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Lesson 5

And the Iliad's hero is. . . Patroklos!?! 

Also, in this issue, an investigative report: was Homer abducted 
by aliens? 

Get the story here

Achilles' second prayer marks the turning point in the Iliad.

The half-answered prayer

By scroll 16 of the Iliad, Achilles' angry prayer (recall Lesson 3) has been answered. The Trojans have driven back the Achaeans to the shore, and they are setting fire to one of the ships. Agamemnon, Odysseus, and other Achaean commanders have been wounded. Giant Ajax, the last captain standing, is exhausted and demoralized for he realizes that he is fighting against Zeus.

Yet Achilles has vowed that he will not rejoin the fighting until Hektor slaughters his way to the tents of the Myrmidons (Iliad 9.644). Achilles plans to defend his Myrmidons--Patroklos and the rest of Achilles' own personal attendants and followers--but the battle hasn't touched the Myrmidon camp yet. So, unmoved, without pity, Achilles watches the battle at the ships and the destruction of the Achaeans. His magic is working. They are getting what they deserve, he thinks.

But "the choice of Achilles" is about to be made for him. Sympathetic identification with victims will not be denied (recall Lesson 2). Because the Achaeans are suffering, Achilles' companion Patroklos will die, and because Patroklos will die, Achilles also will die. As Homer sees the cycle of violence, killing escalates out of fellow-feeling and compassion for victims.

Patroklos is appalled by Achilles' indifference. In tears Patroklos describes the wounds and hardships of the Achaeans, and he urges Achilles to let him and the other Myrmidons intervene in the battle. This critical point in the action, when Achilles agrees, is marked by Achilles' second prayer:

"King Zeus," he cried, "...if you heard me when I prayed to you aforetime, and did me honor while you sent disaster on the Achaeans, grant me now the fulfillment of yet this further prayer. I shall stay here where my assembly of ships are lying, but I shall send my comrade into battle at the head of many Myrmidons. Grant, O all-seeing Zeus, that victory may go with him; put your courage into his heart that Hektor may learn whether my squire [therapon] is man enough to fight alone, or whether his might is only then so indomitable when I myself enter the turmoil of war. Afterwards, when he has chased the fight and the cry of battle from the ships, grant that he may return unharmed, with his armor and his comrades, fighters in close combat."

Thus did he pray, and all-counseling Zeus heard his prayer. Part of it he did indeed grant him, but not the whole. He granted that Patroklos should thrust back war and battle from the ships, but refused to let him come safely out of the fight. Iliad 16.218 (emphasis added)

Why won't Zeus grant both of Achilles' wishes? What's wrong with Achilles' once-powerful magic? 

If you've been following these lessons from the beginning, you understand that Achilles is a creative creature (recall Lesson 1). He has an unusual degree of control over events, including strong influence among both mortals and gods, but ultimately there are real limitations by which he is controlled. The limitations are events that are destined to be, and not to be, regardless of Achilles' prayers or desires. 

It's a big job, even for deep-minded Zeus, to keep track of all of the prayers and prophecies on earth and to reconcile them so that they come true in the unfolding of human events. Zeus has promised that Achilles will be avenged upon the Achaeans, but he has also sent his sign to Kalkhas that the Achaeans will win the war. Zeus needs to find a way to keep his covenant with the Achaeans by redirecting Achilles' anger from Agamemnon to Hektor. That's where Patroklos comes in.


Image of Achilles and Athena in battle, based on a classical decoration.

Patroklos the substitute,
 Iliad 15.592 - 19.895

Link to the story here

Achilles' two-part prayer to Zeus, for Patroklos' victory and safe return from fighting, reflects "the choice of Achilles." (Recall the choice in Lesson 4.) Achilles is fated to choose between glory and homecoming, because he can't have both. In his prayer to Zeus, however, he asks for  both. By sending Patroklos into battle, Achilles intends (1) to win glory for himself and also (2) to protect the ships for his own safe homecoming.  That is, he hopes to regain Briseis, along with other gifts and honors from the Achaeans, and then to sail off unharmed into the sunset. 

That may be how stories end in Hollywood scripts, but it's not how Hellenic heroes are supposed to act. If they receive gifts and fair words, they are supposed to give over their anger. (Recall Phoenix' teaching from the mission to Achilles.) Like young Oedipus' attempt to run away from home, Achilles' get-away plan is an attempt to overcome his fate--and hence a contradiction in terms, fate being what it is.

