing the seriousness of the stakes—Hector's life. By the code of honor described elsewhere, running away is dishonorable, but in this particular instance Hector does not seem significantly diminished by it.

In The Iliad, how do the disputes about prizes in Book 23 relate to Achilles's and Agamemnon's conflict?

Like Achilles's dispute with Agamemnon that begins in Book 1, the disputes over prizes in Book 23 have to do with the honor they convey to their recipients. Antilochus objects when Achilles tries to give his second-place prize away as a consolation, not wanting to lose the honor of the designated prize. When Menelaus accuses him of cheating, Antilochus gives him his second-place prize to soothe his wounded sense of honor. Menelaus demonstrates honor by generously giving the second-place prize back to Antilochus. The conflict between Menelaus and Antilochus demonstrates honor in seeing another person's point of view and yielding rather than claiming a prize, which is an example both Achilles and Agamemnon could have benefited from in their dispute.

In Book 24 of The Iliad, what purpose do the jars of sorrows and blessings serve?

In Book 24 Achilles describes two jars, one containing sorrows and the other blessings, which Zeus pulls from and mixes together to make mortals's fate. This concept provides a divine explanation for questions that still plague people today: Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do bad people sometimes get away without punishment? Without some sort of divine will, these events can only be seen as random and without purpose, a concept that humans then and now have a lot of trouble with. The idea that a divinity doles out good or bad events as part of a larger pattern or purpose tends to provide some comfort, which is essentially what Achilles is trying to do in his conversation with Priam.

How do Zeus's scales represent fate in The Iliad?

Zeus uses his golden scales to weigh fate twice in The Iliad. In Book 8 he weighs the fates of the two armies, the Trojans and the Achaeans, and the Achaeans lose. In Book 22 Zeus weighs the fates of Achilles and Hector before they fight, and the scales dip for Hector, indicating he is fated to die. Zeus has already foretold what will happen in both cases—the Achaean army will lose until Achilles returns to the fighting, and Achilles will kill Hector. The scales seem less a method of determining fate than a formal declaration of what has already been decided. However, the use of scales is highly symbolic, giving an intangible like fate a physical weight that drags at the emotions of the audience. They also lend objectivity and finality to the proceedings because weighing objects on a set of scales provides an accurate and indisputable comparison.

In The Iliad, what roles do women play, and how do they affect the story?

Reflecting the culture of ancient Greece, women are generally less powerful than men and are usually subservient to them. The goddesses have their own powers and distinct personalities, which shape the course of the war and the story. They can be quite powerful—Athena proves that she is more powerful than the male god of war, Ares, by wounding him twice, and Hera temporarily overpowers the greatest god, Zeus, in her own way. However, even these goddesses must submit to Zeus's threats of force. The mortal women in the poem have no effect on the plot of the story and mainly serve to illuminate aspects of the male characters. Helen is the most complex mortal female character, displaying self-awareness and remorse, but she must still bow to Aphrodite's and Paris's desires. Mortal women have little power of their own. Even Queen Hecuba simply carries out her son's and husband's wishes. Women like Briseis who are seized as prizes in war have no power, becoming the property of the men who claim them and having essentially no more function than objects in the story.

In The Iliad, what is Homer's view of Achilles's anger?

"Rage" is the first word in the poem, and the remainder of the first sentence expresses the poet's view: Achilles's anger is "murderous" and "doomed," costing the Achaean army many losses. Achilles's rage drives the story, first keeping him out of the fighting and then driving him into battle to seek vengeance. It divorces him from his humanity, making him both more and less than human. It is not until he finally moves past his anger, at least temporarily, to reconnect with his humanity by sympathizing with an enemy that the conflict is resolved and the story can end. Yet Achilles's anger is also a part of his strength and power. It fuels his almost superhuman exploits in battle, which increases his glory and honor. Like war, anger is terrible and destructive, but it is also a part of human nature and of how ancient Greeks perceived the gods. Although Achilles might wish strife and anger could "die from the lives of gods and men," it is an unavoidable part of life.

In what ways, if any, do the gods in The Iliad display honor?

For the most part, the gods do not seem to subscribe to the same code of honor that is so important to the mortals in the poem. Thetis claims to be dishonored along with Achilles in Book 1, but it has no impact on how she acts or is treated by the other gods. The gods are not loyal to any particular faction in the war; instead each follows his or her own whims. They also do not act particularly honorably in conflict, tricking and squabbling with one another and running away when they get hurt. Hera, Athena, and Poseidon are set against Troy because of personal insults to them rather than from any particular loyalty or sense of honor. Zeus is a bit more steadfast, favoring Troy because its people have made him the most sacrifices, and he honors his word once given, but he is also an extremely unfaithful husband. With extraordinary powers and immortality, the gods have little to risk in their conflicts, which makes the concept of honor of little importance to them. It appears that only with the condition of mortality do the the concepts of honor, valor, and heroism have any meaning.

How is the concept of fate different in The Iliad than it is in Virgil's The Aeneid?

In The Aeneid, the fate of a country or character, especially Aeneas, is fixed and cannot be changed. He is unsuccessful at building new cities in Thrace and Crete and he cannot stay in Carthage because his fate is to settle in Italy. Fate is also described in The Aeneid as being personified in the three goddesses known as the Fates. In The Iliad, the concept of fate and the fate of mortals are much less defined. There are no specific goddesses that determine it; instead it seems to come about through choices made by mortals and the gods. Zeus's scales indicate the fate of the Achaean army in the first half of the poem, but it is actually his promise to Thetis that determines the outcome of that day's battle. There are many indications that the fates of characters can be changed through the actions of the gods, or even occasionally by the actions of mortals. Achilles's dual fates, which are the most defined in The Iliad, give him a choice. Even though fate usually proves inescapable, such as for Hector, there is a sense that there were points at which he could have changed his fate, at least for a little while.

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