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13. Calchas the Seer Speaks, I. 68-83
He sat down again when he had spoken, and Calchas,
son of Thestor, rose to his feet, he, peerless among augurs,
who knew all things past, all things to come, and all things present,
who, through the gift of prophecy granted him by Phoebus Apollo,
had guided the Greek fleet to Ilium.
He, with virtuous intent, spoke to the gathering, saying:
‘Achilles, god-beloved, you ask that I explain
far-striking Apollo’s anger.
Well, I will, but take thought, and swear to me
you’ll be ready to defend me with strength and word;
for I believe I’ll anger the man who rules the Argives i
n his might, whom all the Achaeans obey.
For a king in his anger crushes a lesser man.
Even if he swallows anger for a while,
he will nurse resentment till he chooses to repay.
Consider then, if you can keep me safe.’
Down sits Achilles. Up pops Calchas the seer. 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 in earshot. 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 they 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 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 “extra-Iliad” 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 interpreted a confusing omen positively before the Achaians came to Troy. Thus, Homer knows, and will later tell us, that Calchas has a respected voice among
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,” line 68. Homer says he is “by far the best” of such people. Birds, because they are closer to the heavens 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, Calchas is not only skilled in this area but he just happens to have his talent, as we are told in line 72, as a gift from Phoebus Apollo himself. 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. So, we are to assume, does
More About Calchas
But before we learn what Calchas actually says to Achilles,we learn more about him. Line 70 functions as an explanatory gloss on line 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 seems 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 genealogy of the gods. He says that the “ready-voiced daughters of Zeus” (the Muses, line 31):
“breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things
that shall be and things there were aforetime"
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 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 shown his prophetic insight in the immediate past, as we are told in 71-72: “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. It possibly refers
rto another incident, not mentioned in Homer. ’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 among the Greeks who may be able to get us out of a developing problem. Agamemnon is already
compromised, and 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)
Calchas has a preliminary point to make. Or, better said, he has a personal need that requires attention before providing the desired interpretation. Before even getting to that need, however,
he opens his first lines in a rhetorically rich and dignified way. “Oh Achilles,” he says, “you, beloved of Zeus, bid me speak about the anger of Apollo, ‘the sharp-shooter king,’” 74-75. 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 that we see in the first line of the Iliad. The cadences are balanced and generous. We are seemingly off to a good start.
Now he gets to his request of 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....” First, however, 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.” In this instance it is a plea for Achilles to recognize Calchas’ situation. “Give heed to me” or “recognize the difficulty I am in..” To what does he want Achilles to swear? “Swear to me (that you are) eager to protect me with words and hands,” 76-77.
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. 540). If you do something “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 uses the same verb of
speculation (oio, in this case oiomai) that Achilles had used in line 59. Achilles had used it to express a faux speculation (‘Hmm. . .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 eventually have as many different words for anger as we do for arrows. Maybe that isn’t an accident.
Well, to whom might Calchas be referring? Eeny-meenyminey- mo.... Oh, wow, it is “The one who rules powerfully over all the Argives, and the Achaians obey him,” 78-79. 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 fears 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. That profession proclaimed 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 runs against the interests of the 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 (81-83):
“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),”
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. It has no natural channel to leave the body. 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, almost cherished.
This remarkably perceptive insight into anger is all the more important given the centrality of the word “anger” to this point in the epic. It is the theme of the whole piece, and now we see that 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 “digested” 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, have to say now, right now, whether or not you will protect me. I won’t speak unless you do...’ What will it be?