HOW THE PLOT DEVELOPS: SOME
Homer begins by calling upon the goddess - the Muse, the goddess of poetry - to sing of the anger of Achilleus and its devastating consequences. The very first line reminds us of the oral character of this poetry - it will be sung and performed, and Homer calls upon a goddess to sing it, as if he were acknowledging that the poem is not his own, but the product of a tradition. This also gives his poem more authority - it isn’t just one man’s story, it’s a tale from the gods.
The opening lines also refer to the “will of Zeus ” (line 5), raising right from the start the question of whether mortals (men and women) or the immortals (gods and goddesses) bear responsibility for the events of the poem. He continues this emphasis on the gods when he begins his story (line 8) by asking:
“What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?” Now, he quickly goes backwards in time from the plague sent by Apollo , to the arrival of the priest at the Greek camp to ransom his daughter... (lines 11-12)
Let me point out a few items that you should notice...use them to draw your own conclusions...
-The priest offers a ransom for his daughter. He doesn’t simply demand her back. Whatever we may think of this situation, the priest is willing to recognize that Agamemnon should be compensated. (line 20)
-The “rest of the Achaians cried out in favour” (line 22) - this is one of the places where we get a glimpse of “public opinion”. Evidently, the Greek troops believe that Agamemnon should accept the priest’s offer.
-Agamemnon’s refusal is rude and insulting. He threatens the priest (line 26), and he insults the god, Apollo, by suggesting that the “god’s ribbons” will be of no help to the priest (line 28). He crudely refers to the priest’s daughter as his slave in bed with him (line 31).
-When the old priest prays to Apollo for help, he does so on the basis of the personal service that he has rendered to the god. He has built a temple for him, and he has made many sacrifices for him (lines 39-41). There is no suggestion - whatever we may think - that Agamemnon has done something morally wrong, either in refusing the ransom or holding the girl in the first place. Rather, he has not taken into account that the priest has a very powerful ally, the god, Apollo, who owes him favors. In effect, he has dishonored Apollo (line 21), provoking his anger, just as later he will dishonor Achilleus, provoking his anger.
-When the Greeks finally assemble to discuss the plague, they have already been afflicted for ten days (lines 53-54). That suggests an absence of leadership: nine days have gone by, Agamemnon has done nothing for the men, and it is Achilleus - inspired by the goddess, Hera - who decides to act (lines 54-55). We might think that he is “only” acting on the goddess’ inspiration, but it is a mark of his importance that the goddess chooses to inspire him and not one of the other leaders.
-When the prophet, Kalchas , hesitates to speak for fear of offending a powerful king (lines 75-83), it is Achilleus that he looks to for protection. Not only does he promise to protect Kalchas, but he mentions Agamemnon (line 90), already anticipating, perhaps, that Agamemnon will be named as the cause of the plague.
-Agamemnon is infuriated with Kalchas. When he says “never yet have you told me a good thing” (line 106), the audience may recognize an allusion to another event that formed part of the story of Troy (though not mentioned in the Iliad): the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. It is said that Agamemnon sent for his daughter, Iphigeneia, and sacrificed her to appease the goddess, Artemis, and obtain favorable winds for the expedition to proceed to Troy. According to the story, the prophet, Kalchas, had interpreted the gods’ will and indicated what had to be done.
-Despite Agamemnon’s anger, he does agree to give the girl back. He says clearly, “Still I am willing to give her back, if such is the best way (line 116).” True, he asks for a prize, so that he won’t be without one (line 118), but he does not make this a condition of the return. It seems clear that, at this point, he knows better than to resist Apollo.
-Achilleus immediately abuses him, calling him “greediest for gain of all men”(line 122). He does not acknowledge that Agamemnon will give the girl back, and, instead, he tells him to do so (line 127).
-Agamemnon responds to this challenge by threatening to take a prize - not necessarily from Achilleus (lines 137-39), but he also seeks to put off that discussion - and cool tempers - by saying, “Still, these are things we shall deliberate again hereafter (line 140).” He proceeds with the arrangements for the proper return of the girl, and he even suggests that Achilleus - who has just insulted him - might lead the expedition to return the girl to her father (lines 145-46).
Achilleus insists on pursuing the argument and abusing Agamemnon even further. Here, we begin to get to the heart of the matter, when Achilleus says:
“Never, when the Achaians sack some well-founded citadel
of the Trojans, do I have a prize that is equal to your prize.
