Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,Agamemnon, being generally a terrible man who deserves everything he has coming to him2, is unhappy because he has to give up his slave woman, Chryseis (because her father is a priest and Apollo is bringing plague among the Greek (=Achaean) ships as punishment). Here is Agamemnon's reply when Chryseus (Chryseis' father) tries to ransom his daughter:
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles. (book 1)1
The girl—I won't give up the girl. Long before that,Absolutely charming. And, as it often turns out when Agamemnon makes absolute claims about what he will and won't do, false: He is eventually forced to give her up, and in a subsequent tantrum takes Achilles' slave woman, Briseis (whom Achilles has won fair and square after sacking her city and killing her whole family), in her place, thereby hurting Achilles where it counts (his pride). Achilles is all geared to kill Agamemnon; but Athena intervenes and tells him (in a lovely little twist, considering the topic of the poem),
old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
at the loom, forced to share my bed! (book 1)
Down from the skies I come to check your rage if only you will yield. (book 1)Whereupon Achilles calls Agamemnon a coward, a drunkard and a parasite, and swears that he will not fight, even though the Greeks will really, really want him to (a variation on "just you wait"). However, this is not just a story of an epic sulk (see what I did there?): It deals with questions about why you would fight a war and risk dying. And who the enemy is. And how not to get impaled on a bronze spear.
Zeus, Father Zeus! If I ever served you wellAnd Zeus acquiesces, even though he is rightfully apprehensive about his domestic peace (as Hera favours the Greeks).
among the deathless gods with a word or action,
bring this prayer to pass: honor my son Achilles!—
doomed to the shortest life of any man on earth.
And now the lord of men Agamemnon has disgraced him,
seizes and keeps his prize, tears her away himself. But you—
exalt him, Olympian Zeus: your urgings rule the world!
Come, grant the Trojans victory after victory
till the Achaean armies pay my dear son back,
building higher the honor he deserves! (book 1)
Disaster. You will drive me into war with Hera.Poor Zeus. And him such a good husband and all. It breaks your heart.
She will provoke me, she with her shrill abuse. (book 1)
Cut and run! Sail home to the fatherland we love!And when, bafflingly, his men are not inspired, he shouts at them for a bit about how unfair it is that people do not treat him as the human incarnation of Zeus. (Agamemnon is not my favourite person ever.) Happily (for those of us who like lengthy pieces of epic poetry), Odysseus is on hand with some actual rhetorical skill, and convinces them to go on fighting with a hefty flashback to a prophecy which foreshadows events beyond the end of the book. Consider this item #1 on the list of why I love The Iliad: It is not just an account of Achilles sitting in his tents while the Greeks are slaughtered in battle after battle; rather, that serves as the skeleton on which you can find reference upon reference to the Greek legends and mythology that surrounds it.
We'll never take the broad streets of Troy. (book 2)
Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus!The catalogue consists of a series of names of captains and kings, where they come from and how many ships they brought. Simon Goldhill read this part, which is impressive enough, as it consists mainly of lines like these:
You are goddesses, you are everywhere, you know all things-
all we hear is the distant ring of glory, we know nothing-
who were the captains of Achaea? Who were the kings?
And the men who lived around Percote and Practios,But one thing is reading all of that without stumbling on a single name (not to mention without falling into a monotonous drone), quite another is knowing it by heart, especially as it goes on for about 265 lines. Epic, as they say. And until yesterday, I have only ever thought of this sequence as a feat of memory. A properly impressive feat of memory. But I realised it may have had another function in an oral performance:
men who settled Sestos, Abydos and gleaming Arisbe:
Asius son of Hyrtacus led them on, captain of armies,
Hyrtacus' offspring Asius-hulking, fiery stallions
bore him in from Arisbe, from the Selleis River.
Hippothous led the Pelasgian tribes of spearmen,
fighters who worked Larissa's dark rich plowland.
