Homer’s Iliad: Book I
Questions for Book I:
- How are the conventions for starting an epic met in the Iliad?
- Why is Achilles angry? What else worsens his rage?
- How does rage, beyond Achilles’ own, operate as a phenomenon?
- What is the least heroic thing Achilles does in Book I?
- What would you say is the weirdest incident in Book I needing some sort of explanation?
- Why does a polytheistic system of belief, mythologically speaking, make as much sense as a monotheistic one?
“Rage–goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles / murderous, doomed…” (1.1-2).
1) The Muse is invoked.
The “goddess” referred to here is one of the nine muses: this one of epic poetry (vs. lyric poetry, dance, music, etc.). Part of both the mythology of art and the humility pose of poets is the insistence that the creative powers come from somewhere beyond the artist. Sometimes it simply seems that a force is working through you, supernaturally (no matter what your art or skill, during certain unpredictable periods when you are simply on fire with amazing ability). Similar to the gods, who function as higher powers in other realms, the muses traditionally function to help the lowly human artist attain heights beyond those of mere mortals. Therefore it was conventional to call upon one’s muse at the start of such an epic undertaking as this poem, a tad more impressive than calling upon Olivia Newton-John to help one build a roller-disco named Xanadu.
2) The theme of the poem is identified.
Somewhat surprisingly, the subject is not the Trojan War itself but a slice-of-life from out of that war’s last year, and more specifically, Achilles’ rage-aholism — a pretty happy circumstance for contemporary times, since we may have little need to learn lessons about fighting with spears but probably could use some ancient wisdom for perspective on road-rage, computer-rage, check-out-line-rage, foul-air-rage, disgruntled-office-rage, noise-pollution-rage, and so on, including just plain rage-rage.
3) We begin in medias res (in the middle of things).
This convention may seem disorienting and irksome, but it makes sense. It requires that we thrash around a bit trying to get our bearings within a narrative that began before our poem does. We’ll hear more later, and the poet will fill us in, but he needs to get us involved immediately, so a long preamble would be artificial and a drag.
More interestingly, this convention resembles real life better than the comfortable alternative. We all come into the world, into a story that has been going on for a long time, and we learn to get our bearing gradually, starting with what is immediate to us and only later being able to fill in the backstory of our families, our societies, our workplaces, and our history as humans and thinkers.
Mythology itself functions like a soap opera (or wrestling federation) where one plunges in and only later comes to a wider understanding of where each of the characters fits into a larger picture. So too with a work beginning in medias res.
“What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king
he swept a fatal plague through the army…” (1.9-11).
The specific explanation is coming, but the idea of “plague” is of interest: notice how the nature of rage itself spreads, disease-like, virally.
“The girl–I won’t give up the girl. Long before that,
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!” (1.33-36).
As the Greeks divided the spoils of a neighboring city they ravaged, a female captive named Chryseis (daughter of Chryses, the priest of Apollo at Chryse) fell to the share of Agamemnon. When the father comes to ransom her, Agamemnon flies into a rage (for no apparent reason, since the proper channels of war business that the father is following dictate this kind of purchasing-back). Consider Agamemnon’s motivation. Why do you think he reacts with such extreme venom? What’s Agamemnon’s problem? The theme of anger already spreads to him, or maybe starts with him before contagiously spreading to Achilles. Is Agamemnon simply wrathful, rash, pigheaded? I wouldn’t trust the cheesy excuses he develops later to explain his behavior as we see it in Book I. And notice how the next phase in the contagion involves Apollo: “the god quaked with rage” (1.53).
Father Chryses implores Apollo for justice, and the Greeks for a while do not understand why they are dropping dead. The Greeks perceive the deaths as humans being “struck down” by invisible arrows. The phenomenon is anthropomorphized as Apollo shooting these arrows, but it’s also interesting that Apollo is here called “Smintheus,” meaning “mouse-god” — no one knows why; the scholars are baffled by this epithet: “Some derived it from Sminthe, a nearby town” (621). But the affliction to the Greeks sounds like a plague. Here’s a perfect “mythological” moment: the reference to Apollo as “Smintheus, god of the plague!” (1.45) makes surprising sense. “First he went for the mules and circling dogs but then, / launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves, / he cut them down in droves” (1.57-59).
Why do the mules and dogs drop dead first, and later the people? This would be because if the disease was spread by contaminated water, the animals would die first — Greeks are much more likely to be found at all times drinking wine! There seems to be a vague, maybe even nothing more than associative, understanding that rodents have a role in spreading plague, hence Apollo the Mouse-God, centuries before the Middle Ages would be totally baffled: “and the corpse-fires burned on, day and night, no end in sight” (1.60). The plague is also an appropriate setting for the contagion of rage functioning in the main plot between Agamemnon (and Apollo) and Achilles.
“On the tenth [day] Achilles called the ranks to muster–
the impulse seized him, sent by white-armed Hera…” (1.62-63).
