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                     37. Nursing Anger; Begging Help, First Essay, I. 488-530

 

But swift-footed Achilles, heaven-born son of Peleus,

still nursed his anger beside the swift ships.

He avoided the Assembly where men win renown,

and kept from battle, eating his heart out where

he was, longing for the noise of battle.

At dawn on the twelfth day, the company of immortal gods,

led by Zeus, returned to Olympus. Thetis

had not forgotten her promise to her son,

and at morning, emerging from the waves,

she rose to the broad sky and Olympus.

There she found Zeus, he of the far-thundering voice,

sitting apart  on the highest peak of ridged Olympus.

She sank in front of him, clasped his knees with her left arm,

raised her right hand to touch his chin,

and so petitioned the son of Cronos:

"Father Zeus, if ever I helped you

by word or deed, grant me this wish,

honour my son, who is doomed to die young.

For Agamemnon the king shows disrespect,

arrogantly seizing his rightful prize.

Avenge my son, Olympian Zeus, lord of justice;

enhance the Trojans’ power, till the Greeks

honor and respect my son and make amends."

                                                        Introducing I. 488-510

Thetis, Achilles’ divine mother, told him in line 421 to sit out of battle for a while until she had a chance to approach Zeus to ask the treacherous favor Achilles desires (have Zeus direct the battle

in favor of the Trojans). As we learned in 421-424, Zeus had gone with his divine entourage on an eleven-day party to Ethiopia and wouldn’t return before the twelfth day. So, everyone has to wait, 

including the reader, to learn whether Thetis will communicate her son’s desires and whether the supreme deity will honor them.

And so we wait. And wait. And wait. We wait 65 lines. But in the meantime Homer describes the return of Chryseis, the prize of Agamemnon from a sack of Thebes, to her priestly father Chryses.

The event is significant because it “cleans” or “tidies” up one of the festering issues of Book I--whether Apollo’s wrath, which brought the plague against the Achaians, would be turned aside by 

Chryseis’ return. We are assured in the lines immediately before our passage that Apollo’s wrath was mollified. Phew. Problem solved.

                                           Back to Achilles (488-492)

 

But there is yet one little problem that remains--Achilles’ anger at being dishonored by Agamemnon. When we read line 488 it is almost as if we say to ourselves, “Ah yes, we still have the real issue of the epic, the anger of Achilles, to contend with. . .” But Homer is slightly coy, or dramatic, in how he introduces the issue. Line 488 literally says, “Yet he remained seated in anger next to the swift-moving ships.” The image is powerful. The “swift-moving” or “swift-going” ships are beached, going

nowhere. Just like the powerful warrior. Things powerful, made for battle, made to slice through the opposition, whether of waves or of men, are sitting idle. Sitting again. Like so much of Achilles’ activity or inactivity in the past 300 lines. Like his mother. Sitting. War is mostly about sitting. And waiting.

 

As if to emphasize our hero’s immobility, Homer gives us line 489--which is nothing other than an epic expansion on the word “he.” We already know from 488 who “he” is--Achilles. We are clear on

that one. Yet, we have to “plod” through line 489 to be reminded that he is “the divine-born son of Peleus, swift-footed Achilles.” All we really had to do was remember the conversation between

Thetis and Achilles a few pages previously. But Homer reminds us who is there in slow, laborious terminology. Here it is again, lest we not forget:

 

     “The divine-born son of Peleus, swift-footed Achilles.”

 

Ta-da! We have greatness and divinity sitting out this battle. Don’t forget it. This isn’t just one minor warrior having a bad day; this is the great, the magnificent Achilles, who is just sitting there.

This Achillean “time-out” becomes the theme of the next three lines, and we enter into the drama and inner torment caused by the dramatic turn of events. Lines 490-492 function epexegetically-- that is, 

to give an explanation of 488-489. TheGreek of lines 490-491 is beautifully parallel:

     “Not at any time into the agora...

     Not at any time into battle"

In fact, this functions as a sort of “mini-anaphora” to complement the “major-anaphora” of lines 436-439. Chryseis, in her “bride-like” return, got four anaphoric lines; Achilles gets half that many. If there was any adjective to modify one of the nouns in 490-491, we would expect it to modify “battle,” because Achilles is a warrior and the Iliad is about a battle. But we are surprised to learn that the poet says, “Not at any time into the agora, where men win glory, did he go...” Nothing prepares us for that. Why would he tell us that the agora is the place of glory, but not qualify the battle with any kind of adjective? No commentary is of help on this one. Perhaps, one might say, Homer simply needed to

fill out the meter in line 490. That is equivalent to explaining Mount Everest’s presence in the Himalayas by saying that it is just “there.” Perhaps something else is going on, and Homer is

suggesting that the lines up until now have functioned more like an “agora” or a “public forum” than a battle. Achilles didn’t go back into that place, where honor also heaps up, because he had been dishonored in that venue. Some people, like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, are made principally for war and armed conflict; they fail, or come up with the short end of the stick, in the contest of words and in political machinations.