Hippothous and Pylaeus, tested soldier, led them on,
both sons of Pelasgian Lethus, Teutamus' scion. (book 2)
So originally Greeks would have heard their own city names and tribe names here. 'Anyone in the house from PLEURON? PLEURON? YEAH!' #iliadThere is also a catalogue of Trojans, and all is then set for a proper battle. Just before the two armies clash, however, the bloodshed is prevented (or at least postponed:
— The Iliad (@IliadLive) August 14, 2015
Now closer, closing, front to front in the onsetParis, who is to blame for the whole sorry mess, is rather more of a lover than a fighter, however; and when Menelaus (the wronged husband of Helena) responds (enthusiastically), he immediately regrets his challenge, prompting a speech from Hector (glorious Hector! -- I'll get back to that) which is characteristic in its ... candour:
till Paris sprang from the Trojan forward ranks,
a challenger, lithe, magnificent as a god,
the skin of a leopard slung across his shoulders,
a reflex bow at his back and battle-sword at hip
and brandishing two sharp spears tipped in bronze
he strode forth, challenging all the Argive best
to fight him face-to-face in mortal combat. (book 3)
Paris, appalling Paris! Our prince of beauty-So Paris must fight Menelaus. Fortunately (for lovers of lengthy epics and Paris, both), Aphrodite is rather fond of Paris5, and just as Menelaus is about to skewer him, she pops him away to his bedchamber, where Hector will later find him
mad for women, you lure them all to ruin!
Would to god you'd never been born, died unwed.
That's all I'd ask. Better that way by far
than to have you strutting here, an outrage-
a mockery in the eyes of all our enemies. Why,
the long-haired Achaeans must be roaring with laughter!
curse to your father, your city and all your people,
a joy to our enemies, rank disgrace to yourself! (book 3)
polishing, fondling his splendid battle-gear,I'll say no more about it.
his shield and breastplate, turning over and over
his long curved bow. (book 6)
The son of Tydeus stabbed me,The involvement of the gods (which we can call item #2 on my list of why I love The Iliad) leads to some lovely moments of general commentary, like when Athena describes Ares (the god of war) as
Diomedes, that overweening, insolent—all because
I was bearing off my son from the fighting. Aeneas—
dearest to me of all the men alive. Look down!
It's no longer ghastly war for Troy and Achaea-
now, I tell you, the Argives fight the gods! (book 5)
the maniac,which is as fair a description of war as you'll find, I suspect. I will not go into the details of the battle(s). Let me instead rush to item #3 on my list of wonderfulness: The portrayal of the Trojans.
born for disaster, double-dealing, lying two-faced god (book 5)6
In the same breath, shining Hector reached downThe scene between Hector and Andromache is also notable as a way of showing the precarious position of those that surround the heroes; the Trojans are not fighting purely for the sake of honour. The poem's emphasis on the humanity of both sides in the conflict is present throughout, but perhaps most poignantly in this passage, which takes place as the fighting pauses:
for his son—but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror-
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods (book 6)
In silenceThis repetition is terribly effective. And affecting. And balanced.
they piled the corpses on the pyre, their hearts breaking,
burned them down to ash and returned to sacred Troy.
And just so on the other side Achaean men-at-arms
piled the corpses on the pyre, their hearts breaking,
burned them down to ash and returned to the hollow ships. (book 7)
The shaft of a good-for-nothing coward's got no pointwe arrive at item #4 on my list: the similes. Homeric similes are special. And lengthy. And glorious. Generally they will start with the word "as" and then tell a short story painting a vivid image (frequently involving a "when"), followed by a "so" to carry this impression onto the events in the text. Among the shorter ones, this:
but mine's got heft and edge. (book 11))
They held tight as a working widow holds the scales,How often are armies compared to poor single mothers?
painstakingly grips the beam and lifts the weight
and the wool together, balancing both sides even,
struggling to win a grim subsistence for her children.
So powerful armies drew their battle line dead even (book 12)
Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal womanNothing says sexy times quite like listing all the people with whom you've cheated on your spouse.7 And then (and then!) Zeus reveals his wicked, evil plan. He will give glory after glory to the Torjans until the Greeks suffer terribly, following which Achilles
flooded my pounding heart and overwhelmed me so.
