(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
The Priest's Prayer (I. 33-42)
So he spoke, and the old man, seized by fear, obeyed.
Silently, he walked the shore of the echoing sea;
and when he was quite alone, the old man prayed deeply
to Lord Apollo, the son of bright-haired Leto:
‘Hear me, Silver Bow, protector of Chryse
and holy Cilla, high lord of Tenedos:
if ever I built a shrine that pleased you,
if ever I burned the fat thighs of a bull
or goat for you, grant my wish:
Smintheus, with your arrows make the Greeks pay for my tears.’
Agamemnon has had his say and, if we left off the narrative at line 32, we would be on good grounds for thinking that he holds all the cards. Even though his troops shout in unison to
give back the girl to her father, Agamemnon, lord of men, can decide what he wants to do not only because he is king but also because, as we later learn, the priest’s daughter is Agamemnon’s
“prize” of war.
But if there is one thing you learn in reading ancient Greek literature, it is that you shouldn’t willfully anger the gods or their representatives. You don’t challenge them to weaving or beauty
contests or musical competitions, regardless of how talented you are, because ultimately they control the forces that control your expression of these talents. Agamemnon will be the first in a long line of sad Greeks to discover this.
Agamemnon reaps the immediate reward of anger--a feeling of power within and fear from the others. The priest, as line 33 says, became afraid and obeyed the word. Literally, the line says,
“So he (Agamemnon) spoke, and the old man feared and obeyed the word.” When the Hebrew tradition thought about the work of Yahweh, it used phrases such as “So He spoke, and
it came to be.” Or, “He spoke and it was created.” Words from divine or authoritative sources carry with them the sense of accomplishment even in their saying.
It appears at first that Agamemnon has won this little battle. As if to give us a vivid picture of the priest’s abashed and terrified state, the poet tells us that he “went silently along the shore of the loud-roaring sea.” We see a robed figure, with fillets dangling down from the scepter, flanked by the thunderous voice of the king on the shore and the thunderous waves of the sea. He seems like such a little and insignificant creature as he makes his way along the shore. The contrast between the silence of the priest and the crashing of the sea is deafening. I love the word for “loud-resounding” (polyphloisboio). We can see the word “much” or “many” in it, and the word phloisbos has primarily to do, in Homer, with the confused roaring noise of battle. Thus, it is louder than the “murmuring” sound of Lattimore’s translation; it is more violent, more obtrusive, more overwhelming. Let’s call the sound of the sea polyphloisboisterous. Let’s also say that the priest was overwaved. He hears these sounds in the silence of his solitary walk.
The Priest Plans His Response (35-36)
Many priests have activist streaks in them. They go into the profession to help people and to serve the god(s). Though they might take a slight with apparent equanimity, they usually plan for a way to respond to it. So does Chryses. In a line that grows with a three-fold crescendo (35), Homer tells us that he: (1) withdrew a distance from the scene; (2) prayed to “the Lord Apollo”; and (3) did so polla, which stresses either the extent (“many’’) or the frequency of his prayers (“over and over”). In
fact, the word polla is the first word of line 35, and thus it is the word ringing in our ears as we consider his action. The priest will repeatedly use all the resources at his disposal to respond to the
insult. Thus, as he trudges silently along the polyphloisboisterous sea, he begins to gather his forces. As “much” or “many” or "great" is the sea, so “many” or "great" are his prayers. A few lines later the god Apollo will sit apart from the Achaians before firing his deadly dartamong them; now the priest separates himself for the ritual curse or prayer to come.
Two other brief points should be mentioned about lines 35-36. The word for pray (araomai) can either mean “pray” or “curse.” In fact in earliest Greek it meant the former but you can see the development of the idea from prayer to curse if you know anything about prayer. You pray. No answer. You pray more earnestly. Still no answer. You become frustrated. Then, you curse. Simple. The divine act evokes very human emotions.
Second, note the one to whom Chryses will pray: “the lord (or king) Apollo.” Already in line 7 we met “Agamemnon, lord of men.” The same word (anaks) is used here of Apollo. The careful reader will recall this and say, “Yes, Agamemnon might be lord of men, but now we are dealing with another lord, who controls a different and even more powerful realm.” But then we have a further introduction to Apollo, to his “tender” side. We will see him honoring the priest’s prayer shortly, but first we see him as the offspring of the “fair-haired” or “beautiful-tressed” Leto. He is not just a stern god, judgmental as he will sometimes be; he is also the product of beauty.
