In today’s society, we do not base our culture and lifestyle around one singular book or series of books. It is impossible to do this in such an integrated society, due to varying religious and cultural beliefs. The only piece of literature that comes remotely close to this status is of course, the Bible. However, in ancient Greece, their religion, society, values and aspirations were almost completely based on The Iliad and The Odyssey. These works, The Iliad in particular, were the foundation for the everyday lifestyle of the Greeks, and were considered the most important and major source of theology, mythology, customs and beliefs.
The Iliad vividly portrays the way things were, the way things were meant to be and how they should be done. Due to the cultural importance and worldwide recognition of this text, many other texts tried to follow along it’s lines, or purposely stray from them. It is easy to compare The Iliad to other literature, especially religiously based texts. The play Agamemnon written by Aeschylus shares many of the same characteristics, while the book Beowulf shares many traits and also differs in many ways. In comparing these works, the single most important factor to consider is religion and religious beliefs.
In order to compare books to The Iliad, it is important to first comprehend the story of the book, as well as literary devices used and beliefs presented. The Iliad is based solely on the Gods and religion and takes place during the tenth year of war between the Achaians and the Trojans. The book places strong emphasis on fate, and the will of the Gods. It also stresses the importance of showing great respect to the Gods, and venerating them to the fullest extent possible. To not thank, praise and glorify the Gods guarantees destruction and ill fate. It was a social precedent in Greek society due to its prevalence in this story. At one point in the story, Poseidon feels that the Achaians did not honor him after building a massive wall they relied on for defense from the serging Trojans. Poseidon then makes it his objective to help in the destruction of the wall.
Whatever the Gods choose, will most certainly be accomplished. The entire story would not have happened had it not been for the desires of Zeus. However, the God that truly set off the sequence of events was Zeus’s son, Apollo. Agamemnon had angered one of Apollo’s priests and in accordance with the wishes of his priest Apollo started reigning havoc and death upon the Achaians. The only way to solve this problem was for Agamemnon to give back the daughter of the priest. The infinitely cocky and arrogant King of the Argives only agrees to do this on the basis that he will replace the girl with any girl he chooses.
He chooses Achilles’s prize, who was one of the most beautiful women. However, Achilles was the greatest warrior of the Achaians, and the cause of the majority of their victories. This portrays what is known as ironic parallelism, where two or more events in a story share some common grounds while being ironically different. Achilles only fights with Agamemnon on behalf of Menelaos, who had his wife Helen taken by Paris of Troy. However, Agamemnon then takes away Achilles’s woman from him.
Feeling that Agamemnon deprives him of his proper honor and respect, which is another major theme in the story, he withdraws himself and his armies from battle. Achilles then talks to his mother, Thetis, and asks her to convince Zeus to lavish honor upon Achilles (a bloodline descendent) at the cost of the Achaians. He wants the Achaians to be defeated in battle so that they realize how important Achilles was to them, so that they greatly honor and revere him as their greatest warrior and most important asset. Zeus grants this wish, and the tides of the battle change.
In The Iliad, varying Gods including Zeus, Apollo and Athene all enter the spirits of warriors to grant them extreme strength and willpower. This is known as aristeia, a moment of glory for a mortal. In the following battles Hektor disheartens and destroys the ranks of the Achaians due to this. This tactic is used to make sure the fate that the Gods predetermined will still occur, and that glory is bestowed only on those whom they choose. During battles and moments of aristeia and great glory, the heroes are described using epic similes. Usually several lines in length, Homer describes the heroes in accordance with violent animals and acts of nature. Epic similes are extremely prevalent throughout the entire story. Another literary aspect of The Iliad, is the importance of stating one’s lineage. When addressing another person, they are referred to as the son of that person. Lineage and where your from has great importance and meaning to the Greeks due mostly to the respect shown for it in this story.
In The Iliad, the Gods are divided on whose side to take. Late in the story, Zeus grants the Gods access to the battle, so that they may help whichever side they choose. He does this because the Achaians show such sheer strength and determination that they nearly defeat the Trojans, breaking the will of Zeus. Athene and Poseidon among others side with the Achaians, while Apollo and Ares side with the Trojans. The Gods even fight with each other, severely wounding themselves in some instances. All of these Gods are capable of creating aristeia, and even preventing the death of heroes they deem worthy to protect. It is of no coincidence and much importance that the heroes the Gods protect, and the sides the Gods choose, are directly related to how much praise, honor and sacrifices they receive from them.
Another important theme and message conveyed is to maintain one’s honor, even if his fate is to die. Achilles is well aware that if he reenters the battle and kills Hektor he will never return home. However, he chooses this path so that he will be forever immortalized in glory and praise. At one point Agamemnon states in council that there is no shame in running to save your life. The hero Odysseus, scolds and embarrasses him for making this point. The society these heroes were living in was a warrior society; where honor and glory are bestowed through prowess in battle and strength. The better the warrior, the better the people he has defeated, and the more beautiful and prominent his armor and women are. When Achilles reenters the battle, he is bestowed with beautiful armor from the God Hephaistos. The simple sight of him and his glorious armor causes fear in the ranks of the Trojans.
In The Iliad, the Gods rule over and dictate everything. They determine who will succeed, who will die and the fate of every single person. It is hugely important to praise and glorify the Gods, and if one does not do this or if one gives himself to much credit and glory, disaster will surely strike him. Honor and respect are important principles in the book, and the basis for the story. Achilles feels like his honor has been taken away from him, and wants the Achaians to learn their lesson and respect him. The entire Trojan war is fought over more than simply love for Helen, but actually the pride and honor Menelaos feels has been taken away from him. All of these principles which occur repeatedly throughout The Iliad, became staples of society in Greece. The Iliad had more influence on it’s society than any piece of literature throughout history.
