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39. Marital Discord, First Essay, I. 521-567
So ended their meeting, and Thetis
plunged from gleaming Olympus to the briny deep,
while Zeus left for his palace. There the company of gods rose
to their feet in deference to their father; none daring
to stay seated at his entry, all standing as one.
He took his royal place, but Hera, watching,
could not fail to know that silver-footed Thetis,
daughter of the Old Man of the Sea, had pleaded with him.
At once she goaded Zeus, Cronos’ son:
"What immortal has sought your counsel, arch-deceiver?
It’s ever your delight to work behind my back,
and make all your decisions in secret. When did you ever
openly discuss your plans with me?"
‘"Hera" replied the father of men and gods,
"do not expect to know all my thoughts:
though you are my wife you would find it a burden.
Whatever it is right for you to hear,
no immortal, no human, shall know before you;
but of what I plan without reference to the gods,
make no question, do not ask."
Introduction, I. 531-550
Once Thetis gets what she wants from Zeus, a pledge to help the Trojans, she disappears. That seemingly is the way it is with divinities. Athena got what she wanted from Achilles (a pledge not to kill Agamemnon); then she disappeared (221). No sense waiting around and giving an opportunity for second thoughts. But Homer doesn’t use a word here for “disappearing” or “returning” to the depths of the sea for Thetis. Rather, he says that the two conferring gods “split” or “separated” (dietmagen).
A split, indeed, is what Thetis presence and departure will then create between Zeus and Hera. Thus, a verb indicating simply the separation of Thetis and Zeus may carry with it a sense of
foreshadowing or foreboding--more “splits” are on the way.
Each goes his or her own way. Ladies first. She leaps or jumps (alto) in the salty depths from shining Olympus. No stopping on earth to check in with her beleaguered son. She goes from gleaming brightness to profound depth and darkness. Zeus simply goes to “his home.” As he arrives, the rest of the divinities, who had just returned from the lucullan festival in Ethiopia, rise from their chairs to meet their lord. It would have been enough had Homer only said this, but he wants to enhance the majesty and pomp of the occasion, and so he adds (534-535):
"no one dared to remain [seated] as he approached but they all stood to meet [him]"
This is quite a different picture of Zeus than we received from Achilles’ narration of Thetis’ story--of how she had helped keep Zeus from being bound by rebellious divinities (396-401). Perhaps the other story is exaggerated. Or, perhaps it is true but Zeus, after facing the humiliation of being bound by lesser gods, vowed never again to brook any attacks on his sovereignty in Olympus. In any case, the first impression we get of Zeus is of a distinguished god whom all the other divinities respect and, yes, fear.
So what does a god do in the Iliad? Naturally, he sits. So we are told that Zeus sits on his throne (536). But he won’t have very long to collect his thoughts, because Hera is on him like an eagle on a prairie mouse. Homer uses a figure of speech, called litotes, to express the next thought (536-537)
"Hera, on seeing him, was not unaware"
The word litotes is derived from the Greek word meaning “smooth, plain, small,” and is a figure by which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (OED). “She was not unconcerned when midnight rolled around and her teen had still not checked in,” is an example of litotes. Another, from an ancient text, is when the Apostle Paul spoke of himself as being a citizen “of no mean city,” Acts 21:39. The English poet Alexander Pope didn’t like litotes, calling it “[the peculiar talent] of ladies, whisperers, and backbiters.” On the contrary, in my judgment, it emphasizes a point that might easily be overlooked if the idea were placed in the affirmative.
Hera’s Words to Zeus (539-543)
Hera had seen the two of them, Zeus and “silver-footed Thetis,” conferring. She wasted no time (autika-immediately), and she addressed Zeus with “cutting” (kertomioisi--539) words. Recall that two had just “split;” their split was occasion for further “cutting,” this time with words. And make no mistake about it. Her words are dripping with bitterness, sarcasm, and awareness of her husband’s deceitful and cheating ways. He is the lord of men and gods, and so the scope of his activities and dalliances will be much more vast than those of his human counterpart, Agamemnon. When I first studied the Iliad many years ago, my professors were fond of describing Zeus as a “hen-pecked”
husband, but I think this characterization really doesn’t do justice to the interaction in the next several lines.
