(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)

                            24. It Takes a Goddess--Athena, I. 188-214

While Agamemnon spoke, the son of Peleus was gnawed by pain,

and the heart in his shaggy breast was torn;

whether to draw the sharp blade at his side,

scatter the crowd, and kill the son of Atreus,

or curb his wrath and restrain his spirit.

As he pondered this in his mind,

his great sword half-unsheathed, Athene descended

from the sky, sent by Hera, the white-armed goddess,

who loved and cared for both the lords alike.

Athene, standing behind the son of Peleus, tugged at his golden hair,

so that only he could see her, no one else.

Achilles, turning in surprise, knew

Pallas Athene at once, so terrible were her flashing eyes.

He spoke out, with winged words, saying: ‘Why are you here,

daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus? Is it to witness

Agamemnon’s arrogance?

I tell you and believe that this son of Atreus’

will pay soon with his life for his insolent acts.’

The goddess, bright-eyed Athene, replied:

‘I came from the heavens to quell your anger, if you’ll but listen:

I was sent by the goddess, white-armed Hera,

who in her heart loves and cares for you both alike.

Come, end this quarrel, and sheathe your sword.

Taunt him with words of prophecy; for I say, and it shall come to pass,

that three times as many glorious gifts shall be yours one day

for this insult. Restrain yourself, now, and obey.’


                                       Divine Intervention (188-214)


We now have quite a serious tableau before us. What might previously have been attributed to braggadocio now is seen to be deadly serious. No one really has stepped in to call a halt to the

escalating rhetoric between Agamemnon and Achilles. And Achilles continues the spirit of escalation in the next few lines.


The son of Peleus, the text says, became deeply grieved or angered. The word is achos, which I referenced above when talking about another word for anger or grief--achnumenos. It is a deep “ache” in the soul. Just as I argued earlier that Homer’s use of oio in line 170 left Achilles a “divided” man, so we see now really how “divided” he is. In fact, Homer uses the word diandicha ("divided") in 189 to describe the competing pulls on Achilles. His spirit in his “shaggy” or “hairy” breast pondered things in two ways (diandicha). On the one hand he could just take that sharp sword from the thigh and ram it through Agamemnon (190-191).The verb enarizo, translated mostly “slay” or “kill,” actually really means to “to strip a slain foe” or to “despoil someone.”Very appropriate verb, since Agamemnon has just said he was going to strip the spoil of Achilles.

Before we get to the other hand, we realize that Homer has dropped in a little phrase that is easily ignored. Achilles might draw the sword, and “make those around him stand,” and then slay Agamemnon (191). A potentially inviting picture is provided in this little phrase. We see a throng of people, sitting  while Achilles and Agamemnon are facing off with each other, but this throng acts also as a buffer between the two men. The implication of them standing is that it will allow Achilles to “get at” Agamemnon. These infinitely small personal touches to the narrative make for exquisite beauty.

Now, as we labor with Achilles in his choices, we have “on the other hand.” He can slay Agamemnon or he can “cease his anger and restrain his rage,” line 192. The repetition adds nothing except to give us another example of “epic fullness.” It would take saying it twice to calm down such great anger. Well, while he is debating these issues in his heart, mulling them over “in

mind and heart” (193), something almost comical happens. While Achilles draws his great sword, Athena appears. Achilles could almost have intoned Dorothy’s line from the Wizard of Oz: “My!

People come and go quickly here!”

                                                        Athena Appears


We are told, in an enjambed thought, that Athena came...from heaven. Actually she didn’t initiate the contact; Hera did. But Hera doesn’t leave Olympus; she just lives in the clouds. Hera, Zeus’ wife, is on the Achaian side. She has become quite grieved because she loves both of these guys in her heart (there is that word thumos again in line 196; it appears also in lines 193 and 173). She 

doesn’t want to see them destroy each other. In a scene which Kirk describes as “one of the most remarkable of all corporeal interventions by a god or goddess in the Iliad,” Op. cit., p. 74, Athena, standing behind Achilles, and seen only to him, grabs his tawny hair to restrain him (197-198). So unlikely is this that Homer repeats himself; Athena appeared only to him; nor did anyone of the rest observe it (198). Achilles, true to form, was amazed. ‘Who is that tugging on my hair?’ So he turned, saw Athena. The scene is unforgettable (199-200):

