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Signs of Trouble, First Essay, I. 43-52
So he prayed, and Phoebus Apollo heard him.
Down he came, in fury, from the heights of Olympus,
with his bow and inlaid quiver at his back.
The arrows rattled at his shoulder
as the god descended like the night, in anger.
He set down by the ships, and fired a shaft,
with a fearful twang of his silver bow.
First he attacked the mules, and the swift hounds,
then loosed his vicious darts at the men;
so the dense pyres for the dead burned endlessly.
It will only take ten lines to move from the priest’s prayer to Apollo to the piling up of burning Achaian bodies along the beach. Then it takes fifteen more lines for someone to begin
to address the disaster that has just occurred. Homer tells the story of fast-moving gods and slow-moving humans with vivid and unforgettable images. These two essays address both topics.
The Coming of Apollo (43-47)
We have already seen that when Agamemnon finished his words to the priest the text simply says, “So he spoke,” line 33. Now we have those same words, but one more word is added. “So he
(Chryses) spoke, praying,” line 43. Ah, another mode of speech is here, one of which the powerful political people sometimes know little. . . There used to be a bumper sticker in America in the 1980s:
“Prayer Changes Things.” Well, the first witness in the Iliad to the truth of that affirmation is Chryses. I don’t think, however, that this was what the bumper sticker had in mind.
He prayed, and Phoebus Apollo heard. We get yet another epithet of Apollo. Already we have seen him as the sharp-shooter, the one of the silver bow, and “Smintheus” the “mouse-god.” Now he is the bright or shining one. Chryses asked Apollo to hear, and Apollo heard (the same verb is used twice in Greek). Talk about quickly answered prayer! How does one sign up to become a pagan…?
You may also have seen the 2000s bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming soon—and boy is he pissed!” Well, that could well have described the coming of Apollo. He, like everyone else in the we have met so far, is angry. The book might be about the anger of Achilles (1), but everyone here is having a
terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, even though they are far from Australia. The description in lines 43-47 is memorable and precious. So vivid is it that we not only can see it; we can also hear
He has to venture quite a distance to get to the shores of Asia Minor, where the Greek troops are arrayed. Apollo, unlike some other divinities who haunt the woods or live deep in the sea (Achilles’ mom, whom we will meet later in Book I, lives in the depths of the sea), dwells with the Olympic dozen atop that mount. Thus when he is needed on earth, he has to come screaming down to attend to the need. We get the impression of immediate and rapid action in line 44. Though the verb describing his descent is the simplest possible Greek word (bay), the action is anything but simple. But perhaps Homer has used that verb because he wants us to note what happens at the end of line 44. Apollo comes down “angered in heart.” That is the picture we get of him. Lest we forget it, a few lines later, after more of his movement is described, we learn that the arrows are “on the shoulders of the angry one,” line 46.
Apollo’s movement is stressed here. Maybe that is why he is first introduced here as “Shining” Apollo--his rapid motion is like a glittering, flitting, streaming star. So, the poet spends most of lines 45-47 describing the god and motion. First, we see him. He has a bow on his shoulders and is armed for battle, with a quiver covered at both ends. How lovely is the picture. Of course he needs a quiver covered at both ends so that the precious arrows don’t fall out as he rapidly descends to earth. For some reason this picture evokes another literary image for me--of the description of Satan’s shield in Book I of Paradise Lost. It, too, hangs on his shoulder and is of great use in battle.
Next, we hear Apollo coming. In line 46 we read that the arrows (oistoi, which means pretty much the same as other words for arrows or darts, such as beloi) were clattering on his shoulders. Actually the Greek word is onomatopoetic: eklangsan. The arrows clanged. He is moving quickly, and as he is moving, the arrows clang. We see him, with quiver and bow accoutered;we hear him, with clanging arrows in the quiver. He is angry, and he is moving rapidly. Finally, in line 47, we have a five (Greek) word image:
“He came like night”
Others who have translated these words render them: “He came as night comes down” or “his coming was like the night.” We speak about night “fall,” though if you really look at the way
that night develops, it seems that is happens first on the earth before spreading to the sky. Perhaps the image is not meant to suggest the “falling” of night from the sky but rather the “awful
gloom and dread which night brings” (Pfarr, Homeric Greek, p. 57) in a culture that only can be illumined by campfires and candles. Night is the time of fear, of stories told, of the irruption of other worlds into the tidy world of the day. Thus, there is an ominous, mysterious or portentous quality to these words. That’s all that needs saying. We just have to read on.
What Apollo Does, Once He Shows Up (48-52)
Once Apollo has made it on the scene, the action happens incredibly quickly. Homer is brilliant because he masterfully knows how to pace his epic. Apollo sat down at some distance from the ships. Indeed, the same word for distance is used (apaneuthe) in line 48 as was used in 35 to describe Chryses’ retreat to a distance to pray. There is a very fine, respectful and insightful use of space in this word and in this scene. Huge reaches of space can be traversed in a mere instant; but space and distance is preserved so that the really important work, of prayer and vengeance, can be planned and effected.
