The Iliad is a critical work of western literature that has influenced countless works throughout history and into the present day. But when a story is retold and adapted this often, important elements are distorted until they barely resemble the original. That’s why we’ve invited our favorite Iliad enthusiast to come talk about it. Listen as we discuss how Hector isn’t cool, why horses can talk, and that even the ancient Greeks had trouble with exposition.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And returning special guest…
Johnathan: Johnathan; back again, and here to talk about mythological misconceptions. I will personally be focusing on my favorite epic poem: the Iliad.
Oren: So, is it a poem? That’s what we should refer to it as, and not a novel?
Johnathan: Yeah, it’s an epic poem, because it was originally an oral tradition, and then written down and codified, and attributed to Homer, similar to Gilgamesh or Beowulf. That’s why a lot of- you hear the same phrases very often, like ‘rosy fingered dawn,’ et cetera, et cetera, every time a new day starts, because it’s easy to remember that, and it sort of centers you in the narrative.
And it’s a- more of a collection of poems, kind of? The Rage of Achilles- if you’ll notice, there’s a big portion that’s just all about some dude named Diomede, that’s sort of just an encapsulated, smaller poem inside of this much larger poem, the three-part cycle; the Iliad, and then there’s the actual siege of Troy, which, I don’t believe there’s a surviving manuscript, and then there’s the Odyssey.
Oren: Wait, so, the siege of Troy is like, a separate thing? It’s not in the Iliad?
Johnathan: No, they actually don’t take Troy, which- the reason the Iliad is called the Iliad is because one of the names for Troy is Ilios. So, it’s really just like, ‘the city that we’re fighting over.’ The Iliad only encompasses- it starts ten years after the siege starts, and then it encompasses a time period between then, and just before they’re about to take the city.
And it’s- the curtain closes after funeral games for Patroclus, and Hector’s death, but you don’t see Achilles die, the Trojan Horse isn’t in it, Paris doesn’t die in it.
Johnathan: Yeah, the Trojan Horse is not in the Iliad.
Chris: So, is there a separate ‘Horsiad’, where we cover the-
Johnathan: That’s the middle one that is lost.
Chris: Oh, okay. So, we know about the Trojan Horse from people commenting about it that we have records on?
Johnathan: We have- oh, man, I am blanking on the name of it, but there is- someone took the time to sort of create a Wikipedia of all the relevant myths-
Oren: Is it the Apollodorus? It might be.
Johnathan: And they reference the events that happen in between the Iliad and the Odyssey. They reference the Trojan Horse and how crafty that was, and how Achilles died, and there’s other references and stories that talk about these things in the past tense. I believe the Odyssey also mentions it. The Odyssey has a brief recap of how that all went down.
But the actual large-form narrative, you can just search on the internet for a translation of the Iliad and read an English translation of it. You can’t do that for the middle part.
Oren: I think Disney actually has the copyright now.
Johnathan: Disney has absorbed it.
Chris: Oh, no. [Chris and Oren laugh]
Johnathan: I mean, if they’ll make a good movie out of it…
Chris: No. That was too real. Too real, Oren. [Oren laughs] Not cool.
Johnathan: I don’t think they can do that. [Chris laughs]
Chris: So, it sounds like we’re also missing- you said it starts ten years after the siege?
Chris: Are we also missing what happens before that?
Johnathan: Well, we know before that, there is- so, the inciting incident is the kidnapping of Helen by Paris. And so, we know how that ramps up with the golden apples deal, and then Paris visiting Menelaus or Agamemnon- I always get those two confused, cause they’re both kind of rude dude brothers.
We know that, and then we know Iphigenia gets sacrificed by, I think, her dad Agamemnon, or Menelaus, whichever, to get the winds to pick up so they can go to Troy to start the siege, but the ten-year gap between them going and landing, and then the actual beginning of the Rage of Achilles, the Iliad, that, I don’t think we have. I could be very wrong on that; I’ve never seen it.
But I’m not a consummate scholar, I’m more of an amateur enthusiast. Which is my warning label on this whole thing; I could be very wrong, and I welcome corrections.
Oren: Right. And I mean, we’re dealing with something that was a bunch of poems to begin with, so there are probably bound to be different versions and inconsistencies of it.
Johnathan: Absolutely, there’s inconsistencies in source materials, and then there’s- my take on mythological misconceptions are zeitgeist inconsistencies from pop-culture representations of these myths, so, not only do you have conflicting original sources, you have a slow warping of even things that the original sources agreed upon, by popular culture presentations and retellings of these things over the centuries.
