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                                     15. Calchas Responds, I. 92-100

Then the peerless seer took heart, and spoke to them, saying:

"Not for a broken vow, or a missed sacrifice, does he blame us,

but because of that priest whom Agamemnon offended,

refusing the ransom, refusing to free his daughter.

That is why the god, the far-striker, makes us suffer, and will do so,

and will not rid the Danaans of loathsome plague,

until we return the bright-eyed girl to her father,

without his recompense or ransom, and send a sacred offering

to Chryse; then we might persuade him to relent."

The most overlooked lines in the Iliad are the transitional statements between speeches. They are, in “epic-speak,” formulae or formulaic statements. They tell us, for example, that swift-footed Achilles answered or the blameless priest spoke. What is interesting to me about them (line 92 in our passage is one) are the many words for “speak” that this requires. Line 92 introduces us to audao, but previous to this we have Iissomai (beg, entreat--line 15); epeuphemi (shout in agreement--line 22); phemi (speak--lines 33; 43); metaphemi (speak--line 58); eipo (say, speak--line 68); agoreuo (speak in assembly, say--line 73); meteeipo (say--line 73); prosphemi (respond; say--line 84); apameibomai (reply, answer--line 84). Ten different verbs--and this is in the first hundred lines! It is as if Homer draws on all the permutations of words denoting speech to vary his approach.

Checking out these Homeric verbs reminded me of an experience I had more than twenty years ago, when I was on the Board of Directors of a large community college. One day I was planning to visit the college president, and I announced my presence to his secretary. She was working on the minutes of our last meeting, and my eyes fell on her work. She had two things on her desk; her shorthand notes and a typed sheet. The typed sheet gave her all kinds of different ways for people to say things. “Then she observed,” or “In turn he responded,” or “The President intoned,” or “A board member commented. . .” I was amazed as I looked at it. This was “formula speak” in the twentieth century, but it functioned to keep the minutes as lively as our meetings. I thought of her as I now read Homer, just as I thought of Homer when my eyes fell on her page. I wondered for a fleeting moment whether all of life can be reduced to formulaic phrases. I concluded, thankfully, that it couldn’t, but that formulae play a larger role than we might imagine in greasing the skids of good communication.

Well, Calchas took courage, as he was urged to do, and “the blameless seer spoke.” Just as I had a stamp collection as a boy, I could see how you could begin your own "epithet collection" as you read Homer. We have another here--a “blameless” priest. The word amumon to describe him consists of what grammarians call an “alpha privative” and then a word that means “blame,

reproach, disgrace.” Its original meaning was a “brand” that someone might set on a person or animal. The alpha at the beginning, then, negates or takes away the force of the following

letters. He is a “blameless” priest. It functions similarly to the English “un.” A person may have a blemish; if we attach the prefix “un,” we have “unblemished,” or pure.

                                           What the Priest Says At First (93-96)

His speech, like many Homeric speeches, is brief--eight lines--but it packs much into it. Arresting at first glance is athreefold appearance of the word “not” (93, 95, 97). We recall that in Achilles’ oath to Calchas he used the word “no” or “not” twice (86, 88). In all five of these instances the negation word is the first word of the line. Something very negative is happening, even if people will try to couch what they say in positive terms (“Iwill protect you”; “Agamemnon is responsible”). The presence of so many “no’s” here indicates to me that Homer is revealing not just a contrarian streak in these two individuals, but a concerted effort to try to change the course of events as the Greeks confront their difficult situation at Troy. But there is also something very practical that is happening. When you hear the word “not” five times in twelve lines, you begin to think you are surrounded by a bunch of nay-sayers. I think the cumulative effect of all these “no’s” underlies Agamemnon’s seething rage beginning in line 101. 

Calchas begins by establishing his prophetic credentials. In line 93 he makes sort shrift of Achilles’ two possible explanations for the disaster (see line 65), using identical language as Achilles. Then, the explanation of what went wrong comes in line 94. It is as clear as heaven’s pavement. The plague and devastation is “because of a priest, whom Agamemnon dishonored.” We already know this from lines 11-12, but now the authoritative divine spokesman tells us it is true. But he goes on. He speaks the way later rhetorical handbooks will instruct youth to speak. He first tells you his whole point in a few words, and then he unpacks that point in the next two lines. The unpacking is helpful for three reasons: to make things hyaline, to remind us of what we have read, and to close the interpretive gaps that inevitably open in our minds as we take in more and more information. The older I get the more I respect writing and speaking that can close off unnecessary interpretive forays that listeners or readers might make. Keep your audience’s mind focused. Don’t let it wander. Calchas could write the book on that one.

The basic point, then, is that Agamemnon dishonored the priest. The words “dishonor” and “priest” ought never to occur in the same line of poetry, but they do, in line 94. Whenever that happens, you know you have trouble. And, the word “Agamemnon” appears as an unholy third thing on that same line. Calchas now has no hesitation in naming the culprit. He then continues with his explanation:


     “He (Agamemnon) didn’t release the daughter and didn’t receive the ransom.”


Presto. Clear.The statements are clearly balanced, as neatly and equally weighted as justice’s scales. He is saying, ‘All you had to do was to let the girl go and receive the compensatory money.’ He doesn’t mention that the ransom was either shining or infinite, as Homer had done previously. Every extra word is excised so that we can starkly see the transactional nature of what was avoided. There just had to be a swap. That is all. Disasters of all kinds in human life can be avoided if we just attend to simple things. But so many other things seem to get in the way, seem to prevent us from doing the smart, and easy, thing. Calchas’ words make us wonder if many conflicts in life can so easily be solved. . .

