Iliad Book I

I know everybody's tired and wants to get started with Fall Break--frankly, so do I--but there are a few things I really, really wanted to mention about Book I of the Iliad so I hope you'll bear with me. I'll try to make this page reasonably short.

What the theme of the poem is not

The theme of the Iliad, despite its name, is not the war at Ilios, or the area around Troy. If that were the case, the poem would begin with Agamemnon's fleet setting out for the city, and would follow the soldiers through the long, long years that they spent attacking the city and its neighboring settlements in the Ilios region. It would cover all the material in chapters 18 and 19 in our textbook. But it doesn't. Instead, it begins in medias res, which is a fancy Latin phrase that means, literally, "in the middle of things," and is considered the appropriate place for an epic to start. In this case, we begin in the middle of the tenth year of the war.

Another thing: we do not end with the end of the war. Forget the whole death of Achilles, Trojan horse, sack of Troy stuff, because it doesn't happen in this epic. It's true that all these stories are a part of the Trojan War story cycle, the series of accounts that built up around this one conflict. Homer leaves them out, however, because they have nothing to do with the Iliad's central theme. The poem does not end with the destruction of a city, but with a constructive healing process, as both Greeks and Trojans take a break from fighting to confront their grief and mourn for their dead heroes. In the Greek case it's Achilles' lover, Patroclus (not Achilles, who is still alive at the end of the epic), and in the Trojan case it's their crown prince, Hector, who was killed by Achilles in retaliation for Patroclus's death, at Hector's hands, on the battlefield.

So what is the theme, then, if it isn't the Trojan War?

MHNIN AIEDE QEA or Menin aiede thea are the epic's first words. Almost all translators (the only exception I know of is Stanley Lombardo) begin with something along the lines of "Sing, Muse, of the wrath [or rage] of Peleus's son..." but the command "sing" is, in fact, the word AIEDE. That is the second word in the poem--not the first. The poem's third word, QEA (thea), means "goddess" (think "theology" or the study of religion and you'll see where the root came from; "theos" is the masculine form).

MHNIN means "wrath," or "rage." I prefer rage myself, perhaps because I think of Rage Against the Machine...which is certainly what Achilles does, against the whole aristocratic machinery of warfare as practiced by men like Agamemnon. So the exact wording of the opening is "The rage (MHNIN) sing (AIEDE), goddess (THEA)." The fact that the rage comes first is important, as I'll explain below. Remember how Dr. Luschnig asked, in her essay "Medea Among Us," whether word order has any meaning in Greek? In this case, the answer is definitely yes.

The AIEDE QEA phrase is an invocation. The poet invokes the muse by attempting to call her up, and asking her to sing through him and give him divine inspiration so he can sing the poem properly.

Please keep in mind that in Homer's day all poetry was oral, and was generally accompanied by a musical instrument such as a lyre. Have you read Beowulf? Same thing. So the poem is actually composed "on the fly" as the poet recites it, and it comes out slightly different every time he does so. Or maybe she, though there has never been any evidence of a female bard in the Greek tradition.

Personally, if I were trying to make up a huge poem as I went along, I think I'd need divine inspiration, too.

For more information about how these epics were composed, and about how important Homer was in the ancient world, see this article on Searching for the Historical Homer.

But to return to that all-important first line. Homer doesn't begin with the command to sing. He begins with MHNIN. This is a poem about Achilles' rage and its consequences, pure and simple. It's very tightly constructed around the chain of events put into motion by Agamemnon's decision to take Achilles' war prize, and Achilles' resultant decision not to fight.

By the way, the first word of Homer's other great epic, the Odyssey, is Andros, which means "man." ANDRA MOI ENNEPE, MOUSA: "The man to me describe, muse..." (or, as English word order would have it, "Muse, tell me about the man..." The Odyssey is a poem whose theme is one man, Odysseus, and his qualities. It concentrates mostly on his adventures, but it also describes the effect his absence--and his eventual return--has on those who care about him.

Some important undercurrents

Oath of Tyndareüs

The name Agamemnon means "leader of men," which is what Agamemnon is in this case. Because Mycenae is such a powerful city, he has been chosen to act as the head general. This isn't just out of the goodness of his heart; he has a personal interest because it was his brother's wife who was seduced and taken to Troy. Don't forget why the other men are there: they all took the oath of Tyndareüs (see Powell, pages 506-507), so they have no choice but to follow Agamemnon and do what he says. Well, all the other men but one... Do you remember who it was?

No, it wasn't Odysseus. He still had to take the oath of allegiance so he could marry Tyndareüs's niece, Penelope, even though the oath was his idea in the first place and he never intended to marry Helen. He tried to get out of going to war by pretending madness, but his fakery was exposed (see Powell, 511-512) and he was refused his "Section Eight."

Motive of Achilles

The person who did not have to come to the Trojan War, but chose to do so, was Achilles. That's why he can speak out so bravely to Agamemnon, and why he can make that pointed remark about how the Trojans had never done anything to injure him. Achilles is not bound by the oath, as he was too young to seek out Helen's hand when she was ready to marry. In fact he was hidden among the women by his mother, as you see in the painting to the right, Pompeo Batoni's Achilles Among the Women. Achilles is involved in the war for one reason: glory. So when Agamemnon threatens to besmirch that glory and publicly humiliate him, how would you expect him to behave?

And since Achilles knows that an early death will be the price of his search for glory, as the prophecy predicted, one can excuse him for feeling that the gods are cheating him if they permit Agamemnon to detract in any way from Achilles' hero status. Remember that in Homer's day there was no idea of an Ultimate Reward after death. Therefore, delayed gratification was not in vogue, which is why Agamemnon reacts so negatively when he's told that he will be repaid fourfold for the departure of Chryseis...after Troy has been taken.

