Homer’s Iliad: Book XI
Questions for Book XI:
- Old Nestor recalls his glory days as a young warrior at length in front of Patroclus after the woman he has won, Hecamede, serves the Greeks strong Pramnian wine. What is the point of telling this story?
- Name one ingredient, besides the wine, in mulled Pramnian wine.
With Strife “lashing the fighting fury / in each Achaean’s heart” (11.12-13), the arming of Agamemnon is epic ritual.
“Agamemnon cried out too, calling men to arms
and harnessed up in gleaming bronze himself.
First he wrapped his legs with well-made greaves,
fastened behind the heels with silver ankle-clasps,
There will be an even more formalistic and drawn out arming of Achilles later, and one can see modern instances of this kind of ritual in films (even disco films) when someone is preparing for a major event.
Zeus sends a blood-rain to freak out the Greeks, and the slashings and brain-splatterings and limb-loppings begin. Zeus protects Hector and sends him the message that when Agamemnon is wounded, then go all out. After some battlefield volleys, Agamemnon is indeed wounded.
“But soon as the gash dried and firm clots formed,
sharp pain came bursting in on Atrides’ strength–
spear-sharp as the labor-pangs that pierce a woman,
agonies brought on by the harsh, birthing spirits,
Hera’s daughters who hold the stabbing power of birth–
so sharp the throes that burst on Atrides’ strength”
Homer here uses birth for his epic simile for a war-wound, with pain as the common denominator. “What Agamemnon has done is to cut the connections between men and their fathers, men and their brothers, men and their wives, even men and their horses. But as his comparator for that slicing away of meaning, Homer summons the agony of childbirth, the root connectedness of humanity” (Nicholson 112). Agamemnon withdraws, and a formidable Hector now advances. Diomedes hits him, but Paris wounds Diomedes in the foot. Amid lots of shouted taunts, Odysseus is also hurt, and Ajax beset.
The “brilliant runner” Achilles (11.707) watches; Homer relies on formulaic phrases, since “Achilles was not really ‘swift-footed’ when lurking in his tent in book after book of the Iliad” (Nicholson 79). He sends Patroclus off to fetch Nestor so that he can find out who has been wounded.
“In this cup the woman skilled as a goddess
mixed them a strong drink with Pramnian wine,
over it shredded goat cheese with a bronze grater
and scattered barley into it, glistening pure white,
and invited them to drink when she had mulled it all”
Pramnian wine is served in Nestor’s tent. (I don’t know what’s so special about Pramnian wine; I take it to be akin to Romulan ale somehow.) Disgustingly, the Greeks dump “shredded goat cheese” and barley in this warmed drink. But indeed, there have been archaeological finds of “some big bronze cheese graters, now thought to be part of the warrior’s usual field kit, perhaps for making medicines, perhaps for snacks” (Nicholson 70).
Nestor bitterly asks Patroclus why Achilles should care who’s hurt, and he launches into his old war stories. He makes clear that the underlying assumption in this culture is that males have an intrinsic impulse to be part of battles, and he mentions his frustrations in being kept from battle in his youth. Obviously this is all an indirect narrative nudge to Patroclus, like Paul’s grandfather to Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night. It works; and Patroclus, especially after encountering a wounded Greek on his way back to Achilles, is fired up for war by the end of the book.