Homer’s Iliad: Book X

Questions for Book X:

  • What is the relationship between insomnia and rage?
  • Who among the Greeks goes on the spy mission?
  • What animal imagery do you see in this book?
  • Odysseus and Diomedes kill Dolon, twelve Thracians, and then the Thracian king, yet in reporting events afterwards, Odysseus refers to only thirteen killings, Dolon being the thirteenth. Why?

“So by the ships the other lords of Achaea’s armies
slept all night long, overcome by gentle sleep …
But not the great field marshal Agamemnon–
the sweet embrace of sleep could not hold him:
his mind kept churning, seething” (10.1-5).

Agamemnon freaks out when viewing the thousand Trojan fires. Menelaus has anguish and insomnia too. Agamemnon dons a lion’s hide and Menelaus sports a leopard skin in a book of the Iliad containing much animal imagery. Agamemnon tells his brother, “Tactics, / my noble Menelaus. That’s what we need now” (10.49-50) — the old vaudeville joke: “Ah! An idea!” “What?!” “That’s what we need: an idea.”

Agamemnon fetches Nestor, who proposes gathering all their best warriors together now while griping about Menelaus, with Agamemnon’s agreement that his brother is kind of cheesy. Diomedes is roused off his ox hide and into a lion skin. At the gathering, Diomedes proposes a nighttime exploratory killing mission, and he gets to choose his partner. Odysseus tried to get out of joining the war initially — his shame over this, his known “record” (10.292), is alluded to — and he has ended up with the burden always dumped on the competent: more work; it’s the curse of competence. He’s roped into being one of the two spies, Diomedes being the other. We hear the history of a leather, tusked helmet inherited by Odysseus from his father Autolycus (10.305ff), an authentic archaeological find. (And Autolycus is etymologically related to wolf.) After Athena’s good heron omen and prayers, “into the black night they went like two lions / stalking through the carnage and the corpses, / through piles of armor and black pools of blood” (10.348-350).

Meanwhile, the Trojans, led by Hector, have a similar reconnoitering mission plan, but they send only one guy, Dolon, who brags of his worth. More animalism in this book: Odysseus and Diomedes go like lions, and all the spies wear animal pelts — but note Dolon’s “cap of weasel skin” (10.391). Dolon’s name itself is associated with “trickery.” These guys also have to act like, and pretend to be, animals: that is, scavengers on the battlefield at night.

“Swerving off the trail
they both lay facedown with the corpses now
as Dolon sped by at a dead run, the fool” (10.406-408).

As soon as Dolon sees the two Greeks, he flees. The two “sprang in pursuit / as a pair of rip-tooth hounds” (10.420-421), firing a warning shot. The Trojan is a big disappointment and immediately wimps out: “Take me alive! / I’ll ransom myself! Treasures cram our house … father would give you anything, gladly” (10.442-445). Odysseus asks him why he’s out at night: 1) to loot the dead, or 2) are you on a mission assigned by Hector, or 3) you had a wild scheme of your own? Obviously Dolon should give #3 as his answer, but what a cheese-weenie! He fesses up that it was Hector’s idea, and blurts, “I’ll tell you everything, down to the last detail!” (10.479). He spills all, and “kept on blurting” (10.493), pointing out vulnerabilities and the camp location of the Thracian allies, almost newly arrived. Afterwards the two Greeks slaughter Dolon in the manner of an animal sacrifice to Athena: “both tendons snapped / and the shrieking head went tumbling in the dust” (10.526-527). And!: “They tore the weasel-cap from the head” (10.528).

Odysseus and Diomedes butcher the sleeping Thracians “As a lion springs on flocks unguarded” (10.561). They kill twelve.

“But now the son of Tydeus came upon the king,
the thirteenth man, and ripped away his life”

They stop only when Athena infuses some restraint in Odysseus. Note that Diomedes kills the king, identified as “the thirteenth man” (10.572). They make their escape and return exhausted but triumphant to the Greek camp. Nestor praises the horses. Odysseus praises the gods and says first about the Thracian king, “Brave Diomedes killed him off, / twelve of his cohorts too, all men of rank. / And a thirteenth man besides, a scout we took” (10.647-649). Why this misnumbering?! There were actually fourteen killed, and Dolon was the first.

Apparently the idea here is to reorganize, contort, and use fuzzy math in order to be able to identify Dolon illogically as “thirteenth” — the traditional number of unluckyness and maybe betrayal or underhandedness.

Iliad: Book XI
Iliad Index