Urban Myths & the Iliad

I cannot claim to be an expert at the Iliad of Homer. I have read all 24 books in English and have read books 1, 6, 22 & 24 in the original Ancient Greek. But I have found that many people with even less knowledge about this great poem unwittingly spread a series of urban myths about the poem. It is the nature of an urban myth to become the truth and I hope that this small page will perhaps prevent this happening :-) References to the Iliad are given in a shorthand method: 4:22-25 indicates Book 4 Lines 22 to 25.

Top 10 Urban Myths of Homer's Iliad

  1. Paris kills Achilles. According to the urban myth Paris shoots an arrow into the heel of Achilles and kills him. This does not happen in the Iliad where Achilles lives to the end of the poem, although as Hector lies dying he foretells the death of Achilles at the hands of Paris and Apollo.
    1. "Be careful now; for I might be made into the gods' curse / upon you, on that day when Paris and Phoibos Apollo / destroy you in the Skaian gates, for all your valour." Iliad 22:358-360.
  2. A wooden horse? In the Iliad there is no mention of a wooden horse filled with warriors that is taken into the city of Troy. Certainly the Odyssey speaks of this horse but it does not feature in Homer's Iliad.
    1. "Here is the way that strong man acted and the way he endured / action, inside the wooden horse, where we who were greatest / of the Argives all were sitting and bringing death and destruction / to the Trojans." Odyssey 4:271-274.
    2. "Come to another part of the story, sing us / the wooden horse, which Epeios made with Athene helping / the stratagem great Odysseus filled once with men and brought it / to the upper city, and it was these men who sacked Ilion." Odyssey 8:492-494.
    3. "Again, when we who were the best of the Argives entered / the horse that Epeios made, and all the command was given / to me, to keep hidden inside..." Odyssey 11:523-535.
  3. Troy is Sacked. Admit it, you watched the movie didn't you? Unlike the movie the Iliad does not end with Troy being destroyed, instead it ends with the burial of Hector and the walls of Troy intact. A treaty is negotiated by Priam in Book 24 to allow for Hector's burial. This treaty foretells the resumption of fighting, after the end of the Iliad.
    1. "Nine days we would keep him in our palace and mourn him, / and bury him on the tenth day, and the people feast by him, / and on the eleventh day we would make the grave-barrow for him, / and on the twelfth day fight again; if so we must do." Iliad 24:664-667.
  4. Achilles is Invulnerable (except...) According to Urban Myth Achilles is invulnerable becasue his mother dipped him in the river Styx, leaving a vulnerable spot in his heel where she gripped him. This is not the case at all in the Iliad where this myth is not mentioned and Achilles, while definitely a supreme warrior, is vulnerable to death in all its forms on the battlefield. Examples can be seen in Book 21 where Achilles is almost drowned by the river Skamandros and then almost speared in the leg by Agenor, son of Antenor.
    1. "I wish now Hector had killed me, the greatest man grown in this place. / A brave man would have been the slayer, as the slain was a brave man. / But now this is a dismal death I am doomed to be caught in, trapped in a big river as if I were a boy and a swineherd / swept away by a torrent when he tries to cross in a rainstorm." Iliad 21:279-283.
    2. "... from his heavy hand (Agenor) let fly with the sharp spear / and struck him in the leg below the knee, not entirely / missed him, and taking the spear the greave of new-wrought tin clattered / horribly and back from the struck greave the bronze rebounded / without getting through, but the gift of the god defended Achilleus." Iliad 21:590-594.
  5. The Iliad Glorifies War. The idea that the Iliad is a 24 book celebration of war is an urban myth that indicates that many people have not read the book or seen the movie! Or worse they have not understood what they have seen or read :-) Alexander the Great was supposed to have carried a copy of the Iliad with him during his youth but I suspect not so much to learn battle strategy as to grapple with the problems that the Iliad poses: how does a man live when death can intervene at any time... what is important in life... what does it mean to be a hero... how does a man live when his fate is preordained? I have included a few quotes below to illustrate some of these points:
    1. "Thetis answered (Achilles) then letting the tears fall: 'Ah me, / my child. Your birth was bitterness. Why did I raise you? / If only you could sit by your ships untroubled, not weeping, / since indeed your lifetime is to be short, of no length. / Now it has befallen that your life must be brief and bitter / beyond all men's." Iliad 1: 413-418.