Achilles knows his fate because his goddess mother has told him. He knows that neither he nor Patroklos ever will sack Troy:

[Achilles] knew that he [Patroklos] was not to sack the city neither with nor without himself, for his mother had often told him this when he had sat alone with her, and she had informed him of the counsels of great Zeus. Iliad 17.400

Accordingly, Achilles allows Patroklos to fight but emphatically warns him to stay away from Troy, for the gods in their management of fate will protect the city against his attack. Achilles tells his friend:

Patroklos, fall upon them and save the fleet from burning, lest the Trojans deprive us of our homecoming [nostos]. Bring to fulfillment [telos] what I now order you to do, so that you may win me great honor [timÍ] from all the Danaans, and that they may restore the girl to me again and give me rich gifts into the bargain. When you have driven the Trojans from the ships, come back again. Though Heraís thundering husband should put triumph within your reach, do not fight the Trojans further in my absence, or you will rob me of glory that should be mine. And do not for lust of battle go on killing the Trojans nor lead the Achaeans on to Ilion, lest one of the ever-living gods from Olympus attack you, for Phoebus Apollo loves them well. Return when you have freed the ships from peril, and let others wage war upon the plain. Iliad 16.84 (emphasis added) 

Grecian urn showing Homeric chariot team of charioteer and armored warrior.In spite of these clear rules of military engagement, limited intervention is not in keeping with the spirit of combat. In the battle, Zeus drives Patroklos to chase the Trojans back to the walls of Troy where Apollo is waiting to kill him. Patroklos is trapped; the story comes true. Patroklos can't escape Achilles' fate--which is another way of saying that Achilles can't escape his own fate through Patroklos.  The two stories essentially are the same.

Patroklos is a "substitute" for Achilles. The identification of the two characters is expressed in a variety of ways:

  • Patroklos is described as the "therapon" to Achilles. This term often is translated in English as "companion" or "friend," or even "dearest friend," but in Homeric Greek the term means "attendant," "minister" or "ritual substitute." The therapon is a personal representative who takes on the role of the superior.

  • Patroklos is Achilles' military attendant and charioteer. In Homeric chariot warfare, the fighter and his charioteer are a two-man team who must think as one (Iliad 16.218). The charioteer is the fighter's most trusted companion--and for good reason. He's the fighter's loyal "get-away man" who literally attends upon the fighter by keeping the chariot nearby to the fighting to provide an escape. Naturally, Achilles thinks of his charioteer as the one person who may be able to help him escape from his fate.

  • Patroklos wears Achilles' armor; the enemy Trojans are tricked by the disguise. They think that Patroklos is Achilles, and they run away in panic at the mere sight of the armor (Iliad 16.27, 275).

  • In Achilles' plan, Patroklos' success in battle will win glory for Achilles; likewise Patroklos' return from battle will secure Achilles' homecoming (Iliad 16.67, 124). Achilles thinks that Patroklos can accomplish what has been forbidden to Achilles: winning gifts and also going home with them. But the plan doesn't work: Patroklos can't escape Achilles' destiny.

  • Patroklos' death means that Achilles must die (Iliad 18.97).

  • Achilles' ashes eventually will be buried in the same urn, within the same funeral mound as Patroklos' ashes (Iliad 23.82).

The charioteer, image modeled on the bust a classical statue at Delphi.The death and funeral of Achilles are foreseen through Patroklos' surrogate death and funeral. In effect, Patroklos' story magically dictates what Achilles does. Patroklos is the pattern or model, just as his name suggests that it should be (Patroklos="glory of the fathers"). Even though the ships are safe after Patroklos has driven the Trojans away from them, Achilles cannot de-couple himself from the story and sail home without Patroklos.


Story summary,
Iliad 15.592 - 19.424

This long section of the Iliad, from Patroklos' death through Achilles' god-like appearance in arms, is the figurative death and resurrection of Achilles. When Patroklos dies, Achilles decides to die:

I would die here and now, in that I could not save my comrade. He has fallen far from home, and in his hour of need my hand was not there to help him. What is there for me? Return to my own land I shall not, and I have brought no saving neither to Patroklos nor to my other comrades of whom so many have been slain by mighty Hektor; I stay here by my ships a bootless burden upon the earth. Iliad 18.97

But Achilles begins to appear as if resurrected when he puts on divine armor, tastes heavenly ambrosia instead of mortal food of animal sacrifice, and appears before the Achaeans as their savior.

