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31. A Softer Side of Achilles, First Essay, I. 326-351
With this stern command, he sent them on their way,
and unwillingly the two made their way along the shore of the restless sea,
till they came to the ships and huts of the Myrmidons.
They found Achilles seated by his black ship, by his hut,
and it gave him no pleasure to see them.
Seized by fear and awe of the king,
they stood silently;
but he in his heart knew their unspoken request, and said:
‘'Welcome, heralds, you ambassadors of Zeus and men,
approach me. You bear no guilt, only Agamemnon,
who sends you here for Briseis.
Come, Patroclus, divinely born, bring out the girl,
and hand her to these men.
If ever there is need of me to save the Greeks from disaster,
let them bear witness to this before the blessed gods,
mortal men and that shameless king.
His mind raves destructively, indeed, and he fails to look behind him
or foresee what might save his Achaeans in the coming fight beside the ships."
At this, Patroclus obeyed his order,
and leading fair-faced Briseis from the hut,
handed her to the heralds, who returned beside the line of Achaean ships,
with the unwilling girl. But Achilles
withdrew from his men, weeping, and sat
by the shore of the grey sea, gazing at the shadowy deep;
and stretching out his arms,
passionately, prayed to his dear mother:
Many students of the Iliad connect the “command” narrative in lines 318-325, where the heralds were instructed to get Briseis, together with the “performance” narrative in 326-51, where they actually come and take her away from Achilles. But I am splitting my consideration of them primarily because I want to focus on the character of Achilles. He is the most interesting person in this part of Book I, and the dramatic shift in his attitude from the first 300 lines to these lines is highlighted if we look separately at the “performance” narrative. In this and the next essay chapter, we will see a number of things: (1) the taking away of Briseis (326-51); (2) Achilles’ invocation of his mother (352-63); and (3) the narration of Achilles’ trouble (364-92). Each scene is presented with
scrupulous artistic care by Homer; let’s listen in as we follow his thoughts.
Taking Away Briseis (326-51)
Agamemnon lays the command on the heralds in line 326, and they are already on their way in line 327. Like the heavenly king of the Bible, Agamemnon spoke and it came to pass. Yet instead of simply narrating a matter-of-fact story of Achilles’ turning over Briseis, possibly with objection, ridicule, etc., Homer paints a brilliantly evocative scene of domestic life, personal struggle and relinquishment. We see emotion--in the heralds, Achilles and Briseis--but we also see what I call the “softer” side of Achilles, especially as he greets and addresses the heralds. And Homer
describes all this through spare and suggestive language that is characterized by rich adjectives and vivid verbs.
We first see the heralds going along the sea towards Achilles’ place (327). Two details immediately catch our attention. First, they go “unwillingly” (aekonte). They don’t possess the overweening pride and hubris of Agamemnon, who no doubt would have appeared with a flourish and show of strength. Instead, they realize the difficulty of what they are called to do. It is similar to military people who must inform loved ones of the loss of their son or daughter in a theater of war. They have to do it, but they wish they didn’t have to. Second, Homer shows us the heralds as they are walking along the “barren” or “unfruitful” (atrugetos) seashore. This image does two things to the reader. It both establishes a mood and it recalls an earlier sad figure trudging along the seashore, Chryses, after Agamemnon had rudely rebuffed him (33-39).
The mood established is one of pensiveness, foreboding and gloom. The barren or polyphloisboisterous (see line 33) sea is the dominant force here, even though the men are the ones on their mission. The single word “barren,” like the earlier “much-echoing,” sets a tone for this scene much as the steep and majestic peaks of Wyoming frame the entire story in Brokeback
Mountain (2005) or the constant fog, chill and wind surround the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon in The Widow of St. Pierre (2001). We feel the scene and see the lonely heralds on the way to their task. And, we recall the laborious gait of Chryses as he walked away from Agamemnon. All his emotions and words seemed to be swallowed by the dominant sea, even though Apollo heard his prayer.
Thus, we are now in a pensive mood as we accompany the unwilling heralds towards Achilles’ tent. Well, they get there, and they find him (329). But a little note of relief or even humor then rises, as we realize that we have an enjamed word in line 330. The enjambed word is “sitting." Yikes, this is interesting and not a little amusing. We expect to see Achilles accoutered, perhaps ready to tackle the men, to oppose them, at least to be on his feet in a defensive or vigilant posture. But, instead, he is simply sitting. So the flow of the sentence is: “him they found in his tent alongside the black ship....sitting.” The first time he appears in the narrative he “stands,” line 58. He has been standing and sitting since then, but mostly standing. . .
You sit only if you aren’t scared or if you are taken by surprise. In this case, Achilles isn’t frightened. But Homer is quick to add that Achilles doesn’t like what he sees. Instead of saying that he was troubled, the narrative says that “Achilles was not rejoicing” to see them. In this clever litotes Homer has used the verb getheo, employed previously by Nestor to describe the “joy” of the Trojans were they to hear about the conflict of the big guys (255). But now the word denies to Achilles that same joy. Not only is there no joy in Mudville; there is no joy in the Achilles’ camp.
The scene then shifts from Achilles to the heralds. They stood there, “being terrified of and honoring the king,” line 331. Note that the first verb is in the aorist tense, while the second is in the
present. They stood terrified and continued to honor the king. Note also that they are the ones with the commission from the real king, the lord of men, yet Homer has them quake before this king. Perhaps they know who the real authority is in this situation. In legal speak, Achilles is the one with de facto authority, while they have de jure authority. They spoke not a word. It is almost as if they felt they were treading on sacred ground or were in the presence of such a superior and “better” being that they simply “froze” or were at a complete loss for words.
