Study Guide

The Iliad Themes

  • Fate and Free Will

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    From the very beginning of the Iliad, when the poet asks the Muse to reveal how "the will of Zeus was accomplished," we know that the events we are witnessing have Fate's fingerprints all over them.

    Time and again, we are reminded how it is impossible to escape one's fate; to some characters, this thought is comforting. That said, just because everything is fated doesn't mean there isn't any freedom. Achilleus, for example, has a double fate: if he goes home, he will live long without glory. If he stays at Troy, he will have lots of glory, but a short life. So he has a choice.

    Also, it is important to recognize that the gods don't control fate; there are times when they consider acting against it. Usually, though, they think it's best to do what fate says... just to make sure things don't get out of hand.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Some characters, like Achilleus, know their own fate, while others, like Hektor, do not. Do you think that the Iliad portrays knowing your fate as an advantage?
    2. Often, characters in the Iliad make decisions because a god gives them the idea (for example, when Achilleus decides not to kill Agamemnon, or when he agrees to give Hektor's body back to Priam). Do you think this means they should get less credit for their decisions?
    3. The gods are portrayed as acting in accordance with fate even when they don't necessarily have to. Why do you think it is important for the gods to follow fate?

    Chew on This

    Even though Achilleus is able to choose his life's path, he still does not have complete freedom of will.

    Gods and mortals are equally free to disobey fate. The difference is that gods know what it is they're disobeying.

  • Pride

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    In the warrior society of the Iliad, pride is what makes the world go round. Nearly all of the book's male characters are motivated in some way by considerations of their social standing. (Some possible exceptions are Patroklos, who rises to the defense of the Achaians out of a sense of compassion, and Priam, who acts out of love for his son.)

    Often, pride is depicted as a destructive force, as when it leads to the conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon, or when it causes Hektor to disregard the advice of Poulydamas and keep the Trojans camped on the plain. On the other hand, pride is shown as having some benefits. In battle, warriors are often reminded of their reputations to make them fight harder, thereby saving their own lives and those of their comrades.

    Questions About Pride

    1. In Book 1, Agamemnon tries to discredit Achilleus's skill as a warrior, saying that it's only because a god helped him. Why do some characters take pride in their actions, even if they've received divine help?
    2. When Achilleus reacts against Agamemnon taking Briseis, do you think it is more because he loves her or because his pride has been hurt?
    3. Who is a greater victim of pride, Achilleus or Hektor?

    Chew on This

    The Iliad portrays pride as an essential ingredient in life – but only in moderation.

    Female characters in the Iliad seem less influenced by pride than male characters.

  • Mortality

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    The Iliad doesn't pull any punches in its portrayal of mortality. Not only is death in battle depicted as extremely painful and gruesome, there isn't any rosy afterlife to look forward to. In fact, in Book 20, Hades, god of the underworld, is terrified that Poseidon will crack open a hole in the earth, and then everyone will see how gross it is down there.

    Most of the time, though, death is described simply as a cloud of darkness that comes down over one's eyes. Because nobody looks forward to anything after death, they all try to get on with their lives – which usually means having as much fun and winning as much glory as possible. None of this applies to the gods, of course, who are immortal. They pretty much party all the time.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. If the afterlife is so lousy, why do warriors in the Iliad keep risking their necks?
    2. Why do the immortal gods care so much about what goes on with mortals?
    3. How does Achilleus's treatment of Hektor reflect his frustration with mortality?

    Chew on This

    Even though Achilleus tells his mother he wishes he hadn't been born, the Iliad as a whole suggests that life is worth living.

    The frivolous nature of the gods' existence suggests that mortality has its benefits.

  • Competition

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    If reputation and pride is what every warrior is after, then competition is the way to get the goods. People in the Iliad compete in just about everything. Excelling on the battlefield is the most obvious way to get street cred, followed by success in athletics. But people also compete over things like speaking ability, prizes, and, of course, political authority.

    One of the few times in the Iliad that someone wishes that someone else was better than them is when Hektor prays that his son will grow up to be a better warrior than him. On the one hand, this brings out Hektor's identity as a family man; on the other hand, it could just mean that he wants to be able to boast about having a better son than anyone else.

    Questions About Competition

    1. Which form of competition does the Iliad portray as most important?
    2. In the world of the Iliad, is it important for competition to be fair?
    3. Does the Iliad suggest that success comes more from strength, skill, luck, or divine aid?

    Chew on This

    It is impossible to imagine the society of the Iliad without competition.

    The Iliad shows respect for characters who succeed in one field even if they fail in others.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

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    For most of the Iliad, we see less compassion and forgiveness than their opposites. For example, when Achilleus rejects the gifts Agamemnon is offering him to come back to the battle, he both refuses to forgive Agamemnon and displays no compassion for his fellow Achaians, who are getting slaughtered by the Trojans. Things get even worse later on, when we see him killing guys who are trying to surrender.

    But just because we don't see any compassion and forgiveness doesn't mean that the theme isn't there. You could even say that these ideas become all the more important the more we see them violated. If you don't believe us, take a look at the end of the poem, when all of a sudden we get tons of compassion and forgiveness, almost as if that's what the story's been waiting for.

    Coincidence? You be the judge.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Who is the most compassionate character in the Iliad?
    2. In the Iliad, who are more compassionate, mortals or gods?
    3. Does the Iliad suggest that compassion and forgiveness necessarily go hand-in-hand?

    Chew on This

    Compassion and forgiveness are the most important themes in the Iliad.