Oren: Alright, well why don’t you lay one on us?
Johnathan: Okay, let’s see… One of my favorite pop-culture misrepresentations is the idea that Hector killed Patroclus in a mano-a-mano duel, and then felt really bad about it. You see this in
a lot of adaptations of the Iliad, where Patroclus puts on Achilles’ armor, pretends to be Achilles, and goes out to encourage all the Achaeans to do a good job in a fight.
And that- he does do that. That’s true. But then you’ll see- like, Hector shows up and challenges Patroclus to a duel, and then they fight it out; and then Hector, typically in the adaptations I’ve seen recently, feels really bad about it, and is like, ‘oh, man. That wasn’t Achilles. I thought I had a noble duel going on, and I just killed this kid.’
But really, what happens is Patroclus is defeating Trojans by the score, and Apollo shows up, a literal god, and clouds him in darkness, slaps him in the back of the head, knocks his helmet off-
Oren: Oh, no.
Johnathan: -knocks his spear out of his hands, and he’s sitting there dazed, and then not even Hector shows up to finish him off- well, Hector shows up to finish him off, but before Hector shows up, some rando by the name of Euphorbus, the son of Panthous, a Dardanian-
Oren: Oh, yeah, that guy.
Johnathan: And the best spearman of his time.
Johnathan: All that good stuff. He shows up, and hits Patroclus right in the back between the shoulders with a spear.
Oren: Oh, no.
Chris: That sounds pretty deadly.
Johnathan: So, he goes up and does all that, and Hector shows up, and finally like, kill steals Patroclus.
Oren: Rude. [Chris laughs]
Johnathan: Yeah. After a god had gotten in there, and Euphorbus, and Hector shows up and talks a bunch of mess. And this connects to another misconception or misportrayal of the Iliad, where oftentimes they show Hector- later on, Hector begs Achilles- well, asks Achilles if they can have a respectful pact between like, ‘how are we going to treat each other’s bodies?’
And part of the emotional impact of that in modern retellings is, Hector was very nice to Patroclus’s body, in pop-culture representations. In the actual Iliad, he stripped Patroclus naked and tried to drag him back home so he could defile the body, and, you know, be a big tough mean guy about it.
So, Hector doesn’t have the moral high ground in the Iliad in regards to treating the remains of defeated enemies. So, that’s a misconception that gets propagated very often, because it’s sort of, ‘there’s really no one to root for unless someone’s being chill.’ And it’s harder to write a story people are invested in when Hector’s being a huge jerk all the time.
Hector’s ability to even fight Patroclus one-on-one is overrepresented, because this is a Greek story, and so, all of their heroes are essentially better than the Trojan heroes.
Chris: Well, speaking of having someone to identify with; it sounds like, from what I’ve heard, that the gods are very, very involved in the original version of the story.
Chris: And a lot of adaptations tend to take them out, probably because they are harder to identify with, and it’s hard to handle, but also probably cause the length needs to be cut down somewhat. Is that accurate? Or is that just wrong?
Johnathan: I don’t know about the reasons for cutting the gods down. I feel like the gods in their original forms are identifiable with. They’re not as we encompass- I feel like how we tell stories modernly about how powerful and all-capable gods are. That wasn’t how they read in the Iliad, at least to me.
They feel very fallible, petty, jealous, and capable of being just like, bummed out about something. It does take away some of the agency because lots of times gods will scoop someone up who’s just about to die. But I think the conflict that the gods are having, overlaid of the city itself, is interesting enough to keep.
An example of a fallible, human god- instances when Mars- Diomede, who I mentioned earlier, is very favored by Athena, and she grants him- I would like to call it ‘NBA Jam Fire’, it’s literally like, fire spurts out of his helmet and his shield, and he gets to trash a bunch of Trojans. And she tells him to stab Venus when Venus shows up, but to not stab anyone else.
So, he stabs Venus, and Venus goes and cries on Mount Olympus, and then Mars shows up, and Diomede holds back on fighting him, and then Athena gives him the okay; Diomede stabs Mars, and Mars goes and cries on Mount Olympus. And Mars is, in modern thinking of how gods work, like, the god of war, is typically immune to damage and just, this rampaging beast.
