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Agamemnon’s Turn, First Essay (I. 101-108)
When he had finished speaking, Calchas sat down,
and Agamemnon, the warrior, royal son of Atreus, leapt up
in anger; his mind was filled with blind rage,
and his eyes blazed like fire.
First he rounded on Calchas, with a threatening look:
"Baneful prophet, your utterance has never yet favoured me;
you only ever love to augur evil,
never a word of good is spoken or fulfilled!"
Our first encounter with Agamemnon was anything but encouraging. You recall (lines 28-32) his five-fold insult of Chryses the priest when the latter approached the Achaians with staff of Apollo and infinite ransoms. That insult may reflect a long history of negative dealings between Agamemnon and Chryses. The passage for today suggests it. But, in any case, the stinging rebuke to the priest tells us that emotion, rather than reason, is guiding the Achaian troops at the highest levels. The constructions in that earlier passage, a double negative (me) with a prin, is reminiscent of the five negatives (ou) and two prins in the recent conversation between Achilles
and Calchas (86-100). Something will not happen until a certain result takes place. That kind of speaking style grips speakers on both sides so far.
The twenty lines of Agamemnon's speech (101-120) can be divided into four parts. First is the
description of Agamemnon (101-05); then is his berating Calchas (106-08); third is Agamemnon’s over-the-top dismissal of his wife in favor of the captured girl (109-15); finally, under the guise
of magnanimity, is his demand for a replacement prize (116-20). You would think that with such orderly and logically-arranged speeches you would get a corresponding logical thought pattern.
Describing Agamemnon (101-05)
Down sits Calchas, up pops Agamemnon (101). No delay here. But then we slow down. Just as it takes the QE II more room to turn in the bay than it takes Luigi’s Tug, so it takes Homer lots of time to describe this most puissant, dominant and regal figure of the Achaians. He does so in line 102. The first word that Homer uses to describe him is heros, “hero.” It means that--a hero, savior, mighty warrior. Agamemnon came by his position honestly, i.e., he has “earned it” in battle. But the words rumble on. He is the “son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon,” line 102. Line 1 introduced us to “Achilles son of Peleus,” and so we have a sort of parallelism here, except that two additional
epithets (hero, wide-ruling) are attributed to Agamemnon. It is as if Homer is saying that we have equals who are facing each other, even though Agamemnon is a little more “equal” than Achilles.
Then, we have an enjambed word in line 103 that continues the description of Agamemnon. It is followed by a stop, a semicolon. Thus, like the trilling ball’ of Apollo’s arrows in line 52, which made us stop and imagine the arrows fly, we have one further word to describe Agamemnon, followed by a pause.
Not unexpectedly, it is another word for rage or anger, achnumenos. But like many words in Homer, it defies precise definition. It is usually translated “grieved, vexed, enraged,” though “grieved” is the most appropriate translation for many of the appearances in Homer. Both the online Chicago Homer Project and the text of the Iliad in Perseus Digital Library say that it is derived from acheuo, though Cunliffe's 1924 Dictionary of the Homeric Dialect says it comes from achnumai. Same meaning, though. Behind the verb is the simple noun achos, which always in Homer suggests a mental pain or grief. Though the OED tells us we may get our word “ache” from the Greek agein (to draw out, hence a “dragging” pain), it seems that “ache” most naturally comes from achos.
In order properly to render achnumenos in 103, we must read it in context. Well, we are back to anger, meneos, with the next word, after the semicolon; it is the same word that kicks off the epic in line 1. So, I will translate achnumenos “greatly vexed” or “angered.” We hear about this broad-ruling ruler, the hero, and he is greatly angered. The poet pauses, we gather our forces and wait for more. Indeed, if we were listening to the poem being recited and we simply heard the word achnumenos, we might be uncertain of how to render it. We simply would have to hold our judgment until we hear more. More there is. Much more. English translations of 103-04 give us a glimpse:
“the heart within filled black to the brim with anger
from beneath, but his two eyes showed like fire in
their blazing,” Lattimore;
“and with rage his black heart wholly filled, and his
eyes were like blazing fire,” Murray/Wyatt.
