Study Guide

The Iliad Compassion and Forgiveness

By Homer

Compassion and Forgiveness

Book 6

Now as he came back the king spun another entangling
treachery; for choosing the bravest men in wide Lykia
he laid a trap, but these men never came home thereafter
since all of them were killed by blameless Bellerophontes.
Then when the king knew him for the powerful stock of the god,
he detained him there, and offered him the hand of his daughter,
and gave him half of all the kingly privilege. (6.188-193)

Okay, so you might argue that this is less a case of compassion or forgiveness than of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." This wouldn't be wrong.

On the other hand, it is true that, oftentimes, forgiveness comes about when you see another side of someone that you hadn't seen before – as, in this case, the king of Lykia sees that Bellerophontes is going to make easy work of any trap he sets for him. Also, you have to think about this from Bellerophontes's perspective. He could have easily said, "Forget you, I'm not marrying your daughter, not after all the times you tried to kill me." (Admittedly, his own family tried to kill him, so he doesn't have that many places to turn.) The fact that he's willing to become a member of the Lykian king's household shows that he, too, is willing to let bygones be bygones.

Book 9
Aias

(Aias:)
'[…] a man takes from his brother's slayer
the blood price, or the price for a child who was killed, and the guilty
one, when he has largely repaid, stays still in the country,
and the injured man's heart is curbed, and his pride, and his anger
when he has taken the price; but the gods put in your breast a spirit
not to be placated, bad, for the sake of one single
girl.' ( 9.632-638)

In these lines, Aias reminds Achilleus of the traditional ways in which people put aside their differences and learn to forgive. He cannot understand why Achilleus persists in being so hard-hearted, and encourages him to have a bit more sympathy with the other Achaeans. Unfortunately, things are bound to get worse before they get better.

Book 11

"Take us alive, son of Atreus, and take appropriate ransom. […]"
Thus these two cried out upon the king, lamenting
and in pitiful phrase, but they heard the voice that was without pity:
"If in truth you are the sons of wise Antimachos,
that man who once among the Trojans assembled advised them
that Menelaos, who came as envoy with godlike Odysseus,
should be murdered on the spot nor let go back to the Achaians,
so now your mutilation shall punish the shame of your father." (11.131, 136-142)

This incident, like so many in the book, shows the breakdown or failure of compassion. Why do you think Agamemnon acts the way he does? What does that make you think of him?

Book 19
Achilleus

(Achilleus:)
"Still, we will let all this be a thing of the past, though it hurts us,
and beat down by constraint the anger that rises inside us.
Now I am making an end of my anger. It does not become me
unrelentingly to rage on." (19.65-68)

With these words, Achilleus makes his peace with Agamemnon. But do you think he really forgives him, or is it just that now an even bigger hatred (against Hektor) has distracted him?

Book 21
Achilleus

(Achilleus:)
Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it.
In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny
then it was the way of my heart's choice to be sparing
of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them.
Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send
him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one
of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam.
So, friend, you die also. Why all this clamour about it?
Patroklos also is dead, who was better by far than you are.
Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid
and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal?
Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny,
and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime
when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also
either with a spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring. (21.99-113)

This famous passage throws a wrench in the machinery of the theme of compassion. On the one hand, it seems to be a classic example of the failure of compassion: after all, Achilleus is saying that nobody can offer him anything that will make him stop killing as many Trojans as he can. On the other hand, he does put himself in Lykaon's shoes, so to speak, when he imagines that one day he, too, will be violently killed. What do you make of this ambiguity?

Book 22
Achilleus

(Achilleus:)
Hektor, argue me no agreements. I cannot forgive you.
As there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions,
nor wolves and lambs have spirit that can be brought to agreement
but forever these hold feelings of hate for each other,
so there can be no love between you and me, nor shall there be
oaths between us, but one or the other must fall before then
to glut with his blood Ares the god who fights under the shield's guard. (22.261-267)

Throughout history, nothing has prevented compassion so often as the belief that one's enemy isn't even a member of the same species. This is what Achilleus is getting at when he compares their situation to a fight between a man and a lion, or a lamb and a wolf – except that he, of course, wants to keep it that way. What do you think Homer wants us to think about Achilleus at this moment?

Book 23
Menelaos

(Menelaos:)
Antilochos,
I myself, who was angry, now will give way before you,
since you were not formerly loose-minded or vain. It is only
that this time your youth got the better of your intelligence.
Beware another time of playing tricks on your betters. (23.601-605)

In this scene, Homer depicts a conflict getting defused before it gets out of hand. (To see the context, read Book 23, or check out our summary.) There are two interesting ingredients in this reconciliation (though you can probably find others). The first is understanding: Menelaos forgives Antilochos because he was young once too, and knows what that's like. The second is reciprocity, or, if you prefer, the idea that respect is a two-way street. Menelaos is going to let Antilochos off easy this time, but he expects him to smarten up in the future.

The son of Atreus rose, wide-powerful Agamemnon,
and Meriones rose up, Idomeneus' powerful henchman.
But now among them spoke swift-footed brilliant Achilleus:
"Son of Atreus, for we know how much you surpass all others,
by how much you are the greatest for strength among the spear-throwers,
therefore take this prize and keep it and go back to your hollow
ships […]." (23.887-893)

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. What could be a truer sign of the reconciliation between Achilleus and Agamemnon than Achilleus admitting Agamemnon's skill at spear-throwing?

Book 24

(Hekabe:)
How can you wish to go alone to the ships of the Achaians
before the eyes of a man who has slaughtered in such numbers
such brave sons of yours? The heart in you is iron. For if
he has you within his grasp and lays eyes upon you, that man
who is savage and not to be trusted will not take pity upon you
nor have respect for your rights. […]

I wish I could set teeth
in the middle of his liver and eat it. That would be vengeance
for what he did to my son. (24.203-208, 212-214)

Another great enemy of compassion is mistrust. In this case, Priam's wife (and Hektor's mother), Hekabe, tries to convince him not to go ask Achilleus for the body back, thinking he will just kill him. (And who could blame her, given what Achilleus has already done?) Because she is so full of mistrust, the only thing she can think of is vengeance – expressed with a savagery that so far we have only seen associated with Achilleus.

So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving
for his own father. He took the old man's hand and pushed him
gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled
at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor
and Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again
for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house. Then
when great Achilleus had taken full satisfaction in sorrow
and the passion for it had gone from his mind and body, thereafter
he rose from his chair, and took the old man by the hand, and set him
on his feet again, in pity for the grey head and the grey beard,
and spoke to him and addressed him in winged words: "Ah, unlucky,
surely you have had much evil to endure in your spirit." (24.508-518)

The climax of the Iliad is this moment of shared feeling between two enemies. What do you make of the way in which this scene progresses – from each thinking of his own lost loved-ones, to Achilles thinking about the suffering of Priam?

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