The Iliad – Book 1: The Rage of Achilles

July 31, 2009

So, my project of reading The World of Odysseus, The Iliad, The Odyssey, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake is moving slowly. So far I’ve only read Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus. But I have started The Iliad. I’ve read a lengthy 60-page intro by Bernard Knox (who also wrote the intro for the Finley book). This translation is by Robert Fagles.

Would it sound like I’m trivializing a great epic if I say that the so-called “heroes” of this work sound like spoiled brats?

Finley’s book and Knox’s intro really help to contextualize both the time in which this poem was written, and the time its author(s) tried to convey. Without having read those, I think I would be very off-put by this opening book. (Though I’ve already read the first few books of The Odyssey, and am much more sympathetic towards the protagonists of that work, Odysseus & his son, Telemachus.)

First, the Achaeans are being picked off by Apollo because Agamemnon refuses to give back the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests. The priest appeals to him and the Achaeans in general in what sounds like a very standard, ritualized form. Finley and Knox speak at great length about the rigid rules of the ancient Grecean world. Honor and authority were very important. Plunder and conflict were not only common, they were basically a way of life. But because of all this, certain standards were necessary; you may plunder, but if you abduct someone important to a king or holy person, and they make the expected appeals of gifts and deference, you are to heed them.

But though all others say it is right to give the girl back, Agamemnon refuses out of sheer stubbornness, greed, and what I would say is immature petulance. When the most respected seer explains that it’s Agamemnon’s fault, and Achilles says they give the girl back, he refuses. “No, you’ll not take my prize away from me!” he basically says, despite his men dying all around him.

Then he and Achilles get into a shouting match, hurling insults at each other. Neither of them seems really concerned that people are dying; they’re mad because of being insulted. The exultation of honor and status that existed in that society make this understandable, but it really delineates how different their moral code was from ours (at least in word, if not always in practice).

Only King Nestor, who seems like the Achaean diplomat, sounds a voice of reason, telling Achilles to respect Agamemnon’s authority, and Agamemnon to remember his duty to his subjects. He also humbles them a bit by saying he has been with better men who never behaved so badly. So, even with the Greek notion of honor, they have outstepped their bounds. Even with the Finley & Knox readings, I’m a little perplexed at why they are regarded as such exalted figures, when their behavior is noted to be troubling explicitly by the poem itself. Knox, I think, brought up the point that Achilles is “godlike,” in that he does whatever he wants, even if it means the destruction of all those around him, even if it means his own destruction. So maybe that’s it; he is unshakable in his self-centeredness. I get it, I guess, but it’s still hard to fathom.

So, Agamemnon sees that something needs to be done. But what’s his solution? Remorsefully give the girl back? Even if he showed no remorse to her father, it might make sense to show remorse for letting his people die. But no, he says, “Well, if you’re gonna take my plaything, I’m gonna take one of yours! Achilles, I’m gonna take your favorite, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it!”

Achilles gets murderously pissed, almost draws his sword, and is only stopped by Athena, who has to physically hold him back. He goes off to his tent to sulk, and refuses to participate in the fighting anymore unless he gets the girl Agamemnon takes back. His mother, the goddess Thetis, visits him, and comforts him, in a way that sounds much like a mother would do to a child whose toy got lost or broken.

Now, if Agamemnon sounds bad, check out what Achilles does. He asks his mother to implore Zeus to set his power against the Achaeans, so that the Trojans slaughter them. Whoa! If anything can be imagined as a more gross act of petulance and betrayal of one’s community, I can hardly imagine it. At least the deaths Agamemnon caused were unintentional, if no less blameworthy; here, Achilles actually calls down death upon his companions, from what is considered the greatest power in the world, Zeus himself.

Achilles threw a good point in Agamemnon’s face: Achilles and the others are out fighting constantly, yet Agamemnon does not fight and yet gets more of the spoils. This might make sense because of Agamemnon’s greater authority; but it’s not clear to me why Agamemnon should be exempt from fighting. Being a king did not exempt one from battle; Achilles is a king, too. I’m not sure how old he’s supposed to be, but Nestor says that he’s older than him.

However, what Achilles doesn’t acknowledge, nor does the poem seem to acknowledge this, is that he is almost invulnerable. So who is he to judge others for not putting themselves in danger? In fact, his “short life” is mentioned several times; there seems to be some prophecy about his not far off death. But how hard are these battles on someone who can only be wounded in one particular part of his body?

It’s also kind of disgusting how people are regarded as “things,” property rather than human beings with their own wills, desires, and personalities. It’s all about status, not compassion or empathy. Agamemnon & Achilles don’t get upset because they are so attached to their slave girls as people; they don’t want to be deprived of their “prizes,” as they’re called.

The gods, of course, are not much better, but we already knew that. When Zeus agrees to heed Thetis’ prayer and bolster the Trojans against the Achaeans, Hera confronts him and berates him (she sides with the Achaeans). The scene comes off as comic, reminiscent of The Honeymooners. Is it just me, or was this scene created the make the audience laugh (I can especially imagine it being performed orally, with dramatic gestures from the performer).

Hera: So, you’re up to your scheming again? You can’t ever tell me what you’re up to?

Zeus: If I want you to know, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, I’ll do what I damn well please!

Hera: You pig, do you always have to do the opposite of what I want?

Zeus: Shut up, woman! Even if you got all the gods together, they wouldn’t stop me from strangling you if I have a mind to! [This, in particular, reminds me of Jackie Gleason’s, “One of these days, Alice, one of these days…POW, right in the kisser!”] I do what I want and I’ll destroy anyone who opposes me!

It’s interesting to me, though, despite the overtly patriarchal overtones of this, that Hera talks back at all – even if she’s cowed at the end. No human woman seems to do this from what I know of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Greek myth. And Achilles bends to the will of Athena and Hera; though he makes sure it is known he still has fury in his heart, he says he can’t oppose the two goddesses.

Some may find this annoying, but I find the repeated epithets amusing. Here are ones for the gods in Book 1:

Zeus = whose shield is thunder
Hera = white-armed
Thetis = of the glistening feet
Apollo = golden-haired, The Archer
Poseidon = the Old Man of the Sea

I’m so glad I don’t have any notion of “heroes”….