The Unwritten Code of the Homeric Hero

Today's idea of a "hero" is generally used to describe those persons that demonstrate selfless acts to save lives, animals, or to benefit social causes. Taking of life to save life is not a necessity in today's world in order to be considered a hero by society. In times of war however, we do appreciate in our own morbid way - the ability for one man or group of people to be successful and productive killers, destroyers, and dominators. These people too are recognized, as our heroes no less than those of Homeric time. Homer's warrior-heroes display a set of values that generally seem to be the "unwritten code" of what it means to be a warrior and hero to the social group of which they belong. As a note, since Homer uses “he” and “his”, the masculine gender will be used when discussing Homer's warrior heroes.

Heroes of iliad by TischbeinCredit: Tischbein, 1829

War created warriors and warriors found in successful warfare the acquisition of property, self-fulfillment, pride, recognition, and elevated social standing. The gods were seen as influencing war, creating conflict for their amusement, and or to use mortals as pawns in an immortal game of petty quarrels. Homer's heroes emulate the gods in varying qualities and in varying quantities. Both the gods and heroes demonstrate exaltation, excellence in battle, glory, brutality, selfishness, and intelligence (Feuer 37-38)[1].

Homeric heroes equate to successful warriors. And what is a successful warrior? Homer's warrior-heroes are accomplished killers; more so, Homer's warrior-heroes were men of greater stature and strength greater than average men of his time. Homer often describes these heroes as having strength at least twice or three times that of a man of his day. These men were the giants of society; they were the protectors and leaders of their families and communities. It was considered helpful if personal lineage could be linked to a god. And often the gods would help a warrior-hero along with his task or provide a little help, protection, or motivation along the way, but not always. Alias is the most significant exception to this in the Iliad. He succeeds without divine intervention and is considered the greatest warrior after Achilleus (also referred to as Achilles) (Lattimore 51)[2].

The relationship of the Homeric hero and society includes the privileges received and enjoyed by the successful warrior. These privileges include property, food, status, and women. This preferential treatment was at a cost, even if the warrior-hero was initially recognized by some right of birth, he was expected to live up to the expectations of the social order, his family, and his friends. The fear of being considered less than a brave and courageous warrior was greater than the fear of dying itself.

We all have to die sometime so it is better to die an honorable and glorified death in battle than to live a life of dishonor and disgrace. Society expects the king and leader of the people to fight and conquer the enemy or die trying. These thoughts are reflected in the statements made by Sarpedon (Book Twelve Lines 310-28)[3]: "The King is under an obligation to his people to fight bravely because they believe in him (Willcock 142)."[4] As King, he maintains his power over the society by their faith, allegiance, and dependence on him. Even a king that rules through fear must maintain this hold on society through the practice or inference of fear producing action, or he may lose his influence over the society. These kings, leaders, warrior-heroes appear to hold, and be judged by a set of warrior values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless-service, personal courage, honor, and glory.

Akhilleus Patroklos Antikensammlung Berlin F2278Credit: User: Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2008

Warrior-heroes held to a sense of loyalty and duty to friends, family, and the king, leader of the society, or band of societies. Achilleus opposing Agamemnon does demonstrate an exception to this rule since Agamemnon is a senior king; however, Achilleus is the unquestionable highest and most accomplished warrior. Yet, Achilleus's loyalty to his friends and as spurred by their death, he is motivated to enter the fight. Hektor in responding to Helen in book six, states that he will go to his family once more to see his wife before returning to the fight. Further in Hektor's speech to his wife, he presents the argument for the value duty to fight. "With what face should I look upon the Trojans, men and women, if I shirk battle like a coward? I cannot do so: I know nothing save to fight bravely in the forefront of the Trojan host and win renown alike for my father and myself” (Book Six Lines 526-529).[3] This sense of duty goes beyond the idea that to fight is right, but extends to the striving for excellence in warfare and the craft of warfare. Each warrior-hero strives for "arete" - excellence in warfare with the spear, sword, shield, and chariot as is emphasized in The Iliad.

Warrior-heroes routinely shouted out their lineage and expected to hear - more - demanded to hear the lineage of their opponents to determine the worthiness of the challenge. And if a family-friendship bond was found, they would agree to not kill each other as is seen in the confrontation of Hektor and Diomedes (Book Six Lines 110-235).[3] When as a result of exchanging speeches on each other's family pasts, they discovered a link between their fathers; because of such, they promised each other their friendship and to avoid each other's spears. Further on this idea, Hektor when about to face Achilleus (Book Twenty-Two Lines 99-130)[3] considers returning to the protection of the city, only to find him stopped by his concern for losing the respect and appearing a coward. Though his nerve failed at the final moment, it was his consciousness of the warrior-heroes value set that set him to fight a battle he already believed would result in his imminent death.

A fundamental trait was personal courage to face danger, fear, and imminent death. Homer's warrior-hero tries to overcome personal fear by remembering the highest of all the values honor and glory, which are not dependent on surviving the battle. Honor and glory are independent of life itself. The warrior-hero that fights and dies bravely will be remembered as honorable and both he and the society represented will share in the honor and glory of the venture. Honor and glory are the result of living up to all the warrior-hero values. It is better to fight and die in an un-winnable situation, than to run away in fear of injury or for personal survival. In selfless service to the cause, to society, and or to the King, the warrior-hero places his life as of lesser importance than these things that drive the battle. But it must be added, that fear of dishonor is as much a driving force as idealistic concepts of a "cause" or the army's mission and purpose.

The Homeric warrior-hero is a protector and leader to the society he serves. The level of success of this warrior equates to the level of standing in society along with the amount of privileged received by the same society and the social leaders. Achilleus, Hektor, and Odysseus at some point in the poem, question the meaning and futility of war. And yet, their individual sense of those values mentioned earlier, drives them to continue. It does not matter which value is the prime motivator for each, whether out of a sense of duty or pursuit of glory, only that they continue to fight. The higher in the hierarchy they rise the more they are expected to live up to those values.

These appreciable qualities found in Homer's warrior-heroes presented an image for the society's members to achieve. Yet, even in the greatest of Homer's warrior-hero characters, beyond the reflected common core values, he also reflected the flaws and attitudes of the gods. Achilleus was more akin to Zeus than any other comparable mortal-immortal combination. Both were the greatest in strength and power within their realm (not withstanding that Agamemnon was a higher king than Achilleus) and both shared the same arrogance and ego. Homer reflects in Achilleus the lesser side of emotions and attitudes found in the gods, particularly found in Zeus, such as pettiness, jealousy, and revenge. This is no surprise since this is a story of the "tragedy of Achilleus" and the divine immortal influence on the mortal victims of the Trojan War (Lattimore 17).[3]

The common denominator's to describe Homer's warrior-heroes and their role in society displayed a set of values that serve to be the "unwritten code" of what it means to be a warrior and hero to the social group of which they belong. In Homer's view, the purpose of this desire and effort to be the best warrior-hero was social recognition, attainment of a higher status in the community, to gain a sense of self-worth, and as such, obligated the warrior to his society, family, and friends. I end this article with a quote that seems appropriate to the idealism of the warrior-hero and his glory and honor to live on past death.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,

Which eyes not yet created shall o'er - read,

And tongues to be your being shall rehearse

When all the breathers of this world are dead;

You still shall live - - such virtue hath my pen -

Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet lxxxi

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