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12. Signs of Trouble, Second Essay (I. 53-67)
For nine days the god’s arrows fell on the army,
and on the tenth Achilles, his heart stirred by the goddess,
white-armed Hera called them to the Place of Assembly,
she pitying the Danaans, whose deaths she witnessed.
And when they had assembled, and the gathering was complete,
swift-footed Achilles rose and spoke:
‘Son of Atreus, if war and plague alike are fated to defeat us Greeks,
I think we shall be driven to head for home:
if, that is, we can indeed escape death.
But why not consult some priest, some prophet,
some interpreter of dreams, since dreams too come from Zeus,
one who can tell why Phoebus Apollo shows such anger to us,
because of some broken vow perhaps, or some missed sacrifice;
in hopes the god might accept succulent lambs
or unmarked goats, and choose to avert our ruin.’
Achilles Rises to Speak (53-67)
Bodies are lying all around burning. The narrative tells us that these thick or crowded corpses are "continually" being incinerated. It just goes on and on. How long does a disaster, a plague, have to go on until someone arises to do something? There were no rapid response teams in Homeric times, no emergency crew that can take charge of the chaotic scene of death. So, they do nothing. Or, at least, the narrative tells us that nine days go by before anything significant happens. This is one of the two time markers in Book I; later we will learn that Zeus is away on a twelve-day jaunt to Ethiopia to feast with the Ethiopians (425). The contrast between what humans and gods do in long intervals of time is stark. The humans suffer; the gods have a party.
The first word of line 53 (“nine days”) not only marks time but also gives us an indication of the lack of leadership that plagues the Achaians. It took nine days for someone to say something. Thus, in those nine days it is the arrows (kela--the fourth word we have seen for arrows; also ios, oistos, belos) that are the focus of the action. They have center stage. “For nine days the arrows of the god were going through the camp.” The verb is in the imperfect tense; the arrows kept winging their way among the helpless troops. Have you ever been in such a situation? We will certainly have narratives arising out of the earthquake in Haiti, which took place three days ago at the time of this writing. What is it like to feel the plague in the third, fourth, or fifth day? You don’t know that there will yet be a tenth day when someone will speak up. For all you know, the holocaust may continue
forever. . .
Yet Achilles arises and calls an assembly on the tenth day (54). We are not given rules here about who can call an assembly and for which reasons; the narrative just assumes that a great warrior,
like Achilles, can do so. And it is significant from the point of view of the action that it is Achilles who calls the people together. It sets up a tension that will lead to hostility and huge conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. We are not given any insight into Agamemnon’s psyche at this point. The narrative is spare. All we know is that on the tenth day Achilles calls the assembly.
Lest we forget, however, that the gods are playing a major role in the drama, we are told that it was the goddess, Hera of the white arms, who put this idea into Achilles’ mind. The verb rendered “put” here is none other than the verb that appeared in line 2 to describe the plague that was “put” upon the Achaians. Gods put or place things on humans, whether they are plagues or ideas. We learn more about Hera of the white arms. We learn that she favors the Achaians; she is “grieved at the Danaans (Greeks) when she saw them dying.” Again, the verbs are in the imperfect; she sees them continually dropping like flies. Hera is the first god(dess) that we see expressly taking sides in the fray; for all we know, Apollo might be afflicting the Achaians not because he is inveterately opposed to them but simply because he is protecting his turf and priest.
So, in lines 57-58 we return to Achilles and his calling of the assembly. He is called “swift-footed Achilles” here (58); we nod in recognition. At least he is swifter, in some ways, than the “flashing dogs” which couldn’t run away from the plague (50). In the midst of the quick action is another “slow” line, line 57. Literally it says, “when they were assembled and were collected together."
Commentators see this as a sign of what they call “epic fullness” or “redundancy.” Characters have epithets, action can speed or slow according to the whims of the poet, gods and humans are jointly involved in action, and redundancy happens. These are some marks of epic as it unfolds before us. But the fullness of expression has a purpose. It gives an indication that it took some time to gather all the people together. It also allows us as readers to imagine the confusion, jostling, attempts to
get comfortable, straining to hear, shouts to comrades to quiet down, minor tiffs that might even break out as they assemble, etc. that are part and parcel of gathering a large group together.
Just as the poet allowed our imaginations to run wild with the idea of the bodies stacked up (52), so he lets us bring the people together in our own mind as we read the repeated thought of line 57.
Who says that “reader response criticism,” or the realization that the reader is an active participant in shaping a narrative and its interpretation, is an invention of the twentieth century? I see it in
Homer. He requires a response of us as readers. We fill out his story and are delighted further.
What Achilles Says (59-67)
Achilles now rises and speaks to them. Well, we are taken aback. Even though the narrative emphasizes the assembly of the people, Achilles addresses, we are told, only the “son of Atreus.”
