The Iliad

by thecustomhouse

I’ve been rereading The Iliad.  It’s a humbling and exciting process, because I missed so much the first time through.  It’s always better for me to kind of sink into a book ankles first, instead of diving headlong.  That way it sort of soaks in and becomes a part of you.  There’s never enough time at school. Anyway, I came across this gorgeous definition of courage-

“the skin of the coward changes colour one way and another,and the heart inside him has no control to make him sit steady, but he shifts his weight from one foot to another, then settles firmly on both feet, and the heart inside his chest pounds violent as he thinks of the death spirits, and his teeth chatter together: but the brave man’s skin will not change colour, nor is he too much frightened, once he has taken his place in the hidden position, but his prayer is to close as soon as may be in bitter division: and there no man could make light of your battle strength or your hand’s work. Even were you wounded in your work with spearcast or spear- stroke, the weapon would not strike behind your neck, nor in your back, but would be driven straight against the chest or the belly as you make your way onward through the meeting of champions (13.275-295).”

In other places throughout the poem, when a hero is killed, he is described as falling like a tree.  The implication is that heroes stand in the present, while cowards shift position. Their colors change, because they see themselves continuing (as though by taking one action and not another they could avoid death). In contrast, heroes see no future.  They accept that all men will die (themselves included) and act as well as they can in whatever fix they find themselves.  Of course, this sentiment is expressed far more beautifully in the actual passage.  This format will not allow me to break the lines as they should be broken, but its grace comes across.