Homeric thought on the culture of death

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UD students at the March for Life in Washington, DC in January 2020. Courtesy of Crusaders for Life

Although Homer’s “Iliad” is rife with scenes of brutality and gore, one of the most chilling moments of the entire poem is Agamemnon’s adjuration to Menelaos concerning the Trojan people:

“Let not one of them go free of sudden death and our hands; not the young man child that the mother carries still in her body, not even he …” This harrowing line was all the more prominent to me in light of the recent nationwide attention towards abortion legislation. 

Although Agamemnon’s death threat against an unborn baby may only reveal the bloodthirsty frenzy that years of war can bring upon a man, it causes one to consider Homeric thought on the culture of death. 

The recently passed Texas Heartbeat Act outlaws abortions in the state of Texas after six weeks of pregnancy, the time at which a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

The law makes abortion a civil offense and allows individuals to sue anyone involved in the procurement of an illegal abortion. It should be noted that the law prevents filing suit against a mother seeking an abortion. 

On Buzzfeed, I recently read an article titled “Women Shared Their Abortion Experiences, and You Should Read Them No Matter What You Believe.” My heart broke at the tragic circumstances shared. 

One woman recounted: “I went through the whole thing alone. I was in bed for five days after hurting both physically and emotionally … Twelve years later, I had my first child with my amazing husband, and I mourned that loss again. I still think about what could have been, but I have NEVER regretted the choice I made.”

I am angry that the publisher put the pain of these women on display, thinking it was appropriate to champion intimate regret and grief and convince mothers that in certain circumstances, abortion is their only choice, even if that choice will continue to haunt them over a decade later.

But within the many arguments and defenses of abortion, there is one prevailing theme: the unborn child is always left unnamed. 

Whether they use explicitly scientific terms such as “cardiac activity” or “fetus,” or whether they diminish the child’s humanity through the emphasis on external situations, the pro-choice movement is quick to keep the primary victim of an abortion anonymous. 

Abortion is not a mere medical decision that removes a difficulty. Abortion is a violent assault against a single human being. From the moment of conception, the human person is an irreplaceable mirror of divine goodness and beauty. 

Abortion’s assault on the divine imprint is not a private affair between a doctor, a child and his mother. It disorders the entire cosmos, leaving a spiritual and physical tear in the human species that can never be mended. 

Homer did not have access to the fullness of the Triune God’s revelation, but he did understand the irreplaceable nature of the human person. His masterful understanding of the common human experience allowed him to see the interconnectedness of every breathing mortal. 

It’s easy to make jokes about the death count in the “Iliad,” keeping a tally in the page margins of every crushed skull and punctured bladder. But Homer does not see the innumerable deaths of the Achaians and Trojans with the same levity. 

The author weaves a story for each soldier killed by the sword; he informs the reader of the fighter’s back story. Most importantly, he calls him by name. 

And when the fallen soldier is named, he is no longer another spear wound through the shoulder — he is Simoeisios, son of Anthemion. He is Hippothoos, “collapsed … far away from generous Larissa (his homeland).” 

As their armor clatters to the ground, that Homeric mist does not cloud the eyes of a stranger. We witness the death of a man who is known by the reader. He is, in some way, beloved. 

When we call the dead by name, we reverence their personhood. We remember that they are not a statistic. They each have a story. 

The women who regret abortion mourn the loss of a child, a loss that is just as real and potent as the grief of Hekabe upon Hektor’s fall. It does not  honor  these women to treat their experiences like an awkward medical procedure. It certainly does not do justice on behalf of the child who was violently murdered in the sanctuary of the womb. 

As we continue to fight for legal protection for the most vulnerable of citizens, it is vital that we do not lose track of the irreparable havoc just one abortion wreaks on humanity. 

Perhaps like the Achaians and Trojans, we too are nearing the end of this war on the unborn. But until then, we cannot grow passive to the silent cry that emerges from the womb. We must call the unborn by name. We must fight for their individual stories that have only begun. The time for sitting at our ships is over. 

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