top of page

(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)


                                    7. The Priest’s Brief Speech (I.17-21)


"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."

The desperate father is really the powerful priest. He has access to power, but it is of a different kind of power than is arrayed around him with its flashing swords and glancing helmets. But it is to that power that he speaks. This might be “truth speaking to power,” as we are accustomed to say in our day, but in fact it is also “power speaking to power.” It takes us only a few lines to figure this out, but it takes the Achaians a hundred lines to do the same. 

His words in lines 17-21 are to the point, respectful, clear. They even carry a subtle threat to them that, from a rhetorical point of view, ought to add to their persuasiveness. His words are the first spoken words in the Iliad. Just think. Though the fight seems to be between Greeks and Trojans, and the instruments of war are spears and shields, the person who first speaks is a priest, who will soon exit the action. All our modern skepticism and gentle agnosticism can’t efface the fact that the Homeric society believes in the reality of a spiritual world. Big time.

                                            The Language of the Address (17-19)

First, in line 17, he addresses the people/leaders: “You sons of Atreus and other well-greaved Achaians.” He teaches us how to address a group. “Mr. President, Members of the Board,

Distinguished Faculty...” Note the epithet used for the Achaians: “well-greaved” or “strong-greaved.” A “greave” is a shin protector. A certain irony is here: the well-protected Achaians are really much more vulnerable in this situation than the single, staff-bearing priest.

His brief speech is nicely balanced. Lines 18-19, beginning with “umin” (“to you”), are balanced by lines 20-21, whose second and third words are “d’ emoi” (“but to me”). There is something for 

everyone in the speech he is giving. The fact that the neat balance isn’t perfect highlights the importance of the first word of line 20, which happens to be paida, or “child.” Ah, that is what this is

all about. A child. We will soon learn that his “child” is actually a girl who already is “enjoying” the bed of Agamemnon, so the term “child” is relative. No doubt the father uses it to emphasize her vulnerability. In fact, one’s children can always, to an extent, be characterized as “child.” They never really grow up.

The first two lines express a wish or prayer, and for this reason the verb is in the optative mood in Greek. The sentiment of 18-19, then, is “may the gods grant you....” or “Oh, that you would receive...” In this case Chryses expresses his wish that these gods, whom he says parenthetically “have Olympian homes,” would grant to the Achaeans utterly to sack the City of Priam and arrive home safely. It is not called “Troy” yet. Just as men are introduced by their patronymic, so great cities are known by the people who help to make them great. In America 2010 or 2020 we know cities by other epithets, “The Big Apple” for NYC; the “City of Roses” for Portland, OR. No one seemingly knows the former as “Rudy’s City.”

By mentioning the gods and their Olympian dwellings, the priest is reminding the reader, and the Achaians, of the reality under which they all live and fight: the will of the gods. In the face of the pressures of life and the apparent strength of the “well-greaved” troops, people forget this reality pretty quickly. They might acknowledge the gods in public statements or perfunctory private devotions, but they really don’t believe in their effective power. Yet, Chryses lives in the world of gods and their work. So, he wishes that these gods would let the Achaians “utterly sack” (ekpertho; the verb pertho appears in the opening lines of the Odyssey to express the same idea) Troy. But that, as we know from the Odyssey, is only half the problem. Getting home safely is the other. So, the priest also offers prayer that they might make it home safely. In a sense he is praying that they have the desires of their hearts fulfilled.

                                                The Rest of the Speech (20-21)

But then, the other shoe falls. The priest doesn’t offer prayers gratuitously. He isn’t in the business of praying when nothing is at stake for him or the god he serves. His first word of line 20, “child,” tells us everything. Just as the narrative gently unfolds, bringing us new pieces of precious information every few lines (such as the fact that both Agamemnon and Menelaus are addressed in line 16), so a new piece is given here. All this destruction might have something to do with a child. In quietly

introducing new but vital information Homer teaches us as students and teachers how to do what we love best. Get to the point quickly, clearly, powerfully, and introduce new material

to be sure, but introduce it gradually, as the narrative and the experience of your hearers can bear. You aren’t brilliant because you confuse people; indeed, creation of confusion by introducing

too much information too quickly is discourteous--and it makes people ignore you.

It is a child, his child, who moves the father/priest Chryses to speak. Interestingly enough, we will soon learn that her name is Chryseis. No doubt a chip of the old block. Their names differ

only in an “iota.” You wonder if there was more than an iota of difference between them.

The father’s request is clear. “May the gods give you to sack, but free my child...” It is as simple as that. The verb translated “free” or “give me back” or “set free” is the simple verb lusein.

So common and regular is the verb that it is used in all Greek textbooks today as the basic verb to study to learn the complex forms of the Greek verb. lu-o, lu-eis, lu-ei. Countless generations

of students have intoned those words. “I loose, you loose, s/he looses.” So common. So easy. In this case, the aorist infinitive is used as a command. “Loose (free) her for me. . .” But then the poet

drops in a little word in the middle of line 19--philen--”beloved.”  The “child” and “beloved” are separated by four words, but the concept is knit in the father’s heart. She is his beloved child.

He, unlike the god of Christian theology, isn’t willing to see his child sacrificed. He, unlike the patriarch of the Hebrew people, isn’t called upon actually to give up his beloved child (Genesis 22).

Daniel Webster may have made a tearful plea before the Supreme Court regarding Dartmouth, “It is a small college, yet there are those who love it...,” but he was only talking about a school. Here

we have the appeal for a beloved daughter.

But just as the father/priest doesn’t offer gratuitous prayers for the Achaians, so he doesn’t expect them to free his daughter “for free.” Life is a series of “IOU’s,” whether our obligations are to the gods or to other people. There is something in the deal for everyone. He will receive his daughter, and the Achaians will receive the ransom he has brought. Though the narrator describes

the ransom as “boundless” or “infinite” in line 13, the priest just calls it “ransom.” No reason to inflate it or its value. Just tell the truth. It is ransom, pure and simple.

Line 20 then functions as a sort of summary verse. The sense is that by returning the daughter and taking the ransom in her place, the Achaians will honor Zeus’s son. But here the son is named for the first time by one of the participants in the drama. He isn’t just the son of Leto and Zeus. He is Zeus’ son Apollo. And, as in line 14, he is called the “sharpshooter.” Now the Greeks are warned. By returning the child and taking the ransom, they will be honoring the “sharp-shooter.”


Gentle hints. That is the way this speech operates. Everyone can easily be satisfied if you just follow a few basic steps. 'You will get rewards, I will pray to the gods that you sack Troy, and I get my 

I daughter back.' No one gets hurt (except, of course, the apparently hapless Trojans). But standing in the shadows is the “sharp-shooter.” He is the one with unerring vision. And, we think that his will 

to fulfill the priest's wishes will be one of the ways that line 5 is realized.

Let’s conclude this first section of narrative with the observation that there are three spondaic verses in the first 21 lines. You have to know something about Greek meter to know what that means, but essentially it is that there are three lines (11, 14, 21) where the fifth foot (as well as the sixth, for that matter) have only two long beats rather than three (long-short-short). It means that the reader has to pause on these lines, go more slowly, and thus emphasize the content. What is the content of the last sounds of these lines? In line 11 it is “priest.” In lines 14 and 21 it is “Apollo.” We are told that only about one in 20 lines of Homer is spondaic, but here we have three within the first 21 lines. Getting the hint yet? I t is all about the divine action, Apollo's action. 

Next Essay

Previous Essay

bottom of page