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6. The Quarrel Begins, I.8-21
Which of the gods set these two to quarrel? Apollo,
the son of Leto and Zeus, angered by the king,
brought an evil plague on the army, so that the men were dying,
for the son of Atreus had dishonored Chryses the priest.
He it was who came to the swift Achaean ships,
to free his daughter, bringing a wealth of ransom,
carrying a golden staff adorned with the ribbons of far-striking Apollo,
and called out to the Achaeans,
above all to the two leaders of armies, those sons of Atreus:
‘Atreides, and all you bronze-greaved Achaeans,
may the gods who live on Olympus
grant you to sack Priam's city, and sail back home in safety;
but take this ransom, and free my darling child;
show reverence for Zeus’s son, far-striking Apollo.’
More Anger, Quick Action
Homer begins his narrative in an unexpected way in line 8. Rather than plunging directly into the human quarrel, he asks which of the gods brought the two into conflict. The word for strife or
conflict, both here and in line 6, is eris. You don’t have to go far in your study of Greek mythology to discover that Eris was the goddess of discord or strife. She personified what to many is a daily occurrence. So, her “name” appears twice in the first eight lines, more than Agamemnon, the same as Achilles. Homer doesn’t even give us a chance to say, 'Hold on, Homer! Don’t give me divine causation. I wanted to look at the human factors behind the quarrel.' He closes the interpretive
window very quickly by answering his question before we have the time to raise our hands. He answers the question before we know what the question really is: “the son of Leto and Zeus,” line 9.
Well, just as the humans were identified by their parentage, so are the gods. The son of these two divinities isn’t named, but the first hearers would know that it means Apollo. Homer doesn’t need to
mention him, his birth, his education, how he became honored in various places, etc. Though Apollo has a story, we don’t learn it here. Or, better said, we learn only the part of Apollo’s past and
his story as helps us understand how he instigated the human quarrel. Homer’s mention of the gods here is consistent with line 5; he doesn’t let us forget that the gods are behind things. But
he is no philosopher, nor does he try to calibrate or parcel out respective spheres of responsibility for quarrel between gods and humans. A god caused it. That is all. Then we move into the
realm of humans.
Quickly Describing the Quarrel
Quarrels happen. In this case it was because “he,” the son of Leto and Zeus, was angered at the “king.” Though specific names aren’t given, we understand that Apollo is ticked off at
Agamemnon. So anger seems to be spreading here, even though the word used to describe the divine anger (choloo--from which we get our word “choler” in English) differs from the menin in
line 1. Just as certain Aleuts living in the Arctic are said to have many words for snow or white, so the lliad, concerned as it is with exploring anger, has many words for that emotion.
Well, Apollo is mad. Achilles is mad. Later on we will learn that Agamemnon is also furious. We learn about Apollo’s anger before we learn about Achilles’ wrath. He is angry “at the king"
(Agamemnon). So, we have some interesting triangulation already arising. Homer was to sing Achilles’ anger, but now we are introduced to Apollo’s anger at Agamemnon. Hold on and it
will all make sense soon.
Apollo’s anger, we are told, actually did harm, for it kindled an evil disease or plague throughout the army. The words “plague” and “evil” are separated by three words. “Plague” is the first word
of line 10 (nousos/nosos) ; that is the concept that is foregrounded (to use a chic term of lit-crit folk). Lest we think that the plague is a one-time assault of mild proportions, the last three words of the line tell us differently. “And the people were being destroyed” is what it says. It doesn’t say that the troops or army was being destroyed; Homer uses the common word for “people.” Underneath the
glittering armor and glancing helms are people, simply people. The verb, translated “destroyed,” is in the imperfect tense in Greek, a tense that signifies continued action. The people “keep
being destroyed.” There really is no end in sight. Within three lines of beginning the narrative, then, we have people destroyed. These aren’t soldiers boldly dying in battle, being carried home on
their shields, so to speak. These are “people” who are consumed by disease. Dying like flies. Ignominious. Mother’s sons. Mothers will be given flag-bedecked coffins and told that their sons died as heroes. But that isn’t the truth. They died because they got sick.
The Plot Thickens
We have seen the result of Apollo’s anger, but we don’t yet know the reason for it. Line 11 takes us there. Or, better said, line 11 and the first word of line 12 take us there. I restated my point
because Homer emphasizes the culprit or reason behind the release of Apollo’s anger only in line 12. The thought in lines 11 and 12 is enjambed, and the place of prominence in line 12 is occupied by
“the son of Atreus.” Well, he wanted all the attention, and Homer gladly gives it to him. But, what did “the son of Atreus” actually do? Line 11 tells us. He dishonored Chryses. But Chrsyes isn’t
any “Joe,” and not only because his name isn’t Joe. He is a priest. Ah, that word “priest” (aretera) is the last word of the line and it, like the diasteten in line 6, consists of four long syllables. It
contributes, as scholars call it, to a spondaic verse, a verse in which the fifth of six metrical feet is a spondee (long-long) rather than an iamb (long-short-short). Thus, the singer of the tale must
pause over aretera, pronouncing it something like “a-rhay-tay-rah,” with each syllable solemnly accented. The force of the word is supposed to hit the reader as follows: ‘It is a priest, dummy,
with whom you are dealing! Think twice in handling him!’ Who would have dishonored such a priest? Well, the next word (line 12) is “son of Atreus.”
