(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
4. Continuing with I. 1-7
"Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus' son,
that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks
and sent many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades,
leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs
and carrion birds: for thus was the will of Zeus brought to fulfilment.
Sing of it from the moment when Agamemnon, Atreus' son,
that king of men, parted in wrath from noble Achilles."
I have stressed the importance of the anger, the accursed anger of the son of Peleus, Achilles. But I didn’t say anything about words two and three in the Greek, “sing, Goddess..” Homer
will tell a human story, a very human story of emotion and valor, but it will be a story that is “sung” by the “Goddess.” As we will learn a few lines down, the story is also about the gods or, at
least, the will of Zeus (line 5), but here in line 1 Homer invokes a deity, the Muse, to help him speak. The idea of divine inspiration that lies behind this statement is not developed here; suffice it
to say that Homer believes he writes or sings the words given him by the Muse. Writers of the Hebrew/Christian scriptures also believed in inspiration of God, and some talk about even
digesting the very words of God that they then speak (such as in Ezekiel 3:1-3). Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, continually repaired to the notion of divine inspiration behind his work (see
prologues to Books I, III, VII, IX).
The confession of divine inspiration seems to be both an example of humility and chutzpah: humility because the human realizes that s/he has no capacity to tell the great story without the divine ordering of it and the encasing of it in beautiful words; chutzpah because it assumes that the words being written are a product of that divine inspiration. So we have four large themes in the first six words of the Iliad: (1) anger; (2) the nature of divine inspiration; (3) the naming of one protagonist by the father’s name; and (4) the emphasis on the baneful or accursed nature of the anger. Now, can’t we go quicker?? Maybe.
Continuing With the Prologue
Now the story begins to unfold, though it will do so only in the broadest outline in lines 2-7. The anger, accursed as it is, throws myriads of pain (the Greek word is actually myria) on the Achaians or Greeks. We might use the word “deep pain” or “loads of pain” or “the big hurt,” but never have I heard the phrase “myriads of pain” (only two Google references to it). A myriad in ancient Greece was “ten thousand, esp. a unit of ten thousand soldiers,” OED, s.v., Def. 1a. Ten thousands of pain
are on them. Is that too literal? We don’t know, but we get a picture in our minds of stunning loss. Interesting to me is that the verb describing the “placement” or “putting” of the myriad of
pains on the Achaians is the typical, most familiar, and easy verb tithein, which simply means “to place” or “to put.” Normally it is a gentle word, where someone places something in another
person’s hand or, metaphorically, where someone plants an idea in another’s mind. But here we have no gentle planting, no intimate touching of the hand. Anger might place the myriads
of pain on the Achaians, but its placement is like a bomb gently nestling on ground before explosion.
And the word for “pains,” also in line 2, is the Greek word algos. I wouldn’t mention it except for the fact that the Greek word was brought into English in the late 19th century in such words as algometer (an instrument for measuring degrees of sensitivity to pain) or algophobia (a morbid fear of pain). Indeed, the term algolagnia, meaning a kind of sexual preference that enjoys the infliction of pain on the partner or self, was invented in 1900. When algolagnia first appeared in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary in that year it was defined as “a form of sexual perversion.” Why? Because any late Victorian psychologist worth his salt would have consider sadism and masochism to be perversions. Now, we realize, they are the staple of some seemingly stable lives. . .
But the Greek algos is different from the Latin alga, which lies at the base of many English words having to do with algae. An algologist, for example, studies algae, though it isn’t exactly clear to me why such a person shouldn’t be an algalogist. When certain Greek words are moved into English, the last “a” sound is maintained, even if it makes it hard to spell in English. Thus, an aretalogy (rather than aretology) is a narrative about the virtue (arete) of someone, and a genealogy (rather than geneology) is a study of one’s origin. But the field of algae studies is algology rather than algalogy. Someone can explain that, I think, but I can’t.
