The Glory of War and Kleos

A true Greek hero must achieve honor and glory that resonates even after his death. The Greek word, kleos (κλέος) embodies this concept of posthumous glory. The word is related to more modern term kudos (kŷdos), meaning “fame and renown resulting from an act or achievement.” [1] Kleos also stems from the Greek word kluô  “to hear.” [2] Greek poets used spoken word to convey the glory and fame warriors earned based on their actions, making perfect sense of the word’s roots. Roughly translated, kleos means, “glory, fame, which is heard.” [3]

In Homer’s Iliad, the term kleos is used – as well as referred to in more recent translations – when Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix convince Achilles to return to fight. Achilles responds in “Mother tells me, the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet, that two fates bear me on the day of death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory (kleos) never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies ... true, but the life that’s left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.” [4] Though Achilles has the option to return home, he chooses to fight and earn his glory, because “unlike natural flowers that go through the cycle of blooming and then wilting, this unnatural flower, this kleos, will forever stay the same, never losing its color, aroma, and overall beauty.” [3] This is the only decision for Achilles, as he is the most powerful warrior in the Iliad.

Though kleos is closely related to kudos, its journalistic use in the 1920s to describe playwrights and other artists has significantly watered down its original meaning. [5] In the Iliad, kudos was given to a warrior who achieved something good, but it was not up to par with the acts it took to receive kleos, which is often associated with the grave. [2] This shift in meaning is why scholars use the word glory instead of kudos when referring to a contemporary version of kleos. 

21st century scholarship’s portrayal of the glory of war has changed very little over time. Maintaining honor and glory through acts of war are two concepts that span time and culture. Though the United States doesn’t use poetry or oral tales of soldiers passed down from generation to generation, those who earned kleos are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.


[1] kudos. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 7, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kudos

[2]Redfield, J. (1975). Nature and culture in the Iliad: the tragedy of Hector . Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Nagy, G. The Concept of the Hero. Retrieved September 7, 2009, from Rediscovering Homer: Poetry and Performance Web site: http://athome.harvard.edu/programs/nagy/threads/concept_of_hero.html

[4] Homer, Iliad 9.497–505

[5] kudos. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 07, 2009, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/kudos




Kavan Rogness said...

Last night I was literally just about to write about this very concept. I checked the blog one last time and saw that you wrote about it, so . . . kudos to you :)

Anyways, I enjoyed your discussion of the concept of glory. I think it relates nicely to nobility and honor, other concepts often discussed in the Iliad. I also enjoyed your connection to how we glorify, in a way, our soldiers today. At first I thought you were somewhat wrong on it as the War in Iraq has had such clear and strong opposition. I also had in mind Vietnam War protests and how denigrated soldiers from that conflict were. I think the Vietnam experience, however, reminded the country that there are things worth fighting for, and even though you may disagree with the conflict (as with today's Iraq war, in many cases), most people still attach a level of kleos to the soldiers themselves.

andrewg4us said...

I think this is a really interesting concept. Especially how Achilles and other warriors may have earned kudos, even several times, but kleos was given to a warrior in death. And how this concept, even though a practical and sometimes even a logical person would think otherwise to lose their life in battle, these warriors would fight till the death to either earn or protect their kleos/glory.

One thing that stuck out in my mind in modern times, is how many soldiers fight in our current wars and lose their lives day after day for either their country or comrades, but yet not awarded or given the significance of this modern day kleos (Medal of Honor). And I was compelled to think of how much politics has played a major role in this abstract concept; moreover, how this concept is easily seen yet not given. Just a thought, :) and it is unfortunate that there is not more medals of honor given out to those soldiers who are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.