Achilles is using the “cover” of the assembled multitude, the precursor of the democratic institution of fifth century BCE Athens, as a cloak to pursue a private agenda. Rather than addressing his
comrades in encouragement or rebuke, he addresses Agamemnon. He isn’t just going to make a general observation, 'Well, folks, in my humble opinion we ought to isolate the mules and dogs
from the troops' or 'I have a suggestion on how to improve the readiness of our medical corps.' He will wing his words as Apollo has hurled his darts, and these words will strike Agamemnon as
certainly as Apollo’s arrows struck the Greeks.
Achilles is the great warrior. Remember that fact as we read the first line or so (59-60) of his words. “Now,” he says, “I believe that we, having been driven back again, ought to return back [to
where we came..].” Oh, how clever of Achilles. He couches his words in a kind of impersonal observation. “I believe,” he says (oio). The verb means to “think, suppose, believe.” It is often
used as a way to express a modest observation “to avoid overgreat bluntness of assertion,” as the Liddell-Scott dictionary tells us (s.v., p. 1208). Yes, Achilles will give a gentle suggestion after all. “It is my observation,” he says. Nothing more. No knife to dig in the back, apparently.
But, of course, his superficial geniality and modesty is a sham, especially when you look specifically at the words he uses. He says he believes that, since they are now being beaten down as they are, that it might be best just to call off the war and return home. What?? Here we have the greatest warrior deciding to turn tail and return home in the ninth year of battle? After all that cost? After all that loss? Simply to throw in the towel and retreat and say, “Well, we tried, but we just had to recognize the stunning losses we faced and retreat.” What kind of warrior is that? Others say those things, not Achilles. Later we will learn reasons for this attitude, but now we have no knowledge of why he might suggest this. Have he and Agamemnon been nursing a conflict for a long time? Does Achilles object to the reasons for this war? Homer doesn’t answer our questions at this point. We
simply have to move on in the narrative.
Then, there is that little word palin, translated “again” in line 59. No one quite knows what to connect it with--does it connect, for example, with the word “go home?” I think it makes most sense to read it with the word that directly follows it--the participle translated “beaten down” or “driven back” or “baffled” or “balked.” Thus, Achilles would be saying, “Since we are now being beaten down again, it is time for us to bail.” But let’s look a little more closely at the participle, which
most translators render “driven back” or “straggling backwards.”
It is from the verb plazo, and one meaning of that verb is to beat or strike. Hence the translation. But the word has some suppleness to it and also is built on the root from which we get our word “planet.” A planet is a wandering heavenly body. Thus, the verb carries with it the idea also of wandering or, to the point here, being led astray. If we render plangthentas in line 59 as “being led astray,” we have a whole new idea that arising. Achilles would not be alluding then to this latest act of being beaten back or down (i.e., by the plague; the “again” might call to mind other, earlier occasions when they were rebuffed, perhaps by the Trojans or others) but would be saying that they were again being misled by faulty leadership. The combination of the two words at the end of line 59 would then be devastating. “I believe...being misled.” The sentence appears to begin with an air of speculation, but Achilles quickly abandons that tone: “Let me suppose for a moment that we, being misled AGAIN. . .”
And, he is just getting started. He states his major point in the first few words, but then he qualifies it with two “if” clauses. We ought to retreat “If in fact we would avoid death.” The latter “if” clause (61) carries with it the idea of “since...” We retreat since, indeed, war and plague crush the Achaians.
Many translations keep the word “if” in rendering the second clause--”if the war and plague must crush the Achaians.” The verb damazo, translated “crush” or “subdue” is also a verb used to express the idea of subduing or making a woman subject to her husband. Hmm. As we will later learn, the quarrel is over a woman (how unusual!), and it relates precisely to Agamemnon’s
having subdued or taken a prize of war (Chryseis) that he has to return. Words sometimes have vast linguistic fields to them; we aren’t sure always how broadly to hear or interpret the word, but
Achilles may be hinting at a number of things offensive to Agamemnon as he appears to be making a detached observation (oio--”I suppose”).
One other brief observation about line 61 might be helpful. We sometimes get so caught up in the ideas or the “tone” of the sentence that we forget to look at how it looks on the page. Here the central word, surrounded by “ands,” is the verb dama--”crush” or “subdue.” It so neatly stands in the middle of the two forces that crush, the war and the plague. Indeed, if we weren’t looking at
total disaster among the Achaians, we would just stop to observe the beauty of line 61’s balance. It is a terrible beauty.