To summarized this part of the Iliad briefly:

Iliad 15.592. The Trojans reach the Achaean ships and begin setting fire to one of them. This point marks the fulfillment of Achilles' prayer to Thetis. From this point Zeus is determined to turn the tide of battle once more in favor of the Achaeans.

Iliad 16.1. Patroklos persuades Achilles to let him enter the battle, wearing Achilles' armor and leading the Myrmidons. Achilles agrees but warns Patroklos not to attack Troy itself; he orders Patroklos to return to camp as soon as the Trojans have been turned away from the ships. Achilles prays to Zeus for Patroklos to win the battle at the ships and to return safely to camp. We learn that Zeus, however, will grant only the first part of the prayer. Patroklos puts on Achilles' armor, and the Trojans think that Achilles has returned to the field.

Iliad 16.419. Battle is joined. Almost immediately it becomes apparent that fate cannot be avoided. Zeus allows his own mortal son Sarpedon to be killed by Patroklos only because Sarpedon has been fated to die. The Achaeans and Trojans fight for possession of Sarpedon's body, but Zeus has the corpse flown back to Sarpedon's home in far-away Lycia for proper entombment and memorial.

Iliad 16.684.  Zeus determines how Patroklos will die. Patroklos becomes foolishly enthusiastic: he chases the Trojans back to Troy, and he assaults the walls. After he kills Hektor's charioteer Kebriones, and seizes Kebriones' corpse, Patroklos is stunned and disarmed by Apollo. (Kebriones is Patroklos' Trojan counterpart, just as Hektor is the Trojan counterpart to Achilles.) Patroklos is wounded and completely helpless when Hektor kills him with a finishing spear thrust.

Iliad 17.1. Hektor strips the armor of Achilles from Patroklos' body, and he puts it on. The Trojans now drive the Achaeans back toward their ships again. There is a bloody struggle for Patroklos' corpse. The Trojans want the body to be eaten by vultures or fed to the dogs; the Achaeans want it for proper funeral rites. (This odd behavior makes sense in the context of hero religion. The hero cult's power depends on the burials, remains, and relics of its heroes. Also one not properly buried becomes an angry spirit that haunts survivors.)

Iliad 18.1. When news of Patroklos' death is brought to him, Achilles falls into a near-suicidal state of self pity. Achilles' mother Thetis and the rest of the Nereids join the ritual lament. Everybody knows what Patroklos' death means: Achilles must kill Hektor, and Achilles' own death is destined to follow very soon after Hektor's. The chain of revenges is revealed. (Recall the linkage between sacrificer and victim, or hunter and hunted, from Lecture 2; the Iliad shows a chain of killers turned victims from Sarpedon to Patroklos to Hektor to Achilles.)

Iliad 18.165. Crowned by Athena with gleaming fire like the sun, Achilles shows himself to the Trojans as they fight. They withdraw from the battle in terror at the sight. The two Ajaxes and Menelaos then are able to rescue Patroklos' body and return it to Achilles' tent. Achilles and the Myrmidons mourn for Patroklos.

Iliad 18.368.  With Patroklos' dead body in Achilles' tent, the condition of Achilles' vow has been fulfilled, and Achilles is ready to fight--except that like Patroklos he now has no armor. Thetis obtains a new suit of armor for her son from the god Hephaistos. One of the great highlights of the Iliad is the description of this shining armor, and particularly the marvelous shield of Achilles.

Iliad 19.1. Achilles and Agamemnon are reconciled. Achilles receives the gifts that Agamemnon previously has promised. Even so, Achilles remains estranged from the Achaeans. He will not eat with them, but he is fed heavenly ambrosia. He arms for battle and appears transformed, like a god.


Achilles and foe, image based on a classical decoration.

Homeric warfare

Homer is noted for battle scenes. They occupy much of the Iliad, and there are famous peculiarities about them:

  • Gods are involved in the fighting; they arrange the outcome in important duels so that fated things actually will happen. As noted in Lesson 2, warfare always reflects spiritual conditions.

