(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
14. Achilles’ Assurance to Calchas (84-91)
Swift-footed Achilles spoke in reply:
"Courage, and say out what truth you know,
for by god-beloved Apollo to whom you pray,
whose utterances you grant to the Danaans,
none shall lay hand on you beside the hollow ships,
no Danaan while I live and see the earth,
not even if it’s Agamemnon you mean,
who counts himself the best of the Achaeans."
Achilles rises to Calchas’ defense in his hour of need and, in this passage, swears most solemnly that no one will lay a hand on Calchas as long as he, Achilles, is alive. But the way that
Achilles gives his assurance is striking and memorable. Calchas had asked him for a simple declaration. Though the verb phrasai in line 83 can be translated either as “tell, declare”
or “consider,” the context here suggests that Calchas is not asking just for Achilles to “consider” whether he will defend him but actually wanting him to declare, right now, unequivocally,
whether he will stand by Calchas.
Achilles gives one line of response before his answer. That line (85) acts as an exhortation or encouragement to Calchas. “Take courage and speak the oracle you know. . .” Many grammarians point out that the first word (tharsesas), an aorist participle, is best rendered, “put on courage” or “take heart.” It is an “inceptive aorist,” where the translation should emphasizethe inception or beginning of an action. “Put on your courage, Calchas,” is the flavor of it. The little word mala stands between the “courage” and “speak,” and I deliberately left it untranslated. It means “exceedingly” or “by all means.” In its location I think it refers to both its neighbors. Thus, Achilles is exhorting Calchas to put on “extreme” courage and “by all means” tell us. When you urge someone to do a difficult task, from learning how to ride a bicycle to writing a dissertation proposal, you sometimes
need to encourage with intense language, to supply as it were their lack of courage or faltering spirit with your own strength. Calchas has the knowledge but not the strength. Achilles supplies
the latter so that the former may flow.
The Oath (86-91)
Achilles then provides a long and rather complex oath in 86-91, but the gist, as indicated above, is crystal clear. He will protect Calchas. But let’s follow some of the labyrinthine twists of the words. At first I was taken aback by the initial words, for literally they are “certainly no...” or “no surely...” or even “not surely.” One might think at first that he is denying his support. But no; read on. The “surely” is a special adverb only used in oath swearing contexts. The one by whom you swear is then put in the accusative case. So, the first five words of line 86 literally read, “No, surely, by Apollo beloved of Zeus,..” But rather than declining to swear to protect Calchas, Achilles is only saying these words to get “warmed up” as it were, and the rest of the oath or the actual content of what is sworn will come a few lines below. In the meantime, Achilles has to ‘load up’ the oath he is
about to say, to put it in the right formal context, so that the full weight of it might mantle itself on Calchas’ shoulders.
“Not certainly, by Apollo beloved of Zeus...” Then we learn a bit more about this Apollo. ‘By him, you, Calchas (who me? Yes you!), through your prayers reveal oracles to the Danaans.’There are three words to describe the Greeks in the first 100 lines of the poem--the Achaians, Argives and Danaans. Check any commentary and it will give you a long explanation of how these rather localized words came to stand for the whole bunch of Greeks. I can add nothing to them. Achilles is thus swearingby the god whom Calchas knows and serves. By thus swearing Achilles also recognizes the province and power of Apollo. Apollo sends plagues. Apollo reveals his will.
Now that we have that straight, we can return to the oath. Line 88 picks it up. We begin again with “ou,” which is “no” or “not.” Thus, Achilles is continuing the thought from line 86. But the second word of line 88 begins to clear things up. The little word tis means “someone.” Thus, we have, when combined with ou, “no one...” Now we are getting somewhere! But rather than just plunging ahead to the oath, he has to insert another parenthetical clause, this time in the genitive absolute, which talks about himself. It says, “While I live and see the light of day. . .” The last phrase literally is “while I see upon the earth.” In twenty-first century English we would say, “while I walk (on) this earth..,” but the Greeks use a verb of seeing here, rather than of walking. A picture is beginning to emerge. “No one, as long as I live. . .” Will do what?
We have to go to the end of line 89 to find out what he will say. No one shall “make his hands on you” or “lay his hands on you.” But line 89 has two epithets that ought not be ignored. Achilles swears that no one will lay “heavy hands” on you near the “hollow ships.” The word for heavy, bareia, has come into English in words such as barometer or barometric. A barometer is, literally, “an instrument for determining the weight of...the atmosphere,” OED, s.v. But in the last 30 years we have developed another context in which the root bar is used—in surgery to take off excess weight. Bariatric surgery, also called “gastric bypass surgery,” takes off" weight. What was once a moral issue in American life (“you can just learn to diet and exercise and take off that weight!”), is increasingly being seen simply as a medical issue that, like most medical issues, is to be handled through the twin medical towers of drugs and surgery.
