Like most people, I visit online sites for my news, limiting my interest to relevant news, avoiding crime stories and outright negativity in politics. Perhaps it’s browser history and cached cookies, but I am served up content that ranges from heartwarming animal rescues, rehabilitation and reunions to the heartbreaking and outrageous stories of cruelty. The latter makes me dislike the human species. The moving accounts are that: moving and heroic, glimmers of decency and inspiration, and even the mildest of the bad stories are too reprehensible to mention here. When I read these accounts, I can’t help but think of two obscure incidents in Homer’s Iliad.
First, there is that danger of projecting our own standards that comes with interpreting any ancient text (same could be said for a medieval or renaissance literature, for that matter) — anything pre-Descartes and Galileo. Everything is likely symbolic, layered, and not imbued with the same cultural values we ascribe to speech or events. What I say here is most likely not what Homer intended.
If you have read the Iliad, you know that the story is about the last fifty-two days of the decade-long Trojan War, the days of Achilles’s rage (mênis). Achilles sits there on the sidelines until his friend Patroklos is killed. His decision to exact revenge will explore the Greek concepts of glory (klêos), honor (timê), and Fate (moira). The homicidal Achilles, so grief-stricken and obsessed with revenge, abstains from all things human such as eating, personal hygiene, and sex until his wrath is exhausted. In becoming human again, he must die. And what does this have to do with animal abuse and cruelty?
The Achaean Achilles had three horses that drew his chariot. Two of these horses, Balios and Xanthos, were immortal, gifts from Zeus to the warrior’s father, Peleus. The third horse, Pedasos, was mortal and later killed by a spear thrown at Patroklos. After Patroklos dies, the two immortal horses weep for him. He had fed and cared for the two animals; they mourned his kindness to them. Their grief moves Zeus. Hera disturbs the natural order of life and bestows upon them the gift of speech. Xanthos will tell Achilles that the god Apollo had had a hand in killing Patroklos. Apollo had hit Patroklos from behind and stunned him while two others, including Hektor, assassinated him. The dying Patroklos mocks Hektor and prophesizes that Achilles will kill him. My interest, however, is with Hera’s interference. That Homer anthropomorphizes the horses, that he gives them speech, is rare in classical Greek literature. The significance?
There are three tiers of Being in the Greek model of the universe. There are the immortal gods, mortal humans, and mortal animals. All three are beings have awareness and certain limitations. The gods, though immortal, cannot alter moira, Fate. Zeus, for example, endows Hektor with strength, knowing that Achilles will inevitably kill him. The gods don’t experience or know death. Humans are the only creatures that know that they’ll die. They also are endowed with speech capable of expressing their emotions. Animals die, but have neither speech nor knowledge of their own mortality. Zeus says of humans, “there is not anywhere a thing more dismal than man.” He utters those lines out of pity for the immortal horses voice after he sees their tears.
Gods expect supplication and gifts. The horses, while immortal like the gods, do not. Like domesticated pets, they are dependent on kindness. Animals are capable of feeling fear, happiness, and grief. I think that there are plenty of examples without having to cite them. Animals do communicate with each other, though we don’t know their language. Scientists have studied animal communication. Dolphins use clicks, whales use songs, and so on. Another crucial point: animals kill only when they have to; they’ll kill in self-defense or when they are hungry. Humans are, for the most, capricious about violence.
In addition to the two immortal horses and to Zeus’s comment about humanity, the Iliad offers another rare statement in Greek literature, this one in a conversation between Achilles and Priam, about Good and Evil in the world. This is distinct from the story of Pandora’s box. Achilles explains to Priam that Zeus has, outside his door, two urns: one filled with “blessings”; the other, with “evils.” Zeus disperses them with his thunder, at best mixing the blessings and evils because he cannot choose wholly from one urn without drawing from the other. Man and the world, consequently, must have both fortune and sorrows.
Balios and Xanthos wept for their kind friend, Patroklos. Immortal, they knew sorrow. Heads down, manes falling, and eyes tearing, they wept. Perhaps, we are gods to our pets; they are dependent on us for food and shelter; their looking up at us reminds me of yet another powerful scene in the Iliad. Priam kissed the hands of Achilles, the man who had killed all his sons, in an act of supplication. King Priam had ventured out onto the battlefield to meet with Achilles, who had desecrated Hektor’s body, to ask for the body of his slain son. Homer doubles critical scenes. In an earlier act of supplication, the outcome was cruel, far less civilized.
A supplicant would put one arm around the knees of the person he was begging and with the free hand, reach up and hold the other’s beard. A stalemate ensues since the person petitioned cannot move or look away and the petitioner has no obvious weapon. The petitioner, in looking up, is vulnerable, throat exposed. Lycaon, son of Priam, had embraced Achilles’s knees and asked for mercy.
Achilles slit his throat.
Abandoning an animal, young or old, mistreating a vulnerable creature is a betrayal of decency. We are mortal, we may speak different languages, but our pets know our moods, our scent, our hours of arrival and departure and they speak the ultimate language of acceptance and love. If in looking up at us they see us as gods, then we should act better and demonstrate compassion, mercy and nobility. If thunder brings both blessings and evils, then we magnify the former, diminish the latter when we act humane and noble.
(Image 1: 4th century papyrus containing parts of the Iliad. Simile Collection. Egypt.)
(Image 2: Automedon tames Achilles’ horses. Henri Regnault. MFA, Boston.)
(Image 3: King Priam supplicating Achilles. Tyre, 2nd century AD, marble sarcophagus. Photo by Steven Damron, Creative Commons license)