The Iliad, Book 9

Book 9 of “The Iliad” features an embassy to Achilles, sent by the Greek commander Agamemnon to convince Achilles to return to the battle against Troy. The embassy consists of three warriors — Odysseus, the Greeks’ most skilled orator, Phoenix, who raised Achilles and still looks on him like a son, ans Ajax, the greatest Greek warrior other than Achilles.

Odysseus relates a promise from Agamemnon of vast treasure should he return to battle. Achilles says no, what Agamemnon gives he caneasily take away, he refuses to accept the bribe and the rules of a game Agamemnon controls. Phoenix then pleads with him to honor their relationship, be the good and faithful son, but Achilles again says no, says Phoenix is more concerned about returning honor to Agamemnon than preserving Achilles’ honor. Finally Ajax expresses disgust, syas the embassy should leave because Achilles has forsaken the honor his fellow soldiers have given him. That speech, far shorter than the others, is the only one that gets close to a concession from Achilles, who says he now won’t go back home but will pnly fight if the Trojans reach his own ships.

Several times during the embassy, Achilles states that the same fate of Death awaits both the brave man and the coward. His words all but reject the code of honor on which his warrior society is built. He also speaks of two fates from which he can choose — either stay and fight to win everlasting glory while dying in battle, or go home and lead a long, uneventful life. He is one of few, if not the only, classical Greek figure to be given such a choice.

The Iliad

I wasn’t ready for “The Iliad” when I first read it as a freshman in college. My intellect was still very adolescent, too easily captivated by the exploits of gods and heroes (a certain Rick Riordan fan had I been born a few decades later) to appreciate the deeper significance of epic. I was stubborn as well, and my paper on fate — an embarassing screed about how the gods were the ones controlling all the action, a silly argument which only received a passing grade due to the dilligence of my research — was proof that the effort of reading Homer’s work was lost on me.

Many years later, after reading hundreds more books and sharpening my critical skills, I can appreciate “The Iliad” for the complex work that it is, a work that can’t be adequately analyzed in a blog post. But individual moments, of which there are so many, can and should be celebrated.

Book Eighteen contains a moving lament from Thetis, the sea-goddess mother of Achilles. Greece’s most powerful warrior Achilles had withdrawn from the assault on Troy back in Book One, and in his absence his dear friend Patrocolus is killed. Thetis knows her son will respond by rejoining the battle, an act that will lead to his violent death (unlike other Homeric heroes, Achilles is given the choice to go back home and live a long peaceful life without honor, or rejoin the battle and perish in glory in the land of Ilium). Achilles has called out to her from his sorrow, and as she prepares to leave her sisters Thetis cries (text below copied from the Richmond Lattimore translation):

Ah me, my sorrow, the bitterness in this best of child-bearing,
since I gave birth to a son who was without fault and powerful,
conspicuous among heroes; and he shot up like a young tree,
and I nurtured him, like a tree grown in the pride of the orchard.
I sent him away with the curved ships into the land of Ilion
to fight with the Trojans; but I shall never again receive him
won home again to his country and into the house of Peleus.
Yet while I see him live and he looks on the sunlight, he has
sorrows, and though I go to him I can do nothing to help him.
Yet I shall go, to look on my dear son, and to listen
to the sorrow that has come to him as he stays back from the fighting.

Perhaps I needed to have children of my own before I could appreciate passages like this, appreciate both the love and sorrow expressed, appeciate how one cannot live without the other. For whatever reason, I can now read “The Iliad” and see beyond the battle, recognize a part of myself in the thoughts and feelings expressed by the humans and the oh-so-human gods.

Swift-footed Achilles is Sitting

I’m listening to an audio lecture on the Iliad, and I’m intrigued by the Homeric use of epithets, such as “man-killing Hector” and “bright-eyed Athena.” Many characters have several epithets — Aphrodite is sometimes “laughter-loving,” other times “daughter of Zeus,” also “goddess of love.” Sometimes an epithet is used in a way that seems illogical, such as a reference to “swift-footed Achilles” while he’s sitting.

One respected theory about these epithets is that they’re not intended so much as figurative descriptions, but rather serve principally as metrical aids. At a given point in the narrative, a certain epithet may seem more fitting — lion-hearted Achilles raised shield and sword — but if the particular verse has room for three syllables instead of four (Homeric poetry doesn’t quite work that way, but the general principle stil applies), then swift-footed Achilles stands, shield and sword raised. According to this theory, the oral poets who first recited Homeric verse, and above all else had to get the meter right, found the metrical aids that these epithets provided invaluable.

Words associated with a character but not serving as adjectives, rather functioning to integrate the character into the structure of verse. Interesting stuff.

The Eumenides

Ah, you gotta love the Furies. “And now my lungs are blown with abundant and with wearisome work, mankilling.” Legend has it that at the initial performance of Aeschylus’ play, their site was so fearsome that a pregnant woman in the audience suffered a miscarriage and died. Theirs is a poetic language of violence and terror, and there are few more terrifying figures in literature. Yet there’s a point to their terror — the fear they generate in men is meant to be a constraint on pride and criminal thought. “Men’s illusions in their pride under the sky melt down, and are diminished into the ground, gone before the onset of our black robes.”

They probably don’t generate as much critical attention as the Furies or the other main characters, but you gotta feel for the citizens who are called by Athena to serve on the jury. They’re verdict on Orestes’ killing of Clytamnestra is a choice between the Furies and the gods Apollo and Athena. Which is worse — risking the violent wrath of the ancient, vindictive Kindly Ones, or the disapproval of the young, powerful dieties? Aeschylus gives the jury a break by having them split their vote evenly, leaving Athena to intervene divinely and spare Orestes. For me it’s all a little too neat at the end, Athena appeasing the Furies by giving them a seat of honor in her city, but it’s the language of the Furies that I’ll always love about this piece. “There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.”

The Libation Bearers

This is the second play in Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy. The focus here is on Electra and Orestes, Agamemnon’s children, both of whom seek revenge for their father’s murder. Yet while Electra never hesitates in her call for divine vengence against her mother and stepfather, Orestes almost has to be forced into the deed — his buddy Pylades has to remind him that Apollo has threatened all kinds of ghastly discomfort should he fail. There’s some simple but effective dramatic touches as well — setting the scene in the evening, the nurse Clissa’s almost comic monologue on childrearing (“the nurse and the laundrywoman had a combined duty”), and Orestes’ display of the sheet that ensnared his father during his murder as he argues the justice of his action to the audience.

Agamemnon

I’ve decided to revisit the classical Greek literature I studied in college, partly for the mental exercise, another part in the hope of finding inspiration for my fiction. Yesterday I started with Agamemnon, the first of the three-part Orestia cycle of tragic plays from Aeschylus (that I was able to spell both the title and author’s name correctly without consulting an outside reference is a minor point of pride). What strikes me when re-reading the play is how the private tragedy of the house of Atrius becomes very public. Agamemnon’s murder by his wife Clytaemenstra and cousin Aegisthus (I must confess, I had to look up those two names) is more than just revenge for the feast of Thyestes (I’m back on track — got it right the first time!); it creates a political crisis for the people of Argolis, as represented by the Chorus, who are now ruled by the cruel tyrant Aegisthus, who does not attempt to disguise his plans for authoritarian rule. But this public consequence is not unprecedented, as the assassination is also motivated by Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia (I’m on fire!) in order to gain favorable winds needed for the voyage to Ilium and the Trojan War — a very public act, with a very private consequence. I’m curious to see how this combination of public and private tragedy will be extended in the other two plays in the cycle.