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 reductive presentations of women and the overarching masculine themes, is it possible that the Iliad is subtly being presented from a feminine perspective? The answer to this impossible question lies in the mystery of the muse. In these opening lines to the Iliad, an unseen and unacknowledged narrator evokes the Muse. Rather than accepting that this ambiguous narrator is Homer as a spectator, I theorize that the Muse is actually the true poet. Her role as the author of this tale is what ultimately creates a feminine viewpoint. This is evidenced throughout the actions and beliefs of characters throughout the narrative of the epic.
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 can be considered a more feminine perspective on the subject than masculine. While men can, at least, reap the benefits of a glorious death or spoils of war, women stand to gain nothing from war. All that women receive from war is loss. As we later see in the Odyssey, wives and mothers spend years longing for their husbands and sons. More often than not, these men would never return, which meant that a woman was vulnerable and powerless. Though women are almost always susceptible to the will of others, they do have some degree of security with a husband, son, or father. As contemporary feminist Simone de Beauvoir explains it, “[women] have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received.” (4) Men and women are “united by a reciprocal need” (5) and in the case of ancient women, this need was protection and financial support that she was unable to acquire on her own. Not only do women not reap the benefits of war, they can become the spoils of war if their sons and husbands are dead and no longer able to defend them. Thus, the best outcome that they can hope for is to retain what they already have. Although the prospect of gruesome pain and death was hardly endearing to the male participants in the Trojan War, women stand to live and lose everything, which makes their perspective on war decidedly more negative.
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 plead with 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 story. None of the Greeks would decry raping women but the disastrous results of abducting Chryseis and Briseis does seem to indicate that it was a mistake. At the very opening of the epic, Apollo is in the midst of smiting the Greeks for kidnapping the daughter of a priest, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for female war prizes. The course of the war goes horribly awry for the Greeks as Achilles and Agamemnon bicker over the girl they kidnapped. The Greeks certainly do not care about the fate of the Trojan women and seem eager to defile them once they seize the city. However, the duality of the narrative leads to an interest in the fate of both the Achaeans and the Trojans. Clearly we are meant to be on the side of the Greeks, since they wrote the story after all. Even so, we are given an intimate perspective on the Trojan characters as well. Women on that side of the battle are seen as humans with thoughts and feelings who are deeply beloved by their husbands. Though no one ever says outright that women deserve bodily autonomy, there is something haunting about the knowledge that they will be seized the same way as everything else in the city. 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 only be interpreted as anti-war.
This brings us the subsequent question, with no obvious is answer, as to 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. Though the muse is never explicitly described as a deity participating in the Trojan War, it can be assumed that she exists in the same realm as the Olympian pantheon. Every god and goddess seems to take a side, so it is not unreasonable to believe that even the passive muse has her own opinions on the events as they unfolded. Unlike Athena, Hera, and even Aphrodite, who adopt a relatively masculine, pro-war stance and appear in the heat of battle, this distinctly feminine muse seems most similar to the mortal women. She sees the horrors of war for what they are and wants us to share in her repulsion.
There are a number of ways to interpret the role of the muse. The most common assumption is that the poet, who we can assume to be male, is telling or writing the story. One possibility in this instance that supports the anti-war narrative is that Homer, the male poet, is channeling a female perspective from the spectral muse who imparts the story on to him. Another, perhaps more intriguing, possibility is that Homer the male narrator actually has no agency in this situation and the feminine muse is in complete control as she uses Homer’s voice to share her own anti-war perspective.
Furthermore, 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. The elements she weaves very clearly represent the events unfolding below her. The act of creating this gory, blood colored tapestry is arguably a metaphor for creating a narrative. Though most creative endeavors that aim to encapsulate true events are usually made in retrospect, Helen’s work is created in the heat of the moment, which seems to point towards a more active role in the story.
On the flipside, creating an artistic narrative could still be seen as a more passive act of narration that is nothing more than a reflection of observations. As a counterargument to this, it is worth noting that just a few lines later Helen begins to more actively narrate to Priam as they survey the battle. Priam prompts her to tell him about the names and personalities of the warring Achaeans, something that the muse or narrator often does in the middle of battle scenes. In this moment, Helen is not just acting as an observer but an active narrator. This seems to correspond well to the role of the muse– a character detached from the immediate action but ever present and watchful, narrating with a wealth of background information that only an omnipotent force could possess.
After these specific instances, 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 as a result of her actions further aligns 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. As stated previously, the muse can be interpreted as an active narrator adopting the voice of the poet or as an unseen, inspiring force that guides the poet’s inspiration. Helen 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 do 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. Mortal women in the Iliad do not have agency, they are not particularly valued as people, and they are not respected. Despite all of this though, the women seem to have strong voices that vividly reflect their perception of events as they unfold. The wives and mothers of heroes have tremendous stake in the war. When they speak, their longing for peace and the survival of their loved ones is painfully evident. Helen’s self-deprecation and anguish at being the cause of massive war makes her far more complex than a beautiful face. Even if Helen or a more abstract female muse are not the true poet, the voices of all these women develop a feminine, anti-war lens through which we can perceive the Iliad. Their despair and their hopes all hinge on a yearning for the war to end and a wish that it had never occurred in the first place. Since we will never know who Homer was, the nature of the true poet is an unsolvable mystery that can only be left to speculation. These vivid characters prove that the muse, or even the comparably mythical Homer, utilized a woman’s viewpoint to shed light on the utmost horrors of war.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1990.
Simone de Beauvoir, Introduction. The Second Sex: Woman as Other, by de Beauvoir. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1949.