Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Weight of Hector's Body

If you're intimidated by reading book-length poems in hexameter, but still wish you read Homer more frequently, I recommend LibriVox public domain audio books. On a long drive along I-35 from Arkansas to Minneapolis this past week, I dipped into chapters of The Iliad. It's a splendid text to enter and live in.

This is the first time I've dabbled with reading individual chapters rather than attempt to read the entire poem straight through. It worked well. Like reading Scripture, if you have basic familiarity with the text, then reading individual chapters--even individual sections--works, and in fact listening by bouncing around allowed me to re-consider various moments in the war on Troy, the tensions between Achilles and Agamemnon, the intervention of the gods, and more.
With Julian the Apostate and Nietzsche, I agree - there is a nobility and grandeur in Homer that the crudeness of the Christian imagination can't begin to grasp (Matthew Metevelis).
One aspect of the poem impressed itself on me this reading... the weight of Hector's body. I have always found this moment in The Iliad poignant. Clearly artists have also, as it is rendered so frequently in classical art. It also happens to take up a considerable portion of the text, the concluding chapter especially.

Because we are in the season of Easter, the season of empty tombs and resurrected bodies, I imagined Hector's body in a new way. Achilles casts a spear at Hector, hitting an exposed portion of his neck and piercing it. Because Hector's windpipe is not cut, Hector is left with a brief opportunity before expiring to make an appeal. So he begs, please do not leave my body to the dogs.

Perverse Achilles does quite the opposite, dragging the body around behind his chariot for twelve long days, until finally Priam, accompanied by the gods and an immense ransom, goes in all his vulnerability to Achilles tent and asks for the body. Having retrieved it, he takes it home to burn it on a funeral pyre. And there The Iliad ends.

The hope and comfort and ritual of the last chapter of the Iliad is centered on a dead body that is disgraced by the exposure, sullied by the ground, but is protected by the gods. The body never corrupts. The wounds close up. Even in the shame there is succor. If there is gospel in this text, it is the gospel of the redemption of the body for right rites.

There are fascinating resonances between the worldview and style of Homer and the worldview and style of the gospels. This isn't to say that the authors of the gospels are directly referencing Homer. But as a contemporary reader of these ancients texts, listening to Homer puts me in mind of Scripture in a new way. Often the phrasing and pacing is equivalent. Narrative expectations are comparable.

[I will also add, as someone who plays RPGs, The Iliad serves as a tremendous resource for ideas on how to describe battle and death]

Here is what I see. Priam and his sons are in many ways not unlike God the Father and the disciples in the gospels. Priam is godlike in his poise and composure, extravagant in his love for his son. His other sons, many weak and pathetic, parallel the disciples in their weakness. Priam has a special focus on his special son, the tamer of horses. Those of us who read Scripture regularly know of such prodigal fathers, of special sons (Joseph, Isaac).

Furthermore, you have this strange care of the gods for the body of Hector. Like the care taken with Christ's own body laid in the tomb with such care by Joseph of Arimathea, Priam is passionate for the right disposal of Hector's body (John 19:42). Although there is never a promise that Hector will rise from the dead (there was no such concept in Greek literature of the period), there is the uncorrupted body of Hector. So compare it to the resurrected body of Christ, the wounds that remain but no longer bleed, the wounds available to Thomas to touch, the wounds of Hector closed and visible for all to see as he is dragged around Troy.

Even the abrupt ending of The Iliad parallels the abrupt ending of one of the gospels--Mark--where as soon as Priam has the body, and the funeral takes place, the narrative ends. Yet all the narrative indicates there is more battle awaiting. So in Mark, after the empty tomb, there is much yet to tell, but the gospel ends there, opening on to an expanse of potentiality and trepidation.

Finally, you have the liberator Achilles, son of the gods, capricious, mercurial, and by comparison the liberator Jesus, Son of God, faithful, steadfast. It is perhaps this last comparison I find most instructive. Achilles is the kind of solution that is often necessitated but not wanted. He is the demigod of last resort, the hero of a pantheon of determinism. Jesus, on the other hand, is the kind of solution that is often unrecognized and so needed, no hero at all but the triumphant unity of freedom.

I'm sure somebody somewhere has written about this. There's barely a space between two words in The Iliad that lacks a dissertation on it. But for my money, I've become convinced a dive into Homer doubles as a rediscovery of the proximate poetry of Scripture. It allows me to sit to the side and see it anew. And while doing so, I keep realizing how much I love Homer. It's worth your time.

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