Transformation Of Achilles In The Iliad

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Transformation Of Achilles In The Iliad

(Essay E) Iliad 24: The Rough Road to Compassion.

Homer, throughout The Iliad, illustrates that although it can be difficult to reach, the rough road to compassion is noble and ultimately superior to the easier paths of anger and rage. In Book 22, Achilles demonstrates mindless rage as he desecrates the body of the Trojan warrior and son of King Priam, Hector. This violates Greek funeral rites, which say that a warrior of Hector’s status, like Patrokles before him, should receive a proper burial. Achilles’ rage over the death of Patrokles, however, prevents him from having compassion for a fellow warrior, namely Hector. Priam attempts to ransom his son’s body and, in turn, reawaken a sense of compassion in Achilles, who had become vengeful after his quarrel with Agamemnon and Hector’s slaying of Patrokles. He accomplishes this by supplicating himself and by reminding Achilles of the common tragedies that both men have suffered throughout the Trojan War. Priam helps Achilles regain his compassion and quell his anger that began after his quarrel with Agamemnon, festered throughout the poem and reached its pinnacle after the death of Patrokles. Thus, through the transformation of his main character and epic hero, Achilles, Homer is stressing the futility of rage and the importance of compassion in Greek society.

In Homeric Society, warfare and destruction dominate the lives of many citizens. During the Trojan War, many warriors, Trojan and Greek alike, die on the field of battle. These warriors are lauded for their strength, intelligence, and courage. When a great Homeric warrior dies, it is extremely important that they receive a proper burial according to Greek funeral rites. In Book 23, for example, the Greeks go to great lengths to prepare the body of Patrokles and give him a proper funeral. Achilles “set beside him two-handled jars of oil and honey leaning them against the bier, and drove four horses with strong necks swiftly aloft the pyre” (Book 23, line 170). During this ceremony, the dead body is burned on a pyre to remove from it any impurities. Next to the body, Achilles places provisions such as honey and oil for Patrokles’ journey to Hades. The horses will serve as his guides, along with nine dogs, and twelve dead Trojans that will be his slaves. These actions, along with other rituals, allow the spirit to lead a life in the underworld. If these rights are not performed, the spirit will not be allowed to enter Hades and will be forced to roam the Earth, asking for a proper burial. This is exemplified in Book 11 of The Odyssey when Odysseus meets the soul of his companion, Elpenor, who was not buried properly and, subsequently, cannot enter Hades. Elpenor says to Odysseus “I ask that you remember me, and do not go and leave me behind unwept, unburied…but burn me there with all my armor that belongs to me, and heap up a grave mound beside the beach of the gray sea” (Book 11 line 71). This shows the importance of a proper burial in Greek society. Elpenor is unhappy and is not allowed to enter Hades. In Book 24 of Homer’s The Iliad, King Priam of Troy is forced to deal with this grave situation. The famed Achaian warrior, Achilles, kills Priam’s son, Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior, to avenge the death of his friend Patrokles. But instead of returning Hector’s body to the Trojans for proper burial, Achilles, in a fit of rage, steals the body and drags it back to the Achaian camp. King Priam mourns for his son and longs to give him a proper burial. In Book 24, he goes to the Achaian camp to ransom his son’s body from Achilles. Priam does this to insure Hector the warrior’s funeral that he deserves and to make sure that he descends peacefully to Hades.

