The literature of humanity that has stayed with us taps into the deepest part of how we perceive our existence. The stories that our ancestors have crafted and passed down to us resonated with them. The stories that made it down to us, made it through the filter of time because those stories said something important to each link the the chain from then until now.
Pondering this I recently read the Iliad for the first time, and then I read it again. One way that it resonated, surprised me.
Growing up I was never one of the athletic kids, but several of my close friends were, and thus I learned to play. There’s a unique excitement that engrosses you when you are participating in a game. I can still remember viscerally how deeply I wanted to win – especially during tournaments, and how it felt that all the powers of nature were conspiring for each event that happened during that game.
“You should pray to the everlasting gods yourself. You are no mere man.” Apollo to Aineias
– Iliad, book XX
Feeling this – while playing an intense game – it is 100% natural to pray to god, to request a favorable outcome to your game. Looking back 20 years later, or even a single month, most of those circumstances seem a silly catalyst for requesting divine intervention. But when you’re in the moment, heaven and earth should move for you to get that touchdown, or home run.
This affects spectating participants as it does the players. As a Red Sox fan (since before 2004) it’s clear to me that divine intervention is involved in these great games…
Achillês now cast his spear, and struck on the outermost ring, where the metal was thinnest and the hide thinnest behind. The Pelian lancewood ran through with a ringing sound. Aineias had crouched down holding up the shield; so the shaft passed over his back and stuck in the ground, still fast in the shield with the two layers torn apart. But he had escaped: he stood up dizzy and shaken when he saw that shaft sticking at his elbow. Achillês then drew sword and leaped at him with a shout. Aineias lifted a great big stone in his hand such as two men could not carry, as men go now, but he managed it easily alone. And now Aineias would have crashed down that stone on his helmet, or on that shield which had saved him before, and Peleidês would have chased and killed him with that sword; but Poseidon Earthshaker thought his time was come…
So Poseidon left them, and passed through the battle to the place where Aineias and Achillês were face to face. He drew a mist over the eyes of Achillês; he pulled out the spear from the shield of Aineias and laid it before the other’s feet, whisked up Aineias off the ground and hurled him through the air. Over the ranks of fighting men Aineias flew from the god’s hand, over the lines of horses, and alighted on the outskirts of battle where the Cauconians were getting ready for action.
– Iliad, book XX
This is exactly how I felt while engrossed in my games, praying for me or my team to win.
When you’re watching a Super Bowl and a long toss is sent, you can feel the entire stadium willing that ball to do one thing or another. There is little doubt in my mind that people are hoping for Great Earthshaker Poseidon, or whichever surrogate they pray to, to whisk the ball through the air into the hands of the right mythical hero to make that touchdown.
I got chills reading this next piece; having studied religious liturgy for a good part of my life, I hear clear echoes of my prayers from the Days of Awe.
But when the fourth time they drew near the two fountains, see now, the Father laid out his golden scales and placed in them two fates of death, one for Achillês and one for Hector. He grasped the balance and lifted it: Hector’s doom sank down, sank down to Hadês, and Apollo left him.
At that moment Athena was by the side of Achillês, and she said in plain words:
“Now you and I will win, my splendid Achillês! Now I hope we shall bring great glory to our camp before the Achaian nation, by destroying Hector, for all his insatiable courage. Now there is no chance that he can escape, not if Apollo Shootafar should fume and fret and roll over and over on the ground before Zeus Almighty! Rest and take breath, and I will go and persuade the man to stand up to you.”
– Iliad, book XXII
The imagery of scales is universal. This expression of scales balancing the fate of the two heroes of the Iliad echoes through every confrontation I witnessed, and every request I have ever made in any prayer.
When reading through the Iliad there were points where I could not fathom why this piece was so important, especially when lineage went on for pages. After finishing reading the work I understand more why we must study and cherish the great treasures passed down to us from ages past.
Image credit: Pietro da Cortona
About the image: Venus Appearing to Aeneas – Pietro da Cortona, Louvre