Homer’s Iliad is great for the Halloween season. I’ve been reading it, and I’m trying to finish so I can start on some easy, stress-relieving scary stories as summer ends, but I’m realizing now just how appropriate this ancient epic poem is for the new season.
I’m in Book 15 out of 24, and several recent passages have struck me with their grim, vivid obsession with the morbid.
As Book 12 ends, the Trojans are invading the Greek headquarters, Hector urging them on:
They rushed to obey him,
Some swarming over the top at once, others streaming in
Through the sturdy gateways—Argives scattering back in terror,
Back by the hollow hulls, the uproar rising, no way out, no end—
To me, that conjures the kind of claustrophobic panic in the air felt in the Mines of Moria episode in The Fellowship of the Ring.
But far more graphic horrors appear in the battles that follow. Lines 655-666 of Book 13 describe the painful, gruesome death of Adamus at the hand of Meriones:
And back he shrank to his cohorts, dodging death
But hounding him as he went Meriones speared him
Between the genitals and the navel—hideous wound,
The worst the god of battles deals to wretched men.
There the spear stuck. Hugging the shaft he writhed,
Gasping, shuddering like some wild bull in the hills
That herdsman shackle, trapping the beast with twisted ropes
And he fights them all the way as the men drag him off—
So he gasped with his wound. A little, not for long.
Till the hero Meriones moved in where he sprawled,
Wrenched the spear from his corpse
And the dark came swirling down across his eyes.
Wow. That’s pretty awful. This excerpt shows a few big things I’ve noticed in the Iliad, though: a frank emphasis on the dehumanizing brutality of violent death, a penchant for animal similes to illustrate that violence, and the idiomatic phrase “and the dark came swirling down across his eyes,” which the Iliad uses to note death just as often as similar idioms like “the rosy-fingered dawn” or “the wine-dark sea” often describe the setting.
Book 14 ends with another spear doing shockingly bloody work. Lines 572-586:
Peneleos stabbed at Ilioneus instead,
A son of the herdsman Phorbas rich in flocks,
Hermes’ favorite Trojan: Hermes gave him wealth
But Ilioneus’ mother gave him just one son…
The one Peneleos lanced beneath the brows,
Down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out—
The spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape
And backward he sat, both hands stretched wide
As Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword,
Hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head
And down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all.
But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye socket—
Hoisting the head high like a poppy-head on the shaft
He flourished it in the eyes of all the Trojans now,
Yelling out his boast:
And here follows some rather macho trash talk. You get the idea. However, one tempering sentiment is well displayed here: the habit the narrator has of giving loving, tender background about the fallen fighters’ families. That’s all over the Iliad.
Gruesome butchery with a moral bent? Stephen King has nothing on Homer.
[NOTE: I’m reading the Robert Fagles translation. Here’s an interesting list of all the deaths in the Iliad.]