"It is a good thing to give
way to the night-time."
- The Presence of Night in Homerís Iliad
Night is an unsurpassed power in the Iliad. With varying apprehension and relief the mortals submit to the darkness, and even the gods yield to this force more primitive and more ancient than themselves. Before the world, before light, there was blackness, and from this all creation, even the immortals, sprang. To the Greeks and Trojans, Night is significant in many different ways. She is an opponent even the bravest warriors rarely resist. They may battle stubbornly for years, but when Night falls a cease-fire is called. Night brings with her the relief of sleep, but she also prepares the mortal for death. When a soldier falls, "the hateful darkness," Nightís alter-ego, "[takes] hold of him." (V, 47) Night is a mystery these businesslike warriors with few philosophical tendencies do not care to probe. This submission to Night speaks volumes about the ancient psyche as portrayed by Homer, and every deviation from this submission, when a Greek or a Trojan is willing to face the darkness, is even more significant to our understanding of their world-view. To these fatalistic fighters of long ago, "immortal Night" represents the inevitable: death, destiny, the will of the gods, and they yield to her. Hektor declares, "It is a good thing to give way to the night-time," (VII, 293) but sometimes they do not give way. Sometimes, for a brief moment, brave mortals act not in submission to Night, but in spite of her.
Night is not personified in the Iliad the same way Dawn is personified. She is hazily defined; an immortal who does not participate in Olympian society, an ambiguous reference to a goddess and to a condition. "Rosy fingered Dawn," who awakes every morning beside her husband, is anthropomorphic; she illustrates and explains a little corner of nature the same charming way that Helios and his chariot explain the path of the sun. Night is mysterious, powerful and aloof. Gods and men obey her with awe, but she herself will not be pinned down, not molded and restricted like the other immortals.
Because of her indefinite nature, Night takes on many meanings, in contrast to her largely literal mythological counter-parts. Most significantly, Night represents death. Homer describes almost every single warriorís last moment as a blinding mist. "The hateful darkness" takes hold of countless soldiers; darkness is their passage to the other world. Hades is the "Kingdom of the Dark," (VIII, 368) and there dark reigns permanently, visiting earth temporarily to prepare mortals for what is to come. One must take heed that Night and darkness are not the same, for darkness is literal and Night encompasses both the literal and the metaphorical, but darkness and Night are often interchangeable. The former, though, is the defining aspect of the latter. Mortals fear Night chiefly because she brings darkness, and with it inability to see that is frustrating and terrifying. As portrayed by Homer, these ancients are not terribly philosophic people. They emphasize duty, honor, loyalty, and action. Achilles briefly lets his own musings about death interfere with his willingness to act, but for the most part, the Greeks do not probe deathís mystery. Unlike the eastern philosophers of the same period, who delighted in subtleties and complexities, they view life and death as black and white. Perhaps that is why they refer to daylight as "sacred." (XIII, 66) Even death is straightforward; every Greek knows the whole routine before he goes. Night represents the unknown, and that is why they rarely mess with her.
Night is a kind of boundary. As a symbol of death, she is the boundary of a manís life, because the world sprang from darkness, she might be called a boundary to the universe, and of course, she demarcates a manís day. Agamemnon cries out to Zeus, "Let not the sun go down and disappear into darkness until I have hurled headlong the castle of Priam blazing..." (II, 413) He feels he must accomplish his objective in one day. That daily sense of urgency is carried over into the Greek concept of a lifespan. The mortalís time on earth is short; he must achieve as much glory as possible within that time if he is to be remembered after death. That urgency, combined with a newfound sense of the futility of manís efforts when the end is inevitable, drives Achilles mad. In his great speech to the convoy sent to him by Agamemnon, he betrays his frustration with the confinement he now sees in an attitude he once unquestioningly accepted.
Night also bridges boundaries, specifically the boundary between life and death. Darkness mimics Hades, and at night, the dead may visit the living. Just as the grieving Achilles finally drifts off to sleep on the beach of Ilion, Patroklos visits him in a dream. He begs Achilles to release him from his purgatory. Night is associated indirectly with Sleep and Dream, for without her they could not exist. Sleep and Dream, through Night, facilitate manís journey through life and into death. Dream, springing from dark unconsciousness, often brings the unknown to light. Only through Dream does Achilles learn of the condition of Patroklosí soul, and Dream often conveys prophecies or messages from the gods. Sleep (who is protected by the goddess Night) mimics death, and one day is symbolic of a lifespan. Night herself brings daily renewal to weary mortals, helping them live as well as die.
