Masculine Men in a Masculine Time: Lessons From The Iliad Part 1
The Iliad by Homer is easily one of the most famous stories in the western hemisphere. The Iliad demonstrates so many concepts so well; concepts like honor, valor, and a morality unlike our western morals yet is instantly relatable.
The story was made for Hollywood most recently in the film Troy, starring Brad Pitt.
In a nutshell, The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War. This decade long war started when a coalition of Greeks, called Achaeans, left to invade the city of Troy and its surrounding areas. They do this because Paris, a Trojan prince, steals Helen of Troy from her husband Menelaus. Agamemnon, Menelaus’ older brother, assembles rulers from all over Greece to bring men and attack the Trojans. They do this to retrieve Helen and for other spoils of war.
There are many characters in The Iliad so only some of the most important will be introduced here.
From the Achaeans:
Agamemnon: King of Mycenae and leader of Achaean forces
Achilles: The greatest warrior of the Greeks, half immortal, leader of the Myrmidons
Menelaus: King of Sparta, betrothed to the stolen Helen of Troy
Diomedes:King of Argos
Odysseus: King of Ithica
Nestor: King of Pylos
From the Trojans:
Hector: Prince of Troy, Troy’s fiercest warrior and general
Paris: younger brother of Hector, steals Helen away to Troy, archer, coward
Helen: In some tales she has divine blood which makes her the most beautiful woman in all Greece and Troy
Aeneas: Aphrodite is his mother, becomes the subjuct of The Aeneid [insert affiliate link]
There are many more characters but these are the most famous and important. One of the strengths of the story is the sheer number of characters and their histories.
Honor is a very hard concept for modern westerners to comprehend. It has become synonymous with integrity, but it has its own meaning. Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness has a great series of articles on honor that can be found here. The articles have also been compiled in to a book which can be found here.
In so many words, honor is one’s reputation for living up to an honor code. The code is culturally defined and different everywhere. In The Iliad the honor code emphasizes valor, bravery on the battlefield, and never-ending energy. So many characters call on their men to remember their honor when they are weary of battle. This inspires them to fight harder.
When a man’s honor (which almost always has a different honor code than women) is challenged men have historically across the globe met the challenge with hostility. When a man’s honorable reputation is questioned it leaves him open to appearing weak. Men conceived as weak are vulnerable to attacks from the strong, who consider the weak low-risk prey. This is why it’s so important to meet challenges to one’s honor with direct displays of strength.
Very clear examples of this can be found in Napoleon Chagnon’s writings on the Yanomamo of the Amazon rainforest. Chagnon details many stories of men who get in fights (with both fists and weapons) when their honor is challenged in order to display their strengths and avoid appearing weak. He also tells of entire villages where the men are perceived as weak and because of this perception their enemies kill them without any provocation.
There is an important plot point in The Iliad when Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, demands a girl from Achilles that he has taken as spoils from a battle he won. This is an insult to Achilles’ honor. Achilles can’t kill Amamemnon, though he wants to, so he withdraws his men from the fight.
This was a huge mistake on Agamemnon’s part. Achilles’ divine mother sees the insult and influences the gods to aid the Trojans.
Studies of honor between the Dutch and Mediterranean peoples show that Western Europeans just don’t care about honor much. Why?
I don’t know. Perhaps people aren’t willing to defend their honor because the consequences of being arrested on assault charges are too great. Our society does not encourage displays of strength. Police actively try to suppress them (but revel in their own displays of strength backed by the legal system).
Perhaps things are different in the Mediterranean. I’ve never been there. But defending one’s honor tells opportunists to turn away from you. That’s enough incentive to defend one’s honor when other’s challenge it.
Helen is a Damsel in Distress
Damsels in distress are such a universal archetype that it makes our modern stories of kick-ass women look embarrassing by comparison.
Helen, is the ultimate damsel, though her distress is a bit more subtle and complex. Because of her supreme beauty she is wanted by all men. The story of how she is taken to Troy is unclear. Some say she was seduced by Paris and chose to leave. Others say she was seduced by Paris with the aid of Aphrodite. Some say Paris kidnapped her.
Prior to the kidnapping several Greek kings fought over her. Eventually they agreed to let her choose. She chose Menelaus.
The sheer amount of kings, who could have the most beautiful women in their own lands, who fought over Helen emphasizes the hard lives of pre-modern women. They were prizes, the rewards for success in disputes. Helen was the biggest reward.
The first time Helen was taken was when she was fifteen. She was recovered by her brothers. Kings fought for her hand in marriage. By the time Paris took her, whether by force or of her free will, she was used to being the prize.
She didn’t resist much inside Troy, not that she could. Helen was said to have given Paris three children all of which died in infancy. When Paris was killed she was forced to marry his brother. Later when the Achaeans won the war she returned to Sparta with Menelaus and lived happily.
The Iliad doesn’t tell much about Helen’s feelings, but it’s fair to say she wasn’t a nationalist who loved her people. She chose to live as comfortable a life as she could. Beautiful women in danger of being taken away can only be expected to want to live comfortably. Helen was just another example of that.
There is much more to learn from The Iliad. We’ll continue with those lessons next week.