He continues with his dazzling clarity. “Because of this, the sharpshooter has given griefs,” line 96. Ok, explanation given. But then he adds, chillingly, “and will continue to give (more griefs).”

It is, as Kirk says, “brilliantly disquieting in its implications for the future,” Op. cit., p. 63. In those three Greek words are an entire world. In them are the “all our woes” of Milton or the unrest and

disquiet of Job. Everyone is angry here, and everyone seems to be giving warnings to each other. In these words, then, is a most dire warning. ‘You can expect all these griefs to continue.’

                                                    A Way Out (97-100)


Like any good preacher or religious leader, however, Calchas holds out hope. In fact, the most hopeful thing in the next four lines is the twofold appearance, where only one is strictly necessary, of the word prin, translated “before” or “until.” The two prins potentially reverse the malefic effect of the “no’s.” Apollo won’t drive off the plague until the girl is given back to her father. Well, much more needs to be said than these bare words. Now Calchas embellishes his spare words from the

previous lines. The verb translated “drive off” in line 97 is the  very powerful verb apotheo, which means to “thrust away” or “drive away” or “repel.” It stands in quite some contrast to the word describing the coming of the plague. There it was simply said that Apollo “gave” the plague. Now there is the hope that he will “thrust it away.” “He giveth and then thrusteth away. . .” But this won’t happen, this “shameful ruin” won’t be thrust away until..until. We are waiting. Until what?

He answers this question in lines 98-100 by effectively using three epithets, tmesis and a statement of how much the delay has cost the Achaians. First, the tmesis. We recall it is a device by

which, in this case, a verbal prefix is separated from the verbal idea. Here it is “give...back” (domenai...apo), though the “back” comes first in the Greek text. But the beautiful thing about this

example of tmesis is that its splitting “surrounds” an arresting epithet for the father, Chryses. That is, Calchas says that the plague won’t be thrust away until (you) give back to the dear

father. . .(his daughter). Let me pause on that simple word “dear” or “beloved” (philos). No one seems to translate it; neither Wyatt nor Lattimore nor Butler. I began to wonder for a second if I was

seeing things, since it is so clear to me that she is to be given back to her “dear father.”


Then, Professor Ian Johnston saved me. “Give her to her beloved father..,” is how he renders it. Bravo. The reason I applaud that translation is that, though the word may be a stock epithet, it is especially touching here. Recall that Chryses is a priest but that he had to come to Agamemnon

hat in hand, so to speak, as a suppliant father. Here Calchas, though sharing a similar profession with Chryses, recognizes that the fundamental transaction that needs to be completed is to

restore a daughter to her father. But, as if to emphasize the humannature of the transaction, he stresses that it is her “dear father” to whom she is returned. That one little word creates pictures in

our mind. We see a daughter and father united, fillets of Apollo lying apparently lifeless on the ground as father and daughter embrace and weep. She pledges that she will never again leave

her father; he says through tears that he never again wants to lose her. They heave in each other’s breasts, realizing how fully enfleshed they are, even though dad does nothing all day but deal

in spiritual things. That is what that little word “dear” does to me. But translators, by and large, ignore it.

Something else is happening here. The apo and domenai surround the “dear father.” It is almost as if we have a bower created, a sacred and protected little private place between the giving and back, where the beloved father dwells. But whom does Agamemnon need to give back? A second epithet follows: “the bright-eyed maiden.” That one word, helikops, captures her: she is alive. That one word connotes aliveness, brightness, spunk, energy, beauty, spirit, joy of living. Ah, but Agamemnon has to give this kind of girl back to her beloved father. The beloved father, in fact, is waiting. We see in this epithet not only a brief description of the girl but of the tension it will create in Agamemnon, who doesn’t want to give up such a sprightly thing.

But giving her back is the cost of averting further destruction. And, Calchas isn’t quite finished. Two more things remain. The girl has to be given back “without money and without price.” These two words, both formed from alpha privatives, stand at the head of line 99. The first, apriaten, is formed from the verb priamai, which means to buy or purchase. Thus, she will have to be returned “without price.” Quickly, without even so much as an “and” to connect the words, we learn that she will be returned “unransomed.” We have seen apoina (ransom) previously on more than one occasion. Now with the alpha (really an "an" because apoina begins with a vowel) at the beginning of the

word negating it, we know that she is to be given back without any ransom. Thus, by delaying the return of the bright-eyed girl, the Achaians squandered the shining and glittering ransom that

caught the eye of the soldiers. You have to pay a penalty for delay. It is the obverse of “$20 online and $30 at the gate.” You pay for delay. You had a chance, and you didn’t bite. So, the price

goes up.

Then, there is one other thing that the Achaians would need to do. They would have to lead a “sacred hecatomb” (literally a hundred animals, but probably just a great number) to Chryse, the home of the priest and the temple of Apollo that he labored over.


                                                    The Result?

All of this has to be done. But even if it is done, they aren’t assured of complete success. Like a spiritual director guiding a novice who wants assurance that God will bless her if she completes the training program, Calchas only says that in this way the Achaians might win over the god. “Then perhaps we might appease his wrath and persuade him,” line 100. The verb is placed in the optative mood, the mood of wishing. It is as if Calchas is saying, “Let’s hope for the best by doing all this.” But, if they don’t do what he says, the message is crystalline and was said in line 96. Apollo will continue to “give” more griefs to the people.

So, we have an explanation, clear and concise. Calchas not only explains a problem but lets people know what they must do in order to extricate themselves from their difficulty. But even if all things are properly done, it is still the god that must decide whether to turn aside the destruction. But they simply can’t keep doing what they have been doing. It will lead to further disaster. Calchas has done his work, and he will, as Achilles before him, sit down. But up pops another person, Agamemnon, and he will have loads to say, as the next essay shows.

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