Thus, we are plunged into the world not only of anger but also of honor and dishonor. Again, we need not open large tomes to learn about the importance of the concept of honor in ancient
Greece. Just follow the narrative and we will learn all we need to know. Agamemnon has dishonored a priest, no doubt a priest of Apollo. It is interesting that even though several gods and
humans have been mentioned so far, we only learn the names of Achilles and Chryses at this point. Everyone else is covered with the patina of patronymic palabras.
We now have another “he” who takes up the action in line 12--the dishonored priest. We don’t know why or how he was dishonored, but we will quickly discover the reason. He came alongside the swift boats of the Achaians to deliver a message. There is a little irony in Homer’s use of the word “swift” to designate the beached Achaian vessels. They are swift but apparently not swift enough to evade the quick-moving plague. What good do swift things bring for you, if they can’t protect you
in time of need?
So, the priest comes along these ships, and we learn in line 13 the reason for his journey. He wants to free his daughter. Focus is becoming even more clear for us. We don’t know why she is
being held, and we aren’t told immediately. We have to wait on that one, too, and develop our patience. Homer teaches us to be good readers and, as good readers, good people because patience is probably one of the most important lessons you will ever learn in life. Learn to wait until the story unfolds, until someone tells you what she wants to say to you. Wait for the food, the opening, the kiss. There is a time for them all.
But first we learn about the priest. He comes to free his daughter, to be sure, but it is his description in lines 13-16 that stops us. He carries “boundless” or “countless” or “immeasurable” ransoms. I
love the long word, apereisia, that these English words translate. It is a cousin of the common Greek word aperantos, which is used with words such as “space” or “numbers” to suggest infinity. Such is the extent of the ransoms being brought by the priest. As infinite as all space. How does he carry them all? No U-Haul rental facilities in Troy, I bet. We don’t know, but we get a picture in our minds in the next few lines.
This picture is greatly and skillfully developed in lines 14 and 15: not only does he have ransoms in tow but he carries the fillets or wreaths which are on the golden scepter or staff of Apollo,
the one whom he serves. He not only has all the accoutrements of the divinity, but he bears with him the very human means for effecting the release of his daughter--riches. Chryses is playing
two roles here, of priest and father. If he were just her father he would have little standing. If he were just the priest of Apollo intervening for someone else, he would have more standing but
not the personal stake in the outcome. Now he has both--personal standing and stake.
When in December 2009 the ESPN sports analyst Craig James complained about mistreatment of his son by the Texas Tech football coach, it led rapidly to the dismissal of the coach, even though the coach was a “winner.” James combined the roles of father and specialist (which is really what a priest is-a specialist in things of the gods), and managed to get what he wanted, very quickly. Something similar will happen here. But before we get to his request/demand, a few other points require mention. Homer mentions that Chryses had the priestly insignia of Apollo with him. Apollo is called “the sharpshooter” or “the freeshooter.” The word qualifying Apollo in Greek is called an “epithet,” and a major literary convention observed by epic writers beginning with Homer is to use epithets. They give us pictures, and they move the action along. Already we have seen the epithet “swift” to describe the boats of the Achaians. Here the epithet is also significant, for it tells the reader that this Apollo is not a “peacenik” divinity. He is a sharpshooter. And we will soon witness his arrows unleashed on the Achaians, causing pain beyond measure.
Even though the father bears the insignia of divine power with him, the father/priest begs the Achaians to listen to him. He has to beg because he is a father; fathers make themselves
vulnerable for their children, especially for their daughters. They get up in the middle of the night to run them to the doctor; they bail them out financially (and from jail, if need be); they never stop
loving and wanting the best for their daughters. So, even though our priest serves a powerful divinity, he also is a vulnerable dad. Thus, he will beg “all” the Achaians (15). He has no pride to conceal his vulnerability. He will talk to anyone who listens.
But, most of all, he addresses the two commanders. Ah, two? Well, he will address the two sons of Atreus. There is another one? Oh yes, we will learn of him as the narrative unfolds. It is for
his sake, actually, that the Greeks are fighting. The priest knows that these are the ones in charge, and even though his appeal is to all, he focuses it on these two. Just like an attorney arguing
before the US Supreme Court. She knows that she must convince (at least in 2008-2010) the “centrist” jurist Anthony Kennedy. If that is done, the case is normally won. So, even though the entire Court is addressed (“May it please the Court” is the opening line of any attorney), she hopes in her heart of hearts that the argument would please Justice Kennedy.
The two sons of Atreus are addressed as the “marshals” or “commanders” of the armies. It is in that role, rather than another familiar phrase, the “shepherd” or “leader” of the people, that they are addressed.
Now we are ready for the words of the desperate dad.