Normally with my read-alongs, I post my summaries and comments at the end of the week of the scheduled read to allow people to absorb the work before they read what I have to say. But this poem can be a little overwhelming on a first read with all its different names and unfamiliar customs, so I’m going to TRY and post as the beginning or middle of the scheduled section. Hopefully my posts can help you navigate through it and perhaps add some understanding to assist you on your way.
And so our read begins. As a heads up, not only are there many characters in this book, there can be many names for the same character or group (eg. Achaians / Argives / Danaans). Much of the time, this is due to the fact the poet/translator is attempting to keep the meter of the poem and needs certain syllables or stresses. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to place them in the comments below. I will do my best to answer!
Although The Iliad (and The Odyssey) comes out of an oral Greek tradition, when these works finally were written down (scholars think this was around the 8th century B.C., but they are not certain), they became primary cultural texts with which every educated Greek was familiar.
The extraordinary influence of these poems on not only literary history, but art, music, drama, etc. in Western culture should not be underestimated. They are the foundation of much of the literary works in our culture; only the Bible has had more influence in Western culture’s development.
As we read, you may notice that there are parts of the story that we know are missing: Achilles does not die in The Iliad, nor do we have the story of the Trojan horse, nor is Troy sacked. There are other epics that told these stories which are unfortunately lost, although we have summarizes of them in other works. However it’s important to know that the Greeks of Homer’s time would have been intimately familiar with these epics.
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. (Lattimore; lines 1-7)
The poem starts in media res, which means in the middle of the story. Agamemnon has taken hostage, Chryseis, a priestess of the temple of Apollo, and although her father, the priest (Chyrses), arrives at the Achaians’ ships, pleading for her release, Agamemnon flatly refuses to free the girl. The priest prays to Apollo and the god shoots arrows at the Danaan ships, animals and warriors, causing a plague that kills many. Achilleus convenes a meeting and there Kalchas, son of Thestor reveals that Apollo is angry that Agamemnon will not release the girl, nor pay a ransom, disrespecting the priest and through him, the god himself. Angry, Agamemnon agrees to Chryseis’ release. but only if he is given another prize in return. Trying to placate Agamemnon, Achilles says that during the sack of Troy they will acquire many treasures, and Agamemnon can then have his choice, but the king is not satisfied and threatens to take another warrior’s booty. His attitude angers Achilles and they exchange words, Agamemnon declaring that he will take Achilles’ woman-prize, Briseis, and Achilles refusing to fight in the war.
(Achilles) “And this shall be a great oath before you: some day longing for Achilleus will come to the sons of the Achaians, all of them. Then stricken at heart though you be, you will be able to do nothing, when in their numbers before man-slaughtering Hektor they drop and die. And then you will eat out the heart within you in sorrow, that you did no honour to the best of the Achaians.” (lines 239-244)
Before Achilles can draw his sword to slay the king, Athena, on orders from Hera, descends and stays his arm, promising him many spoils to come.
Nestor (whom I find very long-winded whenever he speaks, yet he is a favourite of mine) attempts to create a reconciliation between the two warriors but his effort is fruitless. There are more words between Achilles and Agamemnon; Achilles retires to his ships, and Agamemnon sends back Chryseis by ship under the care of the warrior, Odysseus, and makes hecatombs to Apollo to appease him. He then dispatches his men to take Briseis from Achilles, complete with more posturing. After giving up the girl, Achilles petitions his mother the goddess, Thetis, to appeal to Zeus to cause the fighting go against the Greeks and therefore restore some of Achilles’ honour. While she does as he pleads, Zeus is nervous of Hera’s (his wife) interference, and although he agrees to Thetis’ supplication, he later has words with Hera about their meeting. The couple part in anger, and Hephaistos appeals to his mother, Hera, not to allow men to set the gods against each other.
Achilles and Agamemnon
The two exchange words. and Agamemnon takes Achilles’ prize, the girl, Briseis. Achilles then refuses to fight. Who is right? Does Agamemnon, given his position, have the right to take what he wants? Is Achilles acting like a baby because he refuses to fight? He is actually assisting in the defeat of those he is supposed to be fighting with.
I also noted that the men Agamemnon sent to take Briseis did so “against their will.”
What is apparent here is that Agamemnon is required to give up his prize by the will of a god. Achilles is required to give up his prize under the compulsion of a man. Let’s see what happens ….
Oh, and a curious parallel: Agamemnon and Achilles are bickering and set against each other when they should be allies, and Zeus and Hera are at odds when they should be working together as husband and wife.
