The Iliad describes one small incident in the Trojan War—a quarrel, a bitter clash of egos, between Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army, and Achilles, captain of one of its squadrons. Once he felt that his honor had been impugned, Achilles endangered the entire Greek cause by withdrawing all his men from the fray. In the course of the ensuing conflict, Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus, was tragically killed by Hector, son of King Priam of Troy. The Odyssey was set after the war and described the ten-year voyage of Odysseus, who had to journey through many strange lands until he was finally reunited with his wife in Ithaca. In both poems, Homer celebrated the excitement of battle, the joy of comradeship, and the glory of the aristeia, when a warrior lost himself in a “victorious rampage” and became an irresistible force, sweeping all before him. In war, Homer seemed to suggest, men lived more intensely. If his glorious deeds were remembered in epic song, the hero overcame the oblivion of death and achieved the only immortality that was possible for moribund human beings.
Fame was thus more important than life itself, and the poems show warriors desperately competing with one another in order to acquire it. In this quest for glory, every man was out for himself. The hero was an egotist, obsessed with questions of honor and status, loudly boasting about his exploits, and prepared to sacrifice the good of the whole to enhance his own prestige. There was no kenosis, no self-surrender; the only way a warrior could “step outside” the confines of self was in the ekstasis of killing. When possessed by Ares, god of war, he experienced a superabundance of life and became divine, losing himself in aristeia and slaughtering anything that stood in his way. War was, therefore, the only activity that could give meaning to life. Every warrior was expected to excel, but to be the “best” (aristos) meant simply to excel in battle. No other quality or talent counted. In the heightened state of aristeia, the hero experienced a superabundance of life that flared up gloriously in contempt of death.
In India, priests and warriors alike were gradually moving toward the ideal of ahimsa (nonviolence). This would also characterize the other Axial spiritualities. But the Greeks never entirely abandoned the heroic ethos: their Axial Age would be political, scientific, and philosophical—but not religious. In presenting a warrior like Achilles as the model of excellence to which all men should aspire, Homer seems to have nothing in common with the spirit of the Axial Age. Yet standing on the threshold of a new era, Homer was able to look critically at the heroic ideal. He could see a terrible poignancy in the fate of the warrior, because in order to achieve the posthumous glory that was his raison d’etre, the hero had to die. He was wedded to death, just as, in the cult, he was confined to the dark chthonian regions, tortured by his mortality. For Homer too, death was a catastrophe.
The Iliad was a poem about death, its characters dominated by the compulsion to kill or be killed. The story moved inexorably toward inevitable extinction: to the deaths of Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, and the beautiful city of Troy itself. In the Odyssey too, death was a black transcendence, ineffable and inconceivable. When Odysseus visited the underworld, he was horrified by the sight of the swarming, gibbering crowds of the dead, whose humanity had obscenely disintegrated. Yet when he met the shade of Achilles, Odysseus begged him not to grieve: “No man has ever been more blest than you in days past, or will be in days to come. For before you died, we Achaeans honoured you like a god, and now in this place, you lord it among the dead.” But Achilles would have none of this. “Don’t gloss over death to me in order to console me,” he replied, in words that entirely discounted the aristocratic warrior ethos. “I would rather be above ground still and labouring for some poor peasant man than be the lord over the lifeless dead.” There was a fearful void at the heart of the heroic ideal.
— Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation, pp. 107-108