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33. An Urgent Plea; A Vow Secured, First Essay, I 393-427
If you have power, come now, to your son’s aid;
ask help from Zeus on Olympus, if ever
you warmed his heart by word or deed.
Often I heard you, in my father’s halls,
claim proudly that you alone of the immortals
saved Zeus, son of Cronos, lord of the storm,
from a vile fate when those other Olympians,
Hera, Poseidon, and Pallas Athene, planned to bind him fast.
Goddess, you swiftly summoned, to high Olympus,
the hundred-handed monster whom gods call Briareus,
and men Aegaeon, mightier than his father Poseidon;
and you saved Zeus from those bonds.
For Briareus seated himself, in his strength, beside that son of Cronos,
and the sacred gods in fear left Zeus alone.
Kneel beside Zeus, and clasp his knees, remind him of that,
in hope he might now choose to help the Trojans,
pin down the Achaeans among their ships,
slaughter them on the shore, so they may reap their king’s reward,
and imperious Agamemnon may realise
his blindness (ate) in dishonouring the best of the Greeks.’
Introduction to I. 393-412
Achilles’ selective and self-interested narration of the events to date now morphs into an appeal to his mother for help. We read the text properly if we understand the deep anguish that now grips Achilles. He has opted for the brief but honorable life of glory, but everything now points to ignominy and shame rather than glory. And also, as if to rub in his face his powerlessness,
Agamemnon has stripped his prize of war from him. Achilles has been told by a divinity (Athena) to sheath his sword; all he seems to have left at his disposal are words--words to belittle, attack
and excoriate Agamemnon. Yet, this just isn’t satisfying to him because it fundamentally doesn’t change his objective situation. He still is without honor in a war that is going nowhere, and he is
humiliated before the troops. And, let us not forget, he has been promised honor.
Homer notes his deep gushings of emotion in his mother’s presence. Three times his tears are mentioned (349, 357, 360); once noted are his deep groans or sighs (364). We read too quickly
or too flippantly if we don’t realize that Achilles is undergoing a profound personal trauma here, a trauma combining the feelings of betrayal and humiliation. It is a most bitter, bitter poison he
And so, in his condition, he calls upon his divine mother. A grown warrior, a heroic male, must feel at the end of his resources to have to call on mommy for help in his moment of need. Thus, added to his sense of betrayal and humiliation is not a small degree of shame. He is now unable to manage his life, and doesn’t know what to do. His bold assertiveness less than 200 lines ago was really the last gasp of an effort to maintain shreds of dignity that were fraying as the confrontation with Agamemnon heated up. No one won that encounter; both sides, one might well argue, lost.
Asking for Mom’s Help (393-412)
With no paragraph break, Achilles now changes the tone of his words to his mother. “But you, you yourself” (393) is how he begins. We are ready for a command. Ah, but he quickly qualifies his words. “If you are able..,” he says. Well, able to do what? “Surround your heroic child.” Though the word periecho is normally translated “protect” or “defend” your son, the very form of the word (the prefix peri means “around,” such as in our word “perimeter”) encourages a translation suggesting
“enveloping” or “surrounding.” She caressed his hand (360); now he is asking for a hug-like defense. “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people,”
Psalm 125:2. ‘Be that for me, mom.’ That is the sentiment. She can do so by going to Olympian Zeus and begging him. Yes, she will need to be a beggar. We have seen that verb previously in line 15 where the distraught father of Chryseis beseeched the leaders and the Achaians to let his daughter go. We also saw it near the end of Nestor’s speech (283). Now, Achilles’ divine mother will have to do the same. But the request will be built on history. Achilles isn’t just asking her to go and make a
wild request, to throw a “hail Mary” pass with no time left on the clock. He wants her to make an appeal based on a past word or deed she might at any time (there is that word pote again;
someone should write a dissertation on the psychological and theological significance of pote in the Iliad) have done for Zeus. In other words, does she have an “IOU” outstanding?