It is the most piquant description of rage to date in the Iliad. A few observations beckon. First, the word modifying “heart” is derived from amphimelas, which literally means “black all around.” Thus, a beautiful picture is created. Just as Apollo mantles around Chryse (37), so Agamemnon’s anger
surrounds his heart. Just as the thigh parts are offered to the gods, surrounded by layers of fat, so Agamemnon’s heart is encased in a covering of blackness. Second, the word mega, which means
the same thing in Greek and English, is an adverb modifying both his anger and his heart. It reaches both ways: a greatly blackened heart and greatly angered. Homer couldn’t have said it with more passion. Then, the word pimplant, translated “fill up” is an enjambed word on line 104.
Perhaps the hearer was expecting something softer or less extreme. But we don’t have that. We have a heart surrounded by anger, filled to the brim with it. Picture struggles with picture to capture the all-encompassing nature of Agamemnon’s wrath. Then we have a picture of his eyes. Later in the book, when Athena appears out of nowhere on the scene, we first meet her eyes, but here it is Agamemnon’s eyes that are the author’s focus. And, indeed, isn’t that often how you determine a person’s “temperature” or inclination towards you? His two eyes were “like unto” a burning lamp. Recall earlier how the coming of Apollo was “like night,” line 47. So here we have a brief simile, too brief in fact to be classified as a “Homeric simile.” We have an Agamemnon who is streaked with colors--black and red. “Black and Red, fight team fight..”
A transitional line then follows. He will address the most recent speaker, Calchas, and he does so by casting evil eyes in his direction. He does this either “first of all” or he casts “the most unkindest” glance in his direction. The adverb is slightly ambiguous. In any case, we know we are in the realm of the most unbridled emotions as we wait for Agamemnon to speak.
Agamemnon’s Denigration of Calchas (106-08)
Agamemnon dispenses with any customary formal niceties, and immediately addresses him as “prophet of evil,” 106. He states his beef right away. “Never once, at any time, have you given some good (news) to me.” The other side of the coin quickly follows; “always the saying of evil things is beloved in your mind.” Agamemnon uses the same word, translated “beloved” (philos), which was used by Calchas to describe the father of Chryseis, the bright-eyed girl (98). But here he twists it from the positive, emotion-laden context to one that modifies “evil.” It is as if he is saying, ‘You are talking about a beloved father, but let me tell you, I think your words are “lovely” in their
evil.’ But then he carries the criticism one step further in line 108. Not only does Calchas not speak anything good; he never actually can complete or pull off anything.
The final word of line 108 (telessas, from teleo, meaning to “complete” or “fulfill”), stops me short, because the only thing thus far in the Iliad that is said to be “completed” is wrath. Recall the brilliant psychological observation of Calchas when he sought protection from Achilles. He needed it because he knows he will speak something offensive in Agamemnon’s ears, that the lord of men would take offense and that this offense or anger, though tamped down for the moment, would, sooner or later, “fulfill” itself (82). That usage of “fulfill” has disastrous implications. So, as he berates Calchas, Agamemnon chides Calchas for being able to complete nothing. At least anger has its fruition, its completion.
We know the phenomenon. Someone becomes enraged with another person. The angry person berates the other. ‘Not only can’t you get XX right, but you have never been able to do anything right.’ It is the ultimate insult, a paralyzing statement because of the breathtaking breadth of its assertion. It is a statement that you can’t defend yourself against. But Agamemnon is given to extremity of expression. In those three lines we have emphatic words flowing like spring streams: “never at any time,” “always,” “evil,” “never good,” “nor...” His words slash as deeply as any sword. Where are the moderates, the cooler heads, when you need them?
His berating of Calchas is strikingly similar to a biblical story in I Kings 22. The King of Israel was unsure whether to pursue military action. So, he called in one of his court prophets, Zedekiah, who prophesied that the King would plow through the enemy like the horns of iron that he, the prophet, displayed. Not content with this advice, the king called Micaiah, an “independent” prophet. The King asked his advice. Compliant, Micaiah said, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the
hand of the king,” I Kings 22:15. But now the biblical author shows humor that is absent in Homer. The King then said (22:16):
“How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”
In other words, he thinks that Micaiah is just “shining him on.” Emboldened by the King’s seemingly newfound love for truth, Micaiah then said (22:17):
“I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd"
In other words, ‘you are going to get clobbered, King.’ The King immediately responded to the King of Judah also in attendance (22:18):
“Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?”
The Bible goes deeper than Homer here, though the sentiment is the same.