Homer’s Iliad: Book II

Questions for Book II:

  • Are divine dreams true? That is, if your dream is from a god, can you believe it?
  • Agamemnon receives word directly from Zeus that now is the time to attack Troy. He summons his chief officers and reports that he received word directly from Zeus that now it the time to attack Troy. He then marches out to speak to the troops and tells them what?
  • What is Thersites’ problem? Why, although he says some of the same things Achilles did a book ago, is he treated as he is, especially by Odysseus?

“at last one plan seemed best:
he would send a murderous dream to Agamemnon” (2.6-7).

It’s an odd dream theory, but apparently your divine revelations can be phony. Zeus, who has agreed to grant Achilles’ mother’s request that the Greeks start getting their butts handed to them since Achilles is refusing to fight with them now, has insomnia until it occurs to him to give Agamemnon a false “murderous dream” (2.7), in Nestor’s voice, wherein the insistence, “attack at once, full force– / now you can take the broad streets of Troy!” (2.33-34). The poet notes, “He thought he would take the city of Priam then, that very day, the fool” (2.43-44).

Agamemnon rouses the “ranking chiefs to council” (2.62) and repeats verbatim what he was told in his dream. He will make a public statement: “But first, according to time-honored custon, / I will test the men with a challenge” (2.88-89). The Greek army is astir, described in an epic simile:

“Rank and file
streamed behind and rushed like swarms of bees
pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst,
bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
dark hordes swirling in the air, this way, that way–
so the many armed platoons from the ships and the tents
came marching on…” (2.102-108).

“Rumor” (capitalized) also “whipped them on” (2.110), signifying that Rumor is something beyond rational control and therefore a supernatural force. Agamemnon thinks he is carrying out a standard battle test in giving a speech to the troops instead that the revelation indicated that they have been fighting long enough: Troy obviously will never fall, the war has been “futile” (2.142), and they should all go home. He mentions the Greek concept of “AtĂȘ,” the blind goddess of ruin whose name means “wrongness” or “wickedness” (Nicholson 182): “Cronus’ son has trapped me in madness, blinding ruin” (2.130). Even though they outnumber the Trojans more than 10 to 1, this war is hopeless, he declares. “Cut and run!” (2.164). Apparently all the soldiers are supposed to insist, en masse, “no! no!” — but Agamemnon’s reverse psychology tactics backfire and the Greeks start rushing towards the ships.

Hera panics. She gets Athena to interfere. Athena visits Odysseus — again signifying better judgment as a divine force — and convinces him, “a mastermind like Zeus” (2.197), to reverse the retreat. Odysseus stops the soldiers, arguing that “It’s too soon to see Agamemnon’s purpose clearly” (2.222), and, disturbingly, telling any representative warrior, “You fool…. you, you deserter, rank coward, / you count for nothing” (2.231-233). Odysseus is successful, except for Thersites, a famous malcontent; he’s mouthy and deformed and sneers against Agamemnon.

“But one man, Thersites, still railed on, nonstop.
His head was full of obscenities, teeming with rant,
all for no good reason, insubordinate, baiting the kings —
anything to provoke some laughter from the troops.
Here was the ugliest man who ever came to Troy.
Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed,
both shoulders humped together, curving over
his caved-in chest, and bobbing above them
his skull warped to a point,
sprouting clumps of scraggly, woolly hair” (2.246-255).

As with Hephaestos at the end of Book I, physical deformity is demeaned here, even though Thersites rails against Agamemnon with all the same reasons Achilles and the other Greeks, even Odysseus, have: particularly about Agamemnon’s greed. Anyway, Odysseus beats up Thersites:

“he cracked the scepter across his back and shoulders.
The rascal doubled over, tears streaking his face
and a bloody welt bulged up between his blades…” (2.309-311).

“Their morale was low but the men laughed now” (2.316), because, I mean, hilarious!

Odysseus speaks to Agamemnon about the natural despair of the troops, and he calls to memory an omen from before the war — a snake devouring a brood of eight baby sparrows and one mother sparrow in a tree; the snake was struck into stone by Zeus (2.362-377). This is spuriously interpreted by Calchas to mean that the Greeks would have to fight for nine years before taking Troy in the tenth (2.386-389). Nestor tries to give some encouraging advice:

“So now let no man hurry to sail for home, not yet…
not till he beds down with a faithful Trojan wife,
payment in full for the groans and shocks of war
we have all borne for Helen” (2.420-423).

Agamemnon seems to have a brief moment of clarity:

“Imagine — I and Achilles, wrangling over a girl,
battling man-to-man. And I, I was the first
to let my anger flare. Ah if the two of us
could ever think as one” (2.447-450).

But this seeming realization comes to nothing at this time. Agamemnon sacrifices an ox to Zeus (2.478ff), followed by a holy prayer that they may slash the enemy so that, “groveling facedown, / [they] gnaw their own earth!” (2.495-496). Amen. Then more animal butchering, and the supposed pageantry of assembling armies. A pile-up of epic similes conveys the build-up effectively beyond what any single comparison could do (2.539ff).

The poet calls on the Muse to help name all the important Greek warriors, and indeed we get the epic list for many pages: first the Greeks (2.584-894), then the Trojans (2.927-989).

Iliad: Book III
Iliad Index