Themes in Iliad

Mortality vs. Immortality: The painful awareness of mortality is an undercurrent in almost every character’s actions in the Iliad. The ancient Greek value kleos (glory won through great deeds, often in battle) is closely linked to this theme of mortality in that it is the greatest motivator for Greek heroes. Heroes are not immortal like the gods, as evidenced by the brutal battle scenes throughout the text, and the only way to become immortal is through honorable deeds and prowess on the battlefield, which immortalize a hero's name. We also see immortal beings descending from Olympus to fight in the battles of mortals and being wounded, which seems to suggest even the gods aren’t truly immortal and are subject to the influence of fate and prophecy.

Glory/Honor vs. Shame: How the characters in the Iliad achieve glory in battle hints at the idea that the text itself celebrates war. The Iliad seems to assert that the only way to achieve glory and be honorable (achieving kleos) is through success in battle, which readers can see through the Iliad’s treatment of its characters. We see Achilles celebrated for choosing to kill Hector and avenge Patroclus rather than return home to live with his father. Paris brings shame upon himself and earns the scorn of his family and his lover because he doesn’t care for battle. This need for glory surpasses even the Greek value of oikos, or the contract of the home. Hector and Achilles both know they are fated to die before riding into battle, yet they still choose to pursue the path of glory—and are celebrated for it—because they value kleos over their own lives, even if it means abandoning loved ones.

Fate and Divine Intervention vs. Free Will: The tension between fate, free will, and divine intervention is present throughout the Iliad. In the very opening paragraph, the line “so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled” reveals the powerful influence Zeus’s will holds over the entirety of the story, and the other gods’ meddling allows many characters to escape their predestined fates. From this we see that the gods do not control fate, but are able to act against it (though not without consequence). We also see prophecies fulfilled in the events of the story, and countless men fall at the hands of fate. Free will is not completely irrelevant, however; Achilles is given a choice. He can go home and live a full life without glory, or enter battle and win both glory and an early death. This is called a double fate and is significant because it is rare in myth.

Themes Examples in Iliad:

Book I 2

"the anger of Achilles..."   (Book I)

Achilles's anger at Agamemnon is the main conflict in the poem and provides the framework for the events to come. Achilles's wounded pride is what keeps him in a rage, but it also makes him refuse to fight, leading to terrible consequences for the rest of the Achaean army. Achilles embodies one of the main themes of in the Iliad: the foolish and self-destructive nature of pride.

"SING, O GODDESS, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus..."   (Book I)

Homer begins his Iliad by bidding his Muse to sing of the wrath of Achilles and how his anger has done much more harm to the Greeks than the war with the Trojans over the abducted Helen. With this first line, Homer establishes one of the main themes in the Iliad: the implications and consequences of one’s pride. Achilles himself embodies this theme, for his anger at Agamemnon has made him refuse to fight, which has severely harmed the Achaean army.

"my abhorred and miserable self...."   (Book III)

Helen feels guilty because she is the cause of the Trojan War. However, her actions were not entirely her own. She was promised to Paris by the goddess Venus (in Greek, Aphrodite) after he judged her the fairest among goddesses Hera, Athena, and herself. Although Helen willingly went with Paris and continues to stay with him, it is questionable whether she really had the free will to make either decision. The paradox of free will existing in a world controlled and predetermined by the gods is explored frequently in the Iliad.

"his bowels came gushing out..."   (Book IV)

The Iliad contains numerous graphic descriptions of extremely grotesque deaths. Such descriptions realistically illuminate the horror and brutality of war which contrast with the poem’s glorification of battle. This contrast reveals the duality of war, both as an instrument of death and means of winning glory and fame.

"if a man's hour is come, be he brave or be he coward, there is no escape for him when he has once been born..."   (Book VI)

This statement is a reference to the Greek idea that no human being can avoid fate and that all lives are predetermined from birth. Hector and Achilles both know their fate before they go to war, but they are still allowed to exercise their own free will, creating significant conflict in the plot of the story.

"I know nothing save to fight bravely in the forefront of the Trojan host and win renown alike for my father and myself..."   (Book VI)

This statement illuminates an important theme in the Iliad; the idea that glory and bravery in battle are more important than one's own life. Here Hector states that he must go to battle regardless of whether or not he wishes to because he cannot lead people who think he is a coward. Glory in battle is what won Greek heroes respect, regardless of the content of their character.

"They fought with might and main, but were reconciled and parted in friendship...."   (Book VII)

This exchange between Hector and Ajax supports another theme in the Iliad, which is mutual respect and dignity, even among enemies. This Greek value was thought to be of great importance and was held in great contempt when broken.

"you can shatter their wall and fling it into the sea; you can cover the beach with sand again, and the great wall of the Achaeans will then be utterly effaced...."   (Book VII)

This passage supports the idea that all human lives and works are impermanent and can be destroyed by the gods at any moment. Notice Poseidon takes offense when the Achaeans erect a wall without giving proper sacrifice to the gods. Zeus talks him out of taking retribution against the army because every man knows he has the power to destroy the wall, even if he chooses not to. This passage also shows how easily the gods may choose to take offense and seek vengeance against mortals.