Always the greater part of the painful fighting is the work of
my hands; but when the time comes to distribute the booty
yours is far the greater reward, and I with some small thing
yet dear to me go back to my ships when I am weary with fighting (lines 163-68).”
In a word: I do the work, you get the prizes.
Clearly, there is more to this dispute than just this one incident and Agamemnon’s threat - still not directed exclusively at Achilleus - to take away a prize. At the same time, for an understanding of how the quarrel develops, it’s important to see that material possessions - captives, wealth, booty - are at the heart of it. When Achilleus refrains from killing Agamemnon, he holds back after the goddess, Athene, has promised him that one day he’ll receive three times as many shining gifts (lines 213-14).
I offer these observations just to call your attention to some key points in the opening scene that might help us understand what’s at stake, and how Homer is presenting the quarrel - the trigger for Achilleus’ anger - to his audience...
THE ROOTS OF THE INITIAL QUARREL
In the simplest terms, Achilleus becomes angry at Agamemnon and withdraws from the battle because Agamemnon takes Briseis, his captive woman, from him as compensation for his own loss of Chryseis, the daughter of the priest of Apollo. As the quarrel unfolds, we see that it had much deeper roots.
For his part, Agamemnon did not resist returning Chryseis to Apollo - though he was not happy about it. Nor did he demand compensation as a condition of returning Chryseis. In fact, even when he did threaten to take a captive woman from one of the other men - Achilleus, Aias, or Odysseus, he tried to “cool things down” by returning to the matter of organizing the return of Chryseis and deferring the matter of compensation: “Still, these are things we shall deliberate again hereafter.” This offered a facesaving way for the two men to stand down, but it was Achilleus who forced the issue, and, by doing so, challenged Agamemnon’s authority. It was this broader challenge to his authority which led Agamemnon to assert it by seizing Achilleus’ captive. He tells Achilleus at line 134, “Are you ordering me to give this girl back?” When he finally decides to take Briseis, he tells Achilleus (line 185) that he is doing it so “that you may learn how much greater I am than you, and another man may shrink from likening himself to me”. Finally, in reply to the effort of Nestor , the aged king - and voice of wisdom - to mediate, he says (line 287), “Yet here is a man who wishes to be above all others, who wishes to hold power over all, and to be lord of all, and to give them orders...”
Agamemnon has reason to think Achilleus is usurping his authority: it was Achilleus who called the assembly (line 54), Achilleus who called for a prophet (line 62) to explain Apollo’s anger, Achilleus who agreed (line 85) to protect the prophet, Kalchas, and Achilleus who (line 90) first named Agamemnon, anticipating his responsibility. Once Agamemnon agreed to return Chryseis, it was Achilleus who jumped in to protest his demand for compensation.
For his part, Achilleus clearly has a longstanding resentment of Agamemnon’s authority. Simply put, he feels he is the greater fighter and does more of the hard fighting, while Agamemnon’s position allows him to divide up the spoils and claim the greater rewards. He says this quite clearly (lines 163-68), when he complains about the unfair distribution of prizes. We also see the deeper roots of his resentment later, when, at line 366, he summarizes the story for his mother, Thetis , and begins with the sacking of the city that led to the capture of the women and the initial distribution of prizes.
When Nestor, the old and wise king, attempts unsuccessfully to settle the quarrel, we see that it is about the two men’s competing claims to authority, to honor and to the wealth and prizes that are the signs or tokens of honor. He tells Agamemnon (line 275),
“You, great man that you are, yet do not take the girl away
but let her be, a prize as the sons of the Achaians gave her...
But, he also warns Achilleus,
“(do not) think to match your strength with
the king, since never equal with the rest is the portion of honour
of the sceptred king to whom Zeus gives magnificence. Even
though you are the stronger man, and the mother who bore you was immortal,
yet is this man greater who is lord over more than you rule.”
There is the problem: Achilleus is recognized as the strongest warrior and the son of a goddess, but Agamemnon is wealthier, rules over more men, and holds some special authority from Zeus symbolized by the SCEPTER or royal staff. This is more fully explained in book two (lines 100-109) where it is described as made by the god, Hephaistos and passed down from Zeus to Agamemnon’s grandfather, Pelops. This is a more fundamental conflict over honor and status, and one that will be hard to resolve in a world that lacks some of the kinds of institutions or beliefs we may take for granted: a code of law and recognized authorities to enforce it, accepted systems of arbitration, divinities who represent a higher moral standard. Nestor can offer good advice...but no one has to listen.
