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25. The Scepter and the Oath, First Essay, I. 215-244
Then swift-footed Achilles, in answer, said:
‘Goddess, a man must attend to your word,
no matter how great his heart’s anger: that is right.
Whoever obeys the gods will gain their hearing.’
So saying he checked his great hand on the silver hilt,
and thrust the long sword back into its sheath,
obeying the word of Athene; she meanwhile had left for Olympus,
for the palace of aegis-bearing Zeus, and rejoined the other gods.
But, angered still, the son of Peleus,
once more turned on Atreides with bitter taunts:
"You drunkard with a cur’s mask and the courage of a doe,
you’ve never dare to take up arms and fight beside your men,
or join the Achaean leaders in an ambush.
You’d sooner die. You’d rather
steal the prize from any Achaean
in this great army who contradicts you.
Devourer of your own people you are, because they are weak,
or else you, Atreides would have perpetrated your last outrage."
I divide these 30 lines into two essays. This one (215-232) focuses on Achilles' verbal attack on Agamemnon while the second (233-244) discuss the story of the scepter and Achilles’ oath for
the future. Several of the lines are memorable and the pictures vivid, especially when Achilles expresses his vitriol at the king or speaks about the great longing that will come over the people
for him in the future. Some lines, however, are pedestrian. In my judgment, the attempted simile of the scepter really doesn’t “work.” This entire section prepares the way for the entry of a senior
figure, Nestor, to try to mediate their dispute.
Achilles’ Obedience and Athena’s Disappearance (215-22)
We are not a little taken aback by Achilles’ alacrity in response to the intervention of Athena. She tells him to put away his sword; she tells him to reproach Agamemnon; she promises
a threefold benefit for obedience. Rather than questioning what she might mean by the benefit, how it might come to pass, or how she was going to forestall Agamemnon from his reckless
course, Achilles simply complies with her two commands. First, in these lines, he puts away his sword. Then, beginning in 223, he upbraids Agamemnon.
Perhaps Achilles is more aware than Agamemnon of the importance of not angering a divinity. Thus, he compliantly says (216-217):
“It is necessary (chre), goddess, to observe the word of you two (Hera and Athena), rather than being continually angry in spirit.”
The word translated “observe” had a long and winding history. In the active voice eruo or eiruo means “to draw or drag.” Using this verb, one can drag the bodies of dead around the field or drag
something off for plunder. In the middle voice, it takes on the notion of drawing (one’s sword) to one’s side or launching ships. I suppose the latter means that if you draw a ship for yourself,
you launch it. When you draw a sword for yourself, you protect yourself. This notion of protecting, guarding, or observing captures the way the verb is used here. Achilles obeys the word of Athena.
The word is also used later in this passage (239) to emphasize the laws of Zeus that the Achaian judges “guard.” Achilles ends his words with a line (218) that doesn’t strike us as very “Achillean.”
It is a gnomic utterance, a proverbial expression:
“For the gods especially hear whoever obeys them.”
Now we have Achilles, master of sage comments. All of this sounds a little wooden here, but Homer has backed himself into a bit of a literary corner by quickly exacerbating the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. The acrimony became so fierce so quickly that only some kind of deus ex machina, a sort of contrived divine appearance, had to save the day. To finish the mini-story--If the goddess commands obedience, you need to obey. Then there are two other things that happen, the sign of obedience and divine disappearance. We have the first here and the second in lines 219-22.
We have one more word for “saying” to add to our growing list. “He spoke,” 219. The word is simply e, pronounced “a,” and is from emi. It is easy to confuse this with the interjection that we render “surely” or “indeed.” So, he obeys, thrusting his sword back into the sheath, not being disobedient to Athena’s word. By the way, the rhetorical device where you have an affirmative idea expressed in the negative is called litotes. “He was not disobedient.” “We were not a little concerned.” By stretching out the thought, it allows the reader to slow down and concentrate on the picture created.
Athena then disappears as quickly as she came. “Olympus-ward she goes” to join the other divinities who, as we later learn, may already be on an Ethiopian vacation.
Achilles' Verbal Attack (225-232)
A somewhat transformed Achilles now takes center stage. Even though he put away his sword, we are told that he didn’t restrain his anger (224). The word for “restrain” or "desist" or "cease" (lego) will play a significant role in the Iliad. Its first appearance, in line 210, was when Athena commanded him to “give up” or “cease” his strife. He does so, by sheathing his sword, but he doesn’t really check (lego) his wrath. This will be the $64,000 question throughout the Iliad: Can the man of anger, Achilles, ever really give up or check his rage? What does it take to give it up? One might be able to restrain oneself from plunging a sword into your commander-in- chief, but how do you put away wrath? It is the huge personal and psychological question of the Iliad.
