Study Guide

The Iliad Mortality

By Homer


Book 1

Thereafter beginning from the left he poured drinks for the other
gods, dipping up from the mixing bowl the sweet nectar.
But among the blessed immortals uncontrollable laughter
went up as they saw Hephaistos bustling about the palace.
Thus thereafter the whole day long until the sun went under
they feasted, nor was anyone's hunger denied a fair portion,
nor denied the beautifully wrought lyre in the hands of Apollo,
nor the antiphonal sweet sound of the Muses singing. (1.597-604)

This might not immediately seem like it has to do with the theme of mortality, but it is important to understand that much of what the Iliad says about mortals is meant to be contrasted with what it says about gods. The immortality of the gods is one of the most important things about them. In fact, as you can see here, they are sometimes referred to simply as "the immortals." Why do you think Homer would want to contrast the scene of Achilleus and Agamemnon's argument with this picture of divine celebration?

Book 4

Antilochos was first to kill a chief man of the Trojans,
valiant among the champions, Thalysias' son, Echepolos.
Throwing first, he struck the horn of the horse-haired helmet,
and the bronze spearpoint fixed in his forehead and drove inward
through the bone; and a mist of darkness clouded both eyes
and he fell as a tower falls in the strong encounter. (4.457-462)

This is the first of many, many scenes like it in the Iliad: someone is no sooner introduced – sometimes with a little bit of biographical information – than killed in gruesome fashion. Even though moments like this may seem repetitive and gross, they are important to the poem as a whole. Scenes like this remind us that death is not abstract: it strikes down real people, and it hurts.

Book 5

Meanwhile his brilliant companions laid godlike Sarpedon
under a lovely spreading oak of Zeus of the aegis,
and strong Pelagon, one of his beloved companions,
pushed perforce through and out of his thigh the shaft of the ash spear.
And the mist mantled over his eyes, and the life left him,
but he got his breath back again, and the blast of the north wind
blowing brought back to life the spirit gasped out in agony. (5.692-698)

Even though Sarpedon does not die in this scene, what happens to him shows the fine line between life and death. Have you ever heard that people say "Bless you" when you sneeze, because it used to be thought that sneezes were caused by the soul leaving the body? Sarpedon blacking out from pain is obviously much more serious than a sneeze, but Homer describes it in the same way: his life leaves him, and then comes back. Even today, many people who have had near-death experiences recall feeling as if they had floated out of their bodies.

Book 6

High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask of my generation?
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
dies (6.145-150)

Alright, so this is a pretty ridiculous answer to a simple question. All Diomedes wanted to know was who Glaukos's parents were. Did he really have to go that far? Let's say you get pulled over in your car – maybe one of your tail lights is out. The officer asks you for your name and registration. Are you really going to answer, "What does it matter who I am? We are like unto leaves: we appear and we fall"? Glaukos is being pretty bold here.

Book 7
The Gods

Come then! After once more the flowing-haired Achaians
are gone back with their ships to the beloved land of their fathers,
break their wall to pieces and scatter it into the salt sea
and pile again the beach deep under the sands and cover it;
so let the great wall of the Achaians go down to destruction. (7.459-463)

For thousands of years, one of humanity's surefire ways of trying to escape mortality has been to build lasting monuments as a way of preserving their memory for future generations. True, the Achaians built their wall more out of immediate necessity, but it would probably still make them mad to know how easily it got leveled. That said, the fact that we even know about this wall shows the power of the spoken and written word to outlast physical remains – Poseidon wasn't able to destroy the work of Homer! For an exploration of this power of language, check out Sonnets 55 and 65 by William Shakespeare.

Book 8

Oh if I only
could be as this in all my days immortal and ageless
and be held in honour as Athene and Apollo are honoured
as surely as this oncoming day brings evil to the Argives. (8.538-541)

It is a curious fact about the Iliad that, for all its focus on the theme of death, it rarely shows characters longing for immortality. This is one of the few times when this happens, and it is interesting that Hektor says it out of excitement – wanting the moment to last forever – instead of despair at a moment passing.

Book 9

Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.
We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.
A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much. (9.318-320)

Achilleus's attitude here is not unique in the Iliad. (Compare his remarks here with those of Hektor in Book 6, lines 488-489, quoted in the section on "Fate and Free Will.") What makes them distinctive is that they come from Achilleus. Do you think that this attitude is consistent with his character elsewhere in the Iliad? For a modern literary treatment of death as the great leveler, read W. B. Yeats's great poem "Cuchulain Comforted." (Cuchulainn, pronounced "Ka-HOO-lan," is a great hero of Celtic mythology.)

Book 20

Aïdoneus, lord of the dead below, was in terror
and sprang from his throne and screamed aloud, for fear that above him
he who circles the land, Poseidon, might break the earth open
and the houses of the dead lie open to men and immortals,
ghastly and mouldering, so the very gods shudder before them;
such was the crash that sounded as the gods came driving together
in wrath. (20.61-67)

One thing's for sure about the Homeric worldview: it doesn't paint a rosy picture of the afterlife. (You'll get an even better sense of this if you read the Odyssey, Book 11.) So much of our lives is spent wondering about what happens after death. Do you think you – or the heroes of the Iliad – would do things differently if you were able to get a sudden glimpse into the underworld? (Here's a hint, to make you even more curious to read that book of the Odyssey: in it, the ghost of Achilleus gives Odysseus a partial answer to this question.)

Book 23

The ghost came and stood over his head and spoke a word to him:
You sleep, Achilleus; you have forgotten me; but you were not
careless of me when I lived, but only in death. Bury me
as quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades.
The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at a distance,
and will not let me cross the river and mingle among them,
but I wander as I am by Hades' house of the wide gates.
And I call upon you in sorrow, give me your hand; no longer
shall I come back from death, once you give me my rite of burning. (23.68-76)

Do you believe in ghosts? If you don't, that's okay; bear in mind that Patroklos's ghost only appears in a dream – so it could all be Achilleus's imagination. Whichever way you interpret it, though, what the ghost of Patroklos says is very relevant to the way we think about mortality today.

Isn't Patroklos really asking for "closure," the same word we hear constantly these days on TV, the radio, in self-help books – basically anywhere people turn to get advice on dealing with grief? What do you think changes when, as here, these ideas are put in the mouth of a dead man, or (if you prefer) the image of a dead man?


Aged sir, if only, as the spirit is in your bosom,
so might your knees be also and the strength stay steady within you;
but age weakens you which comes to all; if only some other
of the fighters had your age and you were one of the young men! (4.313-316)

These words, spoken by Agamemnon to Nestor, bring home the universal fact of death. Even though, if you're lucky, you can escape death in battle, old age spares no one.

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