Homer’s Iliad: Book III

Questions for Book III:

  • This book contains the famous “teichoskopia”: the viewing from the wall. (Is this even a thing? Where else in any form of literature or film does one find a “viewing from the wall”?) The party line is that Priam likes Helen, and so they have this scene together, removed from the fighting and engaged in small talk essentially; but isn’t there possibly something more going on here? How is it that nine-plus years into this war Priam doesn’t even seem to know the major players? Why might Priam, the king of Troy, be asking the questions he does of the woman at the center of the conflict?
  • What does it mean, mythologically, that Aphrodite can whisk one away from the battlefield in the middle of a fight? What is the relationship between Love and War?
  • Paris and Helen together are a pretty grim vision. Helen is an odd one, all right, and note what Paris says about sex — sounds pretty escapist. Why do you think Homer gives us such a sour picture of these two?

On a misty, dusty day of low visibility, Menelaus thrills to see Paris “parading” (3.24) in front of the Trojan lines; but when Paris realizes Menelaus is champing at the bit, he chickens out and blends himself into the general army: “So he dissolved again in the proud Trojan lines,
dreading Atrides [Menelaus] — magnificent, brave Paris” (3.40-41), as Homer says with heavy irony. Hector rails against Paris, insisting on what an embarrassment he is to his family and to Troy: “Would to god you’d never been born” (3.45), “curse to your father, your city and all your people” (3.58). Paris sort of agrees.

Apparently it hasn’t occurred to anyone these nine years to have Menelaus and Paris duke it out in single combat, and Paris himself proposes it here. Hector, though, is the one to announce the challenge to the Greeks. Menelaus agrees to this, and there must be a ritual of slaughtering lambs with the oath made to Zeus.

Iris, disguised as one of Hector’s sisters, summons Helen:

“Helen in her rooms….
weaving a growing web, a dark red folding robe,
working into the weft the endless bloody struggles,
stallion-breaking Trojans and Argives armed in bronze
had suffered all for her at the god of battle’s hands”

So current events are already becoming art. A few older Trojan men gossip about Helen, “Beauty, terrible beauty!” (3.190), on her way to the “teichoskopia”: the viewing from the wall. King Priam invites Helen to speak with him: “I don’t blame you. I hold the gods to blame” (3.199).

He engages Helen in small talk, but it has the effect of introducing us to the cast of Greek characters, and perhaps there’s political advantage to be had as Priam innocently gathers this information from her about the key enemies: Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, etc. Yet, it is nine years into the war, and surely the players are known by now. Might Priam also be subtly tormenting Helen, as she has to identify this series of brutalizers and silently acknowledge her responsibility? These are her relatives and avengers who may die, or who may be killing her current allies in Troy.

The arrangement is spelled out: if Paris wins … if Menelaus wins … if Menelaus wins and the Trojans do not honor the deal…. Lambs’ throats are slit in a sacrificial rite, so it must be deep and real. King Priam is designated to preside over the event, but:

“This is more than I can bear, I tell you —
to watch my son do battle with Menelaus
loved by the War-god, right before my eyes.
Zeus knows, no doubt, and every immortal too
which fighter is doomed to end all this in death” (3.361-365).

Priam then climbs into his chariot and takes off. “Thanks, Dad,” Paris must be thinking. After the arming, the two fight. Paris hurls a spear; Menelaus, “Shaking his spear” (3.413), takes a shot. They swing swords. Menelaus soon gets a grip of Paris’ helmet strap, “cut from a bludgeoned ox” (3.434), and swings him around, choking him, “mad for the kill” (3.439), until Aphrodite whisks Paris away from the battlefield, leaves “swirls of mist / and set him down in his bedroom filled with scent” (3.440-441).

Aphrodite then summons a reluctant Helen, who seems entirely burned out on love: “Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now? Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?” (3.460-461); “I’ll never go back again. It would be wrong, / disgraceful to share that coward’s bed once more. / The women of Troy would scorn me down the years” (3.474-476). The goddess resorts to threats to get Helen to go to Paris. Helen then insults Paris: “So, home from the wars! / Oh would to god you’d died there, brought down / by that great soldier, my husband long ago” (3.499-501): kind of a turn-off, one would think. Nevertheless, Paris rhapsodizes:

“But come —
let’s go to bed, let’s lose ourselves in love!
Never has longing for you overwhelmed me so,
no, not even then, I tell you, that first time
. . . .
That was nothing to how I hunger for you now —
irresistible longing lays me low!”

Does this sound romantic and attractive to you? It will become clear later that the Greeks do not think so, but that this is a dangerous, even disastrous, example of irresponsible escapism.

On the battlefield, all are dumbfounded, Menelaus declares victory, and the Greeks cheer for more battle — nothing has been accomplished.

Iliad: Book IV
Iliad Index