Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed… (1.1-15)
After a first reading of Homer’s Iliad, one might venture to say the famous epic is a masculine story. It is apparent that the human female characters in the Iliad lack any agency. It could be argued that the personalities and behaviors of the female characters, both human and goddess, are primarily stereotypes or tropes that are designed to mirror the way male Greeks perceived women. However, in spite of these somewhat reductive presentations of women and the overarching masculine themes, is it possible that the Iliad is subtly being presented from a feminine perspective?
While many of the soliloquies by kings, heroes, and gods revel in the glories of battle, the epic as a whole seems to shed a negative light on the idea of war. The poem honestly presents the horrors of war and the highly emotional response that these hardships evoke. This emotionally charged, graphically violent perspective is arguably anti-war, which might be a more feminine perspective on the subject than male. Not every man in this epic enjoyed being at war, yet they would continually justify their impending fate by boasting of their honor in death as a hero. Their wives and mothers would beg for them to forgo these heroic antics in order to live longer lives. As Hector prepares to die in combat, his mother begs him:
Don’t go forth, a champion pitted against him [Achilles]…
If he kills you now, how can I ever mourn you on your deathbed?
Dear branch in bloom, dear child I brought to birth!
Neither I nor your wife, that warm, generous woman… (22.101-105)
Although the heroes ignored the pleas of the female characters, these pleas often marred their deaths and made them seem particularly tragic or even futile. Many of the soldiers wanted nothing more than to go home and return to their wives. In a way, this desperation for the comfort of home could be seen as a projection of their wives’ desires. Though no one seemed question the many abusive behaviors exhibited towards women throughout the war, the notion of women as war prizes or the prospect of Trojan wives being raped after the city’s defeat came across as unsavory throughout the epic. All of these elements colored the mood of the epic. Rather than coming across as a tale of heroics in battle, the despair of the female characters presented a somber and grotesque interpretation of events that could be interpreted as anti-war.
One subsequent question, with no obvious is answer, is whether the female muse is the true poet. At the very opening of the poem, the muse, a female goddess, is being evoked by the poet to tell the story of the battle. The muse is never discussed outside of the calls the poet makes to her, but perhaps it is possible that the entire poem is being presented from her feminine point of view. The poet, who we can assume to be male, is telling or writing the story, but as he does this, is he channeling a female perspective from the spectral muse who imparts the story on to him?
Additionally, it can be postulated that Helen is assuming the role of the muse in the physical realm of the epic. During her first appearance in the poem, we witness Helen weaving a tapestry on the walls of Troy as she watches the battle unfold beneath her.
And Iris came to Helen in her rooms…
Weaving a growing web, a dark red folding robe,
Working into the weft the endless bloody struggles
Stallion breaking Trojans and Argives armed in bronze
Had suffered all for her at the god of battle’s hands (3.150-155)
Symbolically, the act of weaving a tapestry can imply that she is playing a significant role in elements like fate and the course of the narrative. In this moment, she is also the role of the narrator or perhaps even becoming the muse herself. After this very specific instance, her speeches are focused on her misery and do not offer any more observations on the events. However, as the cause of the war, it could be argued that her role as the muse extends beyond storytelling. Her watchful presence over the scenes of battle that erupted because of her further align her with the muse. More to the point, the fact that she provoked this lengthy, exhaustive war also seems to push her towards the role of muse. She is, after all, the face that launched a thousand ships, which seems to make her the most pivotal character in the poem and indicates that she is quite an inspiring force.
To reiterate, the men and gods in the Iliad do not often treat women kindly and the female characters often to little to counter this. This claim can be seen over and over again in the scenes where women are briefly given their moment in the midst of the action. Women like Helen and Aphrodite are portrayed as dishonest sexual deviants who betray men and instigate ruin in their lives. Hera comes across as the nagging, bickering wife while Andromache is presented as a docile, loving wife and mother that the men of war hope to return to. Chryseis and Briseis are just sexual objects, taken as the spoils of war, and only speak for themselves once in the entire epic. Despite all of this though, the women seem to have strong voices that vividly reflect their perception of events as they unfold. Even if Helen or a more abstract female muse are not the true poet, perhaps it could be argued that the voices of these women develop a feminine, anti-war lens through which we can perceive the Iliad.