And he does rampage, and people use Mars as a descriptor for how powerful someone is being, but he gets stabbed by someone blessed by Athena, and he goes, and then his dad makes fun of him. Nobody likes Mars in the Iliad. He’s not popular. He’s not cool. Which is one of the other misconceptions I want to talk about, is the idea that Mars is cool is like, a modern adaptation of like-
We as a culture oftentimes think fighting is cool and manly, but the god that’s best at fighting in the Iliad is- well, Jove. But after Jove is- well, after Jove and after Juno, probably Athena. Cause Athena one-hit KO’s Mars with a rock. Just like, somewhere in the middle. It’s not super important; the gods are having a literal fight.
Oren: Whatever. It’s like, in the middle of all this, Athena just like, smacks Ares, or Mars, or whatever you want to call him, upside the head.
Johnathan: Yeah, Ares. Sorry, I’ve been saying Mars, but I get them mixed up all the time. And the translation I use also sort of cycles back and forth between some of the Greek and Roman names for these very similar gods.
Oren: My understanding was that the Romans, in general, venerated Mars a lot. Mars being their version of Ares. Which makes sense to me because the entire Roman Empire is based on eternal conquest. So, like, worshipping the guy whose domain that is makes sense to them.
Johnathan: That’s an undercurrent of the Iliad, is that war really sucks. Almost- not every time, but very often, if you are reading or listening to the Iliad, when someone dies, you’ll get a brief epilogue about how sad their father or mother is, or like, how their lands are worse without them going home, and just- it really hammers in that every live lost in this conflict is a tragedy all on its own and is important to someone.
Which, I think, speaks a lot to how the ancient Greeks viewed war as not good. Which is why Mars kind of sucks and is a punk, and Athena is much more rational and reserved and methodical than Mars is, who’s- or Ares; I think Mars is- Mars is the one that’s in my translation, so I’m just going to keep saying Mars.
Oren: I mean, it’s the same god, right? It’s the Greek name or the Roman name. It’s fine.
Johnathan: But the Romans, as you say, venerate Ares much more highly, because their method of warfare, they relied on it for expansion and their economy and to gain power, and they were also much more regimented than the ancient Greeks were, which were a bunch of, essentially, tribes that showed up.
In the second chapter of the Iliad, there’s just a huge listing of each chieftain, and how many boats they brought full of dudes to fight.
Oren: It’s good to know the boat accounting, we got that on lock.
Johnathan: It’s pretty interesting. There’s a lot of one-off characters that are only mentioned in the boat accounting; like, this one dude who’s very rich, but no one likes him. They’re just like, ‘okay. Well, he’s never mentioned again, but good to know.’
Oren: Excuse me, he would like to be called a ‘person of means.’ [Chris and Johnathan laugh] Calling him ‘rich’ is just so hurtful. [Chris laughs]
Johnathan: So degrading. [laughter] But that’s also the center of the conflict, is that no one has fealty to Agamemnon and Menelaus just because they’re king of everything. Everyone’s there in sort of segmented, tribal teams to help out in this one big mission.
Whereas the Roman Empire was like, an empire, and everyone had to do what they said, instead of everyone agreeing on, ‘yeah, this war sounds like a good war, and we’ll get prizes, and we agree to come help you do this stuff.’ So just, their format for war was so different, and they didn’t like it, cause people died, and they’d rather have a bunch of sheep and farms.
Chris: Speaking of that, I’m wondering now- I don’t know how much you know about their conception of the thing that started this war. Cause obviously, it’s sort of personal. We have a specific woman-
Johnathan: Yep. We have Helen of Troy.
Chris: Yeah. So, the idea is that there’s a whole bunch of people dragged to war over- I’m not sure if she was- was she kidnapped? Or was she just lured away.
Johnathan: That is often a topic for- okay, so she was married to Menelaus; I need to get my Menelaus and my Agamemnon straight. Menelaus was married to Helen, and then Paris ran off with her, and whether or not Helen was into it is something that changes based on who you want to be the protagonists of this story.
If you want the Trojans to be sympathetic, then Helen is escaping a relationship she’s not into with Paris, someone she is into. But if you want the Aegeans to be the heroes, you frame it the opposite.
There is- something that took me a couple reads through the Iliad to really wrap my head around, is in chapter three, book three; right after Paris loses a duel to Menelaus (because Paris is terrible at fighting, that’s just not his thing), he gets whisked back to his bedroom, and Venus shows up and tells Helen to go tend to her husband. So- and I just want to read Helen’s response:
“Goddess, why do you thus beguile me? Are you going to send me afield still further to some man whom you have taken up in Phrygia or fair Meonia? Menelaus has just vanquished Alexandrus, and is to take my hateful self back with him. You are come here to betray me. Go sit with Alexandrus yourself; henceforth be goddess no longer; never let your feet carry you back to Olympus; worry about him and look after him till he make you his wife, or, for the matter of that, his slave–but me? I shall not go; I can garnish his bed no longer; I should be a by-word among all the women of Troy. Besides, I have trouble on my mind.”
