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26. The Scepter and the Oath, I. 233-244
"But I say true, and swear a solemn oath
See this staff, that will never leaf or sprout again
now it is severed from its mountain branch,
doomed never to be green again, stripped by the bronze adze
of its foliage and bark, now borne
in their hands by the Achaean judges
who defend the laws of Zeus: I swear, on this, a solemn oath to you,
that a day will surely come when the Achaeans, one and all, shall long for Achilles,
a day when you, despite your grief, are powerless
to help them, as they fall in swathes at the hands
of man-killing Hector. Then you will feel a gnawing pang
of remorse for failing to honour the best of the Achaeans."
First, the Scepter
We are later told (XXIII.568) that a speaker in the assembly held a scepter given him by one of the heralds. Thus, the scepter is symbol of authority to speak. Now Achilles holds that scepter and swears a most solemn oath. It takes Homer one and a half lines to get to the oath (233-234):
“But I say to you and swear a great oath upon it. Indeed, I swear by this scepter"
We have seen that little word ma (234), used in the most solemn oaths, when Achilles swore by Apollo that he would protect Calchas (86). Achilles wants that same kind of utter seriousness to attend his words. Enough for now of the bitter rancor, the vituperation, the screaming sarcasm. Now we have the sober and irreversible oath.
We won’t get to the oath for several lines. In order to increase its intensity of the oath and add to the dignity of the scene, Homer first gives us five lines about the scepter that Achilles holds. Though these lines describe what one might call the “natural history” of the scepter, they fall somewhat flat in trying to solemnize the occasion. Thus, in my judgment, Homer’s first attempt at “simile-like” writing fails. Let’s go through it so that you can see if it “works” for you.
Achilles will swear by the scepter. No longer will leaves and branches grow on it, and since indeed it first left the stump in the mountains, it will never sprout again. That is the first thought. Then, he has another thought. Literally (235-239):
“The bronze (axe) stripped it of its leafs and bark, but now the judges among the sons of the Achaians carry it in their palms. These are the ones who observe the laws of Zeus"
A vivid and vigorous Homeric historical reference or simile takes an object, usually in nature, and uses it as an illustration to clarify the situation at hand. As bees swarm around their nest, so the Achaians swarmed around their leaders. As ants in their serried rows built up their houses, so the Achaians reinforced their trenches. Or, using a historical reference, something that was useless then becomes useful now; or was used one way then is used another way now. You now get the idea. The key to a simile is the connection, sometimes apparently unlikely, between the object and the situation. But what is the connection here? Is he trying to say that the useless wood is now useful? No, not really. He is just giving us a natural history of the scepter. But he doesn’t take the opportunity to use the image for any strong purpose. I could have seen him playing on the “dead/life” contrast. I would have said something like this:
‘ 'As the scepter, which was once a sprig of a vibrant
tree, high in the shadow-throwing hills, and which
drew its life from the verdant plants and ever-flowing
streams but which, by the labor of diligent men,
seeking out a symbol of living authority, was cut
down and became lifeless, apparently never to return
to life again; yet, it, when taken up by a member of
the assembly, brings that assembly to life and presides
over the most important act of a gathered people. ..
So Achilles picked up the scepter and swore his most
Well, maybe I can be an epic poet in my next life! Thus, his digression on the scepter doesn’t really work. But, no matter. The focus of Achilles’ words will now be the oath. He states it plainly: “This will be (my) great oath to you,” line 239.
The Oath (240-44)
These lines begin with a “sometime” (pote). Let’s pause for a second on pote. We so often see this little word in Book I. It is called an enclitic particle and stresses indefiniteness of time. I think the characters in Book I use it so often because it goes well with threats and dreams, both of which suffuse our book. Some day one will get three or four times the reward. Some day we will destroy Troy. Some day you might find a dagger in your back. We all live in the “some days” of our lives, and if we truly think how much of our lives is spent dreaming about things, we understand the Iliad.
The little word occupying the center of line 240 is the key to the five lines: pothe. Thus, we have “pote..pothe,” an alliterative pair separated only by “for Achilles" (240-241):
“At some time a longing for Achilles will come upon all the sons of the Achaians"
The word “all” is enjambed on line 241. Could he possibly mean “all”? Is he looking at Agamemnon when he says this? It might have been enough if he had just ended the thought with “the Achaians” without specifying “all,” for the word “Achaians” would have left Agamemnon some interpretive wiggle room (‘all of the other Achaians,’ for example). But no. Sympantas (all) is here. Agamemnon is included in the future longing for Achilles.
What is this longing, this desire, this love, even this regret? It will be a desire to have Achilles present, a regret at having treated him so badly, a yearning for his strong spirit and inspiring and
inspiriting presence. The Achaians will need this in that indefinite future, a future that is, in the next line, described with laser-sharp precision. One day many will fall dead at the hand of “manslaying”
or “murderous Hector.”
Ah, now we are talking about something completely different. This isn’t just a quarrel between two of the “big” Achaians. It now slops over to a person we haven’t met and won’t really meet for a few books, Hector, the hero of the Trojans. Achilles continues (243-244):
“You (singular) then will tear out your heart in grief/ anger, when (you realize) you in no way honored the best of the Achaians"
The verb translated “tear out” (amusso) means to "scratch, mangle, lacerate, tear." It is a rare word in Homer, and its rarity strikes us hard in the midst of all the traditional terminology and imagery (oaths/scepters). The emotional overtones of the passage are enormous. Not only has Achilles spent himself in vitriol, but now he expresses the great yearning they will have for him. One might score him for being arrogant, criticize his anger, berate him for his insults to the established authority, but you can’t say that he is unaware of himself and what he brings to the Greeks. He will put the lie to Agamemnon’s blithe words of 173: ‘Run along home...we can do well without you.’ In fact they can’t, as the sad tale of the Iliad narrates.