February 17, 2014

Homeric Combat

Frazetta

While I owe a lot to REH for the way I describe battle scenes, whether in writing stories or GM’ing, I actually look to an even older source for details. Homer.

Passages from the Odyssey and the Iliad stuck in my head at a very early age – I’d read prose English translations of both even before I encountered Howard or Tolkien – and the way I describe the effects of weapons and the heroes’ tactics is very much patterned after these. Homer often describes exactly where a weapon went in, where it went out, and what it did in between! These feats are extraordinary, showcasing the strength and skill of the heroes who perform them. Check these out:

“On this [Odysseus] aimed a deadly arrow at Antinous, who was about to take up a two-handled gold cup to drink his wine and already had it in his hands. The arrow struck Antinous in the throat, and the point went clean through his neck, so that he fell over and the cup dropped from his hand, while a thick stream of blood gushed from his nostrils. He kicked the table from him and upset the things on it, so that the bread and roasted meats were all soiled as they fell over on to the ground.”

“Then Amphinomus drew his sword and made straight at Ulysses to try and get him away from the door; but Telemachus was too quick for him, and struck him from behind; the spear caught him between the shoulders and went right through his chest, so that he fell heavily to the ground and struck the earth with his forehead. Then Telemachus sprang away from him, leaving his spear still in the body, for he feared that if he stayed to draw it out, some one of the Achaeans might come up and hack at him with his sword …”

“He it was that now met Agamemnon son of Atreus. When they were close up with one another, the son of Atreus missed his aim, and Iphidamas hit him on the girdle below the cuirass and then flung himself upon him, trusting to his strength of arm; the girdle, however, was not pierced, nor nearly so, for the point of the spear struck against the silver and was turned aside as though it had been lead: King Agamemnon caught it from his hand, and drew it towards him with the fury of a lion; he then drew his sword, and killed Iphidamas by striking him on the neck.”

“First, Ajax son of Telamon killed brave Epicles, a comrade of Sarpedon, hitting him with a jagged stone that lay by the battlements at the very top of the wall. As men now are, even one who is in the bloom of youth could hardly lift it with his two hands, but Ajax raised it high aloft and flung it down, smashing Epicles' four-crested helmet so that the bones of his head were crushed to pieces, and he fell from the high wall as though he were diving …”

“Idomeneus meanwhile smote Oenomaus in the middle of his belly, and broke the plate of his corslet, whereon his bowels came gushing out and he clutched the earth in the palms of his hands as he fell sprawling in the dust.”

“Adamas then sought shelter under cover of his men, but Meriones followed after and hit him with a spear midway between the private parts and the navel, where a wound is particualrly painful to wretched mortals.”

My takeaways from these passages:

  • Extraordinary strength and skill at fighting should reflect in the way damage is described; in the last passage, Idomeneus’ strength is showcased in his ability to strike right through his opponent’s armor;
  • Occasional descriptions of the anatomical details of damage plays up the gruesomeness and desperation of combat, or the awesomeness of the hero;
  • Miscalculations, such as Iphidamas’ attack on Agammemnon, have serious consequences;
  • Fighting with anything that comes to hand – Ajax temporarily abandons his weapons to seize a big stone and throw it;

Homer also has a fine eye – or ear – for the details of how a combatant might cheat death:

“[Diomed] poised his spear as he spoke and hurled it, nor did he miss his mark. He had aimed at Hector's head near the top of his helmet, but bronze was turned by bronze, and Hector was untouched, for the spear was stayed by the visored helm made with three plates of metal, which Phoebus Apollo had given him.”

“Achilles in his turn threw, and struck the round shield of Aeneas at the very edge, where the bronze was thinnest; the spear of Pelian ash went clean through, and the shield rang under the blow; Aeneas was afraid, and crouched backwards, holding the shield away from him; the spear, however, flew over his back, and stuck quivering in the ground, after having gone through both circles of the sheltering shield. Aeneas though he had avoided the spear, stood still, blinded with fear and grief because the weapon had gone so near him.”

Another interesting takeaway – even a staunch hero like Aeneas can be unnerved by narrowly missing death. Also note that the shield did not save Aeneas by completely blocking Achilles’ spear, instead it covered him just enough that Achilles mistakenly threw where Aeneas’ body was not. On such little mistakes and miscalculations can the tides of combat turn.

I believe war was frequent enough in Homer’s Greece, and that the bard met enough warriors – may even have been one himself – that his words ring true to a good extent. The Iliad and the Odyssey may not have been strictly historical, but their combat details were very likely inspired by real-life soldier’s stories, heard first-hand by Homer himself. There’s a lot of lessons and techniques to pick up from these old epics, and of course they’re mighty fine reading on a gray and rainy day.

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