(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
8. Insulting the Priest (I. 22-32)
Then the rest of the Achaeans shouted in agreement,
that the priest should be respected, and the fine ransom taken;
but this troubled the heart of Agamemnon son of Atreus,
and he dismissed the priest harshly, and dealt with him sternly:
‘Old man, don’t let me catch you loitering by the hollow ships
today, and don’t be back later,
lest your staff and the god’s ribbons fail to protect you.
Her, I shall not free; old age will claim her first,
far from her own country, in Argos my home,
where she can tend the loom, and share my bed.
Away now; don’t provoke me if you’d leave safely.’
The priest’s words cause waves. In fact, they produce a divided reaction between the troops and the leader, Agamemnon, lord of men. This chapter probes those varied reactions. Just as the priest’s speech was neatly divided by the two adversatives of lines 18 (“to you”) and 20 (“to me”), so the next four lines are evenly balanced between the reaction of the Achaian troops (22-23)
and a description of Agamemnon (24-25). Homer’s words of contrast are “then all the others” (22) and “but not to the son of Atreus” (24). You may not know Greek and may at first be oblivious to
the stylistic devices Homer is using, but you are the beneficiary of them in your reading. Homer “sings” because the narrative is so well-crafted. It is as if your parents have opened a trust account
for you, and you are living off that account but have been oblivious to the fact of its existence. What I am doing here is giving you the bank statement, so to speak, so that you know all about the account that provides your security and enjoyment. By probing the details of Homer’s literary method you not only see why this book has been considered among the greatest in Western
civilization, but you also enjoy a great story.
Reaction by the Crowd (22-23)
When Homer told us, in the lines we just studied, that the priest was preparing to speak to the Achaians, the text says he addressed them all, but especially the two sons of Atreus (15-16). Now
the reaction is in the same order--first of the crowd and then of one of the sons of Atreus. First up, then, are the Achaians. Homer says that “all the other” Achaians answered, a striking show of solidarity and unanimity. They shout their approval to honor the priest and to receive the “shining” ransom. The word “shining” is used for the first time (aglaa). Previously the ransom was “unlimited” or was only identified as “ransom.” Now things shine. No doubt the troops had noticed the glistering trinkets brought by Chryses and wanted them. Perhaps Chryses brought them for that very reason. In the Academy Award-winning movie Rain Man (1988), Raymond, the autistic savant, liked things that were “sparkly.” So, apparently, do the Achaian troops.
Two verbs describing the troops’ reaction make us pause. First, they “shouted their assent” and, second, they urged that the priest “be respected.” Each of those verbs has a story to
tell, which shall only be briefly hinted at here. The first is from the verb epeuphemizein. We see our word “euphemism” here. A euphemism is the substitution of a word or expression of
comparatively favorable implication or less unpleasant association for a hard word. The phrase “correctional facility” to designate a prison is one example. The Greek verb euphemeein, without the preposition “epi,” can take on two seemingly contrary meanings.
On the one hand it means “to use words of good omen”/”to speak good things” (eu is “good” and phemein is “to speak”); on the other hand it means “keep a religious silence during sacred rites.”
How can a verb carry the idea both of speaking and keeping silent? If you realize that the word had its origin in religious observances, the apparent contradiction vanishes. The original idea seemed
only to include the speaking of positive words in service to the gods. But, when you think about religious service for a minute, you realize that sometimes the best thing you can “speak” is silence. Hence, both meanings. Here, however, the meaning is clearly that the troops “shouted assent.” All the rest of the Achaians, seeing the glittering baubles, loudly approved his words.
The point is, however, that they wanted to “honor” the priest. The second verb to note is aidesthai, a wonderfully useful verb in Greek. G.S. Kirk tells us that it:
“cover[s] a wide range of feelings from fear to shame
to respect: respect for an elder, or for the interests of
one’s comrades, or for a status, function or office,”
The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 1, p. 373.
So, Homer has skillfully taken two powerful verbs that have their origin in service to the gods or in the religious sphere and now employs them to describe the troops’ assent. Not only will
it be hard to differentiate where divine purpose ends and human will begins, but even the language of religion is attributed to secular people, and the simple language of daily communication is put in
the mouth of priests. Divine and human are mingled here, we can’t separate them, and we are not talking Christology.
Getting Ready for Agamemnon’s Response (24-25)
Since lines 22-25 are neatly balanced, we must now get to the other side of the balance. The priest’s speech didn’t please the heart of Agamemnon, Atreus’ son. Literally line 24 runs, “but not to the son of Atreus Agamemnon was it pleasing in heart.” ‘Why not?’ we ask. But Homer won’t answer that question immediately; we will learn the answer in good time. Instead, he will have Agamemnon brutally and tastelessly insult the priest (26-32). Line 26 says:
“but evilly did he send him away, and placed a strong command upon him.”
The word rendered “evilly” is an adverb, and it isn’t quite clear whether it is the tone that is evil or the fact of sending him away is evil. In any case, bad news is foreshadowed. Some commentators point here to the rhetorical/grammatical phenomenon of tmesis or “splittling/cutting/separation” to
understand the line. The verb tellein, meaning “to place,” appears by itself, but two words before it is the preposition epi, meaning “upon.” The preposition appears “split” or “separated” from the
verb that animates it. In the evolution of the preposition attached to the Greek verb (like epeuphemizein--line 22) we have three stages. First, the prepositions were independent adverbs, then they became associated with the verb but perhaps separated by a word or two (as here); then they became attached to the verb, either carrying their original adverbial or prepositional force
or, as it were, “disappearing” in the meaning of the verb. Tmesis, as here, can be used as an effective rhetorical device.