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38. Nursing Anger; Begging Help, Second Essay, I. 488-530
Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, made no reply to her words,
he sat there silently. But Thetis, still clasping his knees,
clung to him and pleaded again:
‘Make me this promise faithfully, and nod your head,
or else refuse, for I am powerless,
then I shall know how little I am honoured here.’
Zeus, the cloud-lord, deeply troubled, said:
"This is a sorry business, indeed, and you will force a quarrel
with Hera. She will taunt and rile me.
As it is, she scolds me endlessly before the other gods,
claiming I aid the Trojans in battle.
Go now, before she notices,
while I think the matter through.
Come, I will nod my head, to reassure you,
since you immortals know this as my sure pledge;
once I give the nod, my word can never be recalled,
it proves true and is fulfilled."
So spoke the son of Cronos, inclining his shadowed brow
till the ambrosial locks, on the King’s immortal head,
stirred together, and high Olympus shook.
Finding Zeus on Olympus (511-530)
Well, she doesn’t have to scour Olympus long in order to find her target. She finds the “son of Cronus” (i.e., Zeus) sitting (what else would he be doing?!) apart from the rest on the tippy-top
of many-ridged Olympus. We see him, don’t we? Off by himself, engaged in thought. We don’t know why he is by himself. Is it because he needs some “space” after being with “family” for nearly two weeks? Is he angry? What is he thinking about? Or, is he simply catching some R & R after a grueling trip? Homer doesn’t tell us, but he gives us an unforgettable picture.
Thetis wastes no time at all. She sits right in front of him, taking his knees in her left hand and reaching under Zeus’ chin with her right (500-501). Whether or not these are “standard gestures of
a suppliant,” as most commentators argue, Homer again leaves us with a stunningly clear picture. We are ready to hear her words. Using a word familiar to us by now (“begging”--), she addresses "the
lord, the son of Cronus, Zeus,” line 502. He has as many titles as “divine born, son of Peleus,
Achilles,” line 489.
Requests are all about persuasion. Sometimes persuasion is aided by memory of past, or promise of future, favors, but the dynamics of persuasion are at issue in the next eight lines. Often you only have the equivalent of “eight lines” to make your case. Lawyers before appellate judges are often interrupted before they get eight lines out. Spouses in conflict often don’t allow the other eight lines of explanation. Confused people are often so weighed down in their perplexity that eight lines is too much both to say and to hear. In addition, the one of whom a request is made often makes up his or her mind before eight lines are uttered. Interviewers, we read, can make hiring decisions within “eight lines” of a person’s interview. Life can happen that quickly.
Just as a telemarketer knows that if the person answering the phone allows him to continue for eight lines there is a greater chance at a “sale” than if s/he interrupts after three, so Thetis and the reader know that eight lines might be all that are needed to secure Thetis’ request. Her first words set the tone: “Zeus father” or “Father Zeus,” line 503. They are words of intimacy. In fact Zeus is not her “real” father (Nereus and Doris are her parents), but Zeus can be the “father of all” in a way, since he sits atop both the pointed peak of Olympus and the elite divine society. She will approach him in his role as “father” and not as “ruler,” even though what she is asking him to do will be a quintessential
She begins in a way that we are now accustomed to hearing. Calchas’ two prayers are framed this way; Achilles’ advice to Thetis uses these or similar words to 503-504:
“If ever I helped you, either in word or deed, among the immortals, grant this my wish"
Ah, note how spare her words are. She doesn’t follow her son’s advice to “remind” Zeus about the time she had freed him from bonds or a threat to being bound, and that she was the only one who came to his aid. Why not? Two possible reasons. Either the dramatic and comical story of her delivering Zeus itself was a bit exaggerated in the first place or, alternatively, because she knew that all she had to do was to “hint” at past help, and that would be enough to show Zeus that she meant business. The most powerful person never really has to use the club s/he carries. These two explanations are mutually incompatible, but Homer leaves that one up in the air. So, we interpret.
