Homer’s Iliad: Book XXI
Questions for Book XXI:
- Why does the river Scamander (a.k.a. Xanthus) battle against Achilles? What do you think may be the mythological significance of this?
The bloodbath continues with the Trojan forces divided into two fleeing groups. Achilles mostly slaughters, but he rounds up a dozen Trojan warriors as prisoners. And poor bloody Lycaon! — there’s no escape from Achilles, who previously had taken him prisoner.
“Lycaon, the very man
Achilles seized himself, once on a midnight raid”
He only recently returned and now he’s at Achilles’ mercy again. Lycaon’s strategies for pleading for his life are interesting but futile; Achilles heaves his corpse into the river.
“The more he vaunted the more the river’s anger rose,
churning at heart for a way to halt his rampage”
Since it’s the river itself with which Achilles must battle now, we’re looking at a mythic fight. So what does it mean? First, what is the river’s rationale (“I’m the river; what’s my motivation?”). Underneath the personification, what is the river really saying here? And how do bodies of water as representatives of Nature speak to us, metaphorically, in the modern world?
Water is often important in myth and as a symbol elsewhere. But more to the point here, Achilles, in fighting against water, could be said to be doing what: going against the ______? resisting the ______? This tells us something about Achilles’ psychology, although manifested physically and outwardly in the narrative. Note the river’s complaint about Achilles polluting it.
“out on the plain and do your butchery there.
All my lovely rapids are crammed with corpses now,
no channel in sight to sweep my currents out to sacred sea —
I’m choked with corpses and still you slaughter more”
Poseidon suggests on behalf of himself and Athena that Achilles try to focus better, maybe against the Trojans instead of a body of water. Hephaestos is commissioned by Hera to call this craziness off by fighting water with fire. We witness a catfight among the two goddesses, Athena and Aphrodite. Athena contends against Ares, and Hera against Artemis. Zeus seems to get a kick out of all this.
We hear a nice simile for our lives as humans: “wretched mortals . . . / like leaves, no sooner flourishing, full of the sun’s fire, / feeding on the earth’s gifts, than they waste away and die” (21.528-530).
Back among the mortals, Agenor comes so close!
“And he hurled his sharp spear from a strong hand —
a hard true hit on Achilles’ shin below the knee!”