(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
2. An Overview of the Iliad Book I
Book I begins in human rage and ends in divine laughter. The rage isn’t stanched, and the laughter won’t endure, but the action of Book I happens between the emotions of rage and delight. The Iliad opens in the ninth year of the ten-year Greek siege of Troy. From the perspective of hindsight we know that the Fall of Troy was imminent but, from the perspective of those engaged in the action, the war might have stretched out for decades to come.
Homer is a brilliant narrator of war’s course because of his rich descriptions, psychological insights and ability to present a complex conflict through the eyes of a few leading actors. In our century
we tend to see war through its grand strategy, movement of large numbers of troops, technological efficiency and the impersonal forces of battle. Homer, on the contrary, personalizes
everything. We have the Greek commander Agamemnon, for example, indirectly bringing a plague on his people through mistreatment of Apollo’s priest; we have a bitter rivalry between Agamemnon and Achilles; we have anger arising over who gets to keep his prize of battle. War for Homer seems to be nothing more than the long, extended shadow of human and divine emotions. Interestingly, an increasing number of historians, in writing of past conflicts, tend to look more at the intimacy of human interaction, rather than the story of "grand strategy" to tell their story. Very Homeric of them. . .
To The Story
As I turn to a brief summary of Book I, I do so realizing that there are already many accessible online summaries of this book. Reading several, including this one, should whet your appetite for a detailed study. Here goes. . .
After a seven-line prologue, where the author highlights the devastating anger of Achilles, we move directly and quickly to the action. Homer’s first question, in line 8, is quite unexpected. He
asks, “Which of the gods brought the two of them (Agamemnon and Achilles) into conflict?” By posing the question this way we see that Homer assumes a world that is quite foreign to ours—
where divinities regularly not only intervene in human affairs but just as often take sides in the conflict. Abraham Lincoln might have said, with respect to the Civil War, “Both sides read the
same Bible and pray to the same God,” but even he interpreted the divine activity in war as a mystery before which one should humbly fall silent rather than the activity of a motley collection
of Olympians to be invoked and played off against one another.
The gods play an important role for Homer in war. And, we get to one of the gods right away because Chryses, the priest of Apollo, comes to Agamemnon with gifts and a request that his daughter, who was taken by the Greeks in an earlier raid, might be released back to him. Agamemnon roughly rebuffed the request, and the priest uttered a prayer to Apollo to take vengeance on the Achaians. Apollo quickly complied, and by line 52 we have stacks of Achaian corpses burning by the sea. Action can happen incredibly quickly in the Iliad.
Consternation arises after nine days of plague-ridden disaster. Achilles muses about returning to Greece but then asks if there is a prophet who can say why this disaster has come upon the Achaians. Calchas arises but, before he gives his interpretation of events, asks Achilles for support if he should interpret the destruction in an “anti-Agamemnon” fashion. After Achilles pledges support, Calchas simply asserts that the plague resulted from Agamemnon’s insulting of Apollo’s priest, Chryses. Naturally Agamemnon is livid, and he continues to throw his weight around in a thoroughly unimpressive manner. For about a hundred lines he and Achilles go back and forth against each other as the veneer of civility and honor is dropped because of Achilles’ pique at fighting a “private war” (i.e., Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, was trying to recover his wife, who had been stolen from him by the Trojans) and Agamemnon’s anger at Achilles’ unwillingness to submit to him. Tensions escalate until Athena, visible only to Achilles, intervenes and warns him not to take out his wrath on Agamemnon.
Achilles complies with her request, but he continues to berate Agamemnon unmercifully. We wonder if there are any cool heads among the Achaians. There is one, Nestor, and he now rises
to give some perspective on their quarrel and to encourage them to lay aside their anger. His central point is that there is room for both heroes in the Achaian army: Achilles is the strongest,
but Agamemnon, as commander, is the mightiest.
After Nestor’s neat and powerful speech, Agamemnon recognizes Nestor’s authority but then returns directly to the conflict with Achilles, threatening to take Achilles’ prize of war (Briseis)
if he, Agamemnon, is forced to give up his prize (Chryseis) to avert the plague. A stalemate ensues, and Agamemnon orders Achilles’ prize be taken.
Another Kind of Intimate Action
The intensity of intimate antagonism now gives way to other lines of intimacy and enormous beauty, as a heart-broken Achilles retreats to the sea to call upon his mother, Thetis. She
lives at the bottom of the sea with Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea. Achilles relates the story of the action thus far and pleads with Thetis to go to Zeus on Olympus to do a terrible thing. The
terrible thing? Have the King of the Gods side with the Trojans and turn the tide of the battle against the Achaians. This is actually an act of treachery, but Achilles is so consumed with grief both at the dishonor he faced (his prize being taken) and the confusion about the nature of his life (short but honored) that it seems the proper course for him. Thetis, ever the compliant mother, vows to go to Olympus to try to turn Zeus against the Achaians. Homer then gives us a sixty-line “interlude” as Chryseis, Agamemnon’s prize of war, is returned to her father Chryses. A Greek expedition, led by Odysseus, returns the girl, and the grateful father prays that Apollo’s darts against the Achaians would cease. Apollo heard the prayer, we are told.
When the main action resumes, we see Achilles sitting by the ships, eating out his heart in grief, refusing to go into the places of glory because of the hurt he has suffered. With this as a
backdrop, we then see Thetis ascend to Olympus, take the knees of Zeus in one hand and the chin in another, and make her divisive request. Zeus, aware of the political realities on Olympus (Hera and Athena are “pro-Greek” divinities), does nothing. Thetis repeats her request, and Zeus finally nods in assent. Meanwhile, Hera had been watching this from a distance, and she then approaches her husband, Zeus, and lays into him. She suspects what is in fact the case, that Thetis’ blandishments have won over her husband so that he would oppose the Achaians.
The conversation between Zeus and Hera quickly heats up, and it is likely that it, too, would have gotten out of hand had not Zeus threatened her in no uncertain terms with violence if she kept up
her accusations and complaints.
In the midst of this potential rift in heaven, we read the final scene of Book I. Hephaestus, the son of Hera, quickly intervenes to try to mend fences between the disputants. He tells Hera to
yield to Zeus’ wishes, because all the rest of the Olympians are powerless to stand against him. She acquiesces in his request. But Hephaestus’ clumping around (he is lame) and his attempts
to mend fences among the Olympians make his mother smile and the other gods laugh. They laugh at his clumsiness, even though he has been the one who averted the fight. Hephaestus also knows how to put on a good party, and the laughing gods now settle into a banquet of food and drink, with entertainment provided by Apollo on the lute and the Muses with their antiphonal chorus.
After this relaxing and exuberant celebration, each of the divinities retreats to his or her respective palaces to sleep. The book closes with Hera, who formerly was at loggerheads with Zeus, tucking
herself into bed next to Zeus. All seems to be harmonious in Olympus, even as all Heaven, as it turns out, is just about to break forth on earth.