Achilles noted their discomfort and graciously broke the ice. They should be the ones in control and completely comfortable, but he is the one who senses their discomfort and saves their embarrassment. We see a different Achilles here. He isn’t just railing irrationally at the lord of men; he considerately receives the messengers, and he cares for their needs. Achilles shows subtlety in addressing them (334):
“Heralds, messengers both of gods and men"
But, are they really messengers of gods? They are only there in their role as Agamemnon’s heralds. By stating first that they are sent by the gods, Achilles is, as it were, dispersing their authority and
trying to get them to adopt an alternative construction of what they are about. about. These words are calculated to destabilize them, to play with their minds, to make them doubt, perhaps, their own role in the matter. How, they think for an instant, are we the “messengers” of “the gods”? Then, if this isn’t enough, Achilles gives them a brisk command: “Come closer,” line 335.
Gulp. Closer? To the man whom we reverence? To the quickest “draw” in the “West?” To the man who now speaks the language of gods as well as men? Maybe, to use the excited language of
the romantic poet John Keats in his poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the men looked at each other “with a wild surmise.” What could be happening here?
But Achilles doesn’t let them stand there without an explanation of his words. He quickly puts them at ease by saying that he isn’t upset at them but at Agamemnon. Agamemnon is “blameworthy” here (epaitios--literally “the superior cause”). The line is so brief yet so vivid. In removing them from the blame, I am reminded of Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ last moments, where the philosopher removed blame from the one announcing to him it was time for him to drink the hemlock. I wonder whether Plato, in describing Socrates’ last moments, wasn’t letting his imagination play a bit by reflection on these words from Homer. Homer may have provided the literary “grist” for Plato’s wonderfully imaginative mental “mill.”
Even though Achilles willingly gives up the girl, he needs to say something else. He speaks the words of someone who is establishing evidence or erecting a verbal monument to a great cause. It is a sort of “mark my words” statement. “You yourselves are witnesses,” he says, “before the blessed gods and mortal men and before a harsh king,” 339-340. Note the use of the words "harsh
king” to describe Agamemnon. They are all the more significant since Homer has just described Achilles as the “king.” Who is the real authority here? Well, Achilles wants them to call this experience to mind if ever in the future he is asked to turn away a plague from the Achaians. He will, as it were, call the “cruel king’s” servants to witness against the king who sent them. He is, in the language of law, changing them from hostile to friendly witnesses.
Taking Briseis (343-351)
Achilles isn’t quite done. He says that Agamemnon rages in his “accursed mind,” line 342. The lord of men can’t see either before or behind him or how to help the Achaians fight safely alongside their ships (343-344). Homer’s prologue told us it would sing about the accursed (oulomenen) wrath of Achilles; here Achilles is saying that Agamemnon’s mind is afflicted by that same “curse” or “bane,” even though he uses a slightly different word to describe it. The God of the Hebrews is worshipped because: “thou dost beset me behind and before,” Psalm 139:5; here the lord of men doesn’t know enough to look “behind and before him,” line 343. The first duty of the king is to keep his troops safe. Agamemnon isn’t doing this very well.
Thus, even as Achilles receives the heralds kindly and removes their discomfort, he certainly wants to reframe their narrative, so to speak, by putting a new spin on what they are doing. It is all Agamemnon’s fault; they are not responsible. Yet, they are witnesses, and they will be called to witness in the “case” Achilles will make against the lord of men when it becomes evident to all, and not just to Achilles, that Agamemnon can’t tell his ass from his elbow as his beloved people continue to perish.
The actual taking of Briseis happens quite rapidly and almost anticlimactically. Often, the lead up to a hugely important event is played up while the actual act is described with unemotional rapidity. It took the author of Genesis several verses to describe the temptation scene in the Garden of Eden but only a part of a verse to describe Eve eating the fruit (Genesis 3). So here, the heralds are led by Achilles’ “beloved” (philos) companion Patroclus to the girl, they take her, and they go with her alongside the Achaian ships.
Then emotions flow. She goes “unwillingly” with them (348). The word used, aekousa, is the same word used to describe the unwillingness of the heralds to make their journey to Achilles (327). People come and go unwillingly, yet the will of the king happens. For his part, Achilles withdraws far off from his companions, sinks to the earth, bursts out in tears, looks out into the boundless sea, stretches his mighty hands in the direction of that sea, and prays/curses/invokes (the verb araomai in 351 means all three) his divine mother. Each of his actions helps vivify our picture of Achilles, and each might call for comment, but to be noted here is, again, the role of the sea in all of this. Even as lines 349 and 351 describe Achilles’ actions with vigorous participles and verbs, line 350 slowly stretches out the description or scene of the action. We are again on the seashore, that place of cursing, regret, weeping and polyphloisboisterous waves. Homer gives us two, and not just one, descriptions of this sea--”the briny sea and the boundless sea” (different Greek words for “sea”). Which is the more real actor here, the succession of people whose lives happen alongside the sea, or the sea itself, which seems to obliterate almost all action that happens on its shore? As if to heighten the tension in this question, Homer then turns to Achilles mother, who lives in the sea, whom Achilles now addresses.