Memorial Day recognizes the sacrifices of the men and women of the U.S. military, who have served and protected this country. Today, we celebrate our everyday heroes — our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and next door neighbors who have given their lives in the name of freedom.
The notion of heroism is a popular theme in modern fiction. Some of the best literature is written on the backdrop of war — A Farewell to Arms, The Red Badge of Courage, A Tale of Two Cities, All Quiet Along the Western Front, Catch-22 and Gone with the Wind, just to name of few.
But the mother of all war epics was penned thousands of years ago — and it has set the standard ever since.
The Iliad by Homer was one of the first literary works to place the idea of heroism on a pedestal. But a hero by ancient Greek standards isn’t quite what you would expect.
War was the heart and soul of the Dark Ages. The Greek notion of ‘arete’ means excellence. An individual displayed his excellence through his actions in an ‘agon’ or athletic contest. What better contest or ‘agon’ was war? It was not possible to separate leadership from arete, the Greeks believed, because unusual or exceptional prowess was a natural manifestation of leadership.
Since each man was ranked in accordance with his ability, arete became an ideal of self-fulfillment or self-realization in terms of human excellence.
A noble's arete, in Homer, is specifically indicated by his skill and prowess as a soldier in war, and as an athlete in peace. War provides the occasion for the display of arete and the winning of glory. This is one of the most important understandings of why many Greeks went to Troy (most specifically Achilles). The aristocrats compete among themselves always to
be the best and to be superior to others.
To do well in battle was to become famous. To prove your excellence in battle was of prime importance to the men of Greek society during the Dark Ages. If one did not do this, he would become a disgrace to not only himself, but to his family as well. To shame your family would bring the greatest dishonor to man in the eyes of society. The importance of battle is reflected by Homer as he describes a terrified Paris, who disengages from battle. “But soon as magnificent Paris marked Atrides shining among the champions, Paris’ spirit shook. Backing into his friendly ranks, he cringed from death as one who trips on a snake in a hilltop hollow recoils, suddenly, trembling grips his knees and pallor takes his cheeks and back he shrinks.”
Paris is described as ‘cringing’ and ‘trembling’ as he ‘shrinks’ from battle. These are hardly positive descriptions. Further, this distaste towards cowardice is reflected in Hector’s attitude towards a fleeing Paris during battle. “Hector raked his brother with insults, stinging taunts: Paris, appalling Paris! Our prince of beauty, mad for women, you them all to ruin! Would to god go you’d never been born, died unwed. Better that way by far than to have you strutting here, an outrage — a mocker in all they eyes of all our enemies. Why, the long-haired Achaeans must be roaring with laughter.” Hector continues, “You... curse to your father, your city and all your people, a joy to our enemies, rank disgrace to yourself.” Hector is not only angry with Paris, he is ashamed of Paris. He feels that Paris’ actions bring shame not only to the warrior himself, but to his family and the people of Troy as well.
There also exists within the Iliad the emphasis on being the best. This ideal is evident throughout the Iliad. For example, Achilles tells of words spoken to him by his father — “Always be the best my boy, the bravest, and hold your head up high above the others. never disgrace the generation of your fathers. They were the bravest champions born in Corinth, in Lycia far and wide.” Later in the story, this is emphasized again “And your fathers filled your ears with marching orders. The old horseman Peleus urging his son Achilles. ‘Now always be the best, my boy, the bravest, and hold your head up high above the others.”
There also exists the emphasis on the individual. The purpose of war, the ultimate agon, is to gain individual arete. There does not seem to exist the notion of community success. The emphasis is placed on individual battle. This too is clearly evident with in the tale, for the entire story is about the battle between individual warriors, not the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans.
