Prologue I.1-7 (I)
Prologue I.1-7 (II)
Quarrel I.8-21 (I)
Quarrel I.8-21 (II)
Quarrel I.8-21 (III)
Agam. I.101-20 (I)
Aga. I.101-20 (II)
Achilles I.147-71 (I)
Ach. I.147-71 (II)
Sceptre I.215-44 (I)
Nestor I.245-84 (I)
Apart I.285-325 (I)
Softer I.325-92 (I)
Softer Achilles (II)
Plea I.393-427 (I)
Vow I.393-427 (II)
Sea I.428-87 (I)
Back I.428-87 (II)
Thetis I.488-530 (I)
Thetis and Zeus (II)
Bill Long 1/15/10
Down sits Achilles. Up pops Calchas. It is almost as if they have orchestrated this. Or maybe, from the perspective of Homer's method, he simply is moving us quickly to the next subject. Achilles has called for a professional to interpret their situation. Such a person just happens to be around. It is Calchas.
Calchas' appearance allows us to raise an issue that bedevils interpreters of epic. To what extent does the poet imagine that his hearers already know of the people and gods he is introducing? Are we supposed to know the course of the Trojan war until now? How about possible hard feelings that may already exist between Agamemnon and Achilles or, more to the point here, Agamemnon and Calchas? For there are other traditions in the ancient Greek literature that had Calchas prophesy that Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia ought to be sacrificed at the town of Aulis, when the Greek fleet couldn't advance on to Troy for months and months because there was no wind. Just as we can't expect the priest Chryses to forget the fact that his daughter has rudely been ripped away from him as a prize of war, so we can't expect Agamemnon to "unremember" the words of the seer. But does Homer know this tradition and expect us to know it? Should it be introduced here in order to give the "big picture" behind the epic? My answer: though these stories may in some instances provide rich detail, too many such stories tend to divert attention from the text of the epic itself. Thus, I will go "light" on these other stories. I will, however, make reference to "intra-Homer" stories, such as the favorable impression that Homer gives us of Calchas in II.300ff. because Calchas had interpreted a confusing omen positively before the Achaians had come to Troy. Thus, Homer knows, and will later tell us, why Calchas is a respected voice among the Achaians.
But all we know now is what Homer chooses to tell us about him. His "profession" actually isn't one of the named categories in line 63, but he is a "bird interpreter" (68). In fact, he is "by far the best" of these people. Birds, because they are closer to heaven than humans, were thought to be carriers of divine knowledge. One could "read" that knowledge either in the entrails of downed birds or in their flight patterns. It took some expertise, some training, some discipline to know how to read the birds. And, not only is he skillful in this department, Calchas just happens to have his talent, as we are told in line 72, as a gift from none other than Phoebus Apollo. It is as if a person has been head of staff for a Congressman for years and can approach her former boss with a request to help the people back home. The former staffer will have ready access to power.
More About Calchas
But before we get to what Calchas actually says to Achilles, we learn more about him. Line 70 functions as an explanatory gloss on 69, telling us what it might mean that he is "by far the best" of the bird-interpreters. In striking language, Homer says,
"for he knew the things that had happened, and the things that were to happen and those that happened beforehand..."
This is mysterious and powerful language. It appears that just as Homer pointed to three different categories of religious professionals in line 63, he is pointing to three types of knowledge possessed by Calchas: of the immediate past, the future and the distant past. When Hesiod penned his Theogony a few generations after Homer (so that is the leading theory), he spoke of his sources of inspiration in being able to tell of the geneaology of the gods. He says that the "ready-voiced daughters of Zeus" (the Muses):
"breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime," 31.
The inspiration of the poet doesn't materially differ from the insight of the bird-interpreter. They, basically, are hermeneuticians or interpreters of things. They can take signs or symbols or things that simply "sit there" and can bring them to life through the power of interpretation. This is certainly a gift from the gods, because the past is so confusing and the future so inaccessible, that anyone having clear and insightful thoughts into the past and future needs to be celebrated.
So, Calchas has knowledge of things past, future and of deep past. But he has recently demonstrated his prophetic insight in the immediate past, as we are told in 71-2: "he led the ships of the Achaians into Troy through his prophetic power." Kirk wonders if this is supposed to reflect the Aulis tradition, mentioned above, where Calchas' insight removed anxieties from the people or possibly to another incident, not mentioned in Homer. I'll remain mum on that one--and only emphasize what I have mentioned, that Homer is building Calchas' resume for us.
We know then that Calchas is by far the best at what he does, that he already has delivered the Achaians out of a pickle and that Apollo is responsible for his prophetic gift. We learn one other thing about him before he speaks. The first four Greek words of line 73 say it all: "Well disposed to both sides." The nice little phrase eu phroneon literally means "thinking well." This is important for the reader because we really have a need, at this point, to believe that there is someone, somewhere among the Greeks who may be able to get us out of a developing problem. Agamemnon is already compromised; Achilles just seemingly has too much craftiness in his speech for us to trust him. We need, as the book of Job says, someone who will "lay his hands on both" and act as a mediator between the two sides (cf. Job. 9:33). Calchas seems to be such a one. He knows everything, and he is well disposed to both. We are ready to hear the reconciling and healing words of this seer.