Not even then, when I made love to Ixion's wife
who bore me Pirithous, rival to all the gods in wisdom . . .
not when I loved Acrisius' daughter Danae—marvelous ankles—
and Perseus sprang to life and excelled all men alive . . .
not when I stormed Europa, far-famed Phoenix' daughter
who bore me Minos and Rhadamanthys grand as gods . . .
not even Semele, not even Alcmena queen of Thebes
who bore me a son, that lionheart, that Heracles,
and Semele bore Dionysus, ecstasy, joy to mankind—
not when I loved Demeter, queen of the lustrous braids—
not when I bedded Leto ripe for glory— (book 14)
will launch his comrade Patroclus into actionYou must, at this point imagine me tearing my hair out shouting "no! don't do it!" at the loud-thundering Zeus. You see, in all my readings of The Iliad there are only really two people I would really, really like to see survive: Patroclus and Hector (alright, and Andromache). The rest can burn.
and glorious Hector will cut him down with a spear
in front of Troy, once Patroclus has slaughtered
whole battalions of strong young fighting men
and among them all, my shining son Sarpedon.
But then—enraged for Patroclus—
brilliant Achilles will bring Prince Hector down. (book 15)
Once you have whipped the enemy from the fleetand even as Achilles prays for the safety of his friend, Zeus sticks to his plans, damn him:
you must come back, Patroclus. (book 16)
"But once he repels the roaring onslaught from the shipsPatroclus has what you might call a field day (something I tend to skirt over in my perception of him as an innocent victim of war).
let him come back to me and our fast fleet—unharmed—
with all my armor round him, all our comrades
fighting around my friend!"so Achilles prayed
and Zeus in all his wisdom heard those prayers.
One prayer the Father granted, the other he denied:
Patroclus would drive the onslaught off the ships—
that much Zeus granted, true,
but denied him safe and sound return from battle. (book 16)
Field days end, however. This time, it is all down to Apollo, that utter shit, who uses his divine powers to shove Patroclus in the back and knock his helmet off. At which point Hector steps in with the killing blow. And this is when the earlier glimpse of Hector as human pays off, because on the field he is not an altogether nice man, and lacking book 6 you might be inclined to resent him. Especially when you then get Achilles' gradual movement from ignorance to realisation of his friend's death:
me: patroclus is a perfect innocent angel i love him— Sophie Houghton (@Sophia_Houghton) August 14, 2015
#iliad : PATROCLUS VICIOUSLY STABBED. BLOOD EVERYWHERE
me: perfect innocent angel
Achilles never feared
his friend was dead—he must be still alive,
pressing on to the very gates, but he'd come back. (book 17)
Dear gods, don't bring to pass the grief that haunts my heart—
the prophecy that mother revealed to me one time . . .
she said the best of the Myrmidons—while I lived—
would fall at Trojan hands and leave the light of day.
And now he's dead, I know it. (book 18)
But now, Patroclus,It is striking how "the wrath of Achilles" (or rage, or anger, or however you would translate it) serves as a theme, not just in the conflict with Agamemnon, but still in his reaction to Patroclus' death. The anger changes tone and focus, but it still dominates events.
since I will follow you underneath the ground,
I shall not bury you, no, not till I drag back here
the gear and head of Hector, who slaughtered you,
my friend, greathearted friend. (book 18)
Thetis saved my life(Hephaestus is not a great fan of his mother, understandably, as she threw him down from Olympus when he was born.) He therefore does not hesitate to provide Thetis' son with the most amazingly splendid armour ever seen. The description of the shield of Achilles (call that my item #6) is a famous example of ekphrasis (the literary description of a work of art), a skill to be exhibited much like the catalogue at the poem's opening. But it is more than that: It follows the slaughter of Patroclus (and the subsequent fight over his body), and precedes Achilles' violent revenge. And in between these battles, it offers a depiction of Greek life, mostly at peace. A reality check, perhaps. Ben Whishaw read it beautifully (there was, perhaps, a tendency among some readers to get carried away by the intensity of events, and to shout and rave as heads rolled; Whishaw was as wonderfully calm).
when the mortal pain came on me after my great fall,
thanks to my mother's will, that brazen bitch,
she wanted to hide me-because I was a cripple. (book 18)
She found her beloved son lying facedown,Paraphrased: The love of your life may be dead, but look: Bling!
embracing Patroclus' body, sobbing, wailing ...