Anyways, Helen doesn’t like Paris.
Johnathan: Yeah. And then she yells at Paris later on. Well, so, Venus calls her a bold hussy, and then threatens her with godly retribution if she doesn’t go to Paris’s bed, who is Alexandrus, it’s the same dude. So, my read is that Helen isn’t there of her own accord; that she is there because Venus promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, which was apparently Helen.
Oren: She certainly doesn’t seem super into this.
Johnathan: She is not, is my read from this portion. I don’t think she’s super into Menelaus, either; I think she’s just mad about the whole thing, cause she has no input over it, and there’s a huge fight going on, and everyone in Troy is mad at her about it, cause they think it’s her fault, when it’s more Paris’s fault than anything.
Chris: Okay, that’s what I was wondering, because it does change- if war is bad. It changes, ‘what is the lesson here?’ A lot of times these tragedies we have- sort of immoral lesson. So, ‘who’s sin is this,’ basically?
Johnathan: Well, the sin in the Rage of Achilles- the war overall is kind of Paris’s thing. But in the Rage of Achilles, the sin is mostly Achilles’s; and it’s pride, because he could have ended the fight a lot sooner, if he didn’t go sulk in the corner about having Briseis taken from him.
Oren: Briseis is his wife? Or…
Johnathan: Briseis is his war prize. Which is another misconception that I have written down. So, it’s an epic poem from Ancient Greece. Women are often prizes, as you see with Helen just sort of being handed off to Paris because Paris gave the apple to Venus. But oftentimes- Briseis, textually, is in the middle ground, as far as her relationship to Achilles goes.
And modern retellings either go too far one way or the other, where she’s like, desperately in love with him and very, very into it and hated hanging out in Troy, or the other way, where she is- she hates Achilles, and she hates everyone because she’s being treated like chattel. Which, she was, but the context of the narrative is, that’s just how things were, and most people were- that was their only cultural understanding of how they existed.
In chapter- book nineteen of the Iliad, she’s very broken up and extremely sad that Patroclus is dead, and she talks about how she was really, really sad when her entire family was killed when the Aegeans came.
But she was happy when Patroclus comforted her and was convincing Achilles to marry her. And she apparently really appreciated that and had a very emotional response to Patroclus being dead, even though he was from the army that was invading her country. Killed her whole family.
So, it’s a very middle of the road sort of relationship portrayed; there’s not a lot of time spent talking about Briseis and her feelings on the whole thing, because it’s an Ancient Greek epic about war, and their focus on women is low.
Oren: Except for Athena.
Johnathan: Except for Athena, who shows up and brains Mars with a rock. [Chris laughs] And, you know, Juno and Venus get some screentime, Juno gets one up on Jove, which is great. She borrows a magic girdle and gets super sexy, and then tricks Jove to go to a mountain, and then they close the curtains so Jove can’t see everyone screwing up the war he orchestrated.
Oren: Good job, Jove.
Johnathan: He’s very easily tricked by that. It’s a fun little thing where Juno goes to Venus and is like, ‘I need to borrow your sexiest perfume and girdle, cause I have a plan.’ And Venus is like, ‘great, I love plans. Love scheming.’
Oren: That’s how all the best plans start, I think. If there’s one thing that I’ve sort of been able to get about the Iliad, is that it’s very complicated and has a lot of different themes going on.
And I think one of the reasons why we see Hector elevated to being like, this near-equal of Achilles, which he clearly isn’t in the original story, is that, if this is going to be a story about two armies fighting, and then their champions fight; if one of them is horribly outmatched, in most modern types of stories, that would just be boring.
It would be like, oh yeah, I guess Achilles won.’ All the rest of the context that makes that work in the original isn’t going to be there.
Johnathan: Yeah, if you’re isolating it down to a story about two armies fighting, then you definitely need to have a climactic battle at the end. But that’s not the story that the Iliad is, because- the title is ‘The Rage of Achilles,’ and the- most of the conflict is about Achilles and dealing with his pride issues, and then whether or not he will take Troy, at the expense of his own life.