    2. "For I (Hector) know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it: / there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish / and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear. / But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans / that troubles me, not even of Priam the king or Hekabe, / not the thought of my brothers who in their numbers and valour / shall drop in the dust under the hands of men who hate them, / as troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armoured / Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty, / in tears...." Iliad 6:447-456.
    3. "Then in turn the shining son of Hippolochos answered: / 'High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask of my generation? / As in the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity. / The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber / burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning. / So one generation of men will grow while another / dies." Iliad 6:144-150.
    4. "Son of Peleus (Achilles), I (Hector) will no longer run from you, as before this / I fled three times around the great city of Priam, and dared not / stand to your onfall. But now my spirit in turn has driven me / to stand and face you. I must take you now, or I must be taken." Iliad 22:250-253.
  6. Hector & Achilles have an "epic" hand-to-hand battle. In Homer's Iliad this does not happen. Throughout much of the Iliad there is an expectation of just such a confrontation but at the ultimate moment Hector runs in fear from Achilles, who with supreme confidence waves off his own men so the ultimate glory of killing Hector is his alone. When Hector is tricked to turn and fight the resultant battle is brief with Hector rapidly and ruthlessly killed.
    1. "And the shivers took hold of Hektor when he saw him (Achilles), and he could no longer / stand his ground there, but left the gates behind, and fled, frightened / And Peleus' son went after him in the confidence of his quick feet." Iliad 22:136-138.
    2. "But brilliant Achilleus kept shaking his head at his own people / and would not let them throw their bitter projectiles at Hector / for fear the thrower might win the glory, and himself come second." Iliad 22:205-207.
  7. The Judgement of Paris Caused the War. The idea that the torment of Troy was caused by a beauty contest rashly judged by Paris is in fact touched upon by Homer but oddly enough it is not mentioned until Book 24. The reason explicitly given in the Iliad is the abduction of Helen by Paris and more importantly the breaking of sacred oaths involved in this abduction. A secondary reason, that of the a quest for glory and rich prizes, a search for conquest, can also be seen in many places. So perhaps this is not a full urban myth, but to say without qualification that the judgement of Paris caused the Trojan war in the Iliad is unwise.
    1. "(Agamemnon:) So, the Trojans have struck you (Menelaos) down and trampled on the oaths sworn. / Still the oaths and the blood of the lambs shall not be called vain, / the unmixed wine poured and the right hands we trusted. / If the Olympian at once has not finished this matter, / late will he bring it to pass, and they must pay a great penalty, / with their own heads, and with their women, and with their children." Iliad 4:157-161.
    2. "Were you (Paris) like this that time when in sea-wandering vessels / assembling oarsmen to help you you sailed over the water, / and mixed with the outlanders, and carried away a fair woman / from a remote land, whose lord's kin were spearmen and fighters, / to your father a big sorrow, and your city, and all your people, / to yourself a thing shameful but bringing joy to the enemy?" Iliad 3:46-51.
    3. "There this was pleasing to all the others, but never to Hera / nor Poseidon, nor the girl of the grey eyes, who kept still / their hatred for sacred Ilion as in the beginning, and for Priam and his people, because of the delusion of Paris / who insulted the goddesses when they came to him in his courtyard / and favoured her who supplied the lust that led to disaster." Iliad 24:25-30.
  8. Achilles & Patroclos Are Lovers. This is not a new assertion but if one really must believe this particular urban myth one must learn to live with many thousands of years of homosexual heroes: Gilgamesh & Enkidu, Achilles & Patroclos and even Frodo Baggins & Sam Gangee. Myself, I believe that a man may love another man without sharing his bed. Hopefully this is demonstrated in the quotes below, which I believe show a man loving another man, but not showing two homosexual lovers:
