Homer and ISIS

What the author of the Iliad tells us about blood on the sand.

The Iliad of Homer.
The Iliad of Homer.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image courtesy British Library/Creative Commons

Adapted from Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson. Out now from Henry Holt.

There is nothing the so-called Islamic State could teach Homer. Everything they have been doing over the last three or four months is pre-figured in the Iliad. Every moment of horror, every unforgiving act of destruction, every gesture of contempt for the enemy, every belief that death is the necessity; every instinct to use the sweetest, slickest methods of communication to reveal the inner heart of cruelty: Homer knew and sang them all.

The Iliad is an ocean of suffering, a world in which the only morality is the act of revenge. “Beware the toils of war,” Sarpedon the Lycian hero says to Hector, the Trojan prince, in Robert Fagles’ translation, “the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world.” Buried inside that terrifying image of war trawling for the lives of men, its net stretched from one horizon to the other, is the Greek word for flax, the thread which the Fates use to spin our destinies. And so the metaphor makes an assumption: War is part of destiny. The net of war is made of the individual flaxen threads from which each of us hang. War is how things are. It is not an aberration or a strangeness. It is the theatre in which the structure of reality is revealed.

Look, if you can, at those ISIS videos, and you are staring at exactly what Homer stared at. We might long for peace, but we live in cruelty, and the Iliad is a poem about the inescapability of it. This is how things are. This is how things have always been. This is how things are going to continue to be. And alongside that everlastingness of grief, its repetitive return, is a deeply absorbed knowledge that suffering can only be told in detail. No counting of casualties will do; no strategic overview will understand the reality; only the intimate engagement with the intimacy of pain and sorrow, of dominance and submission, will convey the truth.

Sometimes, Homer sinks to nothing but a list of the names of the victims his warriors destroy:

Erymas and Amphoterus and Epaltes and Tlepolemus son of Damastor and Echius and Pyris and Ipheus and Euippus and Polymelus, son of Argeas: corpse on corpse he piled on the all-nourishing earth.

That is the progress made by Achilles’ friend Patroclus as he moves on “in a blur of kills.” It is the line of men, stripped naked and face down, lying shot in the sand of the desert. But then the rapidity, the appetite for more, stops and stills for a moment, and dwells on the detail of one particular death, one moment of heroic prowess:

Next he went for Thestor the son of Enops

cowering, crouched in his beautiful polished chariot,

crazed with fear, and the reins jumped from his grip—

Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone,

ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard

he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot rail,

hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched

on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea,

some precious catch, with line and glittering bronze hook.

So with the spear Patroclus gaffed him off his car,

his mouth gaping round the glittering point

And flipped him down facefirst,

dead as he fell, his life breath blown away.

Man as fish, body as rag doll, killing as a form of acrobatics, the absurdity of the slaughtered corpse: This is vertigo-inducing, a plunge into the black hole of reality, fuelled by the mismatch of sea-angling with war.

But there is a difference between Homer and ISIS. Homer sees the cruelty of existence with terrifying clarity, but he does not endorse it. The Greek warriors may love battle. The word they use for what they cherish about that battle-violence is glukos, sugary, even sickly, used to describe nectar and sweet wine. Think of that when you see the black-gowned ISIS men entering another city: It’s honey for them.

But Homer is greater than the world he describes, and his greatness is in his compassion. He knows the horror but he also knows what stands beyond the horror.

Now the sun of a new day struck on the ploughlands, rising

Out of the quiet water and the deep stream of the ocean

To climb the sky. The Trojans assembled together. They found

It hard to recognize each individual dead man;

But with water they washed away the blood that was on them

And as they wept warm tears they lifted them on to the wagons.

Great Priam would not let them cry out; and in silence

They piled the bodies on the pyre, and when they had burned them

went back to sacred Ilion.

Those warm Trojan tears, dákrua thermà, allied in these lines with the irreducible physical immediacy of the hands lifting and washing the bodies, are among Homer’s greatest legacies to us, the persistent belief, amidst all the damage, that there is value and beauty in human ties.