Even though Achilles turns immediately to abusing Agamemnon, we don’t know how to translate the word atarterois in line 223. It modifies the “words” he speaks. The big Liddell-Scott dictionary initiated the confusion when it gave two meanings, mischievous and baneful, that seem to have little to do with one another. Thus, the modern translations range from “violent words” (Murray/Wyatt) to “words of derision” (Lattimore) to “the son of Peleus began again railing..” (Butler) to “harsh abuse”
(Johnston). Is it sarcasm or bitterness? Well, we don’t really know, but immediately he addresses Agamemnon with three derogatory insults: “drunken sot; dog-eyed; and stag-hearted,” line 225.
We should pause for a moment on those terms of abuse because behind them is really a question of interpretation of conduct. Agamemnon might be a drunken-sot (literally, “heavy with wine”) but this, from the “pro-Agamemnon” perspective, might simply be an expression of his hospitality with the troops. He always has wine available. We have already heard Achilles describe him as “dog-eyed,” line 159; now that is repeated, though with slightly different words. Reference to a dog might suggest Agamemnon’s shameless and intrusive sexuality; it might suggest an interest in offal and stench. But, from the perspective of those who defend Agamemnon, it might just be a sign of his
thoroughness and his enjoyment of his prize. Finally, the phrase “stag-hearted” or “with the heart of a hind” suggests cautious timorousness. The last insult brings to mind Shakespeare’s famous insult in Macbeth (V.iii):
“Go prick your face and hide your fear in a red face/ You lily-livered boy”
But, then again, one person’s cowardice is another person’s rightful caution. Achilles continues the barrage in the next seven lines. Very effective is the literary distance between two “no’s” or “never’s” at the beginning of successive lines (226, 227) and the verb of the sentence (enjambed in 228; “have courage in heart”). We are waiting..waiting to learn what negative thing he is going to say
about the king. Then we learn it; he has no heart. But sandwiched in between these words is another insult. As Kirk says,
“Achilles’ next insult depends on an interesting contrast between ordinary warfare with the whole laos (people) involved, and the lochos, composed only of nobles,” Op. cit., p. 77.
Agamemnon doesn’t put on the thorax-protector (literally), in battle nor does he go into ambush with the “best" of the Achaians. From Achilles perspective, this looks like an expression of wimpishness, though those defending Agamemnon would no doubt attribute this to laudable restraint. You just don’t put Robert E. Lee on the front line if you want to win the wars in the long run. Achilles ends the thought with a blisteringly brief sentence: “For that seems to be death for you,” line 228. I have previously noted the way Homer both stops the action and makes us ponder by placing pungent clauses or sentences usually at the end of speeches. “Restrain yourself, obey us,” line 214; “So you
would be safer,” line 32; “Speak, if you will keep me safe,” line 83. He does that here, too.
In summary, he is accusing Agamemnon of assessing the risks of battle and deciding that he would rather preserve his life than become a heroic figure. But what does Agamemnon do when the other
brave warriors are out in battle? He devises schemes to walk along the wide camp of the Achaeans to steal their gifts/prizes of whoever might speak against him (230). How brave he is!
Over the Top
The cumulative weight of the Achilles' insults and the cowardice and craven acquisitiveness of Agamemnon sends Achilles over the edge in rancor. He closes with a flourish (231-232):
“O people-devouring king, you rule over worthless
people; otherwise, son of Atreus, you would have
reviled for the last time"
Agamemnon encouraged Achilles to return home to Phthia to rule over the “ant-people” (180); now Achilles is returning the favor. The word translated “worthless” really carries with it the notion of having no beauty--out idanos. The king gulps down the people, but they are ugly anyway. Reference to the king literally as a “people glutton” (demoboros--231) is especially crude because more than one of Agamemnon’s ancestors engaged in cannibalism or offering their own sons to be eaten. In fact Pelops, who gave the scepter that Achilles will talk about presently, also is known for offering up a banquet of two of his grandsons to his son Thyestes. So vivid was this story in the classical world that when the early Christians were accused of being cannibals (they “ate” the “body of Christ”), the formal nature of the accusation was that they engaged in “Thyestian banquets.” Achilles is saying, ‘You are just continuing the family tradition of eating people.’ And, there is one more point to make on this word “people-devouring.” Recall when Achilles was wistfully describing his homeland,
Phthia. He called it the “nurturer of heroes” (botianeira--155). What a contrast. Achilles’ country nourishes or nurtures heroes; Agamemnon actually consumes them.
Some scholars, such as Kirk, read demoboros as suggesting that Agamemnon consumes the “property” of the people. Yes, of course. Let’s lower the temperature of the insult. Certainly Achilles
wouldn’t want to offend as much as I suggest. The meaning of the last line (232) seems to be that because Agamemnon rules over such low-life people, his life is spared. He is simply an insignificant person, despite the fact that he is the “lord of men. . .”