‘The Rage of Achilles’ and the Bicameral Mind

Hector's death and Achilles triumphant protected by Mars, 1815, by Antonio Galliano (1785-1824). Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

"Can't you hear the gods? Aren't they talking in your head? Aren't they telling you this is wrong?"

If you listened to the STBYM podcast episodes on bicameralism, you’re familiar with Julian Jaynes’ theory of human consciousness. He argued that ancient humans heard hallucinated voices and that human consciousness as we know it today began 3,000 years ago as a cultural invention.

This would place the dawn of modern consciousness around the time of Homer’s epic “The Illiad,” and indeed Jaynes dissected the work in support of his theory. In “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” Jaynes writes that the work “shows man as an assembly of strangely articulated limbs… with no mention of the body as a whole.” In other words, it is a tale of bicameral men in a bicameral world.

'The Rage of Achilles'
Casperian Books

It’s quite fitting then that author Terence Hawkins chose to invoke Jaynes’ theory in his 2009 novel “The Rage of Achilles." To be clear, the book is not an epic retelling of the entire war. It’s no saga, but rather a concise, modern retelling of “The Iliad” itself. The book begins nine years into the siege of Troy and ends following the burial of Hector.

The vast majority of the characters in “The Rage of Achilles” are highly susceptible to bicameral hallucinations. When faced with pressing challenges or cognitive dissonance, the gods “speak to them” and even manifest visually. In keeping with Jaynes’ theory, these hallucinations are produced by the non-dominant hemisphere and perceived by the dominant – voices from within the mind wrapped in the trappings of an outer pantheon.

The hallucinations range from helpful to chaotic. For instance, Achaean king Agamemnon experiences his desire to claim Achilles’ slave Briseis as a divine command, endangering the entire siege, but also rallies his men when Zeus speaks through him. Achilles himself turns to bicameral visions of his mother for guidance, and yet the very act of locking eyes with a horse on the battle field threatens to transform into a chaotic hallucination.

Against this backdrop of hallucination-fueled men, a few characters are deaf to the voices of the gods. Trojan prince Paris and Ithacan hero Odysseus both experience the world with modern minds.

Odysseus especially provides the reader a sympathetic consciousness through which to understand these violent men and their alien thoughts. He’s forced to nod and go along with the bicameral humans in his midst, unable to come clean about the divine silence in his head. At the same time, every diplomatic or strategic idea that he shares with the Achaeans is attributed to the goddess Athena speaking through him.

"Do you ever have thoughts of your own,” Agamemnon asks him at one point, “or is it always Gray-eyed Athena talking in there?"

Hawkins’ novel is thoroughly modern in its language. He walks a fine line, depicting the lives and dialogue of ancient bicameral warriors in relatable fashion while also narrating the god-touched nature of their lives . At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the violence, slavery, misogyny and sexual violence inherent in their culture. Especially through the eyes of Odysseus, the reader is forced to come to terms with the familiar yet alien nature of their world. The book is grim, dark and violent – though not in a fashion that betrays its historical and literary roots.

“The Rage of Achilles” is fast-paced, entertaining and thought-provoking – especially for anyone fascinated by Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. Hawkins makes “The Iliad” fresh, exciting and even humorous. In doing so, he also gives us our best – and perhaps only – bicameralism-themed novel.

"No one will speak to Achilles; no one in his right mind would. All day he has sat at the foot of Patroclus' unlit pyre. The only company he will tolerate is that of the priests who flank it, droning away in the language that the Achaeans spoke when their minds first awakened in the north, when the ice rivers were still fresh memories to their grandfathers, whose own grandfathers had been no more than puppets in the hands of the gods, hunting and breeding with no more consciousness of purpose than the animals they slaughtered.” – Terence Hawkins, “The rage of Achilles”

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.