(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
41. From Quarrel to Celebration, First Essay, I. 568-611
At this, the ox-eyed queen trembled,
restrained herself and sat down silently.
All the immortal gods there were troubled,
and it was Hephaestus, famed for his skill, who broke the silence,
hoping to calm his mother, white-armed Hera:
"This is a sorry business. It’s intolerable
you two should quarrel over a mortal,
and set the gods at odd with one another. What joy
in a good banquet if animosity prevails?
I advise my mother, who herself knows this is best,
to make peace with our dear father, Zeus,
lest he reprimand her again and our feast be ruined.
What if the Olympian lord of lightening, mightiest of us
all by far, should choose to blast us where we sit!
Mother, speak gentle words to him,
and the Olympian will once more show us grace."
Introducing I. 568-583
If there was any doubt that Homer is a great poet, perhaps the greatest in the Western tradition, it should be removed by studying these final lines of Book I. In the space of the final 44 lines he takes us from a serious rift on Olympus to a pleasant night of celebration that leads to bedtime and shared
sweet sleep of the two antagonists, Zeus and Hera. The literary vehicle Homer uses to travel this immense thematic distance is Hephaestus, the skillful but lame god of fire. This divinity not
only acts as a reconciler between the antagonists Zeus and Hera, but he also sets the table for the feast and provides the occasion for comic relief among the gods. Finally, as if this isn’t enough,
Homer peppers his story with vivid verbs and a rollicking good story, dressed with the most interesting details, of Hephaestus’ own unfortunate encounter with Zeus in the past. These two essays probe how Homer moves this immense literary distance. I will be especially concerned with the following: (1) Hera’s reaction to Zeus’ threats (568-570); (2) Hephaestus’ attempt to mend fences (571-583); (3) Hephastus’ encouragement to Hera and his narrative of his own “past” with Zeus’ (584-594); and (4) the divine party and restful night (595-611).
Hera’s Reaction (568-570)
My thesis in the previous few essays was that Zeus’ words to Hera really constituted what we now would call verbal spousal abuse. He not only wants to keep secrets from her, but he threatens her
with violence if she doesn’t comply with his demands. The phrase to “place my untouchable hands on you” (567) is a powerfully suggestive one. No one can “touch” Zeus’ hands because they are superior, apart, and invincible. But they will deign to “touch” Hera if she keeps it up. When “untouchable” hands “touch” another being, it simply will be the worse for her (563). As one commentator says,
“[the verb] epheio ("touch"--567) must be understood of blows as violent as Zeus had
the power to deliver them,” Pfarr, Op. cit., p. 162.
What do you do in such a situation? You can’t call on the other divinities, since their help won’t avail (564). Hera can’t file for divorce, since that doesn’t seem to be within the scope of the poetic imagination. So, she complies. But even in her submission Homer describes her in most noble terms. She is “ox-eyed honored Hera” (568) who now “became afraid” (edeisen). No one is quite sure where the “ox-eyed” comes from, but Kirk suggests that its meaning might relate to the “placid gaze” of that animal. Op. cit. p. 111. If so, that title is even more interesting because of the intensity of Hera’s reaction to Zeus’ foibles. She who was of “placid gaze” lives in rage, fear and submission.
So she “sat down and shut up,” line 569. Zeus had commanded her to do this (565), and so she complies. The words used are identical. But even though she complies, this isn’t the end of the
story. First, Hera’s “heart” or “spirit” is described; then there is the reaction of the other Olympians. The phrase to describe her “heart” is noteworthy: literally it says she “bent” or “curled” her dear heart. Lattimore has it that she “wrenched her heart to obedience” and Murray/Wyatt simply has that she was “curbing her heart.” The verb epignampto and its corresponding adjective can be used to describe how a bow or a helix is curved, but when used figuratively it stresses how something is “bent” internally or “bowed” to one’s own purposes. So, Hera “curved” her heart in obedience. She accommodated the “shape” of her heart to the demand of Zeus.
It is almost impossible to say the verb epignampto quickly. You have to linger over it. And, the phrase “philon ker” or “beloved/dear heart” occurs once earlier describing Achilles. You recall how he sat out of the action for twelve days while awaiting his mother’s trip to see Zeus. Homer describes Achilles in the meantime as “eating out his dear heart” (phthinutheske philon ker). How do you deal with your heart when facing abuse, disappointment, or delay? Achilles consumed himself, as it were, while Hera bent her heart to the demands of the moment. Both verbs are stunning; they make us slow down to pronounce them.