  • Combat is highly verbal: adversary warriors often boast and threaten one another before they fight. Language is used to intimidate and dehumanize the adversary.

  • Fatal wounds are described in observant, graphic, often grim detail.

  • Battle becomes heated and focused in struggles for possession of slain warriors' armors and/or corpses. Enemy corpses are to be mutilated and destroyed while the corpses of friends and allies are to be saved and memorialized with proper rites and monuments (i.e., for future hero rituals).

  • Similes abound as fighters are compared to animals, insects, fish, waves, trees and other natural objects. The similes ask us to see warfare in a natural context of relentless killing.

  • Overall there is a repetitive, at times monotonous quality in the battle scenes, in spite of the strong dramatic action and often brilliant description. Many of the duals are similar to one another so that the action, through its multiplication, seems impersonal.

The panoramic view of the battle scenes allows Homer to explore the powers and limitations of magic on a large scale. Patroklos is the double of Achilles, but when battle is joined we see that all of the warriors on both sides of the field are fundamentally like Achilles in their general fate. All of them want glory, but they do not want to die. Hopes for simultaneous glory and safety are regularly extinguished in confrontations among warriors. In the big picture of battle there are all kinds of incompatible human wishes that can't come true.

Image from a classical vase.The Homeric battlefield is an image of the paradox of imagination (recall Lesson 1). Imagination sways battles when individuals, and even whole armies, forecast or forebode outcomes of the fighting. As the outlook improves with hope or erodes with fear, anticipation governs experience, and the tide of battle shifts. The battle at the ships provides one example:

And now the battle again raged furiously at the ships. You would have thought the men were coming on fresh and unwearied, so fiercely did they fight; and this was the mind [noos] in which they were - the Achaeans did not believe they should escape destruction but thought themselves doomed, while there was not a Trojan but his heart beat high with the hope of firing the ships and putting the Achaean heroes to the sword. Thus were the two sides minded. Iliad 15.696 (emphasis supplied).

But the psychology, outlook and tide of battle are reversed after Achilles gives his Myrmidons a pep talk and sends them out to engage the Trojans. In Homer's description, it's almost as if Achilles' words are pouring out into the fight:

With these words he [Achilles] put heart and soul into them all, and they fell in a body upon the Trojans. The ships rang again with the cry which the Achaeans raised, and when the Trojans saw the brave son of Menoitios [Patroklos] and his attendant [therapŰn] all gleaming in their armor, they were daunted and their battalions were thrown into confusion, for they thought the fleet son of Peleus must now have put aside his anger, and must have been reconciled to Agamemnon; every one, therefore, looked round about to see whither he might flee for safety. Iliad 16.275).

Intimidation is magic; fear sees more than what's there to be worried about. Encouragement is magic, too; in talk or mere words nothing is impossible. Homeric warriors and armies are caught in the interplay between these two modes of speech, as if the war is a war of words.

Imagination is dangerous to those who fall pray to fear and despair, but positive thinking hazards self-delusion or false optimism, like Achilles' hope to escape with the girl and his life. Warriors are killed for misreading their own stories. They are short-sighted fools who fail to see when the hour of their death is upon them, when some god stands ready to strike them down if they persist in fighting. For example, Patroklos' over-enthusiasm in hunting the enemy leads him into mortal danger:

Meanwhile Patroklos, with many a shout to his horses and to Automedon, pursued the Trojans and Lycians in the pride and foolishness of his heart. Had he but obeyed the bidding of the son of Peleus, he would have escaped death and been unharmed; but the counsels of Zeus pass manís understanding; he will put even a brave man to flight and snatch victory from his grasp, or again he will set him on to fight, as he now did when he put a high spirit into the heart of Patroklos. Iliad 16.684 (emphasis added)

Later Hektor and the Trojans, on the eve of defeat, suffer from a similar over-confidence:

Thus spoke Hektor [advising the Trojans not to flee from Achilles]; and the Trojans, fools that they were, shouted in approval, for Pallas Athena had robbed them of their understanding. Iliad 18.310 (emphasis added).

There are many other examples of the vanity of human wishes in the Iliad. Homer misses few opportunities to point out the irony of the courageous fool, the blind creature that can't see the doom toward which it bravely rushes, armed to kill. It's a variation on a favorite theme of irony: the wound inflicted that is the wound received, or you are eaten as you eat. (Recall Lesson 2.)

