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The Iliad, and Everything You Need to Know About it

If you’ve been a mythology nerd for a while, you’ve certainly heard of “The Iliad”, even if you haven't read it. Well, if you are one of those people who did hear about it, but never had the time or courage to start the 620-page epic, this is a throughout review and summary that could be for your aid. 

The Iliad is an epic that used to be told from parents to children and by kids amongst themselves and was put into writing in the 8th century BCE by Homer, an ancient greek writer who also wrote the Odyssey down for it to be passed through generations all the way from back then to now, almost 30 centuries of time. 

The Iliad, written 30 years before the Odyssey, tells the story of the Trojan War that rages on between Achaeans, or Greeks as we call them now, and the Trojans, a kingdom that was built in modern-day Western Turkey. The first sprouts of conflict starts almost ten years before the actual war; when Helen, thought the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world, reaches the age where she’ll be wed. Men and boys alike from all over Greece get together at Helen’s kingdom before her father and each suitor brings forth their gifts, and in the end, the right for the choosing of her husband is given to Helen herself despite it being a rare situation for that era. Helen chooses Menelaus as her husband amongst tens of kings and suitors, who is the brother of Agamemnon, the king of the strongest kingdom of Ancient Greece, also a descendant of Zeus. But knowing the dangers and dangers all those strong and entitled suitors can pose, Odysseus, a man so smart that he was chosen as a mentee by the Goddess Athena herself, proposes that every suitor has to take a blood oath and get their name written down both to promise that they will accept that Helen chooses Menelaus and also to fight in a war in the name of her in case of anything happening to or about her. 

Fast forward a few years, the Trojans make their way to a friendly and diplomatic meet at Agamemnon’s country, staying at the very palace where they live, also the place where Helen was residing for the time being. The king of Troy during that time is Piriam, a man with fifty sons and fifty daughters, and one of his oldest and strongest sons is Paris, a man who was a favorite of the god Apollo and blessed by both him and Aphrodite, both incredibly good at archery and good looking almost in a feminine way beyond many of the men.  While staying in the palace in Sparta, Paris either seduces or abducts Helen from her room during the night and leaves the country with her to Troy. And thus, Agamemnon makes a call to every Achean kingdom and every suitor that was there the night Helen chose her husband to come to fight to both get her back and to get rid of the Trojans once and for all, making it a fight of honor and pride. 

With the obligation to respond to the call, kings and princes from all over Greece collect their troops and men to go to the war. This is where our main character enters the whole story: Achilles. Achilles is the son of King Peleus and Thetis, who is a minor sea goddess. Before her son’s birth, Thetis was given a prophecy that stated that her son would be stronger than his father and the rest of the Gods, knowing firsthand what such prophecies could mean for the fate of the world and themselves, decided to make sure that whoever Thetis bore a child from would be weak enough to not pose them any threats in the future; and Peleus was a man loved by the Gods, strong to a degree on his own accord, so they gave Thetis to him and in the end, Achilles was born. 

Another prophecy had told Thetis that her son would either go to the Trojan war, become the Aristos Achaion (best of Greeks) and become immortal, or never live up to his potential and die in his kingdom, old and forgotten. 

When Helen was wed, Achilles was around the age of seven and wasn't sent as a suitor, and thus he hadn’t taken the oath and wasn't obligated to go to the war; but there was Patroclus, who was his best friend, closest companion and generally believed to be his lover too, had been there that day around the age of eight, obviously not chosen as a suitor but still taken the oath nonetheless. Thetis knew her son would die if he went to the war, but was in an inner conflict between letting her son be a legend and remembered forever but die too young or letting him live until his old age but be forgotten without anyone to remember him, and have all his potential go to waste. In this situation, Thetis hides Achilles in an unknown island kingdom both away from the war and from Patroclus whom she hated and definitely did not approve of as Achilles’ closest companion. But eventually, being too smart for his own good, Odysseus finds both of them using trickery, and seeing that Patroclus has to go to war, Achilles accepts to join as well. 

All this storytelling and we’re not even that close to the plot of the Iliad, but without this information first, it’s doubtful that the epic would make all that much sense, so bear with me through these prequel-ish stories. 

Now that Achilles and Patroclus are joining the war for sure, they go back to Peleus’ kingdom, Patroclus also residing there after having been exiled from his own country after an accidental murder case when he was nine, and after gathering their army called the Myrmidons, ant men, who also have their own mythological story that would be too long to tell here, they leave for Troy, leaving their past life back and sailing to a journey that they know Achilles will never return from. 

From that point on, the Trojan War officially started. The Greeks draw the first blood in the war, by a man named Protesilaus, who, in the future, has his name be used for situations where someone starts a war that they know they won't see the end of. The war rages on for over thirteen years, and now we can finally get to the Iliad part.

