Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Glory of War
One can make a strong argument that The Iliad seems to celebrate war. Characters emerge as worthy or despicable based on their degree of competence and bravery in battle. Paris, for example, doesn’t like to fight, and correspondingly receives the scorn of both his family and his lover. Achilles, on the other hand, wins eternal glory by explicitly rejecting the option of a long, comfortable, uneventful life at home. The text itself seems to support this means of judging character and extends it even to the gods. The epic holds up warlike deities such as Athena for the reader’s admiration while it makes fun of gods who run from aggression, using the timidity of Aphrodite and Artemis to create a scene of comic relief. To fight is to prove one’s honor and integrity, while to avoid warfare is to demonstrate laziness, ignoble fear, or misaligned priorities.
To be sure, The Iliad doesn’t ignore the realities of war. Men die gruesome deaths; women become slaves and concubines, estranged from their tearful fathers and mothers; a plague breaks out in the Achaean camp and decimates the army. In the face of these horrors, even the mightiest warriors occasionally experience fear, and the poet tells us that both armies regret that the war ever began. Though Achilles points out that all men, whether brave or cowardly, meet the same death in the end, the poem never asks the reader to question the legitimacy of the ongoing struggle. Homer never implies that the fight constitutes a waste of time or human life. Rather, he portrays each side as having a justifiable reason to fight and depicts warfare as a respectable and even glorious manner of settling the dispute.
Military Glory over Family Life
A theme in The Iliad closely related to the glory of war is the predominance of military glory over family. The text clearly admires the reciprocal bonds of deference and obligation that bind Homeric families together, but it respects much more highly the pursuit of kleos, the “glory” or “renown” that one wins in the eyes of others by performing great deeds. Homer constantly forces his characters to choose between their loved ones and the quest for kleos, and the most heroic characters invariably choose the latter. Andromache pleads with Hector not to risk orphaning his son, but Hector knows that fighting among the front ranks represents the only means of “winning my father great glory.” Paris, on the other hand, chooses to spend time with Helen rather than fight in the war; accordingly, both the text and the other characters treat him with derision. Achilles debates returning home to live in ease with his aging father, but he remains at Troy to win glory by killing Hector and avenging Patroclus. The gravity of the decisions that Hector and Achilles make is emphasized by the fact that each knows his fate ahead of time. The characters prize so highly the martial values of honor, noble bravery, and glory that they willingly sacrifice the chance to live a long life with those they love.
The Impermanence of Human Life and Its Creations
Although The Iliad chronicles a very brief period in a very long war, it remains acutely conscious of the specific ends awaiting each of the people involved. Troy is destined to fall, as Hector explains to his wife in Book 6. The text announces that Priam and all of his children will die—Hector dies even before the close of the poem. Achilles will meet an early end as well, although not within the pages of The Iliad. Homer constantly alludes to this event, especially toward the end of the epic, making clear that even the greatest of men cannot escape death. Indeed, he suggests that the very greatest—the noblest and bravest—may yield to death sooner than others.
Similarly, The Iliad recognizes, and repeatedly reminds its readers, that the creations of mortals have a mortality of their own. The glory of men does not live on in their constructions, institutions, or cities. The prophecy of Calchas, as well as Hector’s tender words with Andromache and the debates of the gods, constantly remind the reader that Troy’s lofty ramparts will fall. But the Greek fortifications will not last much longer. Though the Greeks erect their bulwarks only partway into the epic, Apollo and Poseidon plan their destruction as early as Book 12. The poem thus emphasizes the ephemeral nature of human beings and their world, suggesting that mortals should try to live their lives as honorably as possible, so that they will be remembered well. For if mortals’ physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them, perhaps their words and deeds can. Certainly the existence of Homer’s poem would attest to this notion.
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.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Achaean Ships
The Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Greek race. They constitute the army’s only means of conveying itself home, whether in triumph or defeat. Even if the Achaean army were to lose the war, the ships could bring back survivors; the ships’ destruction, however, would mean the annihilation—or automatic exile—of every last soldier. Homer implies that some men shirked the war and stayed in Greece, while others, such as Peleus, were too old to fight. However, to Homer’s original audience, the Achaean warriors at Troy represented more than a mere subpopulation of the Greek race. Homer’s contemporaries believed that the heroes represented here actually lived historically, as real kings who ruled the various city-states of Greece in their earliest years. Ancient audiences regarded them as playing definitive roles in the formation and development of Greece as they knew it. The mass death of these leaders and role models would have meant the decimation of a civilization.
The Shield of Achilles
The Iliad is an extremely compressed narrative. Although it treats many of the themes of human experience, it does so within the scope of a few days out of a ten-year war. The shield constitutes only a tiny part in this martial saga, a single piece of armor on a single man in one of the armies—yet it provides perspective on the entire war. Depicting normal life in peacetime, it symbolizes the world beyond the battlefield, and implies that war constitutes only one aspect of existence. Life as a whole, the shield reminds us, includes feasts and dances and marketplaces and crops being harvested. Human beings may serve not only as warriors but also as artisans and laborers in the fields. Not only do they work, they also play, as the shield depicts with its dancing children. Interestingly, although Homer glorifies war and the life of the warrior throughout most of his epic, his depiction of everyday life as it appears on the shield comes across as equally noble, perhaps preferable.
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