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                    32. A Softer Side of Achilles, Second Essay, I. 352-392

‘Since you bore me to but a brief span of life, Mother,

surely Olympian Zeus the Thunderer ought to grant me

honor; but he grants me none at all.

I am disgraced indeed, by that son of Atreus, imperious Agamemnon,

who in his arrogance has seized and holds my prize.’  

Tearfully, he spoke, and his lady mother heard him,

in the sea’s depths, where she sat beside her aged father.

Cloaked in mist she rose swiftly from the grey brine,

and sitting by her weeping son caressed him

with her hand, and spoke to him calling him by name:

‘Child, why these tears? What pain grieves your heart?

Don’t hide your thoughts; speak, so I may share them.’ 

Then swift-footed Achilles sighed heavily and spoke:

‘You must know; why need I tell the tale to you who know all?

We sacked Thebe, Eetion’s sacred city,

and brought back all the spoils,

which the Achaeans shared out fairly between them,

choosing the fair-faced daughter of Chryses for Agamemnon.

Then Chryses, the priest of far-striking Apollo,

came to the swift ships of the bronze-clad Greeks

to free his daughter with a rich ransom,

bearing far-striking Apollo’s ribbons on a golden staff,

and begged her freedom of the Achaeans,

chiefly the Atreidae, leaders of armies.

The Greeks called out their wish,

to respect the priest and accept the fine ransom,

but this displeased Agamemnon,

who sent him packing, and with a stern warning.

So, angrily, the old man returned, and Apollo,

who loved him dearly, heard his prayer, and fired

arrows of evil at the Argives. Then men

died thick and fast and the god’s darts rained

down on the broad camp. At last a seer

with knowledge uttered the archer god’s true oracle. 

I was the first to urge them, there and then, to propitiate the god,

but anger gripped that son of Atreus, swiftly he rose

and threatened what now has come to pass.

Bright-eyed Achaeans in a fast ship are bearing the girl

to Chryse with offerings for the god; while heralds have taken

from my hut another girl, Briseis, my prize from the army, and led her away.


                                                    Calling On Mom (352-63)

Homer limns a picture of the hardened warrior, brave enough to stand up to the lord of men and threaten him with dismemberment but now weeping pitifully before his mother. He invokes her with words that assume that he has a steady or regular relationship with her, even though this is the first time we have met her. Just as the Iliad  begins in medias res (“in the middle of things”), so this prayer or invocation of his mother is “in the middle” of their relationship. We struggle to put together the pieces of that relationship or of what has been said and promised in the past as we listen to Achilles’ words. The theme of “filling in the gaps” of the past will take us all the way through line 412. Achilles will not only refer to his own limited lifespan (352), but to stories that his mother no doubt told him about her life in heaven (400ff). We struggle to hear all the things said and not said as they are wedged between the muffled sobs and salty tears. Kirk adds that the tears are not so much because he “missed” Briseis but because Achilles was dishonored. He may be right, but how does he know?

We are dropped into the midst of Achilles’ life story, the details of which we only learn in IX.410-16, to the effect that Achilles at one time had the choice either of a short but glorious life or a long life without glory. He chose the former, and the result of that choice is reflected in his plaintive cries to his mother (352-354):


     “Since you bore me for a short life, it ought to be the case that Zeus the

    thunderer (this title is enjambed) owes me some honor"

Yes, his complaint makes perfect sense. He was given a choice. He chose a short life with honor. So the natural question is, where is the honor? Oh, no, we think. Perhaps the gods are going to play

an interpretive trick on Achilles. It is not that he won’t get honor; indeed, the gods don’t lie about things like that, but it might not be the kind of honor that Achilles was expecting. Rather than a

constant experience of being honored, which Achilles no doubt believed was his once he made his choice, the gods might have intended that he only achieve honor in the manner of his death or

in the last moments of his life. Oh, no. That is terrible. Perhaps Achilles, then, will have to live a life, in general, not too much different than the life of no honor, except that he goes out in a blaze of 

glory. All these hermeneutical possibilities lie behind his heartfelt and plaintive words to his mother. He wonders. Shouldn’t Zeus have granted me some honor by this time? But, the truth is sadly stated (354):

    “Now he does not recompense me even a little.”


Instead of honor, Achilles has dishonor. How is that fair? His blubbering voice continues, and it takes him an entire line to name the culprit (355-356):

     "Indeed, the son of Atreus, wide ruling Agamemnon…dishonored me" (“dishonored” is        enjambed).

The enjambed word means that the sound of “dishonor” reverberates over and over into the crashing sea. Then, he stretches the truth, even as he pushes his pathetic narrative yet further (356):

     “For he dragged off my prize, he himself took (her) away"

Other scholars, confused at the apparent reference to Agamemnon’s personal act of taking her away, when the previous narrative had obviously said that only the heralds of Agamemnon

did the dirty deed, try to “cover” for Homer by translating the intensive (“himself”) as “of his own arbitrary free will,” Pfarr, Homeric Greek, p. 136. But we have no need to try to make Homer “consistent.” As long as we see this from the perspective of human psychology it is eminently explicable. Achilles wants sympathy from his mother. He has felt the violation of the taking of Briseis as much as if it had been a personal deed done by he lord of men. Thus, both to get sympathy and to express the personal affront he feels, he says that “he himself” (Agamemnon)

took her away. You don’t have to quibble over the precise truth when you are in tears calling on your mommy.