    1. "Peleus' son (Achilles) led the thronging chant of their lamentation, / and laid his manslaughtering hands over the chest of his dear friend (Patroclos) / with outbursts of incessant grief..." Iliad 18:316-318.
    2. "... only Achilleus / wept still as he remembered his beloved companion, nor did sleep / who subdues all come over him, but he tossed from one side to the other / in longing for Patroklos, for his manhood and his great strength ..." Iliad 24:3-6.
    3. "Hear me, o young men, hear [me], / Hear me o elders [of teeming Uruk,] hear me! / I shall weep for Enkidu, my friend, / like a hired mourner woman I shall bitterly wail." Tablet VIII 42-45.
    4. "He (Gilgamesh) covered, like a bride, the face of his friend (Enkidu), / like an eagle he circled around him, / Like a lioness deprived of her cubs, / he paced to and fro, this way and that." Tablet VIII 59-62.
    5. "...and he (Frodo) lay back in Sam's gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when nightmares are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness ..." Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 6:1:944.
  9. Achilles is the Hero of the Iliad. It has been said by others that when the Greeks looked for models of heroism their gaze went to the Spartans of Thermopylae and the Athenians of Marathon, rather than to Hector and Achilles. In fact there is much of the subversive in Homer's treatment of Achilles as a hero and I believe to call Achilles "the hero of the Iliad" without considering this subversion is unwise and helps create an unthinking urban myth. Let us not forget that Achilles withdraws his men from battle in a dispute over the distribution of spoils leaving his comrades to die, that he sacrifices 12 young men at the funeral of Patroclos and his defilement of Hector's body earns him the disapproval of the gods themselves. A hero is not an easy person to live with:
    1. "... some day longing for Achilles will come to the sons of the Achaians, / all of them. Then stricken at hear though you may be, you will be able / to do nothing, when in their numbers before man-slaughtering Hektor / they drop and die. And then you will eat out the heart within you / in sorrow, that you did no honour to the best of the Achaians." Iliad 1:240-244.
    2. "And there were / nine dogs of the table that had belonged to the lord Patroklos. / Of these he cut the throats of two, and set them on the pyre; / and so also killed twelve noble sons of the great-hearted Trojans / with the stroke of bronze, and evil were the thoughts in his heart against them, / and let loose the iron fury of the fire to feed on them." Iliad 23:172-177.
    3. "... (Thetis) give to your son this message: / tell him that the gods frown upon him , that beyond all other / immortals I myself (Zeus) am angered that in his heart's madness / he holds Hektor beside the curved ships and did not give him / back." Iliad 24:111-116.
  10. The Iliad is the World's Oldest Epic. This might have been true before the late 1800s but since that time more and more cuneiform tablets have been dug up from the sands of Iraq that are gradually giving us a fuller version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk in the land of Sumer and he may have reigned in 2750 BC. His epic was probably an oral tradition that was committed to writing between 2000 BC and 2300 BC. This significantly predates the Iliad which was probably committed to writing sometime around 800 BC. The parallels between the two works are absolutely fascinating and manadatory study for those who wish to fully understand epic.
    1. "Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and terrible, / who opened passes in the mountains, / who dug wells on the slopes of the uplands, / and crossed the ocean, the wide sea to the sunrise; / who scoured the world ever searching for life, / who restored the cult-centres destroyed by the Deluge, / and set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos." Tablet I 37:44.

My Suggestions

Certainly watch the movie as it is a piece of fun (Brad Pitt beautifully catches the essence of the brooding warrior Achilles and manhood through battle is nice outlined) but more importantly read the book! You do not have to learn Greek, although this will certainly bring the poem alive. I have included a brief bibliography below of the books that I have used for this brief page, these are all in English and are well worth chasing up. For those who also wish to see the original Greek I have included details of Simon Pulleyn's amazing book which contains a parallel English / Greek text of Book 1 of the Iliad as well as an excellent 60 page introductory article. This is the book that introduced me to the Iliad in Greek. Robert Bostock's thesis unfortunately will only be available to those with borrowing rights at the Dixon Library, University of New England, Australia.