Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
One would naturally expect a martial epic to depict men in arms, but armor in The Iliad emerges as something more than merely a protective cover for a soldier’s body. In fact, Homer often portrays a hero’s armor as having an aura of its own, separate from its wearer. In one of the epic’s more tender scenes, Hector removes his helmet to keep its horsehair crest from frightening his son Astyanax. When Patroclus wears Achilles’ armor to scare the Trojans and drive them from the ships, Apollo and Hector quickly see through the disguise. Then, when a fight breaks out over Patroclus’s fallen body, the armor goes one way and the corpse another. Hector dons the armor, but it ends up betraying him, as it were, in favor of its former owner. Achilles’ knowledge of its vulnerabilities makes it easier for him to run Hector through with his sword. By this point in the story, Achilles has a new set of armor, fashioned by the god Hephaestus, which also seems to have a life of its own. While Achilles’ mortal body can be wounded—and indeed, the poem reminds us of Achilles’ impending death on many occasions—Homer describes the divine armor as virtually impervious to assault.
While martial epics naturally touch upon the subject of burial, The Iliad lingers over it. The burial of Hector is given particular attention, as it marks the melting of Achilles’ crucial rage. The mighty Trojan receives a spectacular funeral that comes only after an equally spectacular fight over his corpse. Patroclus’s burial also receives much attention in the text, as Homer devotes an entire book to the funeral and games in the warrior’s honor. The poem also describes burials unconnected to particular characters, such as in Book 7, when both armies undertake a large-scale burial of their largely unnamed dead. The Iliad’s interest in burial partly reflects the interests of ancient Greek culture as a whole, which stressed proper burial as a requirement for the soul’s peaceful rest. However, it also reflects the grim outlook of The Iliad, its interest in the relentlessness of fate and the impermanence of human life.
Fire emerges as a recurrent image in The Iliad, often associated with internal passions such as fury or rage, but also with their external manifestations. Homer describes Achilles as “blazing” in Book 1 and compares the sparkle of his freshly donned armor to the sun. Moreover, the poem often compares a hero’s charge or an onslaught of troops to a conflagration sweeping through a field. But fire doesn’t appear just allegorically or metaphorically; it appears materially as well. The Trojans light fires in Book 8 to watch the Achaean army and to prevent it from slipping away by night. They constantly threaten the Achaean ships with fire and indeed succeed in torching one of them. Thus, whether present literally or metaphorically, the frequency with which fire appears in The Iliad indicates the poem’s over-arching concern with instances of profound power and destruction.