During the council held to decide how to allay the inexplicable, apparent wrath of the gods against them, Calchas the seer explains. Calchas has a talent for reading bird-signs (1.81). This function of birds will saturate the epic. Why does it make sense that birds would be used for soothsaying? Calchas fears the wrath of Agamemnon: “there is a man I will enrage — I see it now” (1.91); “Even if he can swallow down his wrath today, / still he will nurse the burning in his chest / until, sooner or later, he sends it bursting forth” (1.95-97). But he wisely covers his butt by insuring the necessary alliance and promised protection of Achilles.
Of course, Calchas declares that the source of all the misery is the leader: the immature, narcissistic, paranoid, rage-aholic jackass, Tru– … uh, Agamemnon, who has the expected shit-fit, insisting that he “ranks” “the girl” higher than his own wife Clytemnestra. Achilles charges Agamemnon as responsible for the misfortune; he’s also cheesed off about being slighted in the distribution of booty. He expresses disbelief that any soldiers follow him (1.176), “most grasping man alive” (1.143), pointing out that he, Achilles, has no motive to be in this war, not having any grudge against the Trojans, adding, “you dog-face!” (1.188). Agamemnon also obviously already harbors other resentments against Achilles (who does have the advantage of one immortal parent). “Always dear to your heart, / strife, yes, and battles, the bloody grind of war. / What if you are a great soldier? That’s just a gift of god” (1.209-211). Agamemnon will yield the girl but demands in her stead Briseis, a woman fallen to Achilles’ share in the division of spoils.
“He broke off and anguish gripped Achilles.
The heart in his rugged chest was pounding, torn …
Should he draw the long sharp sword slung at his hip,
thrust through the ranks and kill Agamemnon now?
or check his rage and beat his fury down?
As his racing spirit veered back and forth,
just as he drew his huge blade from its sheath,
down from the vaulting heavens swept Athena….” (1.222-229)
Achilles is held back from attacking and killing Agamemnon by Athena. Why is it logical that Athena is the one to appear to Achilles during a moment of potential disaster? What does she represent and how would we read this moment without the anthropomorphic personification of the goddess?
Achilles refuses to help the Greek cause in the Trojan war anymore. He swears that they will all be sorry for allowing this disgrace to him. An older authoritative warrior, Nestor, who cites his experiences with the past generation of superior heroes, tries to make peace, noting that the enemy would revel in this contentiousness (1.298). Achilles does love the girl (whatever that means); but, when agents Talthybius (who shows up in the Euripides play Hecabe) and Eurybates show up to take Briseis away, Achilles yields bitterly. He seems to recognize that Agamemnon has no larger perspective: “The man is raving — with all the murderous fury in his heart. / He lacks the sense to see a day behind, a day ahead” (1.405-406). Achilles cries to his mommy Thetis, and she, having once helped Zeus (1.471ff), agrees to appeal to the god on behalf of Achilles.
Describe Achilles after we see him interacting with his mother. What is his particular misery in life? “Doomed to a short life, you have so little time. / And not only short, now, but filled with heartbreak too, / more than all other men alive — doomed twice over” (1.496-498).
Mom leaves Achilles, “alone, / his heart inflamed” (1.511-512), while Odysseus and a delegation lead Briseis back to her priest father, who calls on Apollo to end the plague. The Greeks slit lots of animals’ throats, since they’re so pious and respectful, and glut on meat and wine, Amen.
Achilles “day after day … ground his heart out” (1.585). And eventually, Thetis kneels before Zeus and asks the favor. Zeus, noting that this will “drive me into war with Hera … with her shrill abuse” (1.619-620), with a bow of his head agrees to help Achilles’ cause temporarily by letting the Trojans have the advantage in the war. But Hera, still brooding over the loss of the beauty contest and therefore hating Paris and the Trojans, recognizes that deals are being cut: “Always your pleasure, whenever my back is turned” (1.650). The war of the sexes is represented by the bickering and bitchiness of Zeus and Hera with each other. The tension on Olympus spreads throughout as Hera gripes about Zeus’ yielding to Thetis “with her glistening feet” (1.668). The god Hephaestos tries to make peace, first appealing to his mother Hera.
“You remember the last time I rushed to your defense?
He seized my foot, he hurled me off the tremendous threshold
and all day long I dropped” (1.710-712).
Hera accepts the cup of sweet nectar and the tension is broken finally.
“And uncontrollable laughter broke from the happy gods
as they watched the god of fire breathing hard
and bustling through the halls.” (1.721-723)
In other words, we all have a roaring laugh at “crippled” (1.731) Hephaestos’ deformity. The same crappy attitude about those with deformities will show up in the next book. How do we explain this inhumane value in Greek culture?
The scene on Olympus is goofy, but ends in feasting and music. What does the ending of Book I indicate about all the strife on the human plane?
“There he [Zeus] climbed and there he slept and by his side
lay Hera the Queen, the goddess of the golden throne” (1.734-735).