Homer’s Iliad: Book V

Questions for Book V:

  • This book is an “aristeia,” which means, in this case, it’s “the best of” Diomedes. How are we to understand such a thing mythologically?
  • The sense of war etiquette is by now pretty clear. What is the process, step by step, for engaging oneself in a fight?
  • Can gods be wounded with mortal weapons?
  • What is “ichor”?

“Then Pallas Athena granted Tydeus’ son Diomedes
strength and daring — so the fighter would shine forth” (5.1-2).

The book can almost read like an independent poem, some say, suggesting the possibility that it was originally the separate story of Diomedes, incorporated into the Iliad at a late stage of development. This “aristeia” or “best of” Diomedes can be understood as a sort of peak experience — it’s a natural high when you have one of these days, and it’s as if a god is metaphorically present.

“Breaking ranks they rushed ahead in their chariot,
charging Diomedes already dismounted,
rearing up on foot” (5.12-14).

A famous error on Homer’s part suggests to the scholars that the poet was unclear about certain aspects of military history, at least here. Apparently, after all the hoopla, these warriors use their chariots only to taxi themselves to the line of battle; then they park, dismount, and start the day’s fight. It would have been nice to have had Thersites bitch about Agamemnon always getting the good parking spaces.

The fighting is chaotic and relentless. Diomedes kills one Trojan; Hephaestos shrouds the brother in invisibility. When Athena urges Ares off the field, Greek captains each kill Trojans.

“the famous spearman struck behind his skull,
just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing
straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue–
he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze” (5.80-83).

We get many gruesome and stark details of war in this book: a bladder pierced here, an arm lopped off there. Pardarus scores a hit against Diomedes and is encouraged by Aeneas to shoot again; but Diomedes prays to Athena for a chance at revenge, and she gives him the gift to distinguish gods from mortals on the battlefield. It’s as if Diomedes is fighting with the strength of a god, and we read of specific situations of his victims: two brothers killed, plus a couple of Priam’s sons, etc. Pandarus is frustrated that he has now hit both Diomedes and Menelaus but only wounded them and “roused their fury” (5.233). He heaves a spear and hits Diomedes again, but Diomedes says nyah nyah, “No hit — you missed!” (5.317), and he kills Pandarus by hitting him through the face. This is interesting to students of Chaucer, who quite rightfully despise Diomedes, who for all his success here is still essentially a butthead jock.

“Just as Diomedes
hefted a boulder in his hands, a tremendous feat —
no two men could hoist it, weak as men are now.” (5.336-338)

Aeneas is hit by this rock, but his mother Aphrodite protects him. Elsewhere in the Iliad, Aeneas seems patched in, no doubt because of his importance after the Trojan War to posterity. But in this book he seems legitimately woven into the narration.

Diomedes recognizes and actually wounds Aphrodite in “her soft, limp wrist” (5.376), and “ichor” (blood of the immortals) flows out as Diomedes actually dares to mock her cowardice. Apollo takes over in the protection of Aeneas. (The scene is included among the sixteenth-century Giulio Romano paintings in the Sala di Troia at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, described by Shakespeare in Lucrece.)

Aphrodite borrows Ares’ horses to ride to Olympus where she hears from another immortal of instances when gods have been hurt. Meanwhile, Diomedes charges Apollo as this god tries to save Aeneas, finally simply whisking him away. Apollo calls to Ares, the god of war:

“can’t you go and drag that man from the fighting?
That daredevil Diomedes, he‘d fight Father Zeus!
He’s just assaulted Love, he stabbed her wrist–
like something superhuman he even charged at me!”

Ares aids the Trojans. Hector is rallied and the fighting is full-on, soon with Aeneas returned.

Hera complains to Zeus about Ares: “aren’t you incensed at Ares and all his brutal work? … this manic Ares — he has no sense of justice” (5.869, 874). Zeus sends Athena against Ares; she urges Diomedes to attack him. With the help of Athena diverting Ares’ spear, Diomedes is able to wound Ares, who complains to Zeus about favoritism: Zeus always sides with Athena (5.1015ff). But Ares, god of war, is surprisingly chewed out in this war epic: “No more, you lying, two-faced … / You — I hate you most of all the Olympian gods” (5.1028-1030). You’re just like your mother. Why, if you weren’t my kid….

Ares is, however, cleaned up; and at the end of the book, no gods are involved in the war directly.

Iliad: Book VI
Iliad Index