22, July 2011 § 2 Comments
I can not remember when the idea of illustrating the Iliad first occurred to me. I have known the stories of Achilles and of Helen, the “most beautiful woman in the world”, since childhood. These stories float in the western psyche and reappear in various forms as archetype and impetus for the re-creation of new stories. I loved these stories and I could recall their flavor, almost the way that a fine taste can linger in your mouth. When I came to live in Greece I sometimes caught a flash of a sea nymph in the waves, or Pan among the olive groves. The gods were still here and inhabiting the island. When I walked the streets I sometimes glimpsed Helen and Paris as their modern counterparts went about their daily lives. Once the project of illustrating the Iliad surfaced I knew I had to realize it. It took me many years to begin as I felt I was not ready, perhaps not mature enough, but also not skillful enough. With years of painting now behind me and entering into my fifth decade I decided I had waited long enough.
The Iliad begins western literature. Created by Homer in the 8th century BCE it depicts a war that took place more than four centuries earlier. Roberto Calasso, in “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”, said that the idea of progress in the arts is refuted by the perfection of the Iliad. It has never been surpassed. The Iliad brings together stories of human passion, evokes the dangers of hubris, illuminates the futility of war, and shows us the responsibilities we owe to our fellow man. All of this born out of the events of an ancient war, fought by men but urged on by the capricious gods. The war is fought over Helen. A war waged over a unique woman, the most beautiful woman in the world. A war fought over beauty and honor by very flawed men who come to understand the depth of sacrifice and loss that are demanded. The heroes are trapped in an epic war, while Ananke, the goddess of necessity, tightens her noose about their heads. It is a tale of transformation; the characters change as the conflict rages. We question the nature of revenge when Achilles dishonors the corpse of Hector and see his transformation as he learns that material wealth and military honor cannot replace lost love and life. Our sense of what is honorable comes in the actions of Hector, who fights a battle he knows he will lose but who keeps faith between his words and deeds. Our sense of a true King comes from Priam who refuses to lay blame on Helen for the conflict and who is able to beg on his knees for the body of his son. These and the other characters form complex webs of knowledge about the content of human souls. Little has changed in three millennia.
I hope that my illustrations can lure students into reading the Iliad as the loss of this story from our modern dialogue would be monumental.
Jane Morris Pack