    Anger is the main obstacle to compassion and forgiveness in the Iliad.

  • Friendship

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    Friendship is an important motivation for many characters in the Iliad; at times, it can make them act in ways that you wouldn't expect, given their other loyalties. For example, when the Trojan Glaukos and the Achaian Diomedes discover that their ancestors were bound by ties of "guest-friendship" or xenia, they decide that they can't kill each other. Instead, they exchange armor.

    Similarly, Achilleus's extremely powerful friendship (some would say love) for Patroklos makes him forget his rage at Agamemnon and join the battle on the Achaian side. Depictions of non-romantic friendship between members of the opposite sex (Patroklos and Briseis, and arguably Hektor and Helen) round out the Iliad's nuanced portrayal of this important human emotion.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Which type of friendship does the Iliad portray as more important: ritual friendship (like that between Glaukos and Diomedes) or informal friendship (like that between Achilleus and Patroklos)?
    2. Are there any characters in the Iliad who love each other but aren't friends (i.e., they love each other, but dislike each other)?
    3. In Book 10, we see evidence of the friendship between Athene and Odysseus that is so important in Homer's Odyssey. Does the Iliad depict any other instances of friendship between gods and mortals?

    Chew on This

    The Iliad portrays friendship as an especially enduring connection.

    Friendship is less important in the Iliad than anger and pride.

  • Love

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    Part of what gives the Iliad its deep humanity is its sensitive portrayal of love in a variety of forms. Some of the most touching moments in the poem come between Hektor and his wife Andromache, which reveal not only the love of the spouses for one another, but also their parental love for their child.

    Parental love is also important in motivating Priam to ask for the return of the body of Hektor at the end of the book. Sexual love is portrayed as an incredibly powerful force that takes away people's ability to think. This can be seen in Hera's seduction of Zeus.

    Perhaps surprisingly for a modern audience, this type of love is sometimes portrayed as a destructive force, as when Helen criticizes the goddess Aphrodite for making her run off with Paris, which caused so many problems.

    Questions About Love

    1. How would you characterize the role in the Iliad of Aphrodite, the goddess of love?
    2. Who is the most loving character in the Iliad?
    3. In the Iliad, which is more powerful: love or hate?

    Chew on This

    In the Iliad, love is often a cause of violence and hatred.

    In the Iliad, some kinds of love are seen as fickle, but love within families is not.

  • Hate

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    In the world of the Iliad, hate is viewed as such a powerful force that it even gets personified as a divinity. The goddess Hate (worst goddess ever) makes her appearance when Zeus sends her down to the battle at the beginning of Book 11; as soon as she appears, she makes the Achaians more eager for battle than to go home to their families.

    What makes hate so frightening is that people seem to enjoy being in the grip of it; in his hatred of Agamemnon, Achilleus feels that his anger is sweeter to him than honey. This same hate can inspire truly fearsome acts, such as Achilleus's behavior towards Hektor towards the book's end. And yet, as the poem's closing scenes show, hate is not unstoppable.

    Questions About Hate

    1. What is the effect on the poem of having Hate personified as a goddess?
    2. Why does Achilleus argue that hate can make anger sweeter than honey?
    3. To what extent are Achilleus's actions motivated by self-hatred?

    Chew on This

    In the Iliad, hate arises from personal causes more than political or national ones.

    Unlike love or pride, which can have good sides and bad sides, the Iliad portrays hate as an entirely negative emotion.

  • Warfare

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    Over the years, some scholars and critics have described the Iliad as the first piece of anti-war literature. This is true in some respects, though ultimately misleading. It is true in that the Iliad portrays war in a completely unvarnished way. Simply put, its battle scenes are disgusting and brutal.

    The Iliad leaves little doubt that the capture of Troy will result in widespread murder, theft, and the enslavement of its women and children. At the same time, however, it portrays war as an almost inevitable part of human life – this can be seen in the description of the Shield of Achilleus, which has been interpreted as a total picture of the world. In this way, the Iliad's portrayal of war is similar to its portrayal of mortality: it stinks, but there's no way around it.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Which does the Iliad portray as most important to success in warfare: individual bravery or collective action?
    2. Is it fair to describe the Iliad as an anti-war work?
    3. Does the Iliad take a positive or a negative view of military glory?

    Chew on This

    The Iliad views war as an inevitable part of human life.

    The Iliad views the burden of war as mainly borne by non-combatants.

  • Religion

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    In the world of the Iliad, gods and goddesses are a daily presence in people's lives. In fact, many of the book's characters are either children of divinities and mortals – like Achilleus, Aineias, Sarpedon, and Helen – or descended from gods a few generations back – like Tlepolemos. (No one with any mortal blood inherits immortality, however.)

    The form of worship that this gives rise to is usually less about following a code of morality than about maintaining contracts: the mortals honor the gods with sacrifices, but they expect favors in return. That said, the gods do preserve certain basic standards of human conduct, such as hospitality, the keeping of oaths, and the proper treatment of the dead.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Does the Iliad portray the gods in a favorable or unfavorable light?
    2. How would the story of the Iliad be different if the gods were not involved?
    3. Some scholars have argued that the gods in the Iliad are metaphors for the processes of thought (e.g. Athene stopping Achilleus from killing Agamemnon is a metaphor for Achilleus's better judgment). Can this be true, and, if so, to what extent?

    Chew on This

    In the Iliad, honoring the gods pays off more often than not.

    In the Iliad, the gods usually provide comic relief.