In Homeric warfare discretion often appears to be the better part of valor. Homer does not criticize Achilles for sitting on the sidelines when Achilles believes that fighting soon will cause his own death. Odysseus threatens to whip those Achaeans who want to sail home, but nobody is court marshaled or outcast for trying to escape from deadly confrontation. Nobody  is branded as a malingerer. Even courageous Ajax falls back from combat when he sees that his efforts are futile because the gods are supporting the Trojans. When Paris makes love and not war, he's under the spell of Helen and Aphrodite. Zeus, Athena or other gods explain men's fearful acts, just as they explain their courageous ones. Homer seems to observe the various fight-or-flight behaviors without pronouncing moral judgment.

Social duty and civic loyalty become motivating forces in later ages, after Homer, when the good soldier is defined mainly in political terms; military champions in later history may mechanically respond without questioning whenever their country, church or other favorite institution calls them, no matter how dumb or destructive their orders. Homer's Hektor is a model for this heroism, since he is shamed by what others might think of him, if he does not lead the battle charge. Generally in Homer, however, the interests of the state and its disciplined engine of war are not as important as self-preservation, protection of personal assets, and support of comrades. These are private, not public considerations. There's no nationalism or racism or religious bigotry here. Achaeans are not better than Trojans or vice versa.


Sleep and Death remove the body of Sarpedon by Zeus' command. Scene from a classical vase painting.

The God of singers
and victims of the plot

Homer's gods sometimes have pity for human suffering, and they appear to have power to do something about it, but their first priority is to make sure that things on earth work out according to destiny's general plan. That means, among other things, that mortals must die. 

Zeus clearly wants to save his own mortal son Sarpedon from death, and he evidently has power to do it, but Sarpedon's death previously has been fated, and so Zeus regretfully allows Sarpedon to die (Iliad xvi, 431). Why? Zeus is persuaded that the alternative would be chaos, because pardoning anyone would mean pardoning all: all of the gods would want to rescue their sons and favorites from the battle, regardless of the dictates of fate.

The question occurs to us: why don't the gods indeed rescue all of the warriors? Why should this war occur? Why do the gods allow it? Why are mortals mortal?

Zeus' answer seems to be that the war, at least in its general form, already exists before it is fought; the actual fighting merely manifests or incarnates the story for all to see. Mortals were made to die. In the heroic scheme of things, based on ancient ideas of sacrifice, nature must constantly be recycled. The sacrificer must become the victim. That's just how it is.

There's a relation way to look at this problem of Zeus' cold-heartedness, too. Zeus is the Homeric singer's god. Zeus and the bard know all of the stories in advance and make them happen for all to see. Singing is a creative art, but the performer must fulfill audience expectations that have been well defined through song tradition. That's the bard's fate, and it largely is cast in stone.

For Homer, as for Homer's Zeus, there's no changing the story in any big way because it is, at least in its broad outlines, believed. The battles happened or are famous for having happened, and heroes died or everybody thinks so. Troy fell or in all accounts is reported to have fallen. (Recall Odysseus at the Phaeacian court listening carefully to be sure that the bard Demodocus accurately describes the fall of Troy. Demodocus is not free to introduce original material in retelling the events of the story. His creativity is limited to his style or expression, how he sings; it does not extend to his content or subject, what he sings about. There are reckless bards, who get their stories wrong, but Demodocus is not one of them.)

Whether Sarpedon lives or dies, the Homeric singer has no more authority to decide than Zeus. Sarpedon must die because it says so in the story, and everybody knows it. If it's anybody's fault, it's ours, because the bard has to sing what we believe to be true. We won't tolerate nonsense.

This bardic method of recital of famous events is a prototype for history writing. The story is not the bard's imaginative brain-child. It has authority and independent existence as a public record that has been studied, learned and passed down by professionals through the generations. 