But the language makes us pause and enjoy. Achilles wants to know if there was a time when she “gladdened the heart” (onesas kradien--395) of Zeus. The phrase is unique in Homer. By itself
the verb oninemi means “to help” or “aid.” When Achilles adds that little word “heart” to it, we are in a different realm than a mere economic transaction. People may forget acts of assistance that you give, but they won’t forget a gladdened heart. His use of “heart” shows a skillful manipulation of the vocabulary of deep emotion--a vocabulary which women, frankly, love. Already he has spoken of the priest who was “beloved” of Apollo (381); now he speaks about the “heart.” Surely the newly “soft” Achilles is “softening” his mother’s heart as he speaks.
There is one other tiny thing in line 395 that calls for mention. Achilles says she should approach Zeus if at any time she gladdened his heart “in word”......or.....in “deed.” That is, the word “deed” or “act” is separated from the main flow of the line by two words. It is almost as if it is an afterthought but, as with the most effective afterthoughts, it is the main thought. “Perhaps you have seen Jim.......or...even Tom,” when in fact you know the person has seen Tom and you want the person to reflect on hat meeting with Tom. This is Achilles’ method. He knows that his mother has done some great deed for Zeus, for which Zeus is indebted to her.
His Mother’s Past
We don’t have to listen long for the narration of that deed. It really is a wild and woolly story, one that is reflected nowhere else in Greek mythology. Achilles now tells a story that he often
(pollaki--396) had heard his mother narrate. Oops. Parental stories and boasts come back to haunt divinities as well as humans. What is the story? Achilles recalls the following, beginning in line 396:
“Often I heard you in the great hall of the father"
Then we have an enjambed word in line 397. It is euxchomenes. In two previous instances where this participle appeared (43 and 87), it was translated “praying” or “entreating.” But here it assumes a third meaning: “boasting.” The linguistic reach of the term unexpectedly yields an interesting theological question (“What is the relationship of praying to the divinity and boasting of an accomplishment?”) that can’t derail me here. So, while Achilles was a boy, he heard his mother....boasting....of something. That “something” was that she claimed she was the only one who helped ward off a destructive attack from Zeus when the other Olympians, namely Hera, Poseidon and Athena, wanted to tie him up (397-400). The phrase “ward off a destructive attack” is formulaic in Homer. That is, we see it frequently in Book I to talk about if and how someone might
ward off the baneful plague from the Achaians. Now the phrase is useful to describe what Achilles’ mother apparently did singlehandedly long ago.
We can’t suppress a smile when we read the passage. We can imagine Hera telling the others when and how Zeus might be most vulnerable; we see the others “hanging out” at Hera and Zeus’ place just happening to have inordinate lengths of unbreakable rope in their arms; we see Achilles’ mom watching all these things and planning to foil the plot. Since this story is unique in Homer, we don’t really know if Achilles’ mom is just making all this up or, more probably, whether she just played a minor role in a divine scuffle from long before. We have seen Achilles stretch the truth; I wonder where he learned how to do that?
But Homer doesn’t just pull these three divine names (400) out of a hat. They are the trio most committed to the Achaian victory in the Trojan War. A few lines later Achilles will want his mom to ask Zeus to help the Trojans in the battle and turn the tide of war completely in their favor (409-10). Thus, by mentioning the three “pro-Greek” deities as the ones who were once trying to gang up on Zeus, it will make it easier for Zeus to decide to support the Trojans. He will be “getting back” at the ones who wanted to tie him up (Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad, p. 12, mentions this).
Homer loses a little bit of his famed story-telling abilities in the next few lines. So far we have Achilles’ mom foiling a plot of the three pro-Greek divinities to bind Zeus. Now that changes
a bit. Achilles says (401-402):
“But you yourself (the same phrase as in 393) came, goddess, and undid his bonds stealthily. Swiftly you called the hundred-handed one to great Olympus”
So, did the three divinities in 400 actually succeed in tying up Zeus? Line 401 seems to suggest they did, and Achilles’ mom didn’t really foil a plot before it happened but actually untied the
hapless Zeus. Ok. A little slippage here. But then, there is even more. We are introduced to this fantastic creature called Briareus by the gods but Aigaios by humans. Hesiod tells us (Theogony
617-735) that he was one of three great hundred-handed creatures who fought against the Giants, rather than the other Olympians, as Homer suggests. Much could be said about why a creature
might be known by one name in heaven and another on earth, but I leave that to the Iliad specialists, with the comment that it perhaps reflects a long tradition of different names for the same strong figure. A later systematizer, like Hesiod or someone else, could “solve” the problem of different names by saying that he was known by different names in the different realms of the
So, what did this Briareus do? Well, he was stronger than his father (404), even though the Greek tradition differs on who was really his father. But he sat down alongside Zeus basking in
glory, and the blessed Gods “were afraid of him and didn’t bind him” (i.e., Zeus; line 406).