The Words of the Prayer (37-42)
As Kirk tells us, the prayer
“follows the regular religious pattern: initial listing of the god’s titles and local associations (37-38); the special claims on his favor (39-41); finally, and quite briefly, the request itself (42),” The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 1, p. 57.
The tidiness of the speech aids our reading, even if we rarely stop to examine the structure closely. He begs to be heard. In fact the first two words of line 37 are simply “Hear me!” But then, just as we learned more about Apollo’s birth in 36, we learn about Apollo’s protective power in 37-38. He is, first of all, the “one of the silver bow” (argurotoksos). Earlier we met him as the sharpshooter; now
we are picking up on that theme and making it more precise and ominous. You don’t invoke the one equipped with a silver bow to help you plant a better grain crop. More information about Apollo follows. We learn that he protects Chryse and sacred Cilla, along with the island of Tenedos. The actual words of the text are th he “rules mightily over” Tenedos, using the verb form of the word ruler (anaks) that we have come to recognize. ‘Apollo rules!’--as young people might say today.
The word for “mightily” is iphi, though there is nothing “iffy” about his rule. Note that the priest’s name is seemingly derived from the place where he serves. The place is Chryse, the priest is
Chryses, his daughter is Chryseis. I wonder what the grandkids’ names will be.
The word describing Apollo's protective power over the first two cities is amphibebekas. In that word we see the prefix for “surround.” An amphitheater is a theater in the round. We get the
sense of enveloping, like the Hebrew God who camps around his people in the wilderness.
The little word Smintheus, at the beginning of line 39, is a “janus-type” word. That is, it both looks backward and forward. It is a term of address, and so belongs with 37-38, but it is also a term of action, and so will look forward to the request in 42. It is an appellation or epithet of Apollo, but it is of a distinctly different kind than the “silver-bowed” or the “sharp-shooter.” The best translation is “Mouse-killer” or “Mouse-god,” where sminthos is the Greek word for “mouse.” Scholars have spent
a lot of time trying to figure out whether this name reflected an early period of Greek history where the gods were worshipped under the form of animals (something preserved, especially, in the worship of Egyptian deities) or whether the word simply reflects a primitive, but largely correct, notion of how plagues begin--they are carried by mice. In any case, the term indicates that a plague is in view. The “silver-bowed” god, the beautiful product of the golden-haired goddess, will actually mix it up with the most undignified and despised of creatures--the mouse. Chryses calls upon the god in both of these manifestations, for he wants the arrow, and he wants the plague.
Before we actually get to the request, we have a brief recitation of the priest’s faithfulness to Apollo. To use a phrase from my earliest days studying Greek religion, it is a perfect expression of the do ut des philosophy--”I give so that you might give.” That is, ‘I was faithful to you in the past; now you, the god, ought to be faithful to me today.’ So he prays, in my paraphrase:
“If at any time I covered your temple with a pleasing
roof, or if indeed at any time I burned up rich fat
thighs of bulls and goats...”
He knows that he built the house and kept it going. That is the basis of Chryses’ prayer. Apparently males aren’t the only living things that love thighs.
All of this is worded, however, in the conditional--”If at any time. . .” We now know what to expect in the second half of the sentence. A request. Or, better said, a demand in the form of a request. It is a tension within those long accustomed to pray whether their prayers are of the nature of supplications and requests or, in fact, are really demands and expectations. Since the worshipper knows the god so well, and since the relationship is so strong, there has been a “give and take” for quite some time. Like couples long-married, where a gentle request (“Honey, if you have time....”) is heard more strongly that the most urgent command, so the priest will deliver his request that really assumes some sort of result. After all, if the priest was no better at getting answers out of the divinity than any poor slob, why should he still be employed at the temple? So he says, “Grant (perform for) me this wish (desire).”
The desire is spelled out in six straightforward Greek words. “By means of your darts, let the Danaans pay for my tears.” Religion is most powerful when it is framed in economic terms. Or,
alternatively, the language of sacrifice and payment is prevalent both in the religious and economic realms. Those seemingly most tethered to this earth (economists) and those seemingly most free
from the earth (priests), end up using the same kind of language--of transactions. Someone has to pay for offenses done. We pay by honoring gods, by giving ransoms, by being punished with
plagues. Perhaps the blood of the Achaians will wash away the tears from Chryses’ eyes.
Offense has been given. Retaliation has been sought. We wait to see what happens. But, we don’t have to wait long at all. Though Homer knows how to linger over a simile for many lines,
or to describe inaction and lassitude with skill, he also knows how to move action incredibly quickly. This will now happen, as Apollo hears and responds to Chryses' prayer.