Death’s Immortality – An Examination of Death in Homer’s Literature

April 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

The idea of glory is an inseparable cloud surrounding every epic story. All characters and actions are geared towards achieving unending honor and glory. To Homer and his works, the one action that best captures everlasting glory is a heroic death. Though the ideas of wisdom (the god Athena, for example) and love (Aphrodite) pervade their culture and religion, the life of a great man is epitomized by his heroic death. Heroism in death is obsessively desired because the heroes are trying to obtain the one thing humanity will never achieve: immortality. Their religion is based on the worship of immortal human beings with power, not forces or a perfect God (most certainly not our modern day Jehovah). In a sense, through heroic death and sustained legacy, heroes of Homer’s writings strive to become the immortal gods they worship. And in the oral tradition of Homer’s culture, this can be done only through commemoration and tales passed down through time. Death, for a hero, is the beginning of his immortality.To capture the immortality desired by heroes, they must have a just purpose for their death. This purpose is best fulfilled in battle. In a heartfelt discussion with his wife, who pleads with him not to fight and die, mighty Hektor of the Trojans proclaims, “…some day seeing you shedding tears a man will say of you,/ ‘This is the wife of Hektor, who was ever the bravest fighter of the Trojans, breakers of horses,/ in the days when they fought about Ilion.’â€? (6:458-462) The fact that his wife will be a widow does not bother him as long as his legacy is long lasting. His heroic death in battle will live on and grant him immortality, which is much more important than merely living out his life with his wife and son. Another hero who falls to a heroic death is Patroklos, Achilles’ life-long companion. When Achilles refuses to join the battle against the Trojans, Patroklos takes action and rejoins the battle. After brutally slaughtering many Trojans, he is put to his death with the help of a god. Falling to his “deadly destiny…/ which has killed meâ€? (16:849), Patroklos immediately is granted never-ending glory for his valor in battle by Homer’s words. An entire book of The Iliad is spent in the description of a battle over his body, and the mere fact that Homer speaks of him in such regard is to his undying acclaim. Achilles best exemplifies the hero’s feelings of death. His is a special case, because he knows he is fated to die and die soon. When his best friend and companion is destroyed in battle, he is given the ultimate choice: revenge a friend’s death and die, or let the killer go and live. This is not even a question for the true epic hero, and Achilles, of course, chooses to die. He states, “I must die soon, then; since I was not to stand by my companion/ when he was killed…/ so I likewise, if such is the fate which has been wrought for me,/ lie still…/ But now I must win excellent glory…â€? (18: 98-121) The glory of revenge and battle is of much more importance than life itself (however, this feeling will be altered later in Homer’s work). The death of Achilles, while never actually portrayed in Homer’s work, definitely epitomizes a heroic death as well as an immortal one. In Homer’s epics, a hero’s actual death and the purpose behind it must be honorable in order to obtain the immortality desired.The immortality obtained by heroes is stressed by the presence of the closest thing Homer has to an afterlife: Hades. It is said that mortal beings go into Hades’ underworld after their death. This is not a place like the Heaven/Hell dichotomy that modern day religions emphasize, but a place where all beings go after death. Homer uses Hades as a metaphor for the continued existence of the heroes in his epics, despite their deaths. Even after Patroklos’ death, we see him reappear to ask Achilles to bury him. Achilles states, “Oh, wonder! Even in the house of Hades there is left something,/ a soul and an image…â€? (23:103-104) Achilles leaves us with the idea that the actions of heroes can echo through time long after they are gone. The theme of the hero “living on despite deathâ€? is quite apparent here. The purpose of immortality is most certainly achieved through commemoration, and Homer commemorates the heroes through their speeches from the dead. This can be seen best in The Odyssey, in which Homer actually allows the audience to visit Hades through the eyes of Odysseus. The fallen heroes of his epics return to speak of their lives and deaths. Agamemnon talks of his untimely murder by his wife, a strong contrast to the gallant deaths of the other heroes. Herakles returns to talk of his arduous but gloried life. Most importantly, Achilles returns to speak of being dead. He states, “I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another/ man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on/ than be a king over all the perished dead.