While Zeus hesitantly agrees to Thetis’ request, the end of the story is already known. Yet while the end is know, there is a certain amount of play or malleability (from the gods) with what happens in between.
Zeus sends an “evil Dream” to Agamemnon which appears in the form of Nestor, Neleus’ son, a trusted advisor. It instructs Agamemnon to arm his warriors as they will take king Priam’s city of Troy. As Agamemnon assembles his forces, Nestor, king of Pylos, confirms the dream, saying it could be a lie if it came from anyone else but Agamemnon, and Rumor hastens to spread the deception of Zeus.
Yet curiously, Agamemnon decides to test his troops. He delivers a speech, saying that it has been nine long years of war, that the Achaians outnumber the Trojans by more than 10 to 1, and that they should leave Troy and flee back to their homelands. Surprisingly, the warriors rush to break camp, preparing their ships for departure, and it’s only by the intervention of Athene, under Hera’s orders, that the flight is prevented, as she counsels a disgruntled Odysseus to use his famous rhetoric in persuasion. Grabbing Agamemnon’s sceptre, he quickly convinces the leaders to abandon their retreat and brings them back to assembly, in order and contriteness, all except Thersites, who scolds and complains. He accuses Agamemnon of greed, ever-wanting more gold and women, but Odysseus adeptly silences his tirade, ending with:
“If once more I find you playing the fool, as you are now,
nevermore let the head of Odysseus sit on his shoulders,
let me nevermore be called Telmachos’ father,
if I do not take you and strip away your personal clothing,
your mantle and your tunic that cover over your nakedness,
and send you thus bare and howling back to the fast ships,
shipping you out of the assembly place with the strokes of indignity.”
He brings the sceptre crashing down on the shoulders of Thersites, and the Argives laugh, having nothing but scorn for the proud, annoying Thersites.
Odysseus then orates an effective speech rebuking the Argives to keep their oaths to sack Troy and interprets the prophecy of Kalchas that they will take Troy in the tenth year. The warriors applaud Odysseus, and Nestor adds to the upbraiding, urging them to uphold their oaths. He counsels that warriors should be sent in clans; with friends and family members they will fight more effectively and it would allow the cowards to be weeded from the courageous. Agamemnon then responds, blaming Zeus for his quarrel with Achilles and their situation (was Zeus mentioned in the quarrel?), gives a stirring speech for war, makes a sacrifice of a 5-year-old ox, and summons his nobles who are:
- Aiantes (Ajax the Greater)
- Aiantes (Ajax the Lesser)
- Diomedes, son of Tydeus
After they have a mighty feast, Nestor advises speed to war and, with the help of Athene, the troops are marshalled. Then comes a long list of leaders of the Argives who are to participate in the fighting. And so they go to battle, while at his ships, Achilles rages against Agamemnon.
But now the goddess, Iris, appears to the Trojans and, pretending that she is Polites, the son of king Priam, announces war is upon them with a force larger than they can imagine. Brave Hector, son of Priam, immediately marshals his troops and allies, gathering them on The Hill of the Thicket. We then get a catalogue of Trojan leaders including Sarpedon (an ally), one of my favourites!
The Leadership of Agamemnon
One wonders at the strength of Agamemnon’s command and if he has the total respect of his troops, given that they are so eager to forsake their oaths and run for home. Yet he obviously has won great fame (at least at some point) to be head of the expedition. Is his fame great yet his character is questionable, and the two come into conflict? I’ll pay more attention to this subject as I read along.
The Brilliance of Odysseus
The renown of Odysseus becomes apparent in the leadership he trusted with and how he employs his rhetoric and skills. He is also presented as being honourable and trustworthy, as he is one leader who does not run for his ship to sail home after Agamemnon’s speech and, in fact, is indignant at those who do. In the catalogue of leaders and ships, he only commands twelve, while other leaders have many more (sometimes 40 or 50), yet he is respected because of his bravery, craftiness and good sense. It’s curious though because if his ships constitute his timê (honour/goods), he should be respected less than those who have more, yet it seems his character is above that. Interesting ….
The Greek’s culture is a shame culture. An individual’s image and self worth is dependent on what those around him think of him, and therefore the behaviour of a person is dependent on not being shamed. Agamemnon, by taking Briseis, has not only shamed Achilles but by doing so, has damaged his very identity.
So how are you doing with the read so far? What are you finding enjoyable and then perhaps difficult about this work?
⇐ A Schedule and a Note on Translation The Iliad – Book III & Book IV ⇒