Critical Essays The Hero and Homeric Culture


The notion of personal honor is prevalent throughout the Iliad. The honor of every person in Homeric culture was important, but to the hero, his honor was paramount. He could not endure insults, and he felt that he had to protect his reputation — even unto death. The hero's duty was to fight, and the only way he had of gaining glory and immortality was through heroic action on the battlefield; thus, he continually prepared his life for the life-and-death risks of battle. The Homeric hero believed that men had to stand together in battle; men had to respect each other; and they had to refrain from excessive cruelty. This last condition was critically important for the Homeric hero. He loathed deliberate acts of cruelty and injustice. If he were ready to kill a victim, he believed that he should do it quickly; he was not to mutilate him, as Achilles does with Hektor's body. By following this code, a hero gained a sense of dignity and a reputation for honor that would ensure his place in the social memory of his community.

The Homeric hero lived by strict social and cultural norms that would guide his life at home and on the battlefield. His position as a hero depended upon understanding his place in society and performing in accordance with society's expectations. He accepted the pattern of a hero, which included a hero's suffering and a hero's death. When the hero expressed himself in words, he believed that his thoughts were derived from either society or a god. Nothing came from within. (In his soliloquies, the hero speaks to "his own great-hearted spirit" as though it were another person helping him make the right decisions.)

Communal honor was vital to the Homeric hero's status; his whole world revolved around his relationship with his family and city. If he lost the personal honor or glory that was accorded him by his community, he felt that life had lost its meaning. Achilles, for example, feels that he has lost his honor when Agamemnon takes Briseis from him. He feels a sense of rejection, and even Agamemnon's later offer of gifts in order to bring Achilles back to the fighting is futile because Achilles realizes that he will lose even more honor if he accepts Agamemnon's gifts.

The hero's social responsibility was essential to maintain his status, but the only way to establish his status was through his performance as a hero in combat on the battlefield. Furthermore, he had to show respect for and respond to social situations and mores; he had to respect his superiors and show loyalty to his friends, and he could in no way disgrace himself, his family, or his community. However, it was no disgrace to withdraw from an impossible situation because it was all a warrior could do at times. Patroklos, however, forgets this principle, as well as Achilles' warning not to drive the Trojans back to their city. Patroklos fails because he becomes irrational and allows pride to overcome his reason.

The Homeric community depended upon their heroes to defend its social and religious rites and all other facets of community life. Being a hero was a social responsibility that entitled a man to social status, and a warrior defined and justified his social status only on the battlefield.

The hero in Homeric culture recognized the rightness of his community's anger. For example, when Agamemnon strips Achilles of his war prize, Agamemnon places the responsibility for his actions on Zeus and Destiny. He says, "It is the god who accomplishes all things" and he claims that "Delusion" entangled him. Similarly, when Achilles ponders whether or not to draw his sword against Agamemnon, Athena grabs him by the hair and warns him against fighting with Agamemnon. Clearly, Achilles does not assume responsibility either for his anger or for his not killing Agamemnon. In fact, neither Achilles nor Agamemnon recognizes a personal responsibility for their emotional and physical responses, even though both men are on the edge of violence. To the Homeric hero, an outside force initiates action and thought — hence, personal responsibility is not an issue for a hero's decision to follow the dictates of an outside force.

A hero always had two choices: He could follow an external force, or he could make his own personal decisions. This idea derives from the concept that a man became a hero because he possessed certain qualities. Among those qualities is heroic balance, which requires a hero to insist upon his greatness and maintain a proper modesty before the gods. He had to know himself and be able to evaluate and act upon a situation. He also had to recognize the time when the gods withdrew their help, and at that time the hero had to withdraw from battle. If he failed to recognize how much his action was ruled by the gods, he lost his heroic balance and made a tragic error. If he failed to follow the gods and made his own decisions, he had to live with the shame of his mistake, and when he erred, he lost approval and honor.

The hero's fear of disgrace (aidos) governed his response to all social situations and to the judgements of others. If he acted incorrectly, society would scorn him. Yet despite the threat of others' judgements, note the actions of both Agamemnon and Achilles during the quarrel in Book I. Both men are at fault. Agamemnon breaks the bond of hero and community by insulting Achilles and claiming Briseis in lieu of Chryseis. Likewise, Achilles' threat to kill Agamemnon is a social act which, if carried out, would not only show disrespect for his superiors, but would force his Achaian community of soldiers to leave Troy. The disorder that is created by this crisis demands a restoration of order.

Heroes were constantly in fear of disgrace; they feared the judgement of their community. The hero did not distinguish between personal morals and conformity to the morals of the greater society; he concerned himself wholly with acceptance by the people, for if he failed to conform in any way, he risked the anger of his community and, consequently, shame.