Homer’s Iliad: Book XVIII

Questions for Book XVIII:

  • We get a mythological explanation for a timeless phenomenon: according to Homer why are the masses such idiots? (Or, in other words: in their own assembly, why do the Trojans listen to Hector instead of to Polydamas the seer, according to Homer?)
  • What is the point of describing the shield for several pages?

Achilles first senses the news about Patroclus’ death and then receives it:

“A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles.
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face
and black ashes settled onto his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there, fallen …
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands”

The Greek expression of grief is rather melodramatic! His wail is heard reverberating through the cosmos. He cries to mommy again — “I’ve lost the will to live, / to take my stand in the world of men” (18.105-106) — and then has an interesting moment.

“If only strife could die from the lives of gods and men
and anger that drives the sanest man to flare in outrage —
bitter gall [becomes] sweeter than dripping streams of honey,
that swarms in people’s chests and blinds like smoke–
just like the anger Agamemnon king of men
has roused within me now . . .
Let bygones be bygones. Done is done.
Despite my anguish I will beat it down,
the fury mounting inside me, down by force”

Some lines here are repeated from Book 16, and will be again in Book 19, showing that Achilles is still stuck in this mode. But his awareness also grows. Anger is addictive, as Achilles admits here, yet he still keeps cycling into it. Following this he begins to invest his anger into a vendetta against Hector.

During the literal tug-of-war over the corpse of Patroclus, while waiting for new armor, Achilles unleashes his war-cry, and goofiness results. Charioteers lose control and die, “impaled on their own spears” (18.266). Among the Trojans, Polydamas recommends a retreat, but Hector wants to continue the attack.

“So Hector finished. The Trojans roared assent,
lost in folly. Athena had swept away their senses.
They gave applause to Hector’s ruinous tactics,
none to Polydamas, who gave them sound advice”

So Homer explains mass idiocy: an etiological explanation for the success of various sleazeball politicians you can name, for example.

Zeus and Hera have a tense moment over the coming return of Achilles. Hephaestos owes Thetis, so he agrees to forge new armor for her son. He mentions his mother, Hera: “that brazen bitch, / she wanted to hide me — because I was a cripple” (18.463-464). The description of the shield is famous.

The Shield: Interestingly, there seems to be no real discernible center to the shield, and although we get initially two divisions and the first impulse is to expect a diptych depicting war and peace or something similar, each of these two depictions quickly blur such dualities, so that there are sensitive moments associated with conflict and moments of contention associated with the marriage scene. Anything else would be oversimplifying life artificially. The depiction is of the entire larger vision of the intricate life of the culture and the world. It shows that there’s really something at stake here to be fighting about.

If there’s no center to the shield, then this has implications for Homer’s depiction of war. The assumption we inherit is that Helen is at the center of the war. But would the war end if the Trojans simply turned her over to Menelaus now? Or is the tapestry too intricately woven? The central blame is Helen, but most individuals are involved in this for widely different motives. Besides, we’ve seen Paris and Helen earlier — a pretty grim picture to serve as the center of an epic war.

Yet this is a realistic assessment of war, in which it is largely assumed there is a center operating as a central motive, whether it is something like “the safety of the Kuwaiti people,” “oil interests,”; or even something so convoluted politically and weird that we’ll never know about it — still, we assume something serves as the center.

The Trojan War, as described by Homer in this epic, involves a human side: not just men and war and boasting, but also the admission of fear and scenes of domestic life (Hector’s family), not in a sentimentalized version further acknowledging the glory of war. Nor does Homer sentimentalize the pain or the degradations or the grisly deaths or even use these towards some propagandistic end. So it’s a more complete and responsible depiction that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its readers. There’s not one single center to the war, just as there’s not one single god for the Greeks.

The last description on the shield are those of a dance — the archetypal symbol for the joy of life itself — and the “Ocean River” (18.708) encircling at the outer rim — perhaps a symbol for total inclusiveness and eternity, and for the stability of the larger perspective. (But of course the ancient Greeks didn’t have the technology to obliterate the environment or kill the gods.)

Iliad: Book XIX
Iliad Index