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It is commonly known that the Ancient Grecians and Romans relied on the supernatural for many things; in fact, it was really just a way of life for them. They went to Oracles to hear their futures, performed certain rituals for luck or otherwise, and most importantly turned to one of the twelve Olympian gods, mainly for guidance, assistance, or vengeance. Where else would someone need more guidance, assistance, or vengeance than on the battlefield? In Homer’s Iliad, this is evident as well, particularly on the side of the Greeks.
Early on in the story we see the significance of omens in the eyes of the ancient Greeks. In Book 8, the goddess of marriage Hera delivers encouragement to the Greek king Agamemnon, who regroups his troops and motivates them to stand fast. Agamemnon then bows down and pleads to Zeus to save the Achaean army, and Zeus also sends a sign of encouragement to Agamemnon, but in the form of an eagle. This eagle boosts the morale of the Achaean army, and they begin to battle valiantly once again. However, it is evident that not everyone believed in the power of omens. Towards the end of Book 12, as the greatest Trojan warrior Hector and his young commander Polydamas try to rush the Grecian ramparts, they see the same omen, this time the eagle is clutching a bloody snake in its claws. But the snake bites the eagle, which forces the eagle to surrender its grasp. Remaining cool-headed and wise beyond his years, Polydamas takes this as a sign that the Trojan’s attack will fail. But Hector, being the determined and courageous warrior he is, pays absolutely no attention to his subordinate’s warning, loudly proclaiming the words: “Fight for your country — that is the best, the only omen!” He pushes the Trojans forward, and the Achaean wall seems to be hardly remaining intact. Meanwhile on Mount Olympus, it’s clear to us readers what Zeus’ complex plans are, but the character of the gods is not so apparent to the men on the Trojan battlefield. The soldiers are made, practically doomed to watch for omens that the gods send them, and interpreting what is truly a manifestation of a certain god can be confusing to interpret.
The eagle (along with the bloody snake) is an illustration of the vague way in which the gods send signs of destiny to men. Hector’s adamant rejection of the omen revels his character, his bravery, and his unfortunately poor decision making. In the history of Greek and Roman civilizations, the most clear-cut indication of any god’s backing will materialize in the shape of the king deity’s eagle, which informs soldiers that Zeus is on their side. When men elect to ignore it, as Hector does in Book 12, the aftereffects can be drastic. His belief that men must protect their country no matter what is traditionally accepted, but it will not rescue him from being subdued. In the next book, Hector once again advances the Trojans, this time with renewed boldness along with fully prepared reinforcements at his side. Great Ajax teases Hector, and yet another eagle swoops past the Achaeans, which they welcome as a positive omen. Hector sneers at Ajax’ “loose talk,” and declares to him that he will perish with the rest of the Greeks. Hector’s unwavering want to beat the Achaeans is a shining example of his brawn and his determination to protect Troy. However, he cannot control the power of the gods, as Zeus is more than happy to exhibit.
Finally, in Book 24, Zeus sends Iris (messenger goddess of rainbows) to Troy, telling the king Priam that he must travel alone to the Achaean ships to retrieve Hector’s body. He is also told that Achilles will not kill him, and after he orders a wagon filled with magnificent treasure, his wife Hecuba attempts to convince him that to make the journey would be reckless, but Priam is determined to bring back his beloved son’s body. Hecuba only requests that Priam pray for a sign from Zeus before he travels, and Priam agrees, at which point Zeus sends an eagle to assure them. Priam departs in his wagon, escorted by his old driver. The gods decide to send Priam by himself to ransom the body of Hector, making a scenario where the toughest of the Achaeans will meet with the wisest of Trojans, where the vindictive murderer will meet with the father of the slain. This event was literally ordained by the gods through the sending of this heralded eagle, as is every event that is set to coincide with the appearance of the bird.
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