The first line of the epic, taking place during the ninth year of the war, is “Sing o’ muse, the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus.”.  The Greeks had just raided a nearby village, collecting war prizes and capturing the women and girls left behind from their slaughtering as their slaves. During this, they capture a girl who is both a daughter of a priest of Apollo and is also a priestess herself. Her father, Chryses, goes to Agamemnon to get her daughter back with more than enough gold and treasure for her release, but Agamemnon turns it into a game of honor once again and refuses to give the girl up. And so, Chryses prays to Apollo for their downfall, to which the God responds by raining down invisible arrows that carry a fatal plague upon the Achaeans. 

Achilles confronts Agamemnon in front of all the Greek warriors after too many of their cattle and men die from the plague that is known to be coming from Apollo as their punishment, but Agamemnon sees that as a personal disrespect, and decides that Achilles’ behavior against him should be punished.

Now, Achilles is the greatest warrior of his time, and he constantly has put up with the entitlement and stupidly huge pride of Agamemnon for years, who is also the main general of the Achaeans which surely can't be good for his ego amongst everything. 

Agamemnon takes Briseis for himself as punishment for Achilles after the confrontation, an Anatolian girl whom Achilles had taken as a war prize at the very beginning of the war. Rightfully offended by this action that no one should dare to do, Achilles announces that he and his fighters are withdrawing from the war and that Agamemnon can do whatever he wants without his best warrior out of the battlefield. 

Achilles goes to the sea and talks to his mother, seeking interference or advice from the Gods. He and Patroclus stay in their own part of the Greeks’ campsite, refusing to fight and watching the Greeks crumble in the battle without their Aristos Achaion fighting for them. 

With Achilles gone, Diomedes excels as the next best fighter of the Achaeans,  who is, like Odysseus, aided by the Goddess Athena. From the second to seventh parts of the Iliad, Diomedes’ story is told, the brutality and violence of the raging war described in vivid detail. 

Following these events, amidst the battlefield, Paris and Menelaus reach an accord to settle the conflict through a duel. Despite Menelaus emerging as the victor, the Trojans violate the pre-established agreement. This breach leads to a prolonged battle spanning multiple days. Amidst the chaos, numerous warriors showcase their prowess, with notable feats accomplished by Diomedes and Hector, the best and strongest son of Priam. The tide of the battle brings about several shifts, yet ultimately, Hector's Trojan forces succeed in forcing the Achaeans to retreat back to the protective fortifications surrounding their ships. 

Faced with significant challenges, Nestor, the veteran Achaean captain, suggests dispatching an embassy to implore Achilles to rejoin the battle. Though Achilles hears their entreaties, he ultimately declines, asserting that he won't act until the Trojans directly assault his own vessels. Following an extended conflict, the Trojans eventually breach the Achaean stronghold, posing a severe threat to both the ships and the Achaean forces with the prospect of burning and slaughter looming large. 

Patroclus, worried about both the way the war is going and the way Achilles is destroying himself and the very reputation and fame that he came to the battle for, and inevitably will die for, begs for Achilles to join the war and fight for them once again. When Achilles refuses even himself, as a last resort, Patroclus begs him to at least let him go to war, sporting Achilles’ armor and wearing his helmet so that no one would recognize that it’s him. He promises Achilles that he will not actually fight in the war for it would both put himself in danger and would make people notice that it’s not Achilles from the difference in fighting styles and strength, promises that he will only lead their army and set fear amongst the Trojans, and will return to Achilles safe once it’s over. 

But not sticking to his promise, Patroclus gets into the fight and shows excellence in fighting, so good that no one there takes notice or even thinks about it not being Achilles under that shining armor and behind the shield made by the God Hephaestus himself.  

But, faced with Hector, the strongest of the Trojans and the next best warrior after Achilles in the whole world, Patroclus can’t hold for long and is killed by Hector. The battle breaks out over Patroclus’ body. Hector strips Achilles’ armor from Patroclus, but Menelaus and others manage to save the body to take it to Achilles and let him have a proper burial. 

When Achilles learns the death of his closest companion and possibly lover, he is overcome with grief and guilt. He doesn't leave the body for days, puts the remains of Patroclus to their bed, and weeps beyond him before completing the burial rituals himself, ordering that their ashes be buried together once he dies too. After that, he completely disregards the fact that the Gods had said that he would only die after Hector’s death, and goes to the battlefield one last time to seek revenge on Hector, no longer caring about his legacy, his fame, or even his life. 

This would be the right place to end this summary and review, for it would spoil the most important point in the story for the people who haven't read it yet. There’s so much to the story that is hidden between every detail in every line, and it is definitely worth making time for and reading at least once in your lifetime. And if you'd like to know more about the following epic Odyssey, I would recommend also reading "The Odyssey" from our blog after this one, which is also a great read and a personal favorite of mine. Keep learning about mythology, since you can never know what lessons you learn from them may be useful, and it's always best to be prepared for the future, as the saying goes, "history is always bound to repeat itself".

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