Homer doesn’t want us to forget that Achilles is weeping. So, for a second time, he tells us that he spoke, with tears flowing (357). The mother heard this plangent cry while she was sitting in the depth of the sea by her father Nereus, the “Old Man of the Sea.” Like son like mother--both sitting. We don’t yet learn her name, nor are we really given a good explanation about what she is doing at the bottom of the sea, but the hearers, no doubt, would have known about her. Just as Apollo responded immediately to Chryses’ prayer by coming down from Olympus with anger in his heart (44), now Achilles’ mother answers immediately (karpalimos) by coming up from the sea. She is

described as emerging like a “mist” or “vapor cloud.” Just as we pictured Apollo screaming down the mountain, quiver banging on his shoulder, so we envision her shooting up from the sea, breaking the placid surface, like a James Bond-movie “mermaid” emerging from the depths.

As expected by now, she sits (kathezeto) next to him while he is weeping his eyes out (third reference to his tears--360). She gently caresses his hand and addresses him by name. She asks two questions and gives two commands. Even though Homer tells us in a few lines, through Achilles, that she already knows everything (as a goddess), she still asks him why he weeps (362):


     “Child, why do you weep?”


Maybe, as a good parent, she is asking him not because she doesn’t know but because she wants

to make sure he knows. Her second question is a slight variation on this: “What grief/pain has come upon your heart?” The word rendered grief or pain is one we have seen previously--penthos--

when Nestor talked about the penthos that had come upon the Achaians through the quarrel (254). Anger and grief, interspersed with speculation about Trojan joy; those are our themes so far.

She doesn’t wait for an answer, but she simply gives two commands (363):


     “Speak up, don’t hide things in your mind, so that we might both know"


A palpable air of urgency grips his mother.

                                        Responding to Mom (364-392)


Achilles, in answer to his mother’s question, narrates the story told so far in the Iliad. Though the temptation is strong just to breeze through or even ignore Achilles’ narration of the story, because many of his words mimic word for word the earlier narrative, Achilles tells the story with a few twists that ought to be noted. Two things about his opening lines are noteworthy. First, as if we need a further reminder, the text tells us that he “groaned heavily” before answering his mother (364). Surely, he is vexed almost beyond endurance by all of this, and especially by the dissonance he feels between the promise of glory with short life and the reality that he faces nothing but dishonor. It truly is something to groan about.

Second, he begins his words with a simple, “You know,” line 365. Like a good goddess, mom knows the answer to her question even before he responds. Again, he asks, “Why should I speak all these things to you, when you already know them?” Not waiting for a reply, he promptly speaks “all these things” to her! In lines 369-379 the author (or the reciter of the poetry) gives us near

verbatim words taken from the first 35 lines of the Iliad. It is none-the-less true for being a truism--that you don’t really know your own story until you tell it, even if the words are exactly the same as told by another. It can become yours, either through the supplementary words you add, the tone of your delivery, the intensity of the words, the way that other stories might later be conflated. It is not just a common story; it is Achilles’ story. The story of Haiti’s grief after the earthquake of 2010 will be a common one, but each person who suffered will have that common as well as a personal narrative.

So, Achilles doesn’t wait for an answer. He simply proceeds, but, interestingly enough, he begins his story before the Iliad begins. He takes us back to Thebes, the sacred city of Eetion (366), which the Achaians utterly sacked. They brought all their prizes from Thebes to Troy with them. Then, the sons of the Achaians made a just distribution of the goods among themselves (368), choosing Chryseis of the lovely face for Agamemnon. We don’t really know to what extent Achilles’ narrative so far is credible. We already have seen him stretch the truth when he said that Agamemnon came in person to take Briseis (356); perhaps he stretches the truth here regarding his democratic theory of prize distribution. Does Agamemnon seem to be the type of guy to wait around while his lunkhead troops decide which young girl to give him? However, it helps Achilles’ case to claim that the Achaians gave the spoils; indeed, this is his primary argument for allowing Briseis to be reclaimed--if the people reverse their vote. With line 370 Achilles’ begins his direct quotations from

earlier sections of the Iliad. Apart from the use of chalkochitonon (“with bronze tunic”) in line 371, added to fill up the line, the next eight lines quote primarily from lines 11-16 and 22-25.

Achilles skips the speeches in the early parts of Book I. Then, in line 380, he begins to compress the earlier narrative. He mentions the two following items: (a) how Apollo responded to the priest’s

prayer, bringing destruction in his wake (380-384; mirroring 43-52); (b) how Calchas spoke, with Achilles then rising to urge appeasement of the god (384-386; mirroring 68-100). Achilles exercises selective memory here, though, and he enhances his role in things. Indeed, he had suggested going home, and only then Calchas had prophesied. To Calchas, however, belongs the suggestion of appeasing the gods (100). Achilles is not really telling things as they took place; he is giving himself too much credit. Then, as he goes on, his story of Agamemnon’s anger and threats, the return of Chryses and the carrying off of Briseis (387-92) summarize the gist of the next few hundred lines in the Iliad.

One other tiny point deserves mention. When Achilles told the story of Chryses, and how Apollo heard his prayer, he adds one little nugget not often commented upon: “since he (Chryses) was especially beloved to him (i.e., Apollo),” line 381. All we are told earlier in the narrative is that Chryses prayed and Apollo heard (43). Achilles embellishes with this just-quoted thought.

Why might he do that? Because he has an agenda. He wants another god/dess (his mother), who loves a human (him) to respond in obedience to his prayer. If Apollo answered prayer for

his beloved, why wouldn’t Achilles’ mom do it for her beloved? Thus, in addition to adding heart-tugging details to his story, such as Agamemnon personally stealing his prize, or all the Achaians

awarding him his prize, he makes an appeal to his mother’s pride. She wouldn’t let her beloved son down, would she? If Apollo answered his priest, certainly she would answer her son. Now that he has narrated the past events in his own way, we are ready for Achilles’ request to her. Despite reference to love on his lips, revenge is in his heart--as the next essay will show.

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