"Even now, however, be appeased, and put away your anger from you..."   (Book IX)

As the war progresses, the Achaeans realize that they need Achilles if they have any hope of defeating the Trojans. Odysseus (Ulysses) is sent to make an appeal to Achilles. Knowing that Achilles is prideful, Odysseus appeals to this characteristic, telling him that regaining the Achaeans respect means putting away his wrath for Agamemnon and returning to the conflict. Note how Odysseus carefully accuses Achilles of intentionally forgetting his own father's warning about checking his temper and avoiding vain quarreling.

"If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me...."   (Book IX)

In this passage, Achilles rejects Agamemnon's promises of material gifts. Instead, he ponders between choosing a short but glorious life or a long and contented life without fame. Whether he really has this choice is debatable, since it has already been foreshadowed that his life will be cut short. In any case, the passage stresses the theme that no amount of gifts or material possessions can substitute for either life or glory.

"“Be men, my friends,” he cried, “and respect one another's good opinion..."   (Book XV)

Notice this plea from Nestor is an almost exact repetition of Ajax’s plea in Book VIII, supporting the idea that repetition is a powerful motif in the Iliad. This particular passage also reflects the idea that speech can be an extremely strong rallying tool. During the story, whenever morale is low, a skillful orator is almost always able to bolster the troops with a powerful speech.

"Achilles will then send his comrade Patroclus into battle, and Hector will kill him in front of Ilius after he has slain many warriors, and among them my own noble son Sarpedon. Achilles will kill Hector to avenge Patroclus, and from that time I will bring it about that the Achaeans shall persistently drive the Trojans back till they fulfil the counsels of Minerva and take Ilius..."   (Book XV)

Here Jove lays out the plan for all the events to come. The Iliad is unique in that there is no real element of suspense or surprise for the audience or the characters. Each character’s fate is predetermined from the start, leaving the real element of drama in the way each acts or reacts despite already knowing what the ultimate outcome will be. All characters still attempts to make decisions and choices even though there isn’t much room for free will under the prophecies that hang over their individual lives.

"of all creatures that live and move upon the earth there is none so pitiable as he is..."   (Book XVII)

Here Homer hints that the human situation in the Iliad may be the most pitiable of all because among all animals, humans alone are aware of fate. Hector and Achilles seem to embody the theme that the knowledge of one’s fate and the lack of power to change it make life more miserable.

"Meanwhile the people were gathered..."   (Book XVIII)

The shield of Achilles is an important symbol in the Iliad. Although the entire poem so far has taken place on or around the battlefield, most of the scenes on the shield are of normal, everyday life during times of peace. The shield, symbolizing life beyond the battlefield, is a reminder that human life is made up of a range of ordinary experiences and that war is only one part of the whole of human existence.

"Thus did he speak, and the Achaeans rejoiced in that he had put away his anger...."   (Book XIX)

Grieving over the death of Patroclos and realizing what he quarrel with Agamemnon has cost him, Achilles finally decides to rejoin the war against the Trojans. Achilles was able to see his own grief in Priam, and this allowed his heart to soften enough to not only forgive Agamemnon, but also gain the strength to ensure he will earn honor for generations to come. Achilles has embodied the theme of wrath and pride throughout the tale, and now he eschews his wrath and gains strength in forgiveness and honor.

"he was uneasy lest the wall should not hold out and the Danaans should take the city then and there, before its hour had come..."   (Book XXI)

Throughout the poem, it has been made clear that no person or thing escapes fate—whatever is predestined to happen will happen, despite the gods’ interference. But here it is implied that Apollo believes there is a possibility that the Trojans may be defeated before the predestined time. Perhaps, then, free will does still hold some sway in the poem’s events.

"a pack of miserable mortals, who come out like leaves in summer and eat the fruit of the field, and presently fall lifeless to the ground...."   (Book XXI)

Apollo is referring to the Greek belief that humans are merely playthings for the gods and that all human life is fleeting and impermanent. Like decaying leaves, humans are not long-lived, and their deaths are fairly inconsequential to the gods.

"Oedipus..."   (Book XXIII)

Oedipus is a character from Greek mythology who was prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother. Despite his efforts to not fulfill the prophecy, he accidentally does so anyway. His tale is one that portrays the inescapability of fate despite an individual’s exercise of free will.

"The two wept bitterly—Priam, as he lay at Achilles' feet, weeping for Hector, and Achilles now for his father and now for Patroclus, till the house was filled with their lamentation..."   (Book XXIV)

Achilles returned to the battle to avenge the death of his best friend, Patroclos, who donned Achilles’s armor to fight Hector. However, having felt dishonored, Achilles has revenge on the Trojans in kind, dragging Hector’s body around the plains. When Priam appeals to Achilles’s sense of decency as a son, not a warrior, so Hector may be buried, Achilles finally make peace with his own internal struggle between pride and honor. His understanding of true honor is clarified, knowing that what one does after the battle is most important.