Well, back to the Iliad. No one, Achilles says, will lay heavy hands on you by the hollow ships. We ran into the word for hollow (koile) in line 26; now it is repeated. There is a certain suggestiveness in placing “hollow” and “heavy” in proximity. “Hollow” suggests that the ships, now, are rather useless, lying there by the shore. “Heavy” brings with it the notion of danger and threat. The things that are supposed to keep you safe, the ships, are lying there useless while the hands are heavy. But no one “of all the Danaans” (90) will lay heavy hands on you while I, Achilles, live and see the light of day.
A Gratuitous Slam
The oath is finished by the time we get through the first half of line 90. It is a clearly and intensely said. Calchas now has his assurance. But then Achilles just won’t stop. He has to put in another dozen words, and in those dozen words we see the animus that he bears towards Agamemnon. He has already insulted Agamemnon when he suggested that it might be time for them to leave Troy (59-60). But the assault here is more direct and implacable. Even though he has completed his oath to Calchas he adds the following words (90-91):
“not even if you might mean Agamemnon, who now
boasts (himself) to be by far the best of the Achaians"
Just by chance--you might mean Agamemnon. Are these characters winking at each other? They know what the score is. Agamemnon has dishonored Apollo’s priest. Even if everyone didn’t see the act of ignominy, everyone has heard of it by now. This kind of spite travels through the troops in parallel course and equal speed to the plague that ravishes them. It provides the occasion for jokes and stories. “Did you see his face when Agamemnon said X!?” “Did you see the way the priest did X to save his daughter!?” Everyone can connect the dots, but you need a religious official to give you the definitive interpretation. Everyone knows that the wicked witch of the East was killed by
Dorothy’s house, but you need the coroner to trill his 13-second death notice in unforgettable words in order for her to be “really most sincerely dead.”
Thus, the four words at the end of line 90 would be enough to tell us that Achilles is issuing a gratuitous slam. GS Kirk, a great classicist of the last generation, talks about the “cumulative addition in which insult lies,” Op. cit., p. 62, and he and I are completely on the same page. But then, Achilles doesn’t stop at the end of line 90. It was a natural break. ‘I will protect you against all comers, even if it happens to be Agamemnon..’ But he has to continue. This Agamemnon is one who thinks of himself as by far the best of the Achaians.
Achilles’ tone in saying these words rests almost completely on how we interpret the verb euchetai in line 91. Again, as with many other words in the Iliad, it has a rather wide linguistic reach. It can mean “pray, talk loud, boast, exult.” Lattimore translates the line, “who now claims to be far the greatest of the Achaians.” Wyatt has it, “who now declares himself far the best of the Achaians.” Other translations are less incendiary. Samuel Butler’s nineteenth century translation has “who is by far the foremost of the Achaians.”
Kirk recognizes that the problem is in the ambiguous nature of the word euchetai. He says:
“For euchetai, although it usually implies a justified claim, made in accordance with what Leaf (an influential nineteenth century interpreter of Homer) termed ‘a naive consciousness of position,’ as in Nestor’s flattering reference to Agamemnon at 2.82, can also suggest a dubious boast as at e.g., 20.102,” Ibid.
But we need not extend our nets so broadly to come up with an appropriate translation of euchetai here. The word has just been used in line 87 by Achilles to describe the earnestness of Calchas’ prayers on behalf of the Danaans. Calchas, by praying, reveals the divine oracles to the Danaans. Euchetai, then, is the word describing professional competence or expression. A priest prays, euchetai (the participle is used in line 87). In line 91 the word is used of Agamemnon. “He euchetai to be by far the best of the Achaians.” In the context of Achilles’ unnecessarily spiteful reference to Agamemnon in the previous line and his undercutting of Agamemnon’s authority in lines 60-61, we are on good grounds for translating euchetai as “boast” or “claim for himself” or “profess loudly.” Since Achilles has already set the tone of subtly trying to undercut Agamemnon’s authority, we should take this line and use of the verb in that same way. Translate it, then, as another way to undercut Agamemnon. The word, however, is skillfully selected so that, if necessary, Achilles
might claim the high moral ground if Agamemnon should accuse him of disloyalty.
We are entering the world of high drama, and Homer neatly shows us how communication, arising from deep feelings, breaks down. Before we witness that, however, we must hear again from Calchas.