ENG214 Topics in World Literature: Ancient to Medieval
Prof. E. Joy
Sample Student Essay (Critical Essay 1):
Honor with Regard to Desecration
In the Iliad, Homer offers detailed descriptions of the fatal blows received by warriors fighting on both sides of the Trojan War. These descriptions of mutilating injuries inflicted on living individuals depict the ferocity of the fighting. Neither the warriors who inflict these blows nor the warriors who die from their injuries lose honor in these mutilations. Once a warrior has been killed, continued injury, or desecration of the body, is intended to diminish the honor of the fallen soldier; however, in the Iliad, Homer does not allow key warriors to endure the desecration planned for them and implies that victorious warriors achieve greater honor by treating the bodies of their enemies with respect than with scorn.
When Patroklos kills Hektor’s half brother, Kebriones, Homer provides an explicit description of the fatal blow: “Both brows were hit at once, the frontal bone / gave way, and both his eyes burst from their sockets / dropping into the dust before his feet” (16.594-96). Because the blow was struck to a living Kebriones, the details of his wound are listed. In contrast, when the Akhaians win possession of Kebriones’ body intending desecration, the only detail offered is that his gear is stripped away.
Stripping away a fallen warrior’s arms may be dishonoring, but Patroklos’ words regarding Sarpedon’s body imply that the gear represents spoils of war. Patroklos says, “May we / take him, dishonor him, and strip his arms” (16.388-89). By separating the two actions, the desecration is identified as dishonoring more than the stripping of gear.
Sarpedon understands Patroklos’ intent to dishonor is fallen body. His final words to his comrades are, “. . . fight / to keep my body, else in later days / this day will be your shame” (16.319-21). Both sides fight ferociously for Sarpedon’s body, yet in the end neither side wins it. Sarpedon is protected from mutilation by the intervention of the gods. On Zeus’ orders, Apollo removes his body from the battlefield. His body is then bathed and anointed and returned to his homeland for proper funeral rights. (16.518-26) Homer does not allow this key warrior to suffer mutilation and dishonor after death.
Nor does Patroklos’ body endure desecration after Hektor kills him, although Hektor’s desire is “to sever and impale Patroklos’ head / on Trojan battlements” (16. 204-5). Instead, Akhilleus reveals his intent to return to the battlefield causing panic among the Trojans and allowing Patroklos’s body to be recovered by the Akhaians. Rather than details of desecration, Homer provides details of Patroklos’ body being bathed, anointed, and prepared for funeral rites as well as Akhilleus’ mourning the loss of Patroklos.
When Akhilleus and Hektor face each other on the battlefield, Hektor tries to reach a pact with Akhilleus:
“I’ll not insult your corpse should Zeus allow me
Victory in the end, your life as prize.
Once I have your gear, I’ll give your body
Back to Akhaians. Grant me, too, this grace.” (16.303-6)
Once again, the stripping of arms is associated with winning spoils in war more than with dishonoring a fallen warrior. This offer of a pact is an attempt by Hektor not only to preserve his own body, but to show respect for a powerful enemy. Akhilleus refuses Hektor’s pact and announces his intention to see Hektor’s body shamed and dishonored.
Once Akhilleus has killed Hektor, he tries to dishonor and desecrate Hektor’s body. The Akaian soldiers each take turns stabbing the body. Akhilleus ties the body’s ankles together then drags the body behind his chariot daily for several days. Still, Hektor is another key warrior whom Homer does not allow to be mutilated. The god Apollo “kept his flesh free of disfigurement” (23.22). In spite of Akhilleus’ efforts, Hektor is not dishonored. However, Akhilleus’ honor suffers from his actions.
Hektor had tried to warn Akhilleus with his final words, “Think a bit, though: this may be a thing the gods in anger hold against you” (22.426-27). Homer is indicating that desecration does not bring dishonor to the deceased, but to the desecrator. He reinforces this position in Book 24 with Apollo’s comments about Akhilleus’ treatment of Hektor’s body:
“. . . now he drags the body, lashed to his car,
Around the barrow of his friend, performing
Something neither nobler in report
Nor better in itself.” (24.59-62)
Akhilleus’s actions are not noble and are bringing dishonor upon himself.
Homer offers other instances to show that honoring the body of a fallen enemy warrior brings greater honor than desecration. In Book 6, when Andromakhe is talking with Hektor about Akhilleus having killed her father, she says, “He killed him, / but, reverent at last in this, did not despoil him” (352-53). Akhilleus was reverent and brought honor to himself by giving her father a proper funeral. Also, Priam says to Hektor just before the fight with Akhilleus, “Everything done / to a young man killed in war becomes his glory” (22.85-91). Mutilation or desecration of a fallen warrior does not dishonor that warrior. On the contrary, the victor who performs the disrespectful act is dishonored. True honor for the victor comes from showing respect to a fallen enemy. Akhilleus regains his honor when he returns Hektor’s body to Priam after having it bathed and anointed.
The notion that the desecration of an enemy’s body will bring dishonor to that enemy persists in recent times. During the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the stripped bodies of slain U.S. soldiers were drug through that city’s streets and beaten. These actions did not diminish the honor of the deceased soldiers. They did, however, make the crowds appear barbaric and resulted in the withdrawal of aid to an impoverished nation. In The Iliad, Homer had made the lesson clear when he did not allow the desecration of key warriors: Honor is not obtained through desecration, but through a show of respect towards fallen adversaries.
Homer. The Iliad. In The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Book 1. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 288-420. Print.