Priam, therefore, must ransom Hector’s body from the Achaian camp to ensure him a proper burial and to ease the mourning felt by the Trojan’s, especially Hector’s family. Even the Gods on Mt. Olympus feel that Achilles should stop his vengeful actions and become more compassionate to Priam’s plight. Zeus sends Thetis to tell her son that the time has come for him to allow Priam to ransom his son’s body. Hermes, the messenger God, guides Priam through the dangerous Achaian camp and into the tent of Achilles. As Priam enters the tent he “caught the knees of Achilles in his arms, and kissed the hands that were dangerous and manslaughtering and had killed so many of his sons” (Homer 487-488). Thus, Priam shows great respect for Achilles in this scene by supplicating himself to the younger warrior. Achilles greets this respected King in a reserved manner, but with a great deal of respect. Priam, being a good father, is willing to do anything to bring Hector’s body back to Troy. He no longer acts as a king of equal status to Achilles, but as a common man and father who is begging the famed Achaian to sympathize with his plight. Priam reminds Achilles of his own father and the joy he must feel when he hears that his son is still alive. He tells Achilles that he had fifty sons at the start of the Trojan War and only one of them, Hector, escaped death, until he was murdered. Priam reminds him of his own father, but at the same time asks for Achilles’ mercy. His situation is more pathetic than that of Achilles’ father because Priam has been forced to “put ‘his’ lips to the hands of the man who has killed ‘his’ children” (488). This gesture is something that no father should ever have to go through. By resurfacing these feelings of his father and his home inside Achilles, Priam succeeds in his task. Achilles is so moved by this speech that he mourns with Priam for the loss of Hector and for his own losses, namely his father, his friends, and his best friend Patrokles. After they finish grieving for the many tragedies each has had to endure over the course of the war, Achilles allows Priam to take Hector’s body back to Troy. Thus, Homer asserts the nobility of compassion by showing that even the Gods want Achilles to forfeit his anger and give Hector’s body back to Priam.

Scholars regard this final interaction between the king and the warrior as “the humanization of Achilles” because Achilles has regained a sense of human sympathy. In Book 1, Achilles was a decent character, not consumed by anger and rage. After Agamemnon publicly humiliates him by taking away his war prize, Bryseis, however, his demeanor changes. His anger is fueled throughout the poem and is greatly intensified in Book 16 when his best friend Patrokles is killed. Up until the final scene with Priam, Achilles has showed no remorse in killing Hector and has acted in a selfish manner since his feud with Agamemnon; the theme of the poem, in fact, is the wrath of Achilles. In Book 24, however, Priam suppresses some of this rage and demonstrates the sensitive side of Achilles. During this conversation with Priam, Achilles revamps his moral position. He stops being selfish and demonstrates that he can feel sorrow for the losses of another man. Thus, the morally strong and noble side of Achilles’ resurfaces after Priam brings him back to reality with his actions and his words.

After talking with Priam, Achilles has finally reached a state of compassion. This state, according to Homer, is reached through the quelling of one’s anger, which is a destructive emotion. Throughout the Iliad, Achilles was full of rage stemming from the hurting of his pride by Agamemnon and the death of his companion, Patrokles. Achilles, through his anger, destroys anyone and anything that comes in his path. For example, in Book 21 a vengeful Achilles kills many Trojans at the river Xanthos. One of Priam’s sons, Lykaon, begs for his life, supplicating himself to Achilles, who responds by saying that “now there is no one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam…so, friend, you die also” (Book 21 line 103). Achilles kills as many Trojans as cross the river and his rage blinds him from showing any sort of compassion. This emotion clouds his judgment, making him act in an irrational manner towards the Achaians as well. This is evident by Achilles absence from the war in response to his quarrel with Agamemnon, a selfish action that leads to the deaths of many Achaians. At the end of Book 1, he even begs his mother, Thetis, to beg Zeus to let the Trojans defeat his Achaian brothers in battle to show that they cannot win without him. Achilles tells Thetis to “sit beside him and take his knees and remind him of these things now, if perhaps he might be willing to help the Trojans, and pin the Achaians back against the ships and the waters, dying” (Book 1 line 407). His anger, therefore, is not only self-destructive but it leads to the death of his fellow soldiers. He can never reach any level of compassion for others while his mind is filled with ideas of revenge and hate. It takes a wise old man who has suffered through similar hardships to relieve some of his anger and to bring Achilles to his senses. By relating to the suffering of others, namely Priam, Achilles changes for the better and finds the compassion that he lacked throughout the course of the poem.

King Priam of Troy is a wise and noble character in the Iliad. In Book 24, however, he takes on the role of a suppliant and of a bereaved father to successfully ransom the body of Hector. In doing so, he shows great character and, subsequently, transforms the wrath of Achilles into the compassion and nobility that is characteristic of an epic hero. He also eases his own grief, the grief of his family, and the grief of the Trojans for their fallen leader by recovering Hector’s body and giving him a proper funeral. Although many men are killed during the Trojan War and a great deal of destruction ensues, at least these two sworn enemies could reach some common ground and find together the road to compassion. Thus, Homer is using the transformation of his epic hero, Achilles, to emphasize the nobility and importance of compassion in Greek society.
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