The idea of becoming a hero was a very important aspect to a warrior society. But, what is a hero? The American Heritage Dictionary defines a hero as “A man noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his life.” A hero is a symbol of the society from which it is produced, reflecting that society’s morals and value system. Defining a hero is not an easy thing to do, for the definition is in constant flux, changing and redefining itself along with society. What a hero represented to Greek society during Homeric times vastly differs from today’s definition of a hero, just as today’s hero will no doubt differ from tomorrow’s hero. Thus to truly understand Achilles, the hero, we must take ourselves out of the equation. In other words, we must remove our predisposed notion of a hero and consider Achilles from a historical standpoint.
The notion of heroism has evolved along with society. A hero was once seen in black and white terms. That is, the hero was the good guy and his enemy was the bad guy. The good guy would always do the right thing, no matter what. However, within the last fifty years, heroes more and more encompass shades of gray, rather than the steadfast black and white scenario. Historical figures and pop culture icons reflected this growing trend. Let us take a look at traditional, modern heroes in an attempt to better understand the medieval notion of a hero.
John Wayne perhaps epitomizes the classic notion of a hero. John Wayne always stops the crimes, always gets the bad guys and always rides off into the sunset with Maureen O’Hara. John Wayne solidified his career playing the hero. Ask any middle-aged American today who there idea of a hero is, and more times than naught, the answer you would receive would be John Wayne. Why? What characteristics so appealed to 1950-60 society? Wayne embodied the good guy. The guy who would always make the right choice, no matter how difficult, the man who would risk his life to save the girl or defeat the Indians. John Wayne always wore the white hat and his enemy always wore the black hat. And John Wayne almost always defeated the bad guy.
However, like society, the idea of a hero has evolved to encompass more areas of gray. No longer do the heroes always wear the white hat. Again, pop culture icons reflect this trend. Characters such as those portrayed in movies, such as James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, reflect a more complex hero, capable of mistakes and darkness. Gone is the black vs. white, good vs. evil scenario which predominated American culture of centuries. Both Dean and Eastwood symbolized characters who didn’t always make the right choices, who made mistakes and who were not characters which demanded sympathy. This new hero wore both the white and black hats.
The many faces of heroism today is in contrast to the Greek idea of heroism, as evident in Homer’s The Iliad. According to tradition, Homer wrote The Iliad circa 800 B.C. The “hero” is Achilles, the great warrior of the expedition. He comes in conflict with Agamemnon, who takes a slave girl away from him. Achilles refuses to fight for his fellow Greeks because of this, and even plots against them. When fellow soldiers beseech Achilles, the stubborn warrior replies “But my heart still heaves with rage whenever I call to mind the arrogance of his — how he mortified me, right in front of the Argives — the son of Atreus treating me like some vagabond, like some outcast stripped of all my rights!” Again, the emphasis on Achilles, the individual. But again, one must look at the situation historically.
The Greeks emphasized individualism — individual honor, glory and excellence. Therefore, Achilles self-centeredness is not perceived, as it would be today, as negative. Rather, it is expected of him.
Is Achilles a hero? By John Wayne standards and even today’s standards, no, Achilles is not a hero. However, by Greek standards, he is. The Greeks have a positive view of battle and warfare. In The Iliad, battles take place not between the armies, but between individual soldiers. The emphasis is placed on individual glory and honor. Therefore, Achilles, who is a great warrior with much glory and acclaim, is viewed as a hero, despite his own selfish actions. Thus, Achilles could be defined, in modern terms, as the James Dean, Clint Eastwood type of hero; a hero who was black and white and shades of gray — the evolving color scheme of a hero.
The Iliad by Homer is one of the most important and significant pieces of literature of all time. Written down over twenty thousand years ago, the story is a link to the past. Not only has it survived countless decades, but it has helped define them. While the world has changed greatly since then, that which motivated men and women then still motivates them today. The poet Keats’ famous quotation is that beauty is truth and truth is beauty. The beautifully written Iliad provides great insights into the the truths of ages and is therefore classic to the literary and historic legacy of man.
Logan Mosby is Content Editor for Writerspace.com.