But we don’t have much time to interpret because her request is immediately forthcoming. It is simply this (506):
“Honor my son"
There really is a virtue in being able to boil down your request into three words or fewer. Then, if given more “space,” you expand. Which is what she does. She does so partially in language given to her by her son but partly in her own words. Achilles had complained about how short his life was (352), but Thetis was the first to mention that he was okumoros (swift-fated-- line 417). Now, before Zeus, she puts it in the superlative. Achilles is the “most swift-fated of all,” line 505. But then she repeats, in lines 506-507, the words of Achilles in 355-356: Agamemnon had stolen his prize. He even had come and done so brazenly, in person. Then, as a skilled rhetorician, she returns to the main theme: “But you, you yourself, do him honor,” line 508. Then, in trying to appeal to Zeus’ independence of thought and wisdom, she calls him “prudent advisor” or “Zeus of the counsels” (metieta). Actually the word had been used once previously--by Agamemnon (175)--also in an “honor” context. There Agamemnon had been boasting to Achilles that Zeus of the counsels honors him. We saw at that point how vain and arrogant such a boast was. Now we are given a more fitting way for the prudent advisor to honor someone. The breathtaking request appears in lines 509-510:
“Give strength to (“set domination upon”) the Trojans, until the Achaians honor my son, until they magnify him with honor”
Torture them until they “confess.” That is the idea. This is the big line, but Kirk says not a word about it. The scope of the request is dramatic; the pain out of which it comes is immense; the clarity is stunning. I can only interpret the last line, duplicating the thought, as an example of “epic fullness.” The request is so breathtaking that it has to be repeated. It has to sink in on the hearers and, most of all, on Zeus.
Zeus’ Dilemma and Response (511-530)
When I was young, I used to think that certain positions or jobs were impervious to political pressure. News anchors, I thought--now there were people who could speak their minds. Presidents, atop the political pyramid, were unencumbered by political pressures. Professors could just tell it was it was. But those views, of course, were naive. The more visible or more powerful a person is, the more indebted s/he is, the more she or she needs to burnish and maintain his or her image. People stay
atop pyramids because they are skillful at managing the political firestorms that would topple lesser creatures. We see this reality in the next twenty lines.
So what does Zeus do? He doesn’t answer her. He realizes the possible pain attendant on words slipping too quickly out of his mouth. As my professors used to say in law school, you can’t “unring the bell.” Don’t rush to speak when there might not be a need to speak. Hold your fire. There will probably be a time to use it. Or, if not, you have not damaged yourself. Four Greek words describe Zeus’ reaction: “But silently, for a long time, he sat there.” Of course, he sits like everyone else. There is silence in heaven. After the opening of the seventh seal in the Book of Revelation, there was “silence in heaven for a half-hour,” Revelation 8:1. Thetis is undeterred. In one of the more suggestive phrases in Book I, it says, literally (512-513):
“Thus she kept holding onto his knees, she held (them) as growing into them"
Translators render that last phrase “clinging close” or “clung fast.” The word I translated as “growing into” is empephuuia, from emphuo, which means “to grow into” or “cling very closely.” I can’t get that word or image out of my mind. She is not just “hanging on for dear life,” as we say. She is so resolute
and determined that she, as it were, wants to “grow into” Zeus. When we realize that Greek mythology has myriads of stories of how various people are transformed into other things (and Ovid’s
Metamorphoses is full of examples), we wonder if a certain fuel was given to this idea by this word in the Iliad.
She takes his silence as an invitation to repeat herself. So she does so, but her words in 514-516 give Zeus an “out.” By so doing, she releases whatever psychological pressure she placed upon Zeus to act in her favor. But, paradoxically, by releasing the person from having to act in your favor, it actually frees the other person to do what you request. The thought is: 'Oh, I would like you to do XXX for me. But if you don’t, just shake your head, and I will be gone.' Once a suppliant has released the giver from all expectations that the giver will comply, the giver is suddenly thrown into his/her own freedom. When given freedom, people often respond favorably to suggestions. So, she says in 514-516:
“Just give me an unerring sign and nod your head, or deny me, since you are in fear of no one. . .”
