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                        36. To Sea and Back, Second Essay, I. 428-487

When they had offered their petition and scattered grains of barley,

they drew back the victims’ heads, slit their throats and flayed them.

Then they cut slices from the thighs, wrapped them

in layers of fat, and laid raw meat on top.

These the old man burnt on the fire, sprinkling over them a libation of 

red wine, while the young men stood by, five-pronged forks in their hands.

When the thighs were burnt and they had tasted the inner meat,

they carved the rest in small pieces, skewered

and roasted them through, then drew them from the spits.

Their work done and the meal prepared,

they feasted and enjoyed the shared banquet,

and when they had quenched their first hunger and thirst,

the young men filled the mixing-bowls to the brim with wine

and pouring a few drops first into each cup as a libation served the gathering.

All that day the Achaeans made music to appease the god,

singing the lovely paean, praising the god

who strikes from afar; while he listened with delight.

And at sunset as darkness fell,

they lay down to sleep by the ships’ cables,

and when rosy-fingered Dawn appeared

they sailed for the distant camp of the Achaeans.

Then far-striking Apollo sent them a following wind,

and they raised the mast and spread the white sail.

The canvas bellied in the wind and the dark wave

hissed at the stern, as the boat gathered way and sped

through the flood, forging on its course.

So they came to the broad camp of the Achaeans,

dragged the black vessel high on shore,

and propped her with lengths of timber,

then dispersed among the huts and ships.


                                  The Sacrifice and Return Home (458-487)


This passage contains the longest sustained description of a sacrificial ritual in the Iliad. I will go through that ritual in some detail, not because I am trying to resurrect it today but so that we might understand its full scope and significance. Properly-done ritual is the essence of every major religion; anthropologists and students of culture know they haven’t really understood another people until they enter into the intimate details of their invocation or appeasement of the gods. In addition, in accord with what I said earlier, the detailed description of sacrificial ritual allows readers to feel completely confident that the bard telling the tale is fully conversant with his story.

After Chryses’ prayer to Apollo, we are only told that “Phoebus Apollo heard him,” line 457. That is enough for us because when he previously heard his priest, he did what he was requested (43). Thus we are confident that the plague, the bane of the Achaians, would be beaten back.

But the real focus of Homer in these lines (through 474) is to provide a rich description of sacrifice. The ritual begins in 446 with the preparation of the hecatomb, and it consists here of twelve steps--the Achaian ‘twelve-step’ sacrificial program. Let’s walk through them now, using Kirk’s sure-footed

comments as a guide. Op. cit., p. 101.

1) The animals making up the hecatomb are neatly arranged in order around the altar (447-448). “Hecatomb,” literally means “one hundred cattle,” but we know from an earlier description (65-66) that sheep and goats are in view, and so we conclude that the name, which probably once indicated a “bunch” of cattle, could be used to describe any sacrifice with impressive numbers of animals.

2) A ritual hand-washing is next (449). We aren’t told if the container for the water is important, if there are rituals that go into the preparation of the water, etc. We aren’t told how many people engage in the ritual. Answers to all these detailed questions would be helpful, but we go with what we have...

3) Barley corn is then raised up (anelonto, 449). Kirk comments: “[these are] barley-groats that were to be scattered over the victims, obviously from a basket which is specifically mentioned in Odyssey. 3.440f.” Ibid.

4) Then a priest offers a prayer, stretching his hands in the direction of the divinity’s residence (450-456). It would be interesting to know if there were certain “set prayers” that were recited and whether there was a sort of primitive Book of Common Prayer that aided the priests in their invocations of the deity.

5) After the prayer they cast forward the barley corn (458). It doesn’t tell us where they throw it. Kirk says it is “on the altar,” but other candidates might be on the ground or on the hecatomb victims.

6) Then comes the bloody part. Ancient religion was “into” blood and even modern theologies deal with it (Christianity has long held, for example, that it is the “blood” of Jesus Christ that “cleanses” from all sin). Here the necks of the animals are drawn back, their throats are slit and they are skinned (459). Quite a lot for one line to bear.

7) The thigh bones are cut out and covered with folded-oversections of fat, and then raw meat is placed on these (460-461). Perhaps the thigh bones, as among the largest in the body, represent the

“strength” of the beast. So the strength of the beast is being offered to the god. It is wrapped in fat. The Greek word for a doubled-over or “sandwich” of fat surrounding the bone is diptych, the word that is used by art historians in our day to describe the “double” panel of a medieval painting. But we

need to understand that this tightly compressed description also includes reference to other small sections of raw meat from other bodily part sprinkled on this “thigh sandwich.” Kirk says this

symbolizes the offering of the “whole animal” to the god. Thus, the strength and the entirety of the animal is offered.