Apollo sits, but he doesn’t waste any time. He isn’t relaxing to catch his breath. He sits to position himself to shoot the arrows that were clanging in his quiver. And, guess what? Once he shoots his arrow (ios is the third word we have seen for arrow so far), a terrible klange arises from the silver bow (bios is yet another word for bow). The clanging on the shoulder foreshadowed the greater clanging of the arrow as it left the bow. It was a terrifying, horrible, fearful clang that arose. Just
like the night that envelops. We are in a liminal world, a world between life and death, between day and night, on the threshold of untold destruction. The klange or “twang,” as we would call it,
is the sound that takes us through the threshold.
And, in good epic fashion, the arrow finds its mark. We have the most unerring arrows imaginable in epic literature. They find their prey, even if a person might simply draw his bow at a venture. The quick results are apparent in lines 50-52. Just as the Greek intellectual world posited a hierarchy
of beings, from the lowest creatures to humans to heroic figures to divinities, so the plague following Apollo’s clanging release seems to pursue its own hierarchical strategy. First it comes upon the mules and then the shining dogs (50). This epithet describing the dogs emphasizes what we might call their “lightning quick” movement. We can understand how the balky mule would be subject to the first arrows of the plague, but we are impressed to learn that the swift dogs can’t outrun it. Disease moves much quicker than nature’s finest equipment.
We see so much here, even though it has all developed in fewer than ten lines. Apollo hears prayer, throws on his quiver and bow, screams down the mountain, clanking as he goes, sits quietly apart from the ships, unleashes his arrow, and then bodies start piling up. The attack on mules and dogs gets one line (50); that on the humans gets one full line and one word in the next (51-52). Yet those latter words are interestingly phrased. Literally we might render them:
“Then, moreover, casting the pointed arrow on them, he struck"
The word for sharp or pointed is echepeukes. Peuk, the root, was taken over in Latin by pung, from which we get the word pungent. The OED tells us that an obsolete English verb punge meant “to prick” or “pierce.” As an intransitive word it could mean “to sting.” From a medical treatise of 1657: “[A nettle] by the Greeks called sometimes cnide, because it punges [L. pungat] mordaciously.” Actually, if you study the Iliad closely, you may very well end up learning English better!
Let’s note the position of the verb translated “he struck” (ball’). It is the simple Greek word for casting, throwing or hitting with a dart, and it stands alone on line 52 before the summary
thought, “the corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning,” line 52. There is a stop, though not a full stop, in the text after ball’. The reader, and reciter, is supposed to pause here. So,
we pause on the word “he struck [with the dart].” We can see the dogs running and even imagine the arrows coming upon men, but the simple presence of that word ball’ catches in the throat of the
reciter. We might even say that the double lambda, finishing the word, could be “trilled” by the speaker, and so the sound of the word approximates the sound of the whistling arrow. It struck. It
found its target. Pause. Let it sink in. Disaster will follow.
Hitting the Target (52)
Like the brief words that often conclude a section and capture the whole in brief compass, so here we get a vivid picture to close this section. “Always (continually) were the fires of the dead burning thickly.” The word “thickly” finishes the section. The pyres were as crowded as the piles of bodies and the huddled, thronging masses on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the
1/12/10 earthquake. Assumed in these final words is a lot of action--individuals fall ill, many die, bodies are piled up, someone lights the fire, bodies are burned, smoke rises. There is no mass grave here, no tags to identify the bodies for reburial later or for notification of loved ones. Plague has to be fought with fire. So the last image we have, in this incredibly rich feast of imagery, is of the smoldering piles of bodies by the ships of the Achaians.
We often hear it said that a picture is worth 1000 words. Sometimes this is true, and we image-conscious people want to “see” things happening. But we fool ourselves if we think that words,
by themselves, don’t create even a more powerful picture. They do so by their specificity and their suggestiveness. Specificity is easy to spot; we have seen a lot of it here. The epithets, such
as the “flashing dogs” give us a picture that is moving, and not simply frozen. The sound of the quiver on Apollo’s shoulder also gives us an image. But words also are powerful because of their
suggestiveness. They encourage the reader to make up pictures in the mind, piling image on image as two giants piled Ossa on Pelion. This is especially true in the last picture of the section-- the
corpses burning. We can imagine the entire scenario, from first falling of a mule, to the first panting in death of a dog, to the first person who takes ill, to the bodies being carted to the pile, to the confused, angry and worried glances of the troops, to the fires being started, to the stench of burning corpses, to the hellish scene thus created in the firelight as flames crazily illumine the
scene. A wordcan be worth 1000 pictures, and Homer teaches us how to strive for words that not only create specific images in people’s minds but that also allow the possibility of image creation, so that the word becomes generative of full length movies in our minds. Anyone who can use words in this way has learned well from Homer.