"My child, leave your friend to lie there dead—
we must, though it breaks our hearts . . .
The will of the gods has crushed him once for all.
But here, Achilles, accept this glorious armor, look (book 19)
Before Patroclus met his day of destiny, true,A wonderful turn of phrase, and I love how Achilles spoils it by continuing with
it warmed my heart a bit to spare some Trojans:
droves I took alive and auctioned off as slaves.
But now not a single Trojan flees his death,
not one the gods hand over to me before your gates,
none of all the Trojans, sons of Priam least of all!
Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am? (book 21)leading up to the same point. He then goes on to attack a river (which manifests itself in fightable form because it is upset that Achilles has basically plugged it with dead bodies), and eventually he finds Hector. And kills Hector. And drags Hector's dead body behind his chariot in an attempt to deface his body. Achilles is angry. Quite understandably. But as we have been given leave by the poem to love both Patroclos and Hector, Achilles' anger also becomes a terrifying, sad event in itself.
Unbearable — a man I love, hunted round his own city wallsbut as he continues, it turns out he speaks only for himself:
and right before my eyes. My heart grieves for Hector. (book 22)
Hector who burned so many oxen in my honor, rich cuts,Zeus is just unhappy that there will be fewer juicy steaks in his future. Andromache does better:
now on the rugged crests of Ida, now on Ilium's heights. (book 22)
Now you go downIn fact, the grief of Andromache and Achilles serve as perfect counterpoints. These are the people left behind, and that, more than the deaths of Patroclus and Hector, is what serves to illustrate the cost of war. And then, to wreak utter havoc with my heart, Patroclus' ghost visits Achilles (as he has yet to be buried, he cannot find peace):
to the House of Death, the dark depths of the earth,
and leave me here to waste away in grief, a widow
lost in the royal halls—and the boy only a baby,
the son we bore together, you and I so doomed. (book 22)8
Oh give me your hand—I beg you with my tears!Twitter, of course, found it hilarious that Achilles
Never, never again shall I return from Hades
once you have given me the soothing rites of fire.
Never again will you and I, alive and breathing,
huddle side-by-side, apart from loyal comrades,
making plans together—never . . . Grim death,
that death assigned from the day that I was born
has spread its hateful jaws to take me down.
And you too,
your fate awaits you too, godlike as you are, Achilles—
to die in battle beneath the proud rich Trojans' walls!
But one thing more. A last request—grant it, please.
Never bury my bones apart from yours, Achilles,
let them lie together
And the swift runner Achilles reassured him warmly:
"Why have you returned to me here, dear brother, friend?
Why tell me of all that I must do? I'll do it all.
I will obey you, your demands. Oh come closer!
Throw our arms around each other, just for a moment—
take some joy in the tears that numb the heart!"
In the same, breath he stretched his loving arms
but could not seize him, no, the ghost slipped underground
like a wisp of smoke . . . with a high thin cry. (book 23)
turned and twisted, side to side,but by then I was far too unhappy to find solace in innuendo (much as it entertained me during the earlier battle scenes).9
he longed for Patroclus' manhood, his gallant heart (book 24)
The majestic king of Troy slipped past the restAnd finally, finally, Achilles is done being angry. Which is why the poem ends with Hector's funeral,
and kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees
and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands
that had slaughtered Priam's many sons in battle. (book 24)
And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses. (book 24)not the death of Achilles (who will be shot in his heel (his one vulnerable spot) by a poisoned arrow directed by Apollo, that bastard), nor the fall of Troy (sneaky Odysseus, wooden horse and all).
Bloody Ares lunged at it now with giant lanceI will say nothing about the "giant lance" and keep my thoughts on a gendered subtext to myself.↩
and Athena backed away, her powerful hand hefting
a boulder off the plain, black, jagged, a ton weight
that men in the old days planted there to mark off plowland—
Pallas hurled that boundary-stone at Ares, struck his neck,
loosed his limbs, and down he crashed and out over seven acres
sprawled the enormous god and his mane dragged in the dust,
his armor clashed around him. Athena laughed aloud,
glorying over him, winging insults: "Colossal fool—
it never even occurred to you, not even now
when you matched your strength with mine,
just how much greater I claim to be than you! (book 21)