A slight digression. We are finding, as we study the first two lines of the Iliad, that we find our life here. Already many important themes have been introduced and they lead us, in a way-leads-
to-way fashion, to consider other ideas, such as the phrase “myriads of pain” or the way that we form words in English. Earnest students of the Bhagavad Gita believe that the whole aworld is contained in its lines, even its first few lines. Students of the Jewish Midrashim, the early medieval commentaries primarily on the Pentateuch, believe that entire universe is captured in a verse or even a Hebrew word of the Pentateuch. So infused with meaning are these enjambed words of Homer, and so suggestive of further meaning that we just might believe we have captured our life in them.
So the anger was gently “placed” (line 2) on the people, but it acted like a substance burning through whatever it touched, scorching the earth and bringing myriads of pain on the Achaians. Then, the next few lines probe the idea of that pain, much like a skillful surgeon will probe the extent of a wound. This accursed anger cast many strong souls into Hades (line 3). The verb “to cast forth”
or “send forth” is actually a rare verb in Greek, with even the huge Liddell-Scott dictionary only giving about five references to its use, most of which are in the Iliad. Why, if Homer was
so revered, and if he used a word in the opening of his work to describe the process of hurling heroes to Hades, would the later tradition have ignored the word? The image is vivid--souls
hurling to hell--but few pick up on it. Perhaps the loneliness of proiaptein in Greek literature is mute testimony to the loneliness of the strong souls cast into Hades.
We have another example of enjambment here, as the word “of heroes” slops over into line 4. Mighty and stalwart souls were cast into Hades in line 3. Now we learn that they are the souls “of
heroes.” Each product of enjambment leads to deeper knowledge and invests us more fully into the narrative. The Greeks lost not simply a few of their lesser troops. Heroes died. No army can
afford to lose heroes. Their loss will become part of the “myriads of pain” which our story will describe.
Homer splits his treatment of what happened to the slain heroes just as the body and soul of dead heroes are split. While the souls go to Hades, the bodies become prey or spoils for the dogs (line 4). But will we ever see in the Iliad an actual case of dog eating anybody? That will need to be a sort of question held in abeyance. In any case, Homer here describes the indignity faced by the corpses. Again, he uses enjambment when he says not only that the corpses are food for dogs but also a “feast for the birds.” The word dais is a common word in Homer for a feast, but it will usually refer to human or divine banquets. Here, the first use of the term in literature puts another “spin” on it.
The vultures are the first ones who enjoy the word, as well as the feast. Our feasting then is only derivative of the first feast, a banquet on human remains.
Finishing Line 5
By the time we arrive at the beginning of line 5 we have all this chaos taking place, seemingly let loose by human anger. Anger has done it all. But in the rest of line 5 Homer brings in another idea
both to complicate and to comfort. This baneful destruction and the myriads of pain were brought about because it all fulfilled the will of Zeus. Humans propose but God disposes? Is that what Homer is saying? The divine intervention in human life, which the Iliad not only assumes but amply illustrates, complicates matters. Up until now we thought it was only the anger of Achilles that brought pain. We can understand human causation. Indeed, our whole system of investigation, our scientific method, is built on the notion of causation, whether human or organic. But here we are brought into another form of causation--divine. Or, more specifically, it only says that the will of God was “fulfilled” by this. How do human freedom and divine will interact? Homer is no philosopher, and so he will simply observe that the action of one is the fulfilling of the other; but while the dogs and birds are chewing on corpses we are given another huge issue to chew on. We are also comforted by the affirmation that this fulfilled the will of Zeus. At least someone powerful knows what is happening. . .
One final little gem in line 5. The words “banquet” and “Zeus” are next to each other in line 5. The Greek is daita Dios. Alliteration slows us down and causes us to connect ideas that might otherwise
not be connected. The feast and Zeus are right next to each other. Both the actions of the senseless creatures, which tear away at the flesh, and the purposes of the inscrutable God, are placed side
by side. And daita Dios is a great way of expressing it.