Because he knows getting in it is his death. There’s no way around that. And he sort of sows the seeds of his own rage by refusing to fight, and then Patroclus goes out. And like, it’s all internal conflict about what it’s trying to do, and the main threat of this portion; cause remember, it’s a three-part trilogy, so- but this first part is all about Achilles and his- anger issues, really.
Oren: Oh, good. Very close and personal stuff. [laughs]
Chris: So wait, you said he knows that he’ll die if he goes in the city; is that a prophecy?
Johnathan: Yeah. There’s actually a part where a talking horse recites it to him. [Chris laughs]
Chris: A talking horse?
Johnathan: So, the talking horse is great. [Chris laughs] The horses only talk for a little bit.
Chris: See, this just makes it more likely that Disney will get this, somehow.
Johnathan: There’s a lot of very odd things happening in the Iliad that no one would ever know about, because they’re not important. But like, you’re just reading it, and you’re like, ‘what?’ But yeah, at one point, his horses talk, because Athena gives them the power of speech for a moment.
Chris: So that they can tell Achilles that he’ll die?
Johnathan: Well, he already knew he would die; his mom, Thetis, told him his choice was either, ‘if you go fight, and you take Troy, you’ll die in the process and be famous. Or like, don’t, and then don’t die, and maybe that’s cool.’
Chris: But he won’t be famous.
Johnathan: But he probably won’t be famous. The exact- I do not have a reference for- to the exact prophecy. (What does the horse say?) Cause the horse is on the same page as Briseis lamenting Patroclus’s death.
Let’s see now… Xanthus, his horse, says: “Dread Achilles, we will indeed save you now, but the day of your death is near, and the blame will not be ours, for it will be heaven and stern fate that will destroy you. Neither was it through any sloth or slackness on our part that the Trojans stripped Patroclus of his armour; it was the mighty god whom lovely Leto bore that slew him as he fought among the foremost, and vouchsafed a triumph to Hector.”
Oren: I appreciate that it let us know that the horses are not responsible for this.
Johnathan: Yeah, the horses denying their own responsibility; and then Achilles goes, “Why, O Xanthus, do you thus foretell my death? You need not do so, for I well know that I am to fall here, far from my dear father and mother; none the more, however, shall I stay my hand till I have given the Trojans their fill of fighting.” So, he knows. And he doesn’t need the horse to sass him about it.
Oren: It’s good that even the Ancient Greeks suffered from the ‘as you-and-I both know’ dialogue problem. [Chris laughs]
Johnathan: This thing’s so long that you got to remind people what’s happening every once in a while. The horses don’t always talk; Athena let them talk once- talk for a little bit, and then some other god removed their ability to talk, because it’s unnatural and horses shouldn’t talk. [Chris laughs]
Oren: That’s probably a wise decision, to be honest.
Johnathan: It’s the Erinyes- the Furies. “When he had thus said the Erinyes stayed his speech.” He said that one thing, and then stopped being able to talk. But it’s stuff like that- and then also there’s a footrace, and someone slips in horse poop.
Oren: Oh. Like you do.
Johnathan: The Iliad’s full of poop jokes- well, has a poop joke; and talking horses. Just a bunch of stuff you don’t see in modern adaptations.
Chris: Reminds me of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien just takes a random interlude to talk about some fox, and what this random fox thinks. [Chris and Johnathan laugh] And then we go back to the story again. Alright, Tolkien. That’s fine. [laughs]
Johnathan: I guess.
Oren: Alright, Jim, we’ve got a few more minutes left. Are there any other big misconceptions you want to hit before we’re done?
Johnathan: Yeah, I need to hit my main point about Hector, who, I hate all the modern retellings of him. Hector is canonically a coward. He talks a big game- I mean, he yells at Achilles, but when push comes to shove, he actually flees Achilles and runs around the entirety of Ilios three whole times, until Athena has to trick him into stopping so he actually fights.
Oren: Well, he’s a really good runner, then.
Johnathan: He is. He’s very fast.
Oren: Missed his calling as an Olympic marathon runner, right there. [Johnathan laughs]
Oren: Alright, well, I think that will make a good place to draw this episode to a close. Thank you, Jim, for joining us and bringing us some very excellent Greek mythology and Iliad excerpts.
Johnathan: Hey, thanks for having me. I always love a chance to rant about my favorite.
Oren: Not every day we get talking horses on the podcast. So, before we go, I just want to give a thanks to two of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Second is Ayman Jaber, you can find his stuff on thefantasywarrior.com. And if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week. [closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?