More importantly, it really was a case of "He who dies with the most toys, wins." Only translate "toys" as "spoils." Because all honor or glory is external, with no hope of happiness for a great hero in the afterlife (you don't get to Elysium through your actions, but through your family connections), Agamemnon's insult is much more crushing than it appears on the face of it.

And before anybody points this out... Yes, I am quite aware that it's very sexist to describe women as toys or spoils, but consider the situation. How would you realistically expect a group of men who have been at war for ten years, away from their families and everybody except other soldiers, to behave toward women? Think about our own troops' behavior in Vietnam, for instance. And at least they got leave to go home every once in a while.

Agamemnon and Calchas

Another undercurrent is Calchas. You might be wondering what's the deal with him, and why he's so afraid of Agamemnon's wrath. You might also have been surprised that Agamemnon struck out at him so abruptly. There's a very simple answer: Iphigenia.

It was Calchas who interpreted Artemis's wrath when the wind wouldn't blow at Aulis (see Powell, page 514). Now he's at it again, interpreting the wrath of Artemis's twin brother Apollo, and once again he's blaming Agamemnon! What's more, once again he's going to insist that in order to make things right, Agamemnon is going to have to give up somebody he loves. For there is no doubt that he really does love Chryseis, despite his unorthodox way of obtaining her. He says he loves her even better than his own wife! He even refused a fair ransom for her, which by the rules of warfare he should have accepted, and which he could have accepted without any detriment to his honor.

Calchas knows that the "leader of men" is not going to be happy with his pronouncement, and that Agamemnon might very well begin to feel that Calchas is plotting against him. That's why Achilles' protection is necessary.

The role of Nestor

The final undercurrent I want to mention is Nestor. He's a generation older than any of the other generals, which is why he feels he has a right to mediate between the much younger Achilles and Agamemnon, both of whom he is going to wind up outliving. Nestor is sort of the stereotype of the wise old man. If you've read Hamlet, you might be reminded a bit of the character of Polonius. You might also have noticed that, like Polonius, he's a bit over-garrulous. That's standard for the wise old man stock character.

When Nestor makes the pointed remark that in his day he knew heroes who were a lot better than the Trojan generals, he's actually telling the truth. He's talking about the Argonauts, several of whom were demigods in stature. Great though Achilles is, he's no godlike Heracles. He's not even a Castor or Polydeuces. Those guys fought monsters. This group just fights Trojans.

Okay, now that we've got those basics laid out...

Totally irrelevant digression: Don't you just love the way Achilles calls Agamemnon "dog-face"? The actual words in the text are "eyes of a dog," but the word "eyes" could be extended to mean the whole face. I just think it's such a great insult. Dog-face. You gotta love it.

Another totally irrelevant digression: Don't you love, too, the idea of Zeus taking the gods off on a 12-day road trip to go party with the "blessed Ethiopians"? Achilles just has to deal with his wrath on his own until they get around to coming home, trooping back in solemn procession as if they were some kind of divine wagon train on its way back from the Oregon Trail. One of my students in World Literature said that this bit reminded her a little of the National Lampoon Vacation movies, and I've got to say she's got a point.

Achilles takes off his armor and sulks in his tent
(The "floating" helmets are supposed to be hanging on the wall)

Here are the questions that I would like you to consider for the Week Nine Discussion Topic. You can pick one of them, or combine more than one if you choose to do so.

I will be looking for concrete, specific example, and a direct quotation or two would be really helpful. You might also find it useful to use an example outside either Powell or Homer as an illustration.

  • In Chapter Two of Classical Myth, Powell talks quite a bit about the motives of Bronze and Dark Age warriors (see page 34). He even says that "this is the way the men fight in Homer's Iliad." Can you see any evidence for this in the Iliad, other than the examples I've given above? Since this discussion topic doesn't need to be posted until Wednesday, October 25, you do not have to confine yourself to Book One.
  • What examples does Achilles give in his speech against Agamemnon that tell us about what Homer's society felt about the qualities that a king ought to exhibit?
  • Why does Achilles dash that beautiful scepter onto the ground, especially right after Homer has given us such a detailed, loving description of it?
  • Agamemnon calls Achilles a deserter. Do you think he's justified in saying that?
  • When you read the part where Odysseus comes to pick up Briseis at Achilles' tent, were you surprised at the way Achilles behaved? Why do you think he behaved in that way?
  • Did you notice how Achilles changes his story a little bit when he tells his mother what happened? I'm talking about the section right after line 450. The emphasis has definitely changed. Why do you think he does that?
  • We saw a relatively complete picture of life in the underworld last week. Now we've seen a relatively realistic picture of one evening on Olympus. It's amazingly similar to life on earth--Homer even has Hephaestus make an argument almost identical to the one Nestor just made. What were your reactions to the description Homer provided? Did you like the way he portrayed Olympic life, or not? Why? Don't forget to give details.
  • If you've progressed past Book One, you might want to look at the Thersites incident, which is particularly interesting because this is the only incident in Homer's highly aristocratic poem where we actually hear from one of the rank and file soldiers. Before passing judgment, please look at this page on Thersites. Keep in mind that Homer's audience would have been as familiar with these stories as you are with the story of Cinderella, and they couldn't have helped thinking of them every time they heard Thersites' name, so you would be justified in considering them an integral part of the background to Homer's epic. Why do you think the Thersites encounter is included in the epic? What attitude do you think is shown toward Thersites, and why?

    Oh, and by the way... it's pronounced Ther-SIGHT-eez, even though it doesn't look like it ought to be.