A Hero in “The Iliad”

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The term hero seems to drive most, if not all, of the action in Homer’s ‘The Iliad.’ The poem tells the gruesome story of the Trojan war. In this kill or be killed environment, the characters all seem to be thirsting for one thing; Honor. Honor is brought about in many ways in the poem, courage, prowess, social status and physical attributes. Most importantly, a hero’s honor in the Iliad is consistently held with his most vital trait; mortality. It is death that defines and separates a hero; from both fellow humans and gods alike; and it is by death that a hero is considered honorable.

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The actions of a character are an important marker of their heroism in the Iliad. Hector alludes to the heroic code when he says “I’ve learned to be brave always, and to fight in the front ranks of the Trojans, winning my father great glory and glory for myself.” This selfless behavior cannot be present without the risk of death. The gods themselves can to perform these incredible feats, and some even do, disguised as mortals. But, the looming risk of dying is where the characters in the Iliad find the merit for their actions. There are, however, exceptions such as Aeneas who is considered heroic even without the mortal condition.

Death proves to be central to the honor a hero might receive through his actions. A hero’s honorable status is carried from his victories through his death and far beyond that. Homer coins this as “Imperishable Glory.” This is the notion that the hero’s ultimate death is counteracted by the livelihood of their name and story. This fame beyond fame is something the characters seek when they pursue honor. Society reinforces this pursuit of glory through action, the public also seeks to present those who sacrifice and risk their lives with physical signs of honor for their valor. These signs are presented by treasures and prizes as well as fame and recognition. Hector speaks of this pressure when he says “But I would be terribly ashamed before the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would skulk away from battle like a coward.”

Achilles, who shows the valor of a traditional hero but opposes it through the pursuit of his personal agenda; also concerns himself with death. Achilles descends from the gods, and has qualities unmatched by any man in war, but nonetheless, is still mortal. It is his mortality which shows in the end to be his motivator. He says ”He that fights fares no better than he that does not; coward and hero are held in equal honor, and death deals like measure to him who works and him who is idle.” This is yet another reminder that even those who seem to rise above in qualities of heroism are still held to the same standard of sacrifice by others as well as themselves.

Homer’s poem would not have the same masterful effect if the central character did not directly negate what he initially stands for. When the Greeks beg Achilles to return, presenting him with gifts; he tells them that no gifts are equal to the value of his life. He numerates two choices “If I remain here and fight around the Trojans’ city, my journal home is gone, but there will be undying glory. If I go back home to my dear fatherland, my noble glory is gone, but there’ll be a long life for me, and the stroke of death will not find me quickly.” Achilles later changes his mind and rejoins the troops, this time fighting for the grief of his friend. Yet he still seems to consider abandoning the war to return home.

In the end, it is expected that Achilles will prove himself a hero through his actions and he does so with the acknowledgement of his fate and his heroic decision to face death in respect of a higher purpose. It is interesting to note, however, that even if achilles were to once again abandon his troops; he would likely still be considered a hero.  

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A Hero In "The Iliad". (2021, Apr 09). Retrieved November 29, 2022 , from
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