Mythweb home
Achilles nurses his wounded pride
Book One
"Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles," begins Samuel Butler's translation of the Iliad. In a real sense this anger and the overwhelming pride at its source drives the plot of Homer's epic. We soon witness the circumstances that provoke it.
A huge army of Greeks under the command of Agamemnon are besieging the city of Troy in order to recapture Helen, the wife of Agamemnon's brother, who has run off with Paris, a Trojan prince. In one of their raids on a nearby city, the invaders carried off the daughter of a priest of Apollo, the Olympian god of music and archery. The father offers a ransom to Agamemnon, who has received the girl, Chryseis, as his share of the spoils.
Agamemnon refuses and the priest calls on Apollo for support. The god descends from Mount Olympus with his silver bow and quiver of arrows clanging on his back. In keeping with the ancient Greek belief that sudden illnesses were caused by the arrows of Apollo, the angry god lets fly and cuts down hordes of Agamemnon's men with plague.
Achilles, supreme warrior of the invading Greeks, calls an assembly of the troops. Advice is sought of Calchas, a seer attached to the Greek army. He says that the plague will only be lifted when Chryseis is restored to her father. Agamemnon knows that he must submit for the good of his men, although he claims to value Chryseis more highly than his own wife. And he cannot bear the insult to his status in having his war prize taken away. The men must give him another prize.
"From what booty?" demands Achilles, pointing out that all the spoils have already been apportioned out, with Agamemnon himself receiving the lion's share. Agamemnon retorts that he will take a woman from one of his leaders, Odysseus perhaps or Achilles himself. At which the argument degenerates further. Calling his general shameless and greedy, Achilles warns that he'll take no further orders, that he'll withdraw from the thankless task of winning battles for Agamemnon. This makes up Agamemnon's mind: he'll take Achilles' prize Perseis as compensation for the girl that he must restore to Apollo's priest.
Achilles reaches for his sword, intending to cut Agamemnon down, but the goddess Athena grabs him from behind by his long blond hair and restrains his impetuous fury. Instead he swears an oath that the day will come when Agamemnon, seeing his men slain in hordes by the Trojan hero Hector, will rue the hour when he brought shame upon the bravest of the Greeks.
Despite the intercession of the venerable counselor Nestor, Agamemnon and Achilles refuse to back down from their positions and the meeting breaks up. Agamemnon tells Odysseus to send Chryseis home in a ship, together with 100 bulls to be sacrificed to Apollo. And he sends his heralds to Achilles' tent to take away his captive woman.
Achilles goes weeping down to the sea, where he calls out to his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis. When she emerges from the surf in answer to his cries, he explains his anger and frustration, asking her to intercede with Zeus on his behalf, and reminding her that the great god has reason to grant her a favor. Once when Hera, Athena, and the sea god Poseidon rebelled against their ruler, Thetis summoned a hundred-handed giant to Zeus's defense. Ask Zeus to help the Trojans turn the tables on the beseiging Greeks, driving them back from the walls of Troy into their own encampment of ships on the beach, so that Agamemnon will come to realize his mistake in disgracing his best fighter.
Grieving that her son must suffer this affront to his honor, and knowing with a sea-nymph's gift for prophesy that Achilles is fated to die at Troy, Thetis says that she will honor his request as soon as the gods return to Olympus from a feast in Ethiopia. Accordingly at daybreak twelve days later, Thetis rises from the waves and ascends to Mount Olympus, where the gods take their ease in bronze-floored halls built by the blacksmith god Hephaestus. Zeus is sitting apart on the highest peak. Thetis adopts the traditional posture of supplication, kneeling at his feet, hugging his knees and reaching up with one hand to his chin.
Zeus knows that honoring Thetis's request will enrage his queen Hera, since she and Athena are the sworn enemies of Troy. But he acknowledges his obligation to Thetis, and knowing that she will not be satisfied unless he nods his head, he gives her this irrevocable sign of his word. True to his concern, Hera questions Zeus when he joins the other gods and takes his throne. When he enters, the others rise to their feet out of respect and fear. Hera says that she has observed Thetis kneeling in supplication and Zeus nodding his head. She suspects that he has agreed to accommodate Achilles in giving the Trojans the upper hand.
Zeus reacts angrily, threatening to strangle Hera for her meddling. Hera's son Hephaestus intervenes, warning his mother that Zeus is quite capable of knocking them all down with a thunderbolt. He reminds her of a previous occasion when he got between the two of them as they quarreled and was hurled from Olympus by Zeus and fell for an entire day before coming to earth. Terrified, Hera submits, and Hephaestus restores harmony by passing around a bowl of nectar, the special beverage of the gods. To the sound of Apollo's lyre and the Muses' singing, Olympus erupts in laughter as the craftsman god, lame from birth, goes limping about the hall with the mixing bowl.
Greeks besieging Troy — Troy was in Asia on the opposite side of the Aegean Sea from Greece, although "Asia" and "Greece" were not so called in the time period when the epic is set. The men of Agamemnon's army identified themselves with their individual cities and kingdoms rather than thinking of themselves as "Greeks," although they did have a collective identity that sets them apart from the Trojans. The Trojans are not particularly foreign in their customs and attitudes; if anything they are more civilized than the piratical invaders camped on their shore. Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, is essentially a killing machine, while the Trojan hero Hector was admired by later generations of Greeks for his patriotism and nobility.
Sing, O goddess — The wording of Homer's invocation of the Muse of epic poetry supports the theory that his epic was performed to the musical accompaniment of a lyre (and/or other instruments) in at least a semi-singing manner, that is with tonalities associated with the words. Ancient Greek was in fact a language akin to Japanese, in which pitch conveys meaning.
Butler's translation of the Iliad — Butler, who wrote at the end of the last century, is one of a long line of translators, starting with the Romans and coming down through Chapman and Lang, Lattimore and Fitzgerald, to the recent translation by Robert Fagles. "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" is a memorable poem by the English poet John Keats (1795–1886) that conjures up the powerful effect that translations of Homer have had upon masters of Western literature. Great English poets like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Keats, Shelley, and Byron grew up reading Greek mythology through Latin authors like Virgil and Ovid. That's why many of us know the Greek hero Odysseus as Ulysses – the Roman version of his name. And it is owing to the intermediation of the British in this passing down of culture that Greek mythological names are pronounced according to a system both strange and unfaithful to the Greek originals, which has as its sole (but compelling) virtue for readers today that they can be certain what the great poets of the English language intended for their readers to hear.
pride — Achilles' pride is his tragic flaw. His self-absorbed devotion to an idealized image of himself blinds him to all else.
Homer's epic — The work attributed since Classical times to Homer was created about 2700 years ago. Whether he or she or they sung it or wrote it remains the subject of unending dispute.
Nestor — The oldest fighter at Troy, Nestor has already outlived two generations. He came of age (he tells the assembly) in an era of "better men than you," real heroes like Caeneus (a maiden transformed by Poseidon into an invulnerable fighter) and Theseus (who bested the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of Crete). With companions like these, Nestor had battled the Centaurs, savage beasts, half-horse, half-man.
giant — This monter's name was Briareus. Homer may have made the incident up.
<- prev     next ->

Book One