MORTALS AND IMMORTALS
One part of Achilleus’ anger stems from his unwillingness to acknowledge Agamemnon's authority, and to accept the ways the warriors give out honor and the prizes that go with it. Beyond this, we get a clue about why honor is so important to Achilleus, and why his anger will prove so deep and difficult to resolve, when he complains to his mother, the goddess Thetis (line 352),
“Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life, therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me honour at least...”
Thetis echoes this complaint when she asks Zeus to grant honor to Achilleus “short-lived beyond all other mortals” (line 505).
While they might be referring to the specific prophecies that predicted Achilleus’ death at Troy, it is also true that a “short life” - “short” by comparison with the eternal life of his mother and the other immortal gods - separates Achilleus (and all mortals) from the gods, even from his own mother. Achilleus must feel this separation all the more acutely as the son of a goddess. Of all men, he might aspire to be “godlike”...in more than just a formulaic way. Honor offers one form of compensation - however inadequate - for mortality, and this is an issue that will grow in importance in the course of the poem, and, eventually, overshadow Achilleus’ initial conflict with Agamemnon.
This contrast between the immortal gods and goddesses, and mortal men and women raises the question of the role that the gods and goddesses play in the poem. After all, Homer emphasizes their importance by referring to the “will of Zeus” (line 5) in the opening lines, and he begins the story by asking what god set up the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilleus (line 8). In many respects, the gods behave rather like humans: Apollo helps his priest, because his priest did things for him. Apollo is angry when he is dishonored by the treatment of his priest. Thetis asks Zeus for a favor because she had once helped him. Throughout the battles, the gods and goddesses will support the warriors on the side they favor.
Homer also contrasts the gods and goddesses with human beings. After Zeus agrees to Thetis’ request to honor Achilleus, book one closes with a scene in which he bickers with his wife, Hera , who, as a partisan of the Greeks, is angry at his plan. In this scene, their lame son, Hephaistos , the craftsman of the gods, calms Hera down and reminds her of the dangers of trying to fight with Zeus. The scene provides a bit of comic relief - the gods themselves burst into laughter - with a parody of the earlier quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilleus and the efforts of Nestor to resolve it. But, it also reminds us of the deadly seriousness, by contrast, of the men’s quarrel which will result in the deaths of many, something the gods need never fear. That contrast between the immortality of the gods and human mortality is fundamental, and it may be that Homer uses the gods and goddesses, in part, to highlight what it means to be human, to have a short life, and to give that life meaning.
FEATURES OF ORAL POETRY
In class, I talked about how we see the tradition of oral poetry in the Iliad. You can choose almost any passage and find examples of the Homeric formulas, the repeated phrases and lines that are the building blocks of oral epic: “Achilleus of the swift feet”, “Apollo beloved of Zeus”, “the goddess of the white arms, Hera”...
There are also numerous places where you can see how Homer “pads” his text with unnecessary words. This “padding” is part of the oral poet’s art: it buys time for the poet who is composing his tale as he performs it, and it helps a listening audience follow the story without necessarily catching every word. The first two books also offer examples of longer formulaic passages: the nearly identical descriptions of the sacrifices and meals in book one (line 458) when the Greeks returned Chryseis, and in book two (line 421) before the Greek chiefs assembled their troops. At the beginning of book two, within the space of less than eighty lines, Zeus tells the “evil dream” what it should tell Agamemnon, the dream repeats it, and Agamemnon narrates it to the other warriors - each time repeating the same five-line passage.
This kind of repetition is not always mechanical - it leaves room for purposeful choices. Achilleus, for example, summarizes the story for his mother, Thetis, in book one (line 366). Sure, this helps the listeners - by recapitulating the story - and it buys time for the poet, but Homer also made this a summary from Achilleus’ own point of view. For him, the story began not with the coming of the priest of Apollo, but with the raid against Thebe and the distribution of the prizes. And, when he describes the assembly, he omits his own role in calling it and naming Agamemnon, but he does say - wrongly - that he was the first to urge the god’s appeasement.
