Homer’s Iliad: Book IV

Questions for Book IV:

  • What gods are on what side in the war and why?
  • What formulaic phrases are becoming repetitive regarding death?

“Now aloft by the side of Zeus the gods sat in council,
conferring across Olympus’ golden floor as noble Hebe
poured them rounds of nectar….
But abruptly Zeus was set on infuriating Hera,
courting her fire with cunning, mocking taunts” (4.1-6).

As Hebe, the cupbearer of the gods, bears cups, Zeus intentionally irks Hera and Athena about events below, they being enemies of Troy. After some bickering in which Hera challenges and Zeus asserts his power and authority, declaring, “I honor sacred Ilium most with my immortal heart” (4.54), he sends a resentful Athena down to manipulate a Trojan breaking of the truce. Athena tempts archer Pandarus to take a pot-shot at Menelaus. It’s an attractive moment. I’d have tried it too. But the gods cheat. Athena deflects the arrow so that it merely wounds Menelaus (4.152f). Still, “dark blood [was] gushing from the wound” (4.169). Agamemnon is quite concerned and calls for a healer.

So the melee is back on. Agamemnon rallies his troops in a series of goadings of individual warriors, and old Nestor gives some advice about how best to use spears when you’re in chariots: “thrust your spear from your own car, don’t throw it!” (4.353). Agamemnon cheers for Nestor, but with not very politic references to his age and waning strength. Nestor says that “the gods won’t give us all their gifts at once” (4.369): he was once a great warrior, now he has experience and wisdom. Agamemnon taunts Odysseus, possibly during another flare-up of his irrational wrath, but Odysseus calls him on this: “Now what’s this, Atrides, / this talk that slips through your clenched teeth?” (4.406-407). And Agamemnon, acting as if his goading had the desired effect on Odysseus, backpedals quickly (4.415-424), and moves on to goading Diomedes.

The Greeks move forward, all soldiers silent so that the commands can be heard, while the Trojans, compared in an unfortunately epic simile to lambs, create a chaos of noise for themselves. Then a lot of guys get butchered on the battlefield and go down to the House of Death. “The first fighting does not begin until 2,380 lines into the Iliad, but thereafter the blood flows, increasingly, with an increasing intensity and savagery, until the climax comes in the crazed berserker frenzy of Achilles’s grief-fueled rampage through the Trojans” (Nicholson 184).

Ajax performs well. Apollo urges on the Trojans, telling them that Achilles is not fighting but wallowing in his fury. And so, more deaths. “That day ranks of Trojans, ranks of Achaean fighters / sprawled there side-by-side, facedown in the dust” (4.629-630).

Iliad: Book V
Iliad Index