The Goriest Fight Scenes from The Iliad, Pt. 1
The Iliad is a totemic work of early Western literature.
For good reason! It has moments of gorgeously observant poetry, as when Homer describes Achilles as a towering rogue wave rushing across the ocean, or a soldier toppling to his death as an ash-tree shedding its leaves. It’s an existentially unsettling tale, since so much of the fates of the combatants are in the hands of the gods — who behave like fickle and petulant children. And it’s philosophically and morally deep — reminding us of “the vital interdependence between individual and group achievement, prosperity, and happiness”, as Emily Katz Anhalt argues in her terrific book Embattled: How Ancient Greek Myths Empower Us To Resist Tyranny.
Recently, though, while rereading it, I was struck anew by a more prosaic aspect:
The incredibly gory fight scenes.
The Iliad is the story of several days during the 10th year of the Trojan War. The Acheans have their ships and encampment near the sea; the Trojans are in their walled city. But routinely the armies head out to clash — with individual warriors often spurred on (and, sometimes, briefly protected) by gods like Athena and Hera and Apollo, who’ve picked sides.
So there is, no surprise, a lot of fighting!
And man, Homer dives deeply into the grisly physics of what happens when a spear stabs someone in the groin, or when a sword severs an arm at the shoulder socket. And it’s not just metal weapons: Frequently the combatants — having expended their spear or broken their sword — just pick up big ol’ rocks and smash the everlasting crap out of each other.
What’s always intrigued me, every time I reread the Iliad, is how anatomically specific Homer is in describing how the weapons mutilate human bodies.
For example, in Book 5, there’s this moment where Meriones — an Achaean fighter — kills Pheréclus. Homer drops some positively orthopedic knowledge in describing just how Pheréclus dies …