Remembrance and Commemoration in the Iliad

by Rosie6409

Homeric epic can be thematized as 'klea andron' - ‘the famous deeds of men’ (Iliad 9.189). How important are the themes of remembrance and commemoration in the Iliad?

The world of epic created by Homer is one concerned almost entirely with the actions of heroes and gods, the former being most particularly the central focus of the Iliad. The gods are of a definite importance, but it is the heroes that really make the poem. The heroes of the Iliad live in a world influenced by shame culture; they are not driven to action by guilt or morals, but by the need for honour in the eyes of other men. Homeric warriors strive for social validation, mostly through success in battle which will earn them status, respect and public esteem. As well as this ordinary ‘time’ (Ancient Greek word for ‘honour’) there is also a higher level of honour that heroes spend their lives aiming to achieve. This is an extraordinary ‘time’, that is eternal imperishable glory or ‘kleos pantheon’ (‘the famous deeds of men’). This idea is key in the Iliad and the theme of remembrance is therefore one which permeates the poem. In the Iliad we see almost all of the characters striving for this ‘kleos’ (‘glory’) that will outlive them; most notably of course is Achilles.

Achilles initially withdraws from the battle due to a slight to his honour and pride by Agamemnon, but returns in order to win his eternal glory; therefore he leaves over an insult to his ‘time’ but returns to gain what is ultimately more important: ‘kleos’. Achilles is presented with a choice of two destinies; either live a long life but be forgotten when he dies or to die young and achieve eternal glory. It seems then that heroism and death go hand in hand. There can be no heroism without glory, and the only way to achieve real glory is through death. This choice that Achilles faces is at the centre of the poem as the whole story rests upon his decision, the fate of two whole armies is essentially placed in his hands, although he may be unaware of this.

The issue of the worth of life in comparison with glory is one that is a key theme to the poem, not only in the terms of the ultimate cost of war but also more particularly in terms of what Achilles is willing to sacrifice in order to be remembered. When previously he was concerned only with his possessions, for example Briseis, we see how Achilles learns to appreciate the true value of life and how absolute death is, “For nothing, as I now see it, equals the value of life”(9.401). However death is the only path to true remembrance in the heroic world, and therefore his final choice is to die young and nobly in order to accomplish eternal glory. This demonstrates just how highly the idea of remembrance was placed within the world of Homeric epic. Achilles is not the only character in the Iliad to possess this radical view of honour. In book 12 of the Iliad we see a conversation between Glaucus and Sarpedon which reveals a great deal about the heroic attitude to death and honour. Sarpedon explains that in order to be heroes they must deserve the praise they receive from other men, they must be fearless in their pursuit of honour and have the courage to be ready to die (12.310-28). This is seen in the case of Hector, although he initially flees from the intimidating sight of Achilles, when he stops he is ready to die. He must meet the requirements that his heroic status demands by transforming his death into a path to eternal glory: “Let me at least sell my life dearly and not without glory, after some great deed for future generations to hear of”(22.305).

Once Hector knows that he is defeated and is facing death, another issue that is considered of high importance is brought to light. Of all the things Hector could say to Achilles before he dies, he chooses to plead for the proper treatment of his corpse (22.338-342). The fact that Hector uses these as his few dying words highlights the great importance of commemoration in the Homeric world. Inevitably in a poem that is so concerned with war, the Iliad contains a huge amount of death and therefore provides a great deal of insight into way in which the dead were commemorated. In the Iliad at least six funeral rites or cremations are mentioned; Andromache tells of Achilles cremating her father, Eetion (6.416), a group burial of Greeks and of Trojans (7.422), Sarpedon is carried to the underworld by Apollo(16.678), Patroclus’ funeral rites and games (taking up almost the entirety of book 23) and the cremation of Hector (24.785). The sheer volume of the Iliad given over to description of funerary rites emphasises that this was clearly a key part of Homeric culture. In particular this is exhibited by the events that surround Patroclus’ death, not only is their a fight over his corpse but a whole book of the poem is needed to do justice to the funeral games that Achilles’ holds in his honour. The funeral games are of deep significance not only in their commemoration of the dead but also due to the choice of ritual. The idea of essentially playing war-like games also acts as a way of rejoicing over the deceased’s life and remembering them for their heroic actions. In addition to this, respect was shown for the dead by their friends and relatives through their methods of grieving. In order to commemorate the loss of their loved one we see repeatedly how individuals will tear their hair, roll in the dust and befoul their faces by rubbing ashes on them (18.22). This could perhaps be seen as an attempt to bring themselves closer to the deceased by defiling their own bodies. Along with these displays of mourning more permanent measures are taken to ensure that the warrior can never be forgotten. The hero is commemorated in the ‘mnema’, that is the memorial to the deceased in the form of the construction of a tomb to hold the bones, and the raising of a ‘sema’, a sign to signify the continuing presence of the warrior in the world of the living. Tombs can also be used in another way, as Hector points out. Due to the ancient belief that by killing an enemy their ‘kleos’ is passed onto you, the tomb of an enemy you killed acts as a way of reminding others of your own ‘kleos’ (7.91).