The play Agamemnon is very similar to The Iliad. It is the story of Agamemnon’s return to his country after winning the Trojan war. The obvious similarity is the overlapping of stories and characters between the two texts. The story of Agamemnon begins with Agamemnon appeasing the Gods by sacrificing his daughter, in order to get good winds for his ships. His adulterous wife plots revenge and murders him upon his arrival. The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter shows just how important it was to please the Gods, which is very similar to The Iliad. Another similar theme presented in this play is the danger of hubris, or excessive pride. Gloriously returning from battle, which in itself was such a great victory as to insult the Gods, Agamemnon is coerced by his wife Clytemnestra to walk on a purple carpet. This was an act of excessive glorification and resulted in infuriating the Gods.
Another similar theme presented by Aeschylus is fate, and how all actions have recourse. Just as Achilles knew if he entered battle and killed Hektor, that he would be killed; Agamemnon slaughters his daughter and therefore is killed as well. Agamemnon shows the same cockiness and arrogance in this play as he did in The Iliad. Here, he boasts of his victory without properly thanking the Gods. These two texts have many similarities and present the same themes and ideas about the Gods. The difference is that The Iliad implemented these ideas that ran Greek society, whereas Agamemnon simply restates these ideas at a later point in time.
Beowulf has many coinciding themes with The Iliad, however also has several key differences. For one, Beowulf’s society shares the same importance on warriors and pride. Beowulf is introduced to the reader very similarly to how Achilles is introduced. In the same way, the better the armor, the better the warrior is. Wearing the armor of a conquered foe shows how skillful you are, because you were able to kill that person. Warrior fame and lineage are also very important to Beowulf. The act of announcing one’s lineage is just as prevalent in Beowulf as The Iliad. Both the armor one has and the lineage one has are status symbols in both societies. Also, both of these texts show how important and stressed comitatus, or a code of loyalty between warriors, was to society. In both cases, when comitatus begins to disintegrate there is imminent destruction brewing on the horizon.
Just as Achilles was not afraid of death, Beowulf never showed any fear. He went into many battles knowing he was taking on a monumental task, but never shied away from it. Another similarity between the two texts is the warnings against pride and self-glorification. Hrothgard builds what is referred to as the, “The greatest banqueting hall ever known” and it is only after this that trouble sets in. It shows the same principles that caused the Achaians great wall to be destroyed. In both cases, no honor was given to the Gods and humans tried to glorify themselves. Before his death, Hrothgard warns Beowulf of the evils of greed and pride. He stresses the importance to look to the afterlife, rather than worrying about the present. When Beowulf is finally defeated, it is because he became greedy and wanted treasures he did not need. In fact, the Worm himself represents a bad king. He is a hordeweard, or treasure guardian, one who sits on excessive treasure without using it or benefitting from it. When Beowulf shows similar desires, he is killed.
The differences between the two texts however, are conveyed throughout Beowulf more than the similarities. This was due to the fact that the author was Christian and living in a Christian society, whereas Beowulf was supposedly living in a Pagan time. In The Iliad, there is no good or evil side to the war. It is just two opposing forces, and whomever the Gods choose to glorify shall succeed. In Beowulf though, there is a clear representation of evil. In fact, the monsters themselves represent the evils prevalent in their society. The monsters had traits such as jealousy, greed and vengefulness that were “attacking” society. They need Beowulf, a foreigner, to defeat the monster because everyone from their own society was affected by these ill traits. Using very religious terminology when referring to the monsters, Beowulf says he wants to “purge” their land.
In The Iliad, the heroes fought for their own glory, they wanted to be the best, they wanted their side to win. In doing this they would have to venerate and respect the Gods. However, in Beowulf, the warriors fight purely for the honor and glory of God himself. Whenever Beowulf succeeds he says he owes it to the Gods, and whenever he fails he says God chose it to be that way. This shows a similarity of the importance of fate determined by God, however Beowulf’s view is clearly Christian. An important message conveyed by the author of Beowulf is that there can never be peace in a Pagan world. Only when a society has the brotherhood and love of Christianity can there be any peace. Beowulf shows many contrasting points of view from The Iliad, all of which stem from Christianity.
In The Iliad, the traits and actions demonstrated by the heroes are the traits that the Greeks strived to have. The Gods came before all, and it was massively important to honor and respect them. The Gods also determined fate, and a hero never feared his fate, even if it was to die. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon was very similar to The Iliad. They had the same characters, and an overlapping storyline. Both texts also warn of hubris, and show the powerful fate that the Gods evoke at their will.
Beowulf has several similar themes with The Iliad. It takes place in a warrior society, where warriors were respected above all else. Armor and lineage are status symbols that show how good a warrior is. Both texts warn against pride and greed, and show that these traits will inevitably lead to destruction. At the same time Beowulf also portrays strikingly different values and ideas. The author of Beowulf was Christian, and his Christianity permeated the entire text. The monsters that Beowulf fights are actually representations of evil in society. In The Iliad, there is no good or evil but only opposing sides. Beowulf does everything he does for the glory of God, whereas heroes in The Iliad do it for their own pride, and then thank the Gods. The Christian viewpoints are the cause for nearly every difference between the two texts.
The Iliad had an effect on it’s society that no other book will ever be able to have. Agamemnon merely portrayed these ideas whereas Homer’s works made them prevalent in society. Religion is the single most important lense with which to look at all three of these works. In Beowulf, Christianity is prevalent and Paganism is looked at as evil; a society where there can never be peace. All of these texts are filled to the brim with religious perspectives and ideas. Religion is the foremost way to compare and contrast these texts, and religion is the lense with which these books must be read.