Hektor and Ajax stop fighting when the daylight wanes. In most cases, the Greeks and Trojans are respectful of each otherís reluctance to fight in the dark. At one point , the Greeks question whether or not the Trojans will "give over fighting for nightís sake" (XIV, 79) which they do, and it seems to be a given in the Iliad that a battle wonít resume until dawn. The reasons for this are not spelled out. Fear of dark is almost certainly a factor, and respect for "immortal night" herself may also be involved. Individuals willing to make exceptions to this rule are few in the Iliad, but their willingness to break this taboo is very significant. Menelaos and Agamemnon suffer from insomnia the night before a crucial battle, and they wake up the other Greek generals. Odysseus first questions their need to wander around "through the immortal night," (X, 142) but he also recognizes that the Greeks need to come up with a plan. Nestor suggests some daring man sneak over into the Trojan camp where he may overhear useful information. Spying, especially at night, is not proposed at any point before or after in the Iliad. Its a revolutionary concept, and Nestor promises that the man who accomplishes such a mission will receive a gift like no other. If Night is really as sacred as one is led to believe by all the references to her power and influence, then Diomedesí and Odysseusí midnight killing spree is shocking. They slaughter sleeping men, which is hardly in keeping with the honor associated with fighting a man face to face. Brave warriors like Hektor issue challenges to their enemies; they do not kill them in their beds. Diomedes and Odysseus do not yield to the taboo; they cross the boundary; they do not give way to the night-time. Their midnight raid is a grand, defiant gesture, made by two warriors who feel they must step beyond prescribed behavior in order to achieve victory. At this point, Diomedes and Odysseus do what Achilles cannot yet bring himself to do; they challenge the inevitable, which in this case is literally Night, but which for Achilles is that destiny which was settled long before unhappy Thetis was given to mortal Peleus in marriage.
One other character in the Iliad braves dark Night. Priam, his kinsmen "much lamenting, as if he went to his death," (XXIV, 328) journeys through the darkness to the Greek camp to negotiate with Achilles. Hermes, who also escorts souls to the Underworld, descends to escort the Trojan king, but not without first questioning his audacity. "Where... are you thus guiding your mules and horses through the immortal night while the other mortals are sleeping?" (XXXIV, 363-364) Like Achilles, Priam dares fate. His challenge to the destiny of his "ill-starred son" is mirrored in his challenge to Night. He braves even death, the boundary which Night represents, by going through his own metaphorical death and descent into Hades. He refuses to passively accept his circumstances. He will not be confined to day, just as Achilles realizes that he cannot be confined to conventions, he must act as he sees fit.
Mortals have many reasons to respect and fear Night. Their apprehension is understandable. How strange it is though, that Zeus himself "is in awe of doing anything to swift Nightís displeasure." (XIV, 261) Night is more powerful than Zeus, but in a different way. She plays a role in mythology not as a personality, like any of the Olympians, but as a more ancient and more enigmatic force. She is not only darkness, she is the absence of light, the void which preceded the sun and the creation of earth and heaven. She is an absolute, above the gods themselves. As goddess Night, she is companion to day, but as her primordial, ineffable self she is at the crux of the universe. Even the great Olympians are but a drop of water in the sea of time, but Night who came before will almost certainly endure long after the end of the Olympian dynasty.
Fate is no abstraction in Homerís Iliad. Fate is the golden scales of Father Zeus, the same he uses to determine whether Hektor will live or die. (XXII, 209-213) These scales are a higher authority than the great god himself. Understanding this, we can understand why Night is more powerful, in her own way, than any other immortal. The gods (thank goodness!) are not the be-all and the end-all of the spiritual world. Although it seems like their whims dictate mortal life, there are powers and there are principles which run deeper. The Olympians are not responsible for the structure of the Universe. When men such as Diomedes and Priam challenge Night, they are testing the narrow, rigid boundaries of the god versus man relationship, just beginning to push beyond the black and white world view of their compatriots. Night does represent the inevitable, but not inevitable as Hera or Apollo might have it i.e., the Greeks must win, Hektor must die. Night is the continuation of the mortalís journey, (through Dream and Sleep) his passage beyond his own body; eventually, she leads him into eternity. Surrounding shallow Olympus is the depth of Night. Men are still prey to the whims of the gods, they still must go to Hades when they die, but through the few, scattered references to Night in the Iliad, we see a spirituality yet to be explored and a reality yet to be experienced. Mysterious night offers a glimpse beyond the cage-like world of a man who lives and dies by othersí caprice. In the dark, when rules are broken, a mortal tests his own boundaries and begins to discover the depth in himself.