Diverting Attention (62-67)
But Achilles isn’t done. His poisonous and provocative words have no doubt stung deeply, but he still has a few words to say. Ah, maybe that is why we have so many words, four so far, to describe arrows or darts. They all hit you a bit differently, even if they are similarly lethal. Achilles’ cleverness is again apparent, and he will use the next six lines to divert attention from the radical nature of what he has just proposed. He will say, “Well, in any case, let’s go ask a professional on these matters, to see what he will say.” It is as if a lover says to the beloved, “I think this isn’t working out because you continually betray me. But, let’s just go ask a counselor, because they are versed in these things.” The beloved is reeling, angry, hurt, confused by the tone of the first sentence, and then the lover changes the subject. The beloved has no chance to react but is just whisked along on the unpleasant ride to a new idea.
This new idea that Achilles brings up is ingenious. He wants to enlist the help of a religious professional to interpret what is happening. So, he says, ‘let’s call out the one who is paid to know these things.’ He lists three categories of people that might be called. Now he is like a lawyer, covering all the bases, in imitation of Agamemnon’s “lawyer-like” words to Chryses in line 27.
Lawyers draw up contracts, and their purpose in adding all the extra words is not simply to enrich their firms and themselves, though that is always a good thing to do, but to make sure that there
isn’t the slightest way that anyone can slip out of the linguistic trap they are laying. You don’t just sell a house. You sell, transfer, convey, remit and use a bunch of other words going back to the
fourteenth century in order to sell the house.
In this case Achilles suggests they might want to consult a religious professional. Scholars differ as to whether he is listing three distinct classes of people or one general category (the mantis or “seer, prophet”) that is divided into two sub-categories (the “priest” and “interpreter of dreams”). Though we could go back and forth on that one, a better way to read the passage is simply to see
Achilles as trying to defuse the tense situation he has just created by positing a variety of people who might be able to help. Maybe one of these people is waiting in the wings, ready to give an interpretation of what is happening. He adds the little words, “For a dream is from Zeus” at the end of line 63, as if trying to get people’s minds to follow another diversion.
Though he has adopted a “helpful” tone, in reality he has insulted his commander in chief. Under the guise of a useful suggestion to seek the benefit of a professional, he is simply hiding under scholastic distinctions among religious experts and covering it over further with the observation that “as we know, the dream is from Zeus. . .”
Achilles has done damage, but he continues to speak. He continues to give “helpful” information about these religious folk, interpreting for everyone how their expertise may assist them at this crucial juncture. He continues with speculative language, this time in the optative mood. “It may be that he would tell us that Phoebus Apollo is greatly angry,” line 64. Anger. It takes one to know
one. We tend to see in others what is present in ourselves, even if we never actually realize or recognize our own trait. Homer tells us that Achilles’ wrath is the theme of the epic, but we really
haven’t seen it yet. All we have seen is Achilles' cynicism and desire to embarrass the commander-in-chief. We have witnessed the wrath of Agamemnon, the vengeful anger of Chryses, and
the offended anger of Apollo. Now Achilles wants to help us understand this anger of Apollo.
Then he goes into more detail. Just as he knows the various kinds of religious professionals, so he also has knowledge of the various reasons Apollo might be angry. Perhaps it is because he
finds fault with a vow or prayer. Perhaps Apollo is angry because a hecatomb (literally, a sacrifice of “a hundred” sheep or goats) has been given improperly. It would have been too much even for
Achilles in this line to mention what he probably truly had in mind--’perhaps because a commander has offended the divinity!’ But that will come. Achilles can bide his time on that one. Now he only
wants to confusion and uncertainty. Under the guise of knowledge, he simply brings uncertainty. How helpful is Achilles! He is a regular font of knowledge or of useful information about what might be going wrong at this instance.
But Achilles isn’t done. After mightily offending those in charge, and then trying to shift the topic, he has the gall to end his speech on a hopeful note. Yes, people then as well as in 2020 want(ed)
to believe that things aren’t quite as bad as they at first seem. So, Achilles holds out hope in lines 66-67. Perhaps “he (Apollo) desires to partake of the fat of perfect lambs and goats and, in some way, ward off destruction from us.” Lattimore has the catchy phrase “beat the bane aside from us.” Achilles uses a word here, antiao (translated as “partake”) that should stick in the craw of Agamemnon. Recall that when the lord of men insulted Chryses, he did so by saying that the daughter would “share his bed” with him, far off from the fatherland (30-31). The word
“share” is also antiao. One could almost feel the triumphant spite in Agamemnon as he spat out the word antiao to the girl’s father in line 31. Now Achilles turns the word on Agamemnon. Share and share alike. Achilles has skillfully used the word that heightened Agamemnon’s wrath earlier and connected it with the divine realm, with what the god wants. But the kind of sharing that Achilles has in mind will necessarily lead to Agamemnon’s not being able to share the bed with his prize of war again.
Achilles doesn’t want a direct confrontation with Agamemnon--yet. He wants to make sure that he lines up his support before taking on the lord of men. So, having mentioned seers, a seer will speak. Perhaps Achilles had already recruited a seer just for this occasion. In any case, in the next chapter we will meet the “seer, priest or interpreter of dreams,” line 63.