Iliad I.488-530 (II)
Bill Long 1/28/10
But we don't have much time to do so because immediately her request is forthcoming. It is simply this:
"Honor my son," 506.
There really is a virtue in being able to boil down your request into three words or fewer. Then, if given more "space," you expand. Which is what she does. She does so partially in language given to her by her son but partly in her own words. Achilles had complained about how short his life was (352), but Thetis was the first to mention that he was okumoros (swift-fated--417). Now, before Zeus, she puts it in the superlative. Achilles is the "most swift-fated of all" (505). But then she repeats, in lines 506-07, the words of Achilles in 355-56: Agamemnon had stolen his prize. Indeed, he had come and done so in person. Then, as a skillful rhetorician, she returns to the main theme: "But you, you yourself, do him honor" (508). Then, in trying to appeal to Zeus' independence of thought and wisdom, she calls him "prudent advisor" or "Zeus of the counsels" (metieta). Actually the word had been used once previously--by Agamemnon (175), also in an "honor" context. There Agamemnon had been boasting to Achilles that Zeus of the counsels honors him. We saw at that point how vain and arrogant such a boast was. Now we are given a more fitting way for the prudent advisor to honor someone.
The breathtaking request is in lines 509-510:
"Give strength to ("set domination upon") the Trojans, until the Achaians honor my son, until they magnify him with honor."
Torture them until they "confess." That is the idea. This is the big line, but Kirk says not a word about it. The scope of the request is dramatic; the pain out of which it comes is immense; the clarity is stunning. I can only interpret the last line, duplicating the thought, as an example of "epic fullness." The request is so breathtaking that it has to be repeated. It has to sink in on the hearers and, most of all, on Zeus.
Zeus' Dilemma and Response (511-30)
I used to think that certain positions were impervious to political pressure. News anchors, I thought--now there were people who could speak their minds. Presidents, atop the political pyramid, were unencumbered by political pressures. Professors could just tell it was it was. But those views, of course, were naive. The more visible or more powerful a person is, the more indebted s/he is, the more the image of the person has to be burnished and maintained. People stay atop pyramids because they are skillful at managing the political firestorms that would topple lesser creatures. We see this reality in the next 20 lines.
So what does Zeus do? He doesn't answer her. He realizes the pain attendant on words slipping out of the mouth. As my professors used to say in law school, you can't "unring the bell." Don't rush to speak when there might not be a need to speak. Hold your fire. There will probably be a time to use it. Or, if not, you have not damaged yourself. Four Greek words describe Zeus' reaction: "But silently, for a long time, he sat there." Of course, he sits like everyone else. Silence in heaven. After the opening of the seventh seal in the Book of Revelation, there was "silence in heaven for a half-hour" (Rev.8:1). Thetis is undeterred. In one of the more suggestive phrases in Book I, it says, literally:
"Thus she kept holding onto his knees, she held (them) as growing into them...," 512-13.
Translators render that last phrase "clinging close" or "clung fast." The word I translated as "growing into" is empephuuia, from emphuo, which means "to grow into" or "cling very closely." I can't get that word or image out of my mind. She is not just "hanging on for dear life," as we say. She is so resolute and determined that she, as it were, wants to "grow into" Zeus. When we realize that Greek mythology has myriads of stories of how various people are transformed into other things (and Ovid's Metamorphoses is full of examples), we wonder if a certain fuel was given to this idea by this word in the Iliad.
She takes his silence as an invitation to repeat herself. So she does, but her words in 514-16 give Zeus an "out." By so doing, she releases whatever psychological pressure she placed upon Zeus to act in her favor. But, paradoxically, by releasing the person from acting in your favor, it actually frees the other person to act in your favor. "Oh, I would like you to do XXX for me. But, in fact, if you don't, just shake your head, and I will be gone." Once a suppliant has released the giver of all expectations that the giver will comply, the giver is all of a sudden thrown into his/her own freedom. When given freedom, people often respond favorably to suggestions. So, she says:
"Just give me an unerring sign and nod your head, or deny me, since you are in fear of no one..."
These are really clever words, and we can learn a lot in our styles of persuasion from them. We so much want a person to act in our interest, but we release that expectation to the person, thus trusting the instincts, the independence, the good-will of the other. You aren't indebted to anyone, are you? In fact, as the narrative proceeds, we will see just how indebted Zeus is. But Thetis can butter him up in this way for her own purposes.
Then, she closes her lines with blatant words of self-pity. Paraphrased, it says, 'Of course you can deny me, Zeus, but if you do, then I will know how I am the most dishonored of all the gods.' Or, in an expanded form, she is saying:
'Poor me. Livin' in the bottom of the sea. Away from the frolicking life of Olympus. Don't get to go on jaunts to Ethiopia. Just staying here weeping for my son. He's gonna die, and soon. But I'll be ok if you deny me. I will at least know how despicable I am to you, how little I am in your sight. Sniff. Sniff. Don't worry about me.'
All Eyes on Zeus
Now all the attention shifts to Zeus. His silence may have bought him time, but it really didn't buy him "space." In language suggestive of the majesty of the lord of heaven, Zeus, the one wrapped in clouds, now must, figuratively speaking, come out of the clouds. He is deeply vexed. Though we have seen many words so far for being angry or troubled, this is the first appearance of ochtheo. It is a rare word, and is best rendered as "sorely troubled" or "deeply disturbed."
He is bothered because of the political and familial pressures that this request will bring on him. He is, after all, "Father Zeus..." Homer brilliantly describes this pressure by using an enjambed word (on line 519). We best render it as follows:
"Indeed these are dreadful deeds, when you say I should enter into hostility with...........HERA!"
Oops. The wife. Why would Thetis' simple request lead to conflict with Hera? "For she troubles (vexes, enrages) me with her verbal abuse" (519). Then we learn of Zeus' troubles, and we can't suppress a smile:
"For even as things are she always vexes me among the immortal Gods, and she says I am (already) helping the Trojans in battle," 520-21.
Hera is pro-Achaian. Anyone who is "neutral," as Zeus is trying to be, can be perceived by a "true believer" as supporting the other side. This is apparently what is happening here. A centrist looks like a leftist to Rush Limbaugh. Now Thetis is asking Zeus to do even more--to doff the mantle of impartiality and adopt the cause of those fighting against his wife's interest.
Thetis has to be on her way. It is not that she chooses to depart, but Zeus makes her go. He knows his wife will be suspicious seeing Thetis hanging around Olympus. Some people are just up to no good, you know. But Zeus doesn't dismiss her without a promise. He is greatly concerned about these things, even though he doesn't tell us exactly why (523). It is probably that so many of their beloved Greeks are dying. But he gives her a parting gift.
"I will bow my head to you, so that you will be certain. For this is a the greatest witness from me among the Olympians," 524-25.
There follows an unforgettable line. Such a nod is an "irrevocable, truthful and certain of fulfilment" sign. If the Scriptures teach that a threefold cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12), so these three long, and hard-to-pronounce-quickly adjectives, emphasize the solemnity of what Zeus will promise.
He straightway fulfills that promise in 528-30. "The son of Cronus nodded with his dark eyebrows. His ambrosial locks flowed from his immortal head. And, all Olympus trembled," 528-30. The scene is reminiscent of the earth trembling when Yahweh God of Israel appeared on Mount Sinai. God nods. Earth shakes. The most famous work of art from the ancient world, Phidias' sculpting of Zeus, was based on this passage. It is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Homer, literally, can create wonders!