Death and Glory: Heroes in Search of Kleos
By Van Bryan/ Classical Wisdom
It was the great philosopher, Woody Allen, who said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
While this might get a chuckle from a modern reader, such a sentiment would have been unthinkable to a classical age hero. In The Iliad , the classical hero Achilles is motivated to abstain from battle, and subsequently re-engage, in order to achieve his kleos aphthiton (eternal glory).
To understand the Greek hero and, more importantly, kleos, we must first understand the Greek song culture and the role that lyrical poetry, specifically Homeric poetry, played in the lives of classical men and women.
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‘Homer Singing with his Lyre’ attributed to Felix Boisselier. ( Public Domain )
Ancient Greek Hero Worship
Hero worship in ancient Greece was a cultural staple, and lyrical poetry was the medium through which stories of heroic myths were passed down through generations. The ancient Greeks would have understood the tales of Achilles, hero of The Iliad , or Odysseus, the namesake of The Odyssey , in the same way that the stories of Jesus Christ are known by much of Western civilization.
Epic poetry was told, retold, and passed through the generations in the days of ancient Greece. It became something of a common thread within the ancient Hellenic society. For while Greece shared a common land mass, language, and religion, it was not one country.
The tradition of reciting the Homeric epics and retelling the tales of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus would have been a shared cultural tradition through all of Greece-from Athens to Sparta, Crete to Corinth.
‘Achilles Receiving the Envoys of Agamemnon’ by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. ( Public Domain )
The Importance of Kleos
However, becoming such a cornerstone of ancient Greek culture was no easy feat. The heroes of the Homeric epics first needed to achieve their kleos. The first thing we should recognize is that there is not an exact translation for kleos. It most closely translates to “glory” or, more specifically, “what people say about You”.
When it comes to heroic glory, kleos is actually the medium AND the message. Kleos was the glory that was achieved by Homeric heroes who died violent, dramatic deaths on the field of battle. However, kleos also referred to the poem or song that conveys this heroic glory.
The Iliad, therefore, is a type of kleos. It is the song of Achilles, the main hero of the epic who achieved eternal glory on the battlefields of Troy. Another name for the city of Troy was Ilium. This is where we get the name “Iliad”.
Walls of Troy. (CherryX/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
However, kleos is not just something that is handed to you. You must pursue it, often at great personal sacrifice. Achilles is quoted as saying…
“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live forever (kleos): whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” – Achilles (The Iliad)
Here we get to a major crux of the Homeric epic. It is that all-important question for classical heroes. Do they die young and gloriously, and have their names live on forever? Or do they live long, humble lives, but die as anonymous old men?
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Heroes of The Iliad by Tischbein. ( Public Domain )
Achilles doesn’t truly decide which path he will take for most of the epic. It is only in book XVIII, when Achilles learns of the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector, that he resolves to kill the prince of Troy. In doing so, he knowingly ushers in his own demise and achieves his kleos aphthiton.
The kleos of the classical heroes was an immortalizing element. The epics of Homer were not considered fiction. In the song culture of ancient Greece, they were thought to convey the ultimate truth-values of the classical age. Achilles would have viewed his kleos, his eternal place in history, as being just as “real”, perhaps more so, than his actual life.
By achieving kleos, the classical hero is ushered into the catalogues of human history. In essence, he achieves immortality and is nearer to the gods because of it.
Top Image: Triumph of Achilles in Corfu Achilleion. Source: Public Domain
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By Van Bryan