Two words in 540-543 show her attitude. First is the term of address, dolometa, in 540. The five translations or renderings I consulted are as follows: “you crafty one” (Johnston); “treacherous
one” (Lattimore); “deviser of deceit” (Kirk); “crafty one” (Murray/Wyatt); “trickster” (Butler). The “crafty” or “trickster” renderings have either neutral or slightly negative connotations. Indeed, we might admire the divine trickster in Native American myths, or honor a crafty person or figure in a story. But that can’t be a correct translation here. The word dolos means “deceit” or “fraud” or “guile.” At the heart of her address to him is the sense that he has betrayed her, defrauded her.
Second, the use of the verb tlao in 543, usually translated as “have patience,” so as to render the thought, “Never have you patience frankly to speak forth to me...,” (Lattimore) isn’t properly translated. Why? Because tlao also appeared in line 534 to describe how none of the gods “dared” to remain seated when Zeus appeared on the scene. We ought to keep the same idea in mind unless there are compelling reasons to do the opposite. What Hera is really saying to Zeus in line 543 is:
“Never have you had the courage [or never have you dared] to speak frankly to me what you are planning.”
She is accusing her husband, then, of the twofold vices of treachery and cowardice. How’s that for
Thus, I don’t see the text exploring the realm of slapstickor humor here. Hera is grimly and with great disgust confronting the “majestic” Zeus. Yet in these lines the nature of her complaint isn’t overwhelmingly compelling (541-542):
“It is always dear to you to consider and make judgments on secret matters when I am absent"
Later she will show Zeus that she knows precisely what is happening (554-59), but here she just offers a generic complaint. We wonder about the seeming disproportion between the vehemence of her words and the seriousness of the offense. It just doesn’t seem that she has yet put her hand on a
fault that would merit such opprobrium.
Zeus Answers (544-50)
Hera had complained to Zeus that he never communicated things to her. Zeus responds to her in a way that slightly twists her words (545-546):
“Don’t hope to know all my words, Hera"
Men and women speak differently, as Deborah Tannen reminds us. Here we see it even in the realm of the gods. One party had complained that she never was confided in; the other side heard her complaint as a desire to be included in every conversation. Like in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, where one party complained to the therapist that they had sex all the time and the other complained that they hardly ever had sex, but both agreed it was about three times per week, so Hera and Zeus can’t seem to “hear” the nature of each other’s words. What Hera seeks as a sign of personal affirmation and sharing [she also, probably, wants to smoke out potential trouble], Zeus takes as an indication of intrusiveness and an attempt to limit his freedom. We chuckle at their interaction because we know that is the way men and women act.
If Hera was querulous and cynical, Zeus is patronizing (546):
“Even though you are my wife, these things are difficult for you"
Got to protect those feminine vulnerabilities, you know. Well, he continues on the same condescending note (547-548):
“But what is fitting for you to hear--well no one of the gods nor of men shall hear it before you"
As if it was a serious possibility that Zeus would confide divine secrets to human before his wife! He is pleading specially here, saying to the effect, ‘Oh Hera, you will be the first to know if it is proper for you to know.’ Well, the entire universe can hide under that little word “proper” or “fitting.” Who is to determine that? What are the criteria? It just goes on and on. But Zeus quickly closes whatever interpretive window Hera would have wanted to force open (549-550):
“If I myself (emphatic) want to plan something apart from (i.e., not including) the gods, don’t you (emphatic) inquire into or ask about [it]"
The structure of the beginning of lines 549 and 550 shouldn’t escape notice. Literally it is “But I....not you..” That just about sums up Zeus’ approach.