These are really clever words, and we can learn a lot in our styles of persuasion from them. She is saying, ‘You aren’t indebted to anyone, are you?’ But, as the narrative proceeds, we will see just how indebted Zeus is. But Thetis can butter him up in this way for her own purposes.
Then, she closes her lines with blatant words of self-pity. Paraphrased, it says, ‘Of course you can deny me, Zeus, but if you do, then I will know how I am the most dishonored of all the gods.’ Or, in an expanded form, she is saying:
‘Poor me. Just livin’ in the bottom of the sea. Away from the frolickin' life of Olympus. Don’t get to go on jaunts to Ethiopia. Just staying here weeping for my son. He’s gonna die, and soon. But I’ll be ok if you deny me. I will at least know how despicable I am to you, how little I am in your sight. Sniff. Sniff. Don’t worry about me. I'll be fine.’
All Eyes on Zeus
Now all the attention shifts to Zeus. His silence may have bought him time, but it really didn’t buy him “space.” In language suggestive of the majesty of the lord of heaven, Zeus, the one wrapped in clouds, now must, figuratively speaking, come out of the clouds. He is deeply vexed. Though we have seen many words so far for being angry or troubled, this is the first appearance of ochtheo. It is a rare word, and is best rendered as “sorely troubled” or “deeply disturbed.”
He is bothered because of the political and familial pressures that this request will bring on him. He is, after all, “Father Zeus. . .” Homer brilliantly describes this pressure by using an enjambed
word (on line 519). We best render it as follows:
“Indeed these are dreadful deeds, when you say I should enter into hostility with. . . HERA!”
Oops. The wife. Why would Thetis’ simple request lead to conflict with Hera? “For she troubles (vexes, enrages) me with her verbal abuse,” 519. Then we learn of Zeus’ troubles, and we
can’t suppress a smile as we read lines 520-521::
“For even as things are she always vexes me among the immortal Gods, and she says I am (already) helping the Trojans in battle"
Hera is pro-Achaian. Anyone who is “neutral,” as Zeus is trying to be, can be perceived by a “true believer” as supporting the other side. This is apparently what is happening here. A centrist
looks like a leftist to Rush Limbaugh. Now Thetis is asking Zeus to do even more--to doff the mantle of impartiality and adopt the cause of those fighting against his wife’s interest.
Thetis now has to be on her way. It is not that she chooses to depart, but Zeus makes her go. He knows his wife will be suspicious seeing Thetis hanging around Olympus. Some people are just up to no good, you know. But Zeus doesn’t dismiss her without a promise. He is greatly concerned about these things, even though he doesn’t tell us exactly why (523). It is probably that so many of their beloved Greeks are dying. But he gives her a parting gift (524-525):
“I will bow my head to you, so that you will be certain. For this is a the greatest witness from me among the Olympians"
There follows an unforgettable line. Such a nod is an “irrevocable, truthful and certain of fulfillment” sign. (The three Greek phrases are ou palinagreton, oud' apatelon, oud' ateleuteton; the first is a Homer hapax legomenon; the second an Iliad hapax legomenon, and the third only appears one other time in Homer). If the Scriptures teach that a threefold cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12), so these three long, and hard-to-pronounce-quickly adjectives, emphasize the solemnity of what Zeus promises.
He straightway fulfills that promise in 528-530:
“The son of Cronus nodded with his dark eyebrows. His ambrosial locks flowed from his immortal head. And, all Olympus trembled"
The scene is reminiscent of the earth trembling when Yahweh God of Israel appeared on Mount Sinai. God nods. Earth shakes. The most famous work of art from the ancient world, Phidias’ sculpting of Zeus, was based on this passage. The sculpture was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Homer, literally, can create wonders!