The Iliad in Modern Culture

Week of July 9


As we delve deeper into the texts of the week, the Iliad books 22 and 24, we briefly explore the cultural context of these works throughout history. Professor Tom Palaima presents an interesting point: What does the Iliad mean to culture and how does our culture inform our interpretation of the Iliad? Meaning, how do our current cultural understandings and points of view color the way we see these texts, and how can that differ through time?

After reading a passage, Tom remarks that early analyses of the Iliad often glazed over the overt sexual nature of the “prizes,” or female sex slaves the soldiers fought over as merits for their work on the battlefield. Meagan, one of the two women in the class balked at the idea that something so blatant could be dismissed in classical interpretations. Tom interjects, noting that the Puritanical views of the period would have spurned interpretations of sexuality, whereas our current understanding of sexuality and feminist movements makes it hard to ignore something as violent at sexual slavery. It’s a striking point that perfectly highlights the question of the day.

But how did we come to interpret the Iliad as a way to understand the modern struggles of soldiers at war or returning from battle? For one, the works of Stanley Lombardo and Philip Roth (The Human Stain), and interpretations from Jonathan Shay presented the ethos of these classic texts in modern form. Works like Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam gave new perspective on how the texts can be applied to understanding the challenges of returning combat veterans.

Reading through the Iliad 22, literary devices are readily identified by the group. They find that Lombardo strikes a balance between moving the story along through narration, while giving the reader clarity on how each character feels. Similes, particularly relating to animals stand out to Terry and Darren, as well as the concise writing and pacing of this Lombardo interpretation. Brian and Meagan are drawn to what’s in between the lines of the text. Lines 80-85 are especially poignant to Meagan, who finds the concept of “lying beautiful in death” familiar in our need to memorialize and idealize the fallen.

Detailing the more existential aspects of the story, Brian questions the predetermined fate of someone like Hector, whose life hangs on the balance of the will of the feuding Gods. His violent death is considered especially atrocious when considering the cruelty Achilles displays when dragging his body behind his chariot. The detail of these battle scenes are striking and reminiscent of combat and formation tactics the group finds familiar. 


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