I generally have a couple of books going at any one time and, as per the advice of C.S. Lewis, I try to ensure that at least one of them is something old. Recently, by some strange coincidence, I seem to have been delving into a lot of Greek stuff (both pagan and Christian; not an intentional choice- it's just turned out that way) and as it happens I just finished The Iliad (yes, I had not read it before) and thought I might share some thoughts and impressions.
One of the things that interests me particularly about such works as this, and I felt much the same wandering about the various temples and sites in Egypt last year as well, is the opportunity to try to get inside the mind of paganism. It would not be too inaccurate to say that the advent of Christianity spelled the end for paganism historically. Whereas throughout the entire history of human society before Christ, virtually every society had had some pantheon of gods, some practice of sacrifice, etc., after Christianity this has become less and less the norm. This is of course a very broad statement with exceptions (yes, Zoroastrianism never really fit into the category of paganism; yes, pagan religions and peoples were still here and there long after Christianity, and later Islam, started spreading) but there is a broad truth here as well. 2000 years ago the majority of societies were pagan. Now, the only major pagan religion left is Hinduism, and those few foolish and ignorant who want to resurrect paganism in some form instead create something entirely new that the ancients simply wouldn't recognise.
This last indicates something significant. Real paganism is a thing utterly foreign to the modern mind and thus, in a sense, irrevocably lost. Even neo-pagans and Wiccans can't escape their underlying Judaeo-Christian mindset. So to walk around the temples of Egypt, or to read Homer, is to step into a foreign and fascinating land. How did these people think? What were these rituals they practiced and how did they understand their significance? What and who did they really think the gods were?
In this connection, two things surprised me in reading the Iliad. One was just how involved the gods are in the poem. One imagines in a work like this that the gods will be distant entities, sitting atop Olympus looking down, occasionally invoked by the people. Not so. They get their hands dirty. They're constantly trying to influence battles and kill or save individuals (Aphrodite even gets physically injured by Diomedes when she rescues Aeneas from him). They also like disguising themselves as random minor characters whereby they seek to influence the minds of major characters.
In addition to their constant presence, though, is their pettiness. Virtually all of the gods have taken a side in the war and are keen to not only root for their side but actively sabotage the other side. To this end, for example, Hera seduces Zeus, knowing this will send him off to sleep (I found that pretty funny actually) so he won't notice her fellow gods turning the tide of battle behind his back. This trait sits alongside a certain arbitrariness, which comes across as cruel and heartless. Zeus has a masterplan for the whole thing. He has every intention of letting the Greeks win the war eventually. But he intends that Hector should die at the hands of Achilles. To do that, Achilles has to get over his disagreement with Agamemnon. For that to happen, Patroclus has to die. For Patroclus to die, he has to decide to go into battle. For Patroclus to go into battle, the Greeks have to believe that he is the only one who can save them from utter defeat. For them to believe that, the Trojans have to have pushed the Greeks back to the beaches and have fired at least one of their ships. For that to happen, all the Greek champions have to have been injured and incapacitated for the rest of the battle. So Zeus has it all worked out, and to hell with all those dying on both sides in the meantime. When Poseidon starts feeling sorry for the Greeks in their increasingly desperate situation and decides to go into battle himself disguised as one of them, Zeus is none too happy. "That wasn't part of the plan!"
As Christians we often take the steadfast love of God for granted. We're used to His benevolence. We accept that God is love, as St John says, and that mercy and goodwill is simply of His nature. The Greeks clearly didn't have that luxury. Their gods had their own agenda, and bad luck if your death or suffering was an essential ingredient in their grand scheme. We, for our part, know that if we suffer, God means it for our good, even if we cannot see it. For the Greek gods, the good of the individual did not exist. Men, even the greatest of men like Hector or Patroclus or Achilles, are simply pawns in a game which is not ultimately about them. Given the contrast, I find myself less surprised that the Greeks as a people converted and have never really looked back.
On the human side, one of the other things that intrigued me was, on the one hand, how graphically violent the whole poem is and, on the other, how personalised it is. The norm for much of the poem is something like this: "So Hector threw his spear at Arnokos, and it hit him on the left side and pierced him just below the shoulder-blade, emerging near the centre of his back slightly to the left of his spine and blood spurted out and stained his bronze armour which he had taken from his father at his home in the hill-country of Mt Ida, though his father had warned him repeatedly that no good would come of his going to war and had expressly forbidden him from seeking the field of Troy; but Arnokos had stolen away in the middle of the night, taking with him his father's spear and bronze shield and bronze greaves and gold-hilted sword and plumed helm, yearning for the god-bestowed glory and honour that comes in the heat and din of battle. Thus his father's warnings were proved and Arnokos saw his end by the thrusting spear of Hector." So one gets a full back-story, along with graphic details of the death, of a character who has never been mentioned in the narrative before that point and is never mentioned again. It's weird and takes getting used to. In some ways, I kind of liked it, because it married the excitement of your typical modern Hollywood battle scenes with their nameless hordes rushing forward en masse to be slain by our heroes in a grisly and gory manner with a more personal touch that recalled to my mind Victor Hugo's penchant for writing characters for their own sake even if they have no bearing on the plot whatsoever. On the other hand, after several chapters of almost nothing but this kind of thing, it got terribly, terribly boring.
So, the Iliad's done. I had vaguely intended to read it in Fitzgerald's translation and then read Pope's version, but I'm not really motivated as much now. The Iliad is, to be honest, not the most riveting thing I've ever read. Still, I'm pretty chuffed to have finished it, and eager to dive into the sequel.