Written by John Martin, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
For the nearly three millennia since the Iliad’s creation, its grand story remains undiscovered. Homer’s masterpiece was a brilliant exercise in telling a new kind of story while letting his listening audience think that they were hearing another (more familiar, more easily accessible) one.
The blind poet, as antiquity knew him to be, created a beautiful and powerful work which pleased mortal audiences. But Homer’s Real Story was created for the gods, and meant to be one which only the gods could understand.
The Iliad’s prologue invokes, not a Muse, but an unnamed “goddess”(1.1; see footnote (1) note below). Close scrutiny informs us that Homer himself, with only the most limited help from the Muses, created this imaginative fantasy. In devising his own alternative mythology, Homer the storyteller placed himself at the level of the gods.
The Real Iliad decisively departs from the traditional story of the Judgment of Paris, the ten-year war for Helen, and the Trojan (wooden) Horse. In its place, it offers a far better story that deconstructs and debunks mortal warriors, the gods who make or take sides in wars, and the glory men (supposedly) seek in battle. The great war poem is, in essence, epically antiwar.
In piecing together the Iliad‘s web of secret plans, hidden motives, and discarding post-Homeric corruptions to the text, we discover an Iliad which is not a prelude to Achilles’ glorious early death and the Fall of Troy, but the opposite. Zeus, the greatest of gods, uses the Trojan War as a theater in which to discredit war among mortals.
In a cosmos of venal, self-seeking gods, Homer’s Zeus finally emerges as a picture of what true divinity must be like, and why it is worthy to rule mortals, and be worshipped by them.
Throughout the work, the great hero Achilles has a choice between a Short Life, in which he dies at Troy and wins imperishable renown, and a Long Life, in which he goes home and his renown is lost (9.410-5).
The main subject of the poem is how he makes this choice. From the outset, Achilles is unwilling to fight under Agamemnon’s leadership, instead wanting to lead the army himself. His intentions go awry with the death of his beloved companion Patroclus. However, the glory of avenging Patroclus by killing Hector (only possible with Athena’s considerable help) does not satisfy Achilles.
In an ending concealed in the text, towards which the entire story has been leading, Homer’s own words will tell us how Achilles, as supplicated by Priam, chooses the Long Life and goes home.
The Greek army, unwilling to fight without its greatest warrior, leaves also, sparing peaceful, horse-taming Troy—Zeus’ favorite city (4.44-9). The failure of Agamemnon’s great military expedition gives the world a badly-needed lesson in the futility and folly of warfare. Perhaps that will put an end to so many unnecessary deaths, which make humans, in Zeus’ sympathetic view, the most wretched of mortal creatures (17.443-7).
In telling this alternative tale, Homer offers a devastating indictment of the traditional gods of Greek mythology who, supposedly, caused the Trojan War and all the misery to which it led.
To illustrate how the Real Story is told, let us revisit two well-known scenes:  Athena orders Achilles not to kill Agamemnon, and promises compensation (1.172-222);  Zeus shakes Olympus with his nod, promising to fulfill Thetis’ request that he honor Achilles by helping the Trojans in battle (1.493-567). Agamemnon threatens to take Achilles’ prize, a woman called Briseis. Achilles begins to draw his sword to kill Agamemnon. Athena appears, sent by Hera, “who both equally in her heart loved and cared for [Achilles and Agamemnon]” (1.195f).
Oddly, Athena restrains Achilles from behind, pulling his hair (1.197f). She says: “Refrain from strife, and do not draw your sword” (1.210) and promises that “three times as many shining gifts will be yours because of this outrage” (1.213f).
This objectifies Briseis to a ridiculous degree. How can shining gifts be a multiple of a woman? And if Agamemnon’s offense to Achilles’ honor is so grave as to justify Achilles’ asking Zeus to help the Trojans, how could a few gifts be expected to compensate him? After all, the ages have seen Achilles’ wrath at Agamemnon as arising from his nearly-irreparable offense to his honor.
Hera cares for the two warriors equally. Does Athena? Why does she speak only to Achilles? Why doesn’t she cool things down by also telling Agamemnon not to take Briseis?