The first book also provides examples of how Homer draws on the wider body of myths and legends that formed part of the oral traditions: Nestor refers to a battle between Greek heroes and centaurs; Achilleus reminds Thetis of how she helped save Zeus from the other gods; Hephaistos reminds the gods - more comically - of how he was hurled from Olympus the last time they ganged up on Zeus. And, there are times when we can only speculate about whether Homer is hinting at stories his audience likely knew. Does he, for example, expect their knowledge of the myths surrounding Thetis to explain her persuasive powers over Zeus? And, what do make of Agamemnon's nasty reference to his own wife, Klytaimestra, when he says (1.113) that he likes Chryseis “better than Klytaimestra, my own wife”. Is Homer counting on the audience thinking ahead to the story of his murder by Klytaimestra upon his return? These are just a few examples of how Homer relies on a vast body of myths and legends to deepen the impact of his story.
Most important, Homer works in a series of references to the larger story of the Trojan War: Odysseus ’ recollection of the prophecy at Aulis when the Greeks set out for Troy (2.299-329), the marshalling of the troops and the catalog of the ships (2.484-759) listing all of the contingents, the Trojans’ first sight of the advancing Greeks (2.786-806), Paris ’ proposal of a duel with Menelaos to settle their dispute (3.67-75), Helen ’s identification of the Greek warriors for Priam (3.161-242), the gods’ council and decision that the Trojan War should go on until the destruction of Troy (4.1-72), the introduction - yet again - of the individual Greek warriors in book four as Agamemnon rallies them to fight the Trojans - even the scene with Paris and Helen (3.437-448), almost a flashback to the original seduction scene. All of these scenes could fit just as well (or even better) in a poem about the beginning of the Trojan War. After all, it’s hard to believe that after nine years of war, Priam needs to ask Helen who the Greek leaders are, or that it would take nine years for the idea of a single combat between Paris and Menelaos to occur to someone! With these references, Homer draws upon the oral tradition of stories told in verse to enlarge his story of Achilleus’ anger, and set it against the backdrop of the whole story of the Trojan war.
THE CATALOG OF THE SHIPS
Perhaps the oddest part of that set of episodes drawn from the larger story of the Trojan War is the catalog of the ships, a particularly good illustration of the oral tradition at work. For historians, this has been a section of particular interest, because it shows how the oral tradition did preserve the memory of sites populated in the Bronze Age - many centuries before Homer’s time - but later abandoned. To us, it may seem like the most boring section of the poem, but Homer underscores its importance by calling upon the Muse at the beginning of it, and, in the middle of it, telling a story of how the Muses silenced a poet who challenged them. Isn’t this the poet’s way of calling attention to the tremendous feat he is achieving by remembering and passing on this long and complex list of all of the heroes on the Trojan expedition and the places they came from?
SIMILES (There is a short
discussion of similes in the introduction to the Iliad, pp. 40-44.)
He calls attention to the importance of the catalog in another way as well: before invoking the Muses, he shows his own poetic originality with a long series of complex similes. These show another side of the poet’s art. Similes are explicit comparisons: one thing is explicitly compared with another: “his words were like arrows”. Metaphors are implicit comparisons; the comparison is not stated directly, but merely implied: “his words cut to the heart of the problem”. In this example, “cut” and “heart” are used metaphorically. Words do not actually “cut” anything; by using this word, the speaker is implicitly comparing words to sharp, cutting objects. Likewise, a problem does not have a “heart”; the speaker is implicitly comparing a problem to a living being.
Homer’s similes are typically long, and often introduce scenes from the natural world. The set of similes (2.455-483) before the Catalog of the Ships is particularly artful: Homer is comparing the massed and marching troops with a series of different scenes from nature, and he cleverly links the scenes together. He begins by comparing the shine of the bronze armor with the light of a distant forest fire, and he moves smoothly from the “gleam...dazzling all about through the upper air to the heaven” to a description of flocks of birds. The birds (compared with the masses of troops) are described as settling in the meadow, and Homer slips from this comparison to another involving the numberless leaves and flowers in the meadow. The simile of the flowers leads, in turn, to another, comparing the men with swarms of insects in the sheepfold, and this merges into another that describes the leaders of the men as goatherds separating their flock. Throughout the poem, the similes repay close reading: individually, they are more complex than they seem, for they often involve multiple points of comparison and contrast; together, the similes can be linked to create a parallel narrative that seems to comment more extensively on the main story.