Rage is the very first word in The Illiad. The epic poem is about many things: Hektor’s love of his family, Helene’s hollow despair, Patroklus’ passion and ambition, and Priamos deep grief. But mostly it is about the rage of Akhilleus.
Not simple anger. Rage. Nuanced and encompassing, filled with despair, grief, humiliation, apathy, and bitterness. I expected my lunar month of devotions to lead me down more commonly trod paths, but instead they led me to the hero-worship of Akhilleus.
Why was Akhilleus angry? I’ve heard people who consider themselves skilled in interpreting ancient texts write him off as petulant. Many times we tend to look at these ancient stories and the characters who inhabit them as flat, two-dimensional, and simple, rather than as complex and human. Akhilleus is not a cartoon character who flounced and bounced during the siege of Troy, and The Illiad does not hinge on his anger arbitrarily.
Agamemnon angers Apollo by taking the daughter of his priest as a war prize, which brings calamity to the Greeks. A prophet explains the cause and remedy, only under the promise of protection of Akhilleus that no harm will befall the bringer of bad news to Agamemnon.
The remedy is that Agamemnon, alone among the Greeks, must make amends and return the girl to her father. He is angry that he alone has angered the Gods, and he alone must pay. He deems it unfair that no one else should have to pay. Akhilleus, who is acting as protector for the man who gives Agamemnon such unwelcome news, tries to reason with Agamemnon that it is not reasonable for others to pay for his misdeeds. Then Agamemnon, in a fit of spite, decides that Akhilleus “war prize” Briseis be taken from him and added to the amends he must pay.
It is true Briseis was a “war prize” but the text makes it very clear throughout The Illiad that Akhilleus loved her, and that she was heavy-hearted to part from him. He refers to her as his wife, and compares their relationship to that of Menelaus and Helene.
Akhilleus is one of the most renowned men of the ancient world. A great fighter, a leader of men, and part-divine. He was the picture of success. Yet the pettiness of Agamemnon can rob him of his wife and humiliate him in front of the entire Greek army. He spoke up to Agamemnon to defend all Greek warriors against the injustice he was contemplating and Agamemnon flexed his power to remind Akhilleus who was in charge.
No matter how high Akhilleus might rise, how famed his skill and virtue, or how loyal he may be, this mighty warrior was just one hard truth away from Agamemnon’s boot on his neck. Haven’t we all been there? We work hard for a company, going above and beyond, becoming indispensable, and then we answer our managers with a truth they don’t like and we are suddenly disposable. Or we love someone heart and soul, being kind and supportive, willing to do anything for them, and then one off day or one unwanted request and they toss us aside like we are dirt?
What despair! What point in being the most famed warrior among the Greeks when at any time he wants to Agamemnon can take your wife in front of the entire army because he didn’t like your counsel? There is no freedom, no liberty here. Akhilleus is treated like property, like a dog whose bone can be taken from him whenever his behavior doesn’t suit his master perfectly. He is not treated like a famed warrior and integral part of defeating the Trojans. Akhilleus is treated like a dog.
Of course he’s angry. Of course he’s depressed. He’s honed his skill, earned his reputation, and proven his loyalty by following Agamemnon and Menelaus to a war he doesn’t believe in, only to have his wife taken from him as if he is a child whose toy has been taken from him because he playing too loud while the adults were talking.
RAGE. Rage! The rage of Akhilleus! What choice does he have but to withdraw? Agamemnon has shown him only contempt. Akhilleus cannot behave like a dog who has been kicked and then runs back to kiss his owner. He can’t follow a man who repays unwelcome counsel from a long-trusted adviser by ripping apart his home. Akhilleus can’t say “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. May I have another?” So in his rage he retreats.
Akhilleus rage heals. Not because Agamemnon makes half-hearted attempts to bribe him back to war (which only the death of his beloved friend will do), but because in his deep grief, humiliation, and despair he finds someone willing to acknowledge, witness and accept his pain. His rage is healed in meeting Priamos after killing his son Hektor. In Priamos does Akhilleus see his pain reflected. Priamos does not dismiss his pain, or suggest he is a petulant child. Priamos sees they have both lost people whom they loved, and in losing them they lost whatever dignity they had. Here are two emasculated men, impotent in their ability to prevent tragedy from befalling those around them. Even should they survive this war they are forever altered, and lesser than they were.
It seems strange that as a woman I identify deeply with Akhilleus. I, too, have worked hard to build a reputation and skill only to be dismissed and humiliated by people who needed me, but only wanted me as an agreeable and obedient servant. I, too, have had my love and affection demeaned as nothing more than a fling that can be replaced by material things. I have brought forth ideas to have them dismissed, made to feel worthless because of them, and then heard the same ideas lauded when they are stated in a male voice. I understand Akhilleus’ despair, depression, apathy, and rage. There is perhaps no emotion more encompassing and long-reaching than the rage of the disenfrachised.
I need someone who can help me work through my rage and heal my anger. I’ve started praying to Akhilleus, and beginning devotions to him. If anyone understands what it’s like to have the system against them, it’s the raging Akhilleus.