Homer’s Iliad: Book XIV

Questions for Book XIV:

  • The first portion of this book might be called “The Arming of Hera,” but what does this involve?
  • Homer includes an etiological myth for why we sleep at night. Explain.

Nestor determines to view the scene from a lookout point:

“Friends routed, enemies harrying friends in panic,
the Trojans riding high — the Argive walls in ruins”

The Greeks are in trouble. A despairing Agamemnon acts bipolar: “so it must please the Father’s overweening heart / to kill the Achaeans here, our memory blotted out / a world away from Argos!” (14.83-85). He proposes they cut and run: ” Better to flee from death than feel its grip” (14. 98). Odysseus responds, “What’s this, Atrides, / this talk that slips from your clenched teeth? / You are the disaster” (14.100-102). Agamemnon backs down and calls for a plan; and Diomedes proposes that they return to the battle, though wounded, out of range of the spears, to inspire others. Poseidon tries to inspire Agamemnon. Meanwhile:

“Queen Hera wondered, her eyes glowing wide …
how could she outmaneuver Zeus the mastermind,
this Zeus with his battle-shield of storm and thunder?
At last one strategy struck her mind as best
she would dress in all her glory and go to Ida —
perhaps the old desire would overwhelm the king
to lie by her naked body and make immortal love
and she might drift an oblivious, soft warm sleep
across his eyes and numb that seething brain”

Hera has witnessed Poseidon’s intervention and hatches a plan to distract Zeus from his current aid to the Trojans. Sex is her weapon, and the language of sex and war blurs in this book. She “arms” herself with oils and perfumes, snazzy hair, jewelry, a love potion from Aphrodite, and totally hot sandals. She also cuts a deal with “Sleep, twin brother of Death” (14.277), who recalls how he came to be associated with Night. When she appears, Zeus is reminded of “the first time — all unknown to their parents — / they rolled in bed, they locked and surged in love” (14.356-357). She pretends to be going off to visit relatives; Zeus asks her what’s her hurry.

come, let’s go to bed, let’s lose ourselves in love!
Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal woman
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 Acrisus’ daughter DanaĆ« — 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 Rhadamanthus 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 —
Not even you!
That was nothing to how I hunger for you now —
irresistible longing lays me low!”

Thus he keeps listing the lusts in his past to which this moment is superior — not really very politic seduction rhetoric! The Greeks seem pretty paranoid about women. Zeus, like Paris many books ago, says, “let’s lose ourselves in love!” (14.378), and now adds, “irresistible longing lays me low!” (14.393). In other words, sexual passion implies a loss of self and a surrender to superior power, which reads as a grim prospect, the sacrificing of self-control.

“With that the son of Cronus caught his wife in his arms
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft”

Botanical fertility results with the grass and flowers on earth from this divine encounter. Afterwards, Zeus is “conquered by Sleep / the strong assaults of Love” (14.420-421) — more military language. And now the Greeks rally. Hector is hit by a rock thrown by Ajax. The tide has turned.

Iliad: Book XV
Iliad Index