Now do you see my confusion? Was Zeus bound? And, if so, who unbound him? Why was Briareus called in? I don’t want to go through all the options, but Homer has, in my judgment, become uncharacteristically sloppy in these words. An alternative explanation is that Homer knows exactly what he is doing and wants Achilles to appear to be confused, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this.
In any case, Achilles is now ready to give his specific request to his mother. She is to do several things: (1) “remind him (Zeus) of these things;” (2) then “sit down” (Achilles and his mom do a lot of this), and “take hold of his knees” (as a suppliant); and (3) then ask for something that is tantamount to betrayal of the Greeks. She is to determine (408):
“if possibly he might want to aid the Trojans"
I love the way Achilles words this. That little word ken near the beginning of line 408 gives us the slightest hint of freedom for Zeus to act (“perchance, possibly”), but it is the freedom for him to think for a moment before complying with the request. Yet, we know that Zeus is the supreme god and really can’t be forced. Then Achilles cuts right to the chase and gives specifics. How can Zeus aid the Trojans? (409-410):
“by driving the Achaians to the stern of their ships and the surrounding water [i.e., pinning them between or near the ships and the water] and then killing them”
The verb describing what he wants Zeus to do, elsai, comes from eilo, which means to “confine” or “compress” or “drive” or “crowd.” But the really radical and treasonous idea here is expressed through an enjambed participle on line 410--”killing.” Achilles might have had the desire to drive the Achaians between ship and sea and threaten them, or scatter them or even frighten them. But to pray to Zeus to have his countrymen killed? Well, that shows the depth of despair, confusion and betrayal that Achilles feels. He obviously feels he has nothing to lose. The gods have been false to him (giving promises of glory which they can’t possibly fulfill); the lord of men has it out for him. Nothing good remains for him. Why not act recklessly? He closes this most remarkable request with a note of bravado and defiance. Why should Zeus accede to his request? So that everyone (410):
“will enjoy the benefit of a king"
Whoa! We can read this little phrase in two ways. If the word “king” refers to Agamemnon, then Achilles’ words are most cynical, defiant words. When the fellow Achaians are dropping like flies (and, recall, they already have taken quite a hit), then all will know what a great “benefit” it is to have such a moronic king as Agamemnon. Achilles in his rage and despair will not only want to see his fellow countrymen die, but through this he wants everyone to see that Agamemnon is, in a word, a fool. But what if we took that little word “king” to refer to Achilles himself? After all, he is called that in line 331 where the heralds of Agamemnon are fearful of him. In fact, he is mentioned as a basileus more recently than Agamemnon. If we read “king” as referring to Achilles, we then would read the line consistently with the evocative line 240 where Achilles predicts that some day a great longing (pothe) for him will grip the Greeks. Perhaps this realization of the benefits of a king then refers to the desirethey would have to honor him, perhaps making him king--and accord him the honor that he justly deserves.
Almost all commentators take line 410 to refer to Agamemnon, though the other has exciting possibilities. But, in any case, through the great destruction of the Achaians, which Achilles desires, he wants Agamemnon to know how foolish he has been for not honoring “the best” of the Achaians (411-12). No shrinking violet here. Note that Achilles has conflated the two helpful terms of Nestor (“stronger” and “better/mightier”) which Nestor used to describe the respective spheres of the two great men. Now there is only “better.” And, of course, if you only have one word left, you can only have one man to claim it--who just happens to be Achilles.
Achilles’ obsession with honor, and his realization that his time is running out, drives this desperate, treasonous prayer. But, as we now will see, his mother is ready to do his bidding.