Jack’s Naughty Bits: Homer’s The Iliad

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Jack's Naughty Bits
A lover or a fighter? I suspect there’s a reason the Lord gave me a good flight impulse. Though I lean strongly (and willfully) to Cupid’s side of the question, I still find it a curious dichotomy. Why must we pick just one? And why, when saying one’s a lover not a fighter, do people normally sound a bit apologetic, like being a lover was the booby prize you get for not being the town bully?


It could be the lingering cultural impact from the first major work of European literature: Homer’s The Iliad. Written approximately ten centuries before the birth of Christ, The Iliad takes great pains to divide men into the two camps and to generally have the amorous get their asses waxed by the bellicose. At times, it seems almost comical the degree to which beauty and facility in love are punished in The Iliad; at one point, even the love goddess Aphrodite gets slapped around by war goddess Athena. But nowhere does one see the antagonism expressed as clearly as in the fight between Menelaos and Paris over Helen, the woman they each want, whose abduction set the whole war in motion.


To recap: Paris and the Trojans paid a visit to the Greek Achaians and went back to Troy with the Greek prince Menelaos’ wife Helen. Wife-nabbing apparently didn’t go over so well then, so Menelaos and his brother Agamemnon assemble a couple hundred warships and sail to the Trojan coast to sack the city and get Helen back. Ten years later, the groups are still fighting with no end in sight, so Menelaos and Paris agree to fight one-on-one to see who wins the mega-hottie.


The two men could hardly be more different. Menelaos is constantly described as warlike, tough and broad-chested (if short). Paris, meanwhile, is noted for his full lips, his facial beauty, his way with women and his curly golden locks. Wanna guess who has the upper hand? Before they fight, Hector, Paris’ brother, makes clear what’s at stake: “Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling . . . [thus will] you learn of the man whose blossoming wife you have taken. The lyre would not help you then, nor the favors of Aphrodite, nor your locks, when you rolled in the dust, nor all your beauty.” Ouch. And from his own brother!


So, of course, the fight ensues, Paris is getting mangled and is only saved by intervention of the gods. But here is where it gets interesting: having been delivered back to his castle in a cloud of mist, Paris finds Helen, who proceeds to berate him for having lost the battle. His response sets up this week’s Naughty Bit. And, indeed, if one can’t truly be both a lover and a fighter, make no mistake as to which is preferable. Take Paris’ lead and embrace the shame, as you embrace everything else.


From The Iliad by Homer

Translated by Richmond Lattimore

“Lady, censure my heart no more in bitter reprovals.

This time Menelaos with Athena’s help has beaten me;

Another time I shall beat him. We have gods on our side also.

Come, then, rather, let us go to bed, and turn to love-making.

Never before as now has passion enmeshed my senses,

Not when I took you the first time from Lakedaimon the lovely

And caught you up and carried you away in seafaring vessels,

And lay with you in the bed of love on the island Kranae,

Not even then, as now, did I love you and sweet desire seize me.”

Speaking, he led the way to the bed; and his wife went with him.

So these two were laid in the carven bed. But Menelaos

Ranged like a wild beast up and down the host, to discover

Whether he could find anywhere the godlike Paris.

Yet could none of the Trojans nor any renowned companion

Show Paris then to warlike Menelaos.

These would not have hidden him for love, if any had seen him,

Since he was hated among them all as dark death is hated.