Immense Heroism in Homer’s Iliad Essay

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Immense Heroism in Homer’s Iliad

The Iliad opens with "the anger of Peleus' son, Achilleus," (1.1) and closes with the "burial of Hektor, breaker of horses" (24.804).1 The bracketing of the poem with descriptions of these two men suggests both their importance and their connection to one another. They lead parallel lives as the top fighters in their respective armies, and, as the poem progresses, their lives and deaths become more and more closely linked. They each struggle to fulfill the heroic ideal, and they both grapple with temptations that lure them away from heroism. While Hektor embodies the human heroic ideal, Achilleus strives to surpass human heroism to achieve some identification with the divine. These delusions of grandeur diminish Achilleus greatly; despite his efforts he can never be immortal, and a mortal god, besides being an oxymoron, would be decidedly pitiful. Achilleus' heroism, therefore, is incumbent on his acceptance of his humanity. Achilleus entangles Hektor in his struggle to come to terms with his own mortality by recognizing himself in his enemy. Hektor comes to represent the humanity of Achilleus, against which Achilleus rebels and which he tries to destroy in his desire to be immortal. Their fates are therefore linked, and the death of the one necessitates the death of the other. In finally giving over Hektor's body to Priam, Achilleus is at his most heroic; for in this action he accepts his fate, his mortality, and his humanity.

The two men are lured away from heroism in opposite directions; Hektor, by his connections to home and family, and Achilleus, by his connections to the gods. To be a hero is to sacrifice one's own personal and familial ties in favor of facing death and striving for...

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... of Achilleus' funeral, for the fates of these two heroes are linked. We do not see Achilleus' death in the poem, but we are certain of its prompt occurrence, for we see the burial of Hektor who has become a reflection of Achilleus. By accepting his own death, Achilleus finally becomes a hero. His heroism is so great because, unlike other men, the measure of his heroism does not lie in the status of the people he kills, but in the action of giving up Hektor's body. The murder of Hektor is not Achilleus' greatest moment, but only one step in attaining his heroism. He diverges so greatly from the heroic, that in the moment when he finally accepts his mortality, his heroism is immense.


1 Achilleus is the son of Thetis, a goddess, and Peleus, a mortal.

2 Homer, Iliad, Translated by Richard Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951).

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