Hera isn’t the only one who reacts. The rest of the Olympians, who had just returned from their festive feast in Ethiopia were “troubled” (ochthesan). This verb was used once previously to describe Zeus’ feelings when asked by Thetis to favor the Trojans and wreak havoc on the Achaians (517). So,
both Zeus and the Olympians become vexed. The only difference is that he is able to do what he wants, but they have to suffer the situation in silence.
Enter Hephaestus (571-583)
In the midst of this painful situation Homer introduces us to an earnest, capable and unintentionally comic divinity, Hephaestus. He is described as “skilled in handicraft” or “of renowned skill.” Later he will be called “very famous” or “renowned,” line 607. While some divinities are known especially
on earth, Hephaestus fame echoed primarily in heaven’s halls. With his skill he not only built the homes of the Olympians but made a series of other things: (1) the aegis and scepter of Zeus;
(2) the arms of Achilles; (3) the breastplate of Diomedes, among other things.
Here, however, we first meet him as a peacemaker. He wants to “show kindness” (the rare epiera,
"comfort," followed by pheron, "bringing"; Cunliffe, in his Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect, lists the first word under er) to his mother Hera. Thus we have an interesting play on words here. He wants to show epiera to Hera (572). He doesn’t do so through a plan to make a scepter that perhaps could injure Zeus or cords that could bind him again. Rather, he is now a peacemaker, and he will use
words to try to becalm the situation. He addresses all the gods with a word common in Homer for an address to an assembly of humans (agoreuo—571). Hephaestus’ most urgent concern is that
human affairs not upset the harmonious divine company (573-575):
“These disastrous things won’t be endurable if you two, because of mortals, continue to quarrel here, if you carry on a brawl among the gods"
Hephaestus uses a phrase, which I render “disastrous things,” that has just been used in line 518 to describe the plague that Thetis wants Zeus to put on the Achaians. It is almost as if the “disastrous thing” in heaven will be like the human plague, ravaging the divinities instead of men. But the next few lines reveal what Hephaestus’ real concern is. He doesn’t simply want to avoid a serious row; he wants to maintain divine fellowship. I love the brevity and crispness of his next words (575-576):
“For the benefit/joy/pleasure of our noble feast will be no longer, since the more evil things will conquer"
We know that they just returned from an eleven-day feast in Ethiopia. This kind of fellowship is vital to the gods. Thus, by all means, keep heaven’s harmony. So, what needs to happen for this to take place? There either has to be compromise or one side has to “cave.” Hephaestus recommends the latter course.
The scene takes on the appearance of the farce. He says that he will speak to his mother Hera and, even though she knows the situation, urge her to show kindness to the “beloved” or “dear” father Zeus (577-578) in order to stop the quarrel that threatens to disrupt their feast. But aren’t we as readers to assume that she is sitting there, listening in on this ludicrous tableau? Aren’t you supposed to go to the person affected and use “quiet diplomacy” to get your ends, rather than spilling it all in the grand hall of the Olympians? Why wouldn’t this approach tend to increase the
animosity? He is actually speaking to her as he tries to address the assembly of gods, but he addresses the entire assembly.
He next envisions the situation if Zeus really gets mad. The literary device he uses here is aposiopesis, where a speaker “falls silent,” as it were, and lets the audience complete the thought.
That is what he does in the first words of line 580:
“If however the Olympian hurler of lightning wanted. . ."
Silence follows. If he wanted to do what? The worst scenarios fill the minds of listeners. Then Hephaestus continues. If he wanted, he could hurl us from our seats. These are the same seats that they rose from in deference, and not a little fear, when Zeus entered their presence (534). The verb used to describe Zeus’ possible throwing them from their seats is stuphelizo, which emphasizes
hard, harsh or violent casting aside. Seems to fit Zeus, doesn’t it? The only justification Hephaestus provides is that “he” (Zeus) is the “mightiest” of all (581). Nestor had used this word, though not in the superlative, to describe Agamemnon as he related to Achilles (281). Achilles might be stronger, but Agamemnon is mightier. But here Zeus is called the “mightiest” (phertatos).
Then, before finishing his speech before the gods, Hephaestus turns and addresses Hera directly (582-583):
“But you (emphasized), cling to him with soft words. Immediately, then, favorable results will come for us."