Calchas Speaks--And Asks for Protection (74-83)
He only addresses Achilles because, before he provides his interpretation, he has a personal need that requires Achilles' attention. And, he begins with words that inspire confidence. "Oh Achilles," he says, "you, beloved of Zeus, bid me speak about the anger of Apollo, the sharp-shooting king..." (74-5). We already know about the sharp-shooter, even though Calchas uses a slightly different word here than we have previously seen. We already know about the anger of Apollo, and this time Calchas uses the word which we see in the first line of the Iliad. The cadences are balanced and generous.
But he wants something first from Achilles. "You have heard it said, but I say unto you," is language from the Gospels, and the language here is only slightly different. 'You, Achilles, want me to talk about the anger...therefore I will speak...." But before he speaks, Calchas wants Achilles to heed him and swear to him (76). The use of the first verb (suntheo) is unexpected. It has a variety of meanings, from "put together," to "unite," to "perceive" to "hear" to "heed." It this instance it is a plea for Achilles to recognize Calchas' situation. "Give heed to me" or "recognize the difficulty I am in..." Before letting us into his knowledge of this "difficulty," he continues,
"swear to me (that you are) eager to protect me with words and hands" (76-7).
The word I rendered "eager" here (Lattimore renders it "readily" and Wyatt as "eager") is prophron, where phron means "mind." Literally it means "with forward mind," and that suggests, as the Liddell-Scott tells us, "of one's own free will" (s.v., p. 1540). If you do someting "of your own free will," you do it not out of compulsion but you are "willing, gracious, kindly" in so doing it. Calchas wants that kind of protection from Achilles.
Then he gets to his reason and he uses the same verb of speculation (oio, in this case oiomai) that Achilles had used in 59. Achilles had used it to express a faux speculation (Hm..maybe we should just leave..). For Calchas, however, this word is deadly serious. He says, "For I believe that a man may become angry..." He not only believes it; he is confident it is true. Here is that word anger again. It differs from menis in 75, but it is the same word for "anger" that Homer used in line 9 to describe Apollo's anger. The third of our trio of "anger" words will appear in line 80, again referring to Agamemnon. We will have as many different words for anger as we do for arrows. Maybe that isn't an accident.
Well, who might Calchas be referring to? Eeny-meeny-miney-mo.... Oh, wow, it is "The one who rules powerfully over all the Argives, and the Achaians obey him" (78-9). He doesn't mention the name, even though it is crystal clear of whom he is speaking. It is, of course, Agamemnon....the lord of men. He rules and people obey. That is the way that life goes.
But he mentions Agamemnon and his anger for a reason, one that is known well to seers from the ancient world. If you speak the truth, you are liable to enrage someone, especially if your words tend to undermine the peace or power of the ruler. The biblical prophets threw themselves on the mercy of Yahweh, but they often had to face the ire of kings. Jeremiah ended up on a pit; others were rejected. No wonder the profession of "court prophet" emerged. You could proclaim the "Word of God" to the king but it would be the smooth and affirming word, a word that always looked at the glass "1/2 full" or, better said, "7/8 full..." It is much too dangerous just to tell the truth if you know it and if it will run against the wishes of a king.
More On Anger
Calchas lays things out with clarity and cogency. The king is stronger when he becomes angry with a lesser or inferior man (80). Then, beautiful lines follow:
"For even if he also on the self-same day can repress his hot furious wrath, afterwards he still has that wrath in his breast, until he expresses it (lit., "completes" it or "fulfills" it)," 81-3.
The verb translated "repress" is really derived from eating food, and it means "digest." It is as if wrath is some kind of noxious food that a person, even if able to get it down the stomach, will need to expel. But here the word is used figuratively. The "food" is the bilious result of anger, which moves from the stomach to the heart or the breast. The reality of anger, however, is that it must be expressed. It may be tamped down for a while; it may be ignored for the moment, but it will spring back to life "afterwards." Why? Because the anger is still deep in his heart. And, Homer is careful to put the possessive pronoun in the emphatic place on line 83, after the word "heart" or "breast." The person keeps the anger "in his own heart," as if it is cared for, nurtured, cultivated, cherished.
This remarkably perceptive insight into anger is all the more important given the centrality of the word to this point in the epic. It is the theme of the whole piece, and now the one who knows things past and future, knows also about anger. Later in the epic Achilles will be urged by many to put away his anger, to lay it aside, and do what is best for the community. But he will not be able to do so. Or, alternatively said, to lay aside anger is a Herculean task, an effort that triumphs over the most fierce warriors. Calchas says it well here. Even if it is (seemingly) digested, it still remains deep in the breast, and it will remain there until it is completed or fulfilled. This fulfillment of anger, then, is its future expression. An ominous thought indeed.
Already we are seeing the danger of anger and what it does not only to the people who have it but to innocent people all around. Anger kills. Purely and simply. It beclouds judgment. It separates people. It leads to rash decisions. Homer has nothing good to say about it. Why, then, are people controlled by their anger? Why, when it has very little, if anything, to offer us, are so many people living in its pernicious shadow? That kind of question leads to hours of discussion--which is a very good thing...
Calchas has shown himself cautious, insightful and careful. His last words in line 83 reiterate in a few words the whole tenor of his speech. "You (emphasized) declare, if you will protect me." He is putting it right into Achilles lap. 'You yourself, and no one else, has to say now, right now, whether or not you will protect me. I won't speak unless you do...' What will it be?