The gods help Achilles and others to accomplish some of their wishes, so that it is not always a waste of time to pray for their help, but the gods primarily serve fate, the pre-existing pattern or story-plan for human events. The priority of fate is shown from the outset of the Iliad when Zeus wrestles with Achilles' angry prayer for the destruction of the Achaeans. Zeus would like to help Achilles, but he's uncomfortable with Achilles' prayer, not because of its violence or immorality but because the Trojans aren't supposed to win the war. (Hera gently reminds him of this outcome also!) So Zeus grumbles: how can all the fates work out if Achilles' prayer is granted, too? The question keeps him awake at night. Like an accomplished story-teller, of course, he soon finds an artful way to weave it into the story. 

The Trojans must lose the war and Hektor must die because Homer's audience believed that such things happened. In this sense, fame rules the universe of Homeric song. The Homeric bard's job is not to confuse the public with new stories, in the way that a creative academic historian revises the story of the past in order to advance the field of history--that is, win fame for himself! The bard's job is to tell and explain the old stories that the public already believes. The events are given, and the art lies only in their telling.


The god Hephaistos makes Achilles' armor for Thetis, after a classical decoration.

Achilles' new suit: Homer in space

Armor occupies center stage in the Iliad, as soon as Achilles decides to participate through Patroklos in the fighting:

(1) Patroklos wears Achilles' armor as a disguise at the battle of the ships; it scares the Trojans;

(2) after a lengthy fight for possession of Achilles' armor, Hektor strips it from Patroklos' body, and he puts it on;

(3) Thetis obtains new armor for Achilles from the blacksmith god Hephaistos. When Hektor and Achilles square off in the final showdown of the Iliad, the old armor confronts the new armor, Achilles versus Achilles.

The armor changes serve the Homeric theme of identification (previously described in Lesson 2 and later). Patroklos becomes Achilles by dressing in Achilles' armor. Hektor later does the same. When Hektor kills Patroklos, he is killing Achilles. When Achilles kills Hektor, he is killing Achilles. The climax of Achilles versus Achilles is a visual representation of self-sacrifice.

Armor also helps to make combat impersonal. Confrontation is largely of armor and arms, since the warriors are hidden beneath and behind with few living parts exposed. The man dies, but his armor goes on fighting when someone else puts it on.

Armor also serves the general Homeric theme of death and resurrection which comes to the forefront of the Iliad when Patroklos dies. While he is grieving for dead Patroklos, and lying in the dust, Achilles is figuratively dead, but when he puts on the divine armor that he receives from Thetis and Hephaistos, he appears as if reborn into eternity.

The heavenly armor is not standard military equipment. The shield, particularly, is far beyond human skill to make. Homer describes the shield at length in scroll 18 by telling how the god Hephaistos constructs the shield. The account begins almost like the opening of Genesis

He wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of heaven - the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of Okeanos. Iliad 18.483

After completing city and country settings, scenes of war and peace, weddings and deaths, work and play, not forgetting a singing bard or it seems anything else, the creator completes the work by making the end of the world (in Greek cosmology), the river Oceanus:

All round the outermost rim of the shield he set the mighty stream of the river Okeanos. Iliad 18.687

The shield from center to rim is an image of the entire world, presented from the astonishing point of view of one who is completely outside and beyond, like an astronaut looking down on the whole. Behold, planet earth! When Achilles arms himself, the shield shines its light far off, as if it were the moon, and its apparent light strikes up into the heavens faintly across vast distances: 

He slung the silver-studded sword of bronze about his shoulders, and then took up the shield so great and strong that shone afar with a splendor as of the moon. As the light seen by sailors from out at sea, when men have lit a fire in their homestead high up among the mountains, but the sailors are carried out to sea by wind and storm far from the haven where they would be - even so did the gleam of Achillesí wondrous shield strike up into the heavens. Iliad 19.369

Credit Homer with humankind's first extraterrestrial pictures? The cosmic point of view described in these images seems to belong in the space age.

That's not all. The view of the shield, as Hephaistos hammers it out, changes instantly from scene to scene as fast as thought. The scenes themselves are extraordinary. Most marvelously it is "curious to behold" how images on the shield move or show apparent motion. For example: 

He [Hephaistos] wrought also a fair fallow field, large and thrice ploughed already. Many men were working at the plough within it, turning their oxen to and fro, furrow after furrow. Each time that they turned on reaching the headland a man would come up to them and give them a cup of wine, and they would go back to their furrows looking forward to the time when they should again reach the headland. The part that they had ploughed was dark behind them, so that the field, though it was of gold, still looked as if it were being ploughed - very curious