     “Immediately he recognized Pallas Athena. Her eyes shone terribly"

Something big is happening here. So far we have seen only one other divine intervention--and that caused countless deaths. Here the intervention will result in avoidance of bloodshed. Well,

who speaks first? When the goddess is standing before you, and no one else sees her, who is expected to begin the conversation? Achilles removes our uncertainly by jumping in right away

(202-05). For the first time in the Iliad we are told that he speaks “winged” words. We also have a new word for “speaking”-- prosaudao, though we had audao previously. Words are “winged”

because they fly out of your mouth like birds and can’t easily be recalled. Achilles asks the normal question. “What are you doing here?” even if the words are framed in a much more “epic” manner (“child of aegis-bearing Zeus..”). Again, the “I-ness” of all of this is apparent. Achilles wants to know if she is coming down to witness Agamemnon’s hubris? Always about the other guy, especially if there is a problem. Then, before waiting for her to answer, Achilles plows on:

     “I will tell you this, and I am pretty sure this will happen; by his pride he will soon lose        his life"

We have another appearance of that ambiguous little verb oio here (which I translated “I am pretty sure”). Now how is he using oio? Is it mere speculation, as at first? The sign of a clear proposal developing, as later? Almost a certainty, as apparently here? We are brought into the uncertainty, the chancy nature as Herodotus would call it, of human activity. I like the verbal picture behind the word simply translated “pride” here. The word is hyperopliesi. Taking it apart we see it is “hyper” or “more than” and “hoplizo” or “arm for battle.” If you “overarm yourself” you are arrogant or insulting in your conduct. Nice.

In the last nine lines of our section, Athena speaks. This is the first time we hear a divinity speak in the Iliad, even though we have witnessed the results of divine action. She is “gleaming-eyed,” and then she speaks. Her words consist of brief, urgent, matter-of-fact observations covered in a patina of incertitude. Everything rests on the three Greek words at the end of line 207, “if you choose to obey.” It is a great little phrase to capture the tension involved in the conflict between divine will

and human freedom. Theologians devote tomes to the subject; Homer gives us three words. I prefer the latter.

Athena explains the purpose of her visit in line 207:


     “I have come to check your anger"


I like the way that Homer has phrased it: “ton son menos,” or “your own anger. The phrase is exactly parallel to “your own prize” in line 185. Maybe there is a connection between the anger and the prize which is only gently hinted at.. She comes “from heaven,” an enjambed word on line

208. Her advice is urgent and to the point. “Put aside your strife; don’t draw your sword,” line 210. This example of asyndeton is much more life-giving than Agamemnon’s wrathful asyndeton of a few lines earlier. Rather, Achilles is to revile him in words. The word translated “revile” is a pretty strong one (oneidizo); it means to reproach or upbraid. It seems to me, writing in 2020 (the first draft of this was done in 2010) that we rarely now use in English any of these three words I have used to translate oneidizo. She isn’t asking Achilles to hold hands and sing “Kumbayah” with Agamemnon. She just doesn’t want the killing to get out of hand.

Her final thought is worth a pause. She not only gives Achilles a command, or strong suggestion, but she coats it with sugar. Carrots and sticks, isn’t that our philosophy of motivation? Well the carrot now is held out (213-214):


     “Sometime in the future there shall be (for you) three times the shining gifts/ransoms          on account of his hubris"

In other words, hang in there; curb your anger; sheath your sword; reproach the leader, and then you will be richly rewarded “one day” (pote). All this may be well and good, but isn’t this precisely the same hope that Achilles gave Agamemnon in line 128? And didn’t we see at that time that Achilles’ words were said with a layer of sarcasm and, probably, insincerity? He had just finished giving a grand gesture and saying, “I don’t see any other prizes lying around here...” And then, “Well, you’ll get paid off big time...” On that occasion the tone and content of Achilles’ words enraged Agamemnon yet further. But now the shoe is on the other foot. Achilles is given this advice by Athena. ‘Just wait for a while. You’ll get repaid threefold.’ Sometimes your words really do come back to haunt you in life.

Next Essay

Previous Essay