Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Homer’s Iliad: Book VIII

Questions for Book VIII:

  • When the gods stop interfering in worldly events, who or what takes over control of those events?
  • What is the instrument that symbolizes that controlling force, an instrument that Zeus holds up?

Zeus lays down the policy of non-interference among the gods, and he threatens to send violators to “the murk of Tartarus” (8.15), far below the House of Death: to paraphrase, “make my day” (8.20), although he softens with his daughter Athena. Zeus ascends to his throne on Olympus to oversee the war. When the gods stop interfering, another force takes over and has final control anyway: fate, as registered by the golden scales.

“then Father Zeus held out his sacred golden scales:
in them he placed two fates of death that lays men low–
one for the Trojan horsemen, one for Argives armed in bronze–
and gripping the beam mid-haft the Father raised it high
and down went Achaea’s day of doom, Achaea’s fate
settling down on the earth that feeds us all
as the Trojans’ fate went lifting towards the sky”

On the battlefield, Diomedes needs to save Nestor when Paris shoots one of the old man’s horses in the head. Soon Zeus breaks his own law by zapping some thunderbolts at Diomedes’ horses. Nestor catches what’s going on and warns that defying Zeus’ will is hopeless. Diomedes is torn, not wanting the shame that Hector taunts him with, calling him a “woman” and a “girl” (8.185-186). Hector gives his horses a pep talk:

“Golden and Whitefoot, Blaze and Silver Flash!
Now repay me for all the loving care Andromache,
generous Eetion’s daughter, showered on you aplenty.
First of the teams she gave you honey-hearted wheat,
she even mixed it with wine for you to drink
when the spirit moved her — before she’d serve me,
though I’m proud to say I am her loving husband”

Hera is irked, naturally (and maybe personally by association), and tries unsuccessfully to rile up Poseidon against Zeus. She urges Agamemnon to rally his troops. Zeus momentarily pities Agamemnon and so launches an omen to rally the Greek troop — an eagle who drops a fawn at Zeus’ own altar. Diomedes plows through enemy troops; and the archer Teucer performs well:

“As a garden poppy, burst into red blooms, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet” (8.349-353)

We hear some fine epic similes in this book, such as this charming image of the lovely flower illustrating Gorgythion’s broken head. Teucer takes out a couple soldiers surrounding Hector, until Hector neutralizes him with a rock and turns the tide of battle. Both Hera and Athena are irked by his successes against the Argives and try to rebel against Zeus’ will; but Zeus catches them. He expects this thwarting of his will with Hera but is especially annoyed at Athena, and he chews them out through the messenger Iris. Hera is called a “bitch” a couple times. Zeus mocks the two goddesses for failing to fool him. He predicts the success of Hector until [spoiler alert] that time when Achilles re-enters the war over grief for Patroclus.

Nightfall ends the fighting, basically saving Greek butts; and Hector offers encouragement to his people. The final simile is truly artistic though. While it meanders on, line after line, it effectively captures of what is also happening in the drama: the warriors are waiting and waiting (8.641ff). The book ends just as it began — check out the first and last lines.

Iliad: Book IX
Iliad Index