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42. From Quarrel to Celebration, Second Essay, I. 568-611
So saying, he hurried to his dear mother,
and placed a two-handled cup in her hands:
"Be patient, mother, and contain your anger,
lest you who are dear to me are beaten
while I look on. For all my pain, there’s no way
I could help you, the Olympian is a tough antagonist to face.
Once before, when I rushed to save you,
he seized me by the foot and hurled me from heaven’s threshold;
all day headlong I plunged, and fell, with the sun,
half-dead, to Lemnos' shore.
There the Sintians ran to nurse me from my fall."
The white-armed goddess, Hera, smiled at this,
and took the cup from her son, still smiling.
Then he served wine to all the other gods, starting on the left,
pouring sweet nectar from the mixing-bowl.
And immortal laughter rose from the bliss-filled gods,
as they watched Hephaestus bustling about the hall.
So they banqueted all day till sunset,
missing nothing of the shared feast,
nor of the lovely lyre Apollo played,
nor of the singing Muses, who answered each other in sweet harmony.
But when the sun’s bright light had faded,
each went off to rest in their separate houses,
built with rare skill by the god
lamed in both feet, famous Hephaestus;
and Olympian Zeus, the lord of lightning,
ascended to his accustomed bed to find sweet sleep,
with Hera of the golden throne beside him.
Hephaestus’ Comfort and Story (584-594)
Hephaestus has finished his address, so he quickly pops up and offers his dear mother (phile again) the great double-handled goblet. Words of rising fill Book I. Mostly they are rather pedestrian, to describe how a person rises to speak in the assembly. But three are noteworthy. Here we have anaisso which means “to start up, dart up, spring up.” He quickly rises because he has to attend to Hera. Then, we have already seen Nestor spring up (anorouo) when Agamemnon and Achilles are at each other’s necks (248). Finally, we twice saw the evocative anaduo to describe Thetis “rising up” through the waters, breaking the surface and appearing on the earth (359).
He now directly addresses his mother with words that combine tenderness and realism. The first thought takes two lines to say, but then there is an enjambed word at the beginning of line 588
that makes us glad we know Greek. He tells her to: “Have courage,” or “Buck up” and “Endure,” even though she is in pain, because:
“I do not want to see you, though you are beloved to me, before my eyes. . .”
Well, what? The enjambed word completes the idea: “beaten” (theinomenen-588). The word also carries with it the notion of being slain, but we know this isn’t possible for the immortal gods. It does, however, quickly enable us to grasp the gravity of the situation. Zeus can have his way with Hera, and there is not a thing the other Olympians can do about it. Hephaestus concludes these thoughts with a typical Homeric epigrammatic statement (590):
“To oppose the Olympian is too hard/cruel"
He then narrates a cute vignette about his own past experience that proved to be so compelling that the seventeenth century poet John Milton used these lines in Paradise Lost (I.740-746), and
expanded them to describe the “fall” of Hephaestus/ Mulciber from heaven before the creation of humans. While the appeal of Homer’s story is in its demonstration of Zeus’ power and its curious attention to detail, Milton’s words are powerful because of the visual image of falling that he creates. In Milton we, as it were, see Mulciber/ Hephaestus f-a-l-l-i-n-g, because Milton stretches out the time taken to fall to the earth as part of his larger theological scheme to show how far Heaven is from earth and then from Hell.
Here, however, we have Hephaestus telling the tragi-comical story of how at one time when he came to help Hera, Zeus grabbed him by the foot (I suppose a person would remember this) and
hurled him over the heavenly balustrade towards earth. Achilles had his heel; Hephaestus had his foot. He fell all day and as the sun was setting he landed on Lemnos with little spirit left in him.
Line 594 is completely unnecessary but, like a dash of a special spice added to a ragout, memorably tasty:
“There the Sintian men attended to me after I had fallen.”
The addition of this last line helps “frame” the picture Homer just created. We see the bold attempt to help, the unexpected grab on the foot, the hapless divinity falling day and night, the injured
god (“with little spirit”—593) left in him, the amazed Sintians coming upon this curious figure, and the careful tending they give him to nurse him back to health. We smile at the story, even as Hephaestus is deadly serious in narrating it.