Iliadic Athena is neither a goddess of war, nor of wisdom. She pulls Achilles’ hair, like a shy teen-ager, because she is in love with him. She saves Agamemnon, yet perpetuates, instead of calms, their Quarrel. Why? Because she is jealous of Briseis, and wants Achilles to lose her.
Athena will appear, throughout the Iliad, as something like a virgin teenager. She is looking for a mortal man to deify, a man with a savagery comparable to her own, and she will make a mess of every major assignment given to her. The next time Hera needs something from Achilles, she will send Zeus’ messenger Iris (18.165ff).
And should we note that Achilles obeys Athena’s command to put up his sword, but disobeys her primary directive, which is to refrain from strife. Because Agamemnon has seized Briseis, Achilles can take the strife with Agamemnon right up to Zeus. Athena, in saving Agamemnon’s life, has also saved Achilles’ wrath. And without her blunder, there is no Iliad.
Athena, although selfish and inept, does know something about warriors. She obviously believes that losing Briseis should not be a cause of great wrath at Agamemnon (see footnote (2) below). But if losing Briseis is not sufficient reason for the Wrath, then what is? By this early point in the narrative, we should already have realized that Achilles is also angry about something else of much greater importance. The other scene of importance, , will shed some light on that. Thetis heads for Zeus’ house (1.426f), in order to supplicate him. Evidently seeking privacy, she meets him on the topmost peak of Olympus. Thetis clasps Zeus’s knees, and Zeus, although worried about trouble with Hera, agrees to help the Trojans. He seals his assent with a nod, and “made great Olympus vibrate.”
“Zeus’ nod is one of the most ‘sublime’ images of the poem, a moment of extraordinary divine action which emphasizes the gulf between us and the powers that control us” writes Richard Hunter in The Measure of Homer (The Measure of Homer (2018), page 56).
Then Zeus tells Thetis: “But now go back again, lest Hera notice you.” It turns out that Hera has noticed, and confronts Zeus, greatly angering him.
Paradox: If Zeus wanted to avoid Hera’s notice, why did he nod in such a manner as to shake Olympus, which Hera could not fail to notice? (Zeus’ other two nods do not have external effects, 8.245f, 17.209-12.) Resolution: Anti-war Zeus hates what he has agreed to do (and has only agreed because he owes Thetis a favor: 1.393-406). Olympus’ trembling is unanticipated and involuntary on his part. It is a divine shudder. (Later, Hera shudders on her throne, and Olympus trembles sympathetically, 8.198f.)
The power is not in the nod, but in Zeus’ repugnance at committing to a battle in a war that he would like to end. And, whatever Agamemnon may have done to Achilles, the shudder marks Thetis and Achilles as completely in the wrong.
The Iliad proceeds in this manner, and we must follow it, line by line, scene by scene, from first to last, to uncover its deep story, which the ages have missed.
Homer’s masterpiece has long held a lofty place at the pinnacle of ancient Greek and Roman literature. What would the world have been like if Homer’s Real Story—his antiwar message—had been understood? Readers who grasp the Real Story will be left wondering how it could have alternately shaped literature, culture, and even history in the ages to come.
Footnote (1): The Iliad has a very different way of invoking the Muses (2.684 and elsewhere) and they are only consulted regarding matters of simple fact, as “…who were the leaders and chiefs of the Danaans” (2.687). The full line 1.1 reveals that the goddess is Thetis; Homer’s (notably unusual) Prologue is not an invocation, since the Poet does not pray to the goddess.
Footnote (2): Aias, the Greeks’ second best warrior, agrees; see 9.628-42.
Note: All citations from the Iliad are translations by the author.
About the author: John D. Martin holds a PhD in economics and three other degrees from the University of Chicago. He first read Homer as an undergraduate in 1961. Homer’s Iliad: The Real Story is a labor of nine years, constant and continuous, and was completed at the start of the tenth. It will be published this summer with the help of AuthorHouse. The work is a line-by-line commentary, with translations supplied by the author.