â€? (11: 489-491) This is a twist on his previous idea of death, and in fact a complete contrast to Homer’s previous views on dying. He suggests that living life solely to die gloriously is for naught. However, this posthumous epiphany only suggests Homer’s commemoration of the great Achilles, and how he served a better purpose alive than as a legend. From page one of The Iliad, Achilles represented the epitome of a hero. Now, after his demise, he is an enlightened being who still learns and teaches the living about heroism and death. Homer also gives his audience an alternative view of Hades through his Hymn to Demeter. In this poem, we see a much more effeminate view of death, as the story revolves around a mother’s loss of a daughter. The personification of Hades in the story reveals a more sympathetic view on the afterlife, while drawing strong parallels between death and sex. The stories in the epics did not approach the idea of sexuality nearly as strongly as the hymn does, so it is an enlightening view from Homer. Persephone’s descent into Hades and eventual return, after eating Hades’ pomegranate (an obvious metaphor for sex), suggests that the mystery surrounding death can be bound to our ideas of sex, birth, and the beginning of life. This can be drawn as parallel to the ideas of a hero’s birth after his death, as his legacy begins its course in history. As we can see, the hero “lives onâ€? through Hades, and Homer uses it as a place to bring back the dead and commemorate them continually.The most important act of commemoration is the funeral rites performed after the heroes’ death. Homer often spends pages delving into explicit detail of these rites. These rites represent the heroes’ glory and valor, and set the stage for their immortality to come.The first and most important step of the ritual is the burial of the body. In strong contrast to our idea of modern-day warfare, both sides of the battle at Troy agree to put the war on hold while they take care of burial rites for the dead soldiers. Idaios of the Trojans asks the Achains to “stop the sorrowful fighting until we can burn the bodies/ of our dead. We shall fight again afterwards…â€? (7:395-396) The burial of fellow soldiers is so important to both sides that they are willing to agree on a temporary truce in order to complete the rites. When the enemy captures a warrior’s body, there is no relenting of battle until the body is returned. Many deaths occur during the battle over Patroklos’ body, and a soldier comments, “O friends, though it be destined for all us to be killed here/ over this man, still none of us must give ground from the fighting.â€? (17: 421-422) After Achilles captures and mutilates Hektor’s body, King Priam of Troy puts his own life at risk and even kisses the hand of his son’s murderer to get it back. This demonstrates the lengths to which people will go to give proper burial to those heroes who have earned immortal legacy. When a soldier of Odysseus dies and meets him during his voyage to Hades, he begs Odysseus, “…do not go and leave me behind unwept, unburied,/ when you leave, for fear I might become the gods’ curse upon you…â€? (11:72-74) Odysseus rigidly obeys this order, going very far out of his way to grant befitting ritual to a lost soldier. The honor of a proper burial is essential to characters that die in epic poetry. The burial symbolizes every hero’s worth in life, and to go without this honor a “soulâ€? cannot achieve his goal in death, the struggle for immortality. Patroklos states this in his posthumous plea to Achilles to bury his body, which Achilles had put off doing: “You sleep Achilles; you have forgotten me…/ Bury me/ as quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades. The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at distance…â€? (23:69-74) Patroklos struggles to gain immortality, but cannot until the proper funeral rites are performed. The greatest funeral rite of all is the epic itself. The books are the final commemoration for a hero, granting endless legacy and folklore through the written word. In a culture based on oral myth, the writing down of a heroes’ deeds in life and heroic death grants them what they have been striving for, the immortality of gods. The most important step in gaining this “eternal life” is the funeral rites performed after a hero’s death.Homer plays the most important role in granting everlasting glory to all of his epic heroes. Throughout the stories, he uses descriptions of heroic deaths, an eternal Hades, and extravagant funeral rites to capture a hero’s life and imprint it into the permanent pages of poetry. The struggles described throughout the tragic lives of his heroes grant them the immortality they strive for. By achieving this legacy, the heroes become the gods they are constantly compared to.

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