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The Use Of Symbolism In The Iliad English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1594 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Iliad first appeared in a scroll-format around the 8th century B.C., and it is the earliest known work in the European literature. It narrates an epic story and begins in the tenth year of the Trojan War when tensions are high among the Achaians. King Agamemnon was holding the priest’s daughter captive and the priest went to ask the king to set her free. The king refused to do so, the priest prayed to Apollo, a god, to send plague to the land.

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The plague hits the people for nine days and they assemble to the king to demand that he releases the girl. The king eventually agrees on the condition that he takes the girlfriend of Achilleus, Briseis. Achilleus is the greatest warrior among the Greeks. Achilleus does not have a choice but agrees to give in to the request but swears not to fight for the land any more. He makes a prayer to Thetis, a goddess, who happens to be his mother for her to arrange with other gods for the king to start getting defeated in war. This way, his people would notice his role in war and how much they needed him.

The goddess agrees to do so and she convinces Zeus, who is the king of the gods to arrange for the request from Achilleus. In the following day, Hector who is the greatest warrior from the side of the Trojans makes an attack with his army. The Achaians are pinned against the beach and the Trojans are about to burn their ships when Achilleus friends asks Achilleus for permission to join the battle on his behalf. Achilleus allows him and even gives him his armor.

When the Trojans see him, they think that it is Achilleus and they are terrified. They manage to kill him by the help of Apollo, a god. They later learn that it was not Achilleus that they killed after removing his armor. Achilleus grieves his dead friend in a terrible way. He swears to revenge the death of his friend. Achilleus sends his mother to make a new armor for him made by the fire god. He joins the battle the following day and kills many of the enemy. They have a one on one battle with Hector and he manages to kill him. He takes Hector’s body and abuses it in a gruesome way which does not make the gods happy. They send a message to him to give up the body. The king, Hector’s father comes unarmed to ask for his son’s body and the request is granted. It ends with Hector’s funeral but the writers makes the reader aware that Achilleus will be killed and troy will be captured.

There are many instances in the story where symbolism has been used. For instance, symbolism is used where Homer uses the phrase “Helmet flashing.” The phrase is used when the Trojans were ready to fight and were wearing their armor. Homer says that, “And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing,” (Book 6, line 521). This symbolizes the time of the war noting that the Trojans wore armors made from bronze. The battle gear would shine such that the opponent would be blinded by the reflection of the suns light on the battle gear.

Another instance of symbolism is in the case where a bird carrying a serpent, “…a fatal bird sign flashed before their eyes, an eagle flying high on the left across their front and clutching a monstrous bloody serpent in both talons, still alive, still struggling-it had not lost its fight, writhing back to strike it fanged the chest of its captor right beside the throat,” (book 12, line 230-235). The bird represents the Trojans because they have been able to win the war every time up to book 12. The serpent represents the Achaians who have been loosing the war but are about to win it. Achilles shield is also full of symbolism. It is described as having images of farmers who are carrying out the farming activity, there is also a king who rejoices while seated under a tree, there are little kids who are dancing, people picking grapes and a boy singing dirge. This is a representation of a harvest and people who are preparing themselves for the feast. The boy sings the dirge because the farmers and people picking grapes are killing the plants. The whole meaning for this part of the shield is that, there will always be war and peace together. The children in the image were dancing going round in a circle and this is a symbol of the continuous way of living or life. They crisscross while dancing to show that everything is entwined. There are girls wearing garland headbands which symbolize that war is natural.

Natures themes are used to bring about symbolism. They show the person reading what the events signify and the image of how the event being described would look like. The reader also experiences the event as if they were happening before his eyes. An example of symbolism is where Homer compares the rallying of armies to a giant mass of birds gathering. It is stated that, “They were driven by Eumelus, and were as fleet as birds. They were of the same age and color, and perfectly matched in height. Apollo, of the silver bow, had bred them in Perea- both of them mares, and terrible as Mars in battle” (Book 1).

In the story, characters eating have some symbolism in it. For the Achaean warriors, eating is an important social occasion. There are some rules of hospitality which are very important and these govern how people eat. When Phoinix, Odysseus and Aias visit Achilleus’s, Achilleus first prepares for them food before asking what their business was. This is a sign of hospitality. On the same point, we can see how important it is when Achilleus refuses to take breakfast after his friend is killed and he does not want to waste any time but wants to get to the battle field immediately. It also represents alienation from the rest of the warriors. It can also be interpreted that he is acting with his dead friend who cannot eat. Thus, eating is very symbolic and we can also see when Achilleus tells Hector that he wished he was angry enough so that he could “hack [his] meat away and eat it raw,” this shows the loss of humanity.

The ships are also very important in relation to symbolism. The “Black Hulled Ships” are a symbol of the Greeks while traveling throughout the Mediterranean Sea and Aegean. These ships are also a representation of the strength of the Achaians especially because they have to go to fight in a foreign land. They are important to them also because they are used as shelter while at troy, thus they can be seen like a sort of armor and it is also a symbol of luck.

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The poem also shows some instances of burial like in the case of Hector’s burial which is given a lot of attention. It is given such attention because it marks Achilleues’ end of hid rage. Hector who was a mighty warrior receives a special burial. In the case of Patroclus, his burial is given much attention too. In the poem, there are also other instances where burial of people connected to some of the characters are mentioned. In book 7, the poem mentions that both of the armies undertook to burry their many unnamed dead. Burial is seen as important in the poem as it symbolizes the interests of the persistence of fate and the impermanence of the life of human beings.

In the poem, fire is mentioned in many scenes. In this poem, it is associated with internal passions such as rage or fury and also external manifestations. Achilleus is described as “blazing” and his freshly donned armor is said to have a sparkle like the sun. On many instances, a hero’s attack is compared to fire sweeping through a field. The Trojans are seen lighting fire in Book 8 to watch the Achaean army and to also prevent it from slipping away during the night. During many occasions, they threaten the Achaean ships with fire and they are even successful in torching one of the ships. During the many instances that fire is mentioned in the poem, it represents great power and destruction.

In Achilleus shield, there is an image of bulls which is being herded by dogs and one of the bulls is being attacked by two lions. This symbolizes different things; first, it shows that despite the fact that the numbers of lions are less, just like the Achaeans, they still got the power to fight the many bulls. It can also be thought to simplify how conflict affects every creature even the animals.

In book 16, Zeus has to take a tough decision to let Sarpedon die. “My cruel fate…my Sarpedon, the man I loved the most, my own son doomed to die…” (pg. 427, line 514). On page 428, line 552, the poet writes about how a horse got injured, “But Sarpedon hurled next with a flashing lance and missed his man but he hit the horse Bold Dancer, stabbing his right shoulder and down the stallion went, screaming his life out, shrieking down in the dust as life breath winged away and paired horses reared apart…” (pg. 428, line 554). The two horses that split represent Sarpedon and Zeus who separated when Sarpedon died. The horse that was severely injured represents Sarpedon. This could also be a representation of Patroclus who died and separated with Achilleus.

In conclusion, the poem has a lot of symbolism in it. It is like anything that the poet mentions is symbolic in one way or another. Some of the events mentioned can be interpreted in different ways and still make sense.

Work cited

Homer. The Iliad. Richmond Lattimore, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press ,1951.


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