But instead of haunting the venues where glory comes, and​ feeding on that glory, Achilles feeds on despair in his own heart. There is an alliteration in the Greek that might be well rendered, “he destroys his dear heart” (phthinutheske philon). The heart is turned in upon itself, and the rage which is most comfortable being directed outward is now centering on himself. He eats out his heart. He isn’t simply an insensate blob or unaffected being. He greatly longs both for the “clamor and the battle,” line 492.

Yet there he remains, hanging out near the boats, angry, livid, directing his anguish within, and longing for the battle. Achilles’ situation is different from the injured athlete who can hardly wait for his or her injury to heal before getting back into the fray. Achilles’ honor has been besmirched. He has suffered a blow to his image and his sense of self in the community. His deep longing is for the battle, but all the glory he could win now will not make that dishonor disappear. It would be like throwing gold medals into a superheated furnace. Soon they will become melted down, undistinguished, worth something but not anything close to what they are “truly” worth.

So, that is Achilles’ situation. We see him in our mind’s eye and know that his anger at being mistreated/dishonored will be what moves the action. We haven’t advanced an emotional inch

from the opening line of the epic, and the central problem of anger is no closer to resolution, but now we know more specifically the complexity of Achilles’ anger and wonder how that anger will move heaven, as well as earth.

                                             Thetis On Olympus (493-510)

Homer now takes us from the rough and tumble of human affairs to the society of the gods on Olympus. The rest of the action of Book I (493-611) will take place in that conflicted and comfortable society located on the peaks of Olympus, high above the cloud that obscures the top of that mountain. Though the slopes might be snow-covered and the top hidden in a cloudy mist, the Greeks believed that the Olympians enjoyed a cloudless and pleasing existence atop the many peaks of “rugged Olympus,” line 499. This is the place where the gods will return after their eleven-day jaunt to Ethiopia; here is where Thetis will meet Zeus and ask him for a favor.

We leave Achilles, and all eyes turn to the fabled mount, the haunt of the Olympians. Promptly at dawn on the twelfth day, they return home. No elaborate poetic introduction of the day with its rosy-fingered splendor attends the divine return. All we know is that “dawn” happened, and they return to Olympus. Homer puts the basic verbs of being and going (eimi and eimi, identically spelled except for accent) almost next to each other in line 494. They both “are” and they “go.” The gods, who exist forever, go to Olympus. Since our verbs are so different in English, it is “lost in translation.” We also have an enjambed word--pantes, translated “all” on 495. How many of the gods returned? All of them. This is important because Homer hints ever so slightly in this that there is some kind of divine unity, despite disagreements, that pervades Olympus. Thetis will break that unity with her request. All the gods return “together” (hama); so far we see them as a united divine front. And, as Homer often

does, he drops in one little extra nugget that clarifies things. They returned together, at the same time, with Zeus in charge.

That’s all we need to know, since Zeus will be Thetis’ target. She will go right for the guy in charge. So now we are back to divinities in motion as Thetis will once again emerge from the depths of the sea. This time she won’t even pause on earth, even though the nicely balanced clauses of the sentence in 495-497 first have her break the surface of the sea (the same verb anaduo--literally to “plunge up” is used in 319) and then, in the morning, rise to the tall heaven. Apollo screamed down the mountain in one motion to get to the earth; Thetis, it seems, takes two to get to heaven. She doesn’t stop, however, to talk with her son or check on earthly conditions; she is on her mission to the top.

But before we see what she found on Olympus, we should pause on the last word in 495--ephetmeon. Thetis didn’t forget her son’s ephetmeon. How do we render this? Standard translations have it as “entreaties” or “requests,” with Murray/ Wyatt translating it as “charge,” but it is derived from the verb ephiemi which means “to command” or “enjoin.” What was earlier characterized as an imploring request (line 408--”see if by chance he [Zeus] might want to aid the Trojans”) are now called ephetmeon (ephetme is singular)-- commands or demand. Had it really changed? Homer

may be suggesting by his choice of the word that the “request” had so grown in Thetis’ mind in the ensuing twelve days that it, as it were, morphed from a request to a command, from a pitiful entreaty of her bruised son to a behest to take action. Behind this lies the psychology of how a request given by someone can eventually become a command in the mind of the hearer. It does so through complex congeries of emotion--to help the child when the child can’t help himself, to try to make his life “work” when it seems like it is careening quickly to an ignominious conclusion.

 

Her “hearing” his request as a command might also arise from a slight sense of guilt--for she, by repeatedly telling the story of Zeus’ indebtedness to her, may have planted the idea in Achilles’

mind that she could get anything she wanted from Zeus. For all of these reasons, we now are in the realm of commands rather than simple requests. No wonder Thetis doesn’t pause on earth to talk again to her son. She might get another earful of advice!

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