For all the respect paid to the dead, we also see disrespect in equal measure. Most memorably is Achilles taking out his anger on Hector’s corpse by dragging it behind his chariot for days on end. The importance of preserving the corpse is made clear time and again in the Iliad, especially as we see even the gods going to great lengths to protect and preserve the corpses of their favourites (16.667, 19.38, 23.186). The absolute horror that is shown when a dead body is defiled shows the importance placed on the commemoration of the body. The beauty and youth of the corpse is seen to be representative of their glory during life and the courage with which they sacrificed their life. The mistreatment of an enemy’s corpse then is to deny a warrior of their due honour, and by refusing to allow their burial is refusing them access to Hades. This is considered a most serious offence, as a burial is necessary in order for the psyche to reach Hades, and if this is not given then the spirit is destined to join the ‘non-union’, the nameless. To be neither forgotten nor celebrated is the worst fate a hero could suffer, leaving the soul rejected from human memory but also disallowed a definitive place with the dead. In the case of a hero, when death is what leads them to glory, ‘real’ death for a hero would be in the form of silence, obscurity and the absence of fame. For the heroes of the Iliad real existence comes from being recognised and valued; by dying a beautiful death so that their magnificence will always be preserved.

As well as the themes of remembrance and commemoration being so important in the content of the story of the Iliad, the poem itself is also a form of remembrance and commemoration. The Iliad, being originally an oral poem, has been passed down for nearly three thousand years, giving us a great deal of insight into the ancient world. Therefore the Iliad itself can be seen as a commemoration to the heroic times about which Homer speaks. The story of the Iliad survived and was passed down due to the cultural function of bards. However, one thing that does stand out about the Iliad is that, unlike in the Odyssey, there is a distinct lack of bards represented within the poem. In fact the only time that we see any kind of song performed is not by a bard at all, but by Achilles. In book 9 when the embassy is sent to Achilles they discover him accompanying himself on the cithara as he sings to Patroclus about the famous deeds of men, ‘klea andron’ (9.189). This is important as Achilles is essentially carrying on a tradition upon which he himself relies on in order for his fame to survive. Achilles commemorates past heroes as he himself wishes to be commemorated by the men of times to come. Achilles’ deeds are glorified by his comrades, but in order for them to exist fully they need to captured in the form of a song which will tell others of his fame. Therefore the whole process of the heroic code and an individual’s deeds being remembered and commemorated throughout the ages depended on the existence of a tradition of oral poetry. Without oral poetry the glory which heroes achieve would be irrelevant, even though it could still be considered as eternal as it is encapsulated by their death, the fact that Homer has passed down the story of Achilles is what has given him such real permanence in his status as a hero. The same applies to the other characters of the Iliad as Helen says to Hector that the gods must be “intending us to figure in the songs of people yet unborn” (6.358), so although there is little sung poetry actually seen in the Iliad, its importance is still recognised as the means to enduring remembrance. For all the commemoration that is carried out in the Iliad, only one thing still remains thousands of years later, and that is simply the words given to us by Homer. In this sense Homer has given us the greatest commemoration of all, as not only are the heroes of the Iliad still remembered today but the Iliad also gives us a clear insight into the world of heroes, something that no tomb or construction could ever do.

Throughout the poem it is made clear that the single most important aspect of a hero’s life is to achieve ‘klea aphthiton’ (‘eternal glory’), and therefore be remembered through generations to come. The driving force behind the actions of a true Homeric hero is the desire for admiration. The heroes of the Iliad thrive on the idea that by achieving fame they are actually achieving surrogate immortality, bringing them as close as possible to the status of a god. Despite the bitter inescapability of death, certain deeds can attain honour and fame that will live on even after the finality of death, so long as they are preserved and immortalised in art., or more specifically through epic poetry. The ideology behind Homeric epic can therefore be seen as a succession that links death to glory, glory to art, and art to immortality. In turn, by being the one to pass on the reputation of the hero, Homer himself is also able to ensure that his name is not forgotten. Therefore as well as the Iliad being concerned with the themes of remembrance and commemoration, it also acts on another level to commemorate and immortalise Homer himself. The Iliad cannot be denied as a work that centres on the ‘famous deeds of men’ and as such the ideas of remembrance and commemoration are of the highest importance.

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