The Iliad By Homer Summary and Analysis Book XXIII

Summary

After returning to the Achaian camp, Achilles and the Myrmidons drive their chariots in a ritual procession around the bier of Patroklos, and Achilles leads his men in a dirge for the dead hero. That night, a funeral feast is held. Afterward, while he sleeps, Achilles has a vision of the ghost of Patroklos in which his friend asks that his funeral be held so that he can enter the realm of the dead in peace.

In the morning, the soldiers fetch wood and build a large funeral pyre. The army marches out in full military regalia, and the body of Patroklos is placed on top of the pyre. Several horses and hunting dogs, as well as the twelve captive Trojan noblemen, are sacrificed on the lower part of the accumulation of wood. The whole pile is then set on fire. After the flames have burned for a while, the fire is extinguished with wine, and the bones of Patroklos are placed in a jar for future burial alongside the body of Achilles. A memorial barrow is erected over the remains of the funeral pyre.

Achilles now proclaims that funeral games will be held in honor of his friend. Contests in chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, running, dueling, discus throwing, archery, and javelin throwing ensue, and valuable prizes are awarded.

During this time, the body of Hektor lies on the ground untended, but Apollo and Aphrodite protect the corpse from the ravages of stray dogs and the heat.

Analysis

Beginning in Book XXII and extending to Book XXIV, Achilles again moves from understandable anger, this time over the death of Patroklos, to uncontrollable and all-consuming rage in his treatment of the body of Hektor. These last three books follow the same structural pattern in Achilles' rage that the first twenty books did. Achilles anger at Agamemnon is replaced with anger at Hektor. Likewise, just as Achilles reached a reconciliation with Agamemnon, so will he reconcile with Hektor's father, Priam.

Achilles had begun the desecration of Hektor's corpse at the end of Book XXII, and he continues it, both explicitly and implicitly, in Book XXIII. Achilles' rage cannot be abated, and the reader can no longer feel sympathy for the Achaian warrior. Homer created a largely sympathetic and understandable character in Hektor. Hektor may have gloried over the dead Patroklos, but he did not mutilate the body; so now, Achilles' actions go beyond the bounds of acceptability. Just as Achilles' anger toward Agamemnon turned into petulance, his anger at those who killed Patroklos turns into irrational fury.

Achilles anger is interrupted and tempered by two events in Book XXIII: the dream appearance of Patroklos and the funeral games. In both cases, the reader is allowed to see a more humane aspect of Achilles.

The ghost of Patroklos is one of only a few instances of supernatural occurrences in the Iliad, along with the constant references to the gods. Even in this instance, the ghost of Patroklos is more of a dream vision than a real visitation. As in so many other encounters in the Iliad, the ghost of Patroklos can also be interpreted as a psychological event — Achilles talking to himself. The ghost's request for burial follows the ancient Greek belief that the soul cannot rest without burial. The vision of the ghost also helps prepare the way for Achilles' reconciliation with Priam in the last book. Patroklos represents the more human and humane sides of Achilles' personality, and the appearance of the ghost has a decided softening effect on Achilles' wrath.

Similarly, the funeral ceremony and games show Achilles in a more favorable light. The funeral rites involve a procession of chariots, the cutting of hair as a sign of mourning, and various sacrifices, including both animals and humans (the Trojan captives).

The burial is followed by the games, thought to be patterned on real sporting events such as the Olympic contests, which were founded approximately at the time the Iliad was composed. The general consensus of critics and historians is that the first four contests made up a typical series of games — two-horse chariot race, boxing, wrestling, and the footrace. The other three games — the armored fight, discus throwing, and the archery — are thought to be later additions.

One interesting sidelight, proving that some things never change, is the boxer Epeus' comment. Before entering the match, he shouts, "I am the greatest!"

The games provide for a last review of the heroes of the Greek army. These characters, who have played the major roles throughout the poem, appear here for the final time. The games allow the reader to see them in a more civilized competition and provide a valedictory and farewell for the Greek warriors. Only Achilles appears in Book XXIV.

Glossary

cortege a ceremonial procession, such as at a funeral.

dirge a slow, sad song, poem, or musical composition expressing grief or mourning; lament.

funeral games athletic contests held as part of the ritual of an important warrior's funeral.

gold, two-handled urn a vase used to hold ashes and other remains of a dead warrior.

Olympiad the athletic contests held near Mount Olympos in honor of the gods. The funeral games of Patroklos seem to be based on the contests of the Olympiad.

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