8) Then they burn the thighs so prepared and eat the entrails or inner parts (splangchna-464). The fire consuming the thighs symbolizes divine eating of the meal; the human consuming the inner parts thus indicates a human-divine communion in a special meal. Sound like any other religion you know?

9) Then they carve up or slice into bits the rest of the carcass and pierce it with rivets or studs (to hold it in place), and they then roast it carefully and draw off the pieces after roasting (465-466). Perhaps Homer put in the word “carefully” (periphradeos) for metrical purposes. In any case, it reminds us that the priests are as assiduous in completing their duty as Homer is in his. This part of the ritual, then, focuses on the preparation of the unsacrificed portions of the beast(s) for a common meal to come.

10) Then the feast begins (467-468). Homer places great emphasis on proper preparations for the feast, and the structure of line 467 brings this out nicely. “Then, moreover, when they finished the work and prepared the feast...” Then, we have the enjambed word on line 468--dainunt’--they celebrated! or They feasted! I can just imagine the more impatient and hungry warriors. ‘Will we ever be finished all these preparations? When will the real meal begin? Like no offense, man, but I am friggin’ starving!’ Well, Homer hastens to add (468),


     “And no soul lacked an equal portion of the feast"

11) We still aren’t done. After everyone has his fill, young men fill to the brim the drinking bowls (470), distributing them to all. I like the word translated “fill to the brim.” It is epestepsanto, derived from the verb epistepho. A stephanon was a crown. Thus, the bowls were “crowned” with wine. We get the name Stephen from the Greek word. He is “the crowned one.”

12) Even though your mother might have told you not to dance and celebrate on a full stomach, the Greeks did otherwise. Indeed, the only mother mentioned so far (Achilles’ mom) is now back home at the bottom of the sea. So, they begin dancing and singing (472-474). All day long they propitiate the god withthese dances and songs. The word for dance here is molpe, which is reminiscent of the name Melpomene, the Muse of the dance. And we are informed that their efforts were successful. Homer adds simply, “He (Apollo) was delighted as he listened,” line 474. Prayer will definitely be answered. Maybe it already has been answered.

The section ends with a brief but evocative pair of lines (475-476). The sun goes down, darkness comes, and they all go to bed near the stern cables of their ship. Would that their days were as peaceful as their nights.

                                                     Heading Home (477-487)


Just as Homer plunged us deeply into the world of animal sacrifice in the previous lines, so the dawning of a new day takes us to the sea. Homer now draws upon commonplace descriptions of naval journeys. This is the lengthiest of such descriptions in the Iliad; they will be the staple of the Odyssey. The first three lines set the stage brilliantly for the return home. In perhaps one of the most memorable “one liners” of the Iliad, Homer describes the coming of dawn (477):

     “When the early-born, rosy-fingered dawn appeared"

I have to confess I love the picture of “rosy-fingered” dawn appearing, for it calls forth in our minds the long-streaming, pink, sharp, finger-like projections gilding the eastern sky. It is a sort of reward to us who might otherwise be reluctant to arise after the sweetness of the night’s sleep. We want to prolong the sleep or the relaxation, but dawn’s beautiful rays draw us out of bed. Well, it drew out the Achaians, who headed then for their wide camp. But they needed a breeze, and Apollo the free worker moved them along with a favorable breeze (479). After the god has been propitiated, he makes even nature cooperate with the return journey. The sailor’s life for me!

The picture he draws is lush and inviting. They erect the mast, stretching out the white sails on it. A breeze (anemos--a different Greek word from the ouros of line 479) hits the sail in the middle, thus pushing it rapidly through the water. But Homer has to give us a “poetic” description of this, and so he says (481-482):

     “And a purple wave howled (sung) on both sides of the cut-water (stem) as the boat              moved along"

We can “see” the boat slicing the waves, with water falling to the sides as the boat comes through, making a humming, howling or singing noise as it is sliced by the boat. The boat sped along the path of the sea (483). It is reminiscent of the majestic language of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 43:16)


     “Thus says Yahweh, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters"

Then, they quickly arrive back to the wide camp of the Achaians, drawing the black ship high up on the sands, while they place underneath the beams or props so that the boats would be secure. Then, when all this was done, “they scattered each to his tent and ship,” line 487. The verb translated “scattered” is almost onomatopoetic: skidnamai. They “skedaddled” quickly back to their respective places. They were men on a mission; mission was accomplished, and now they must return to the lugubrious task of fighting the Trojans.

We have almost completely forgotten the fact that there is a “prayer pending” in the narrative--i.e., Achilles’ request to his mother to approach Zeus. We have been so caught up in the trip, the delivery of Chryseis, the sacrifice and party and the smooth return trip. We wonder why all of life can’t run so smoothly and pleasantly. But it doesn’t. And the next lines take us back to that dilemma on the shores of Ilium.

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