Transitioning to the Party and the Night (595-611)
Homer’s brilliance is partly manifest because he knows that the reader will be smiling after Hephaestus’ earnest story. So, he has Hera smile and the gods laugh, and these two verbs
enable the striking transition between a grim scene of conflict and potential violence to a light scene of celebration and harmony by the end of Book I. Twice Homer mentions Hera’s smiling (595, 596) at her son. Why is she smiling? Perhaps in seeing her son’s intense narration she realizes something that parents always realize about their children—they lack perspective. Children
might consider one event in one day of their lives to be absolutely earth-shattering. Parents, on the other hand, usually see it as part of the weave of life’s interesting tapestry. Parents smile not
only because the child has “survived” what is apparently life-shattering, but because they know how to put the entire issue about which the child speaks into perspective.
So Hera smiled. Her smile is her acquiescence in the rugged realities of being the consort of the lord of the gods. She has to comply. She simply has to concede this one. It is better not only for
her but for the peace of the Olympian society. So her smile isn’t one, necessarily, of resignation. It is a recognition of the fact that “life is long,” to quote a twenty-first century truism, and that it really isn’t worth destroying heavenly harmony to try to smoke out Zeus in this instance.
But Hera’s smile gives permission to the other Olympians to laugh. But they don’t laugh because they have Hera’s perspective on quarrels and the future. They laugh at something much more
prosaic. Hephaestus is now trying to restore harmony among the gods by ladling out sweet nectar and rushing around distributing it among the gods (596-598). He, however, doesn’t have the youthfulness or grace of the other cupbearers for the gods, Hebe and Ganymede, and his clumping around arouses the risibilities of the others. The lines are unforgettable (599-600):
“An inextinguishable laughter arose from the blessed gods when they saw Hephaestus bustling around the palace"
The Greek word translated “inextinguishable” is asbestos. How beautiful. The word translated “arose” is enorto, and is in the aorist tense. It was a one-time burst of laughter that filled the
Once everyone was laughing, the party can begin in earnest. Hephaestus is now in his element, even though he is the butt of everyone’s jokes. He puffs around because he now has gotten
what he wants—gods that are beginning to celebrate again. Indeed, that is what they seem to do best—party. Humans might set out a feast and eat it, but, as we saw earlier, it is all part of a
complex ritual to make sure that Apollo will ward off the plague from them (440ff.). The dancing and singing after the meal isn’t to enjoy the pure sport and entertainment of those art forms but
rather to make sure that the god has been propitiated.
Yet nothing can be further from the gods’ minds as they engage in their feast in 601-611. Indeed, we are told that they feasted all day long until the setting of the sun (602-603). The word "feasted" is
“enjambed on line 603. We think that they could have spent all day. . .quarreling, or. . .in isolation, or . . . in earnest conversation. But Homer assures us that they spent this time in celebration. No one lacked anything (cf. 468). And, then we have Apollo appear and play his lute, and the Muses sing. You can’t play your lute if you are still angry, and this then is a sign that Apollo, at least, has put away his anger toward the Achaians. Homer is careful to note the antiphonal singing of the Muses (604). We can almost hear the music; we want to join in with the celebration.
And then, to top off Book I, Homer drops in a most intimate scene of the gods retiring after the sun has gone down. He doesn’t just say, “The sun set.” It is, “When the gleaming light of the sun sunk,” line 605. We go from a very social scene to a very private scene. Each god now goes to his/her own place, to the very home that Hephaestus himself had made. Hephaestus was so solicitous to make sure the society on Olympus functioned well that we almost wonder why Zeus threw him out in the first place. We are not told. Just another attack of pique, we suppose.
But capping off our scene is one of unity. We had the quarrel in heaven, but that was nicely resolved in the harmony of the celebration. Then, we had each god going off to his/her own Hephaestus-built palace. Yet, there still are two divinities to mention—Zeus and Hera. First, Zeus comes in for mention. The “one of the thunderbolt “went to his bed, where he was "accustomed to sleep.” But instead of going to bed alone, we have him joined by his consort, Hera. She, who was most offended as the narrative unfolded, is now the one that ends that offense and separation by joining her husband in bed. And, the last word of Book I is “Hera.” She, then, makes the decision to pursue harmony. If not having the last word, she has the last action of this entrancing Book I.
We have gone from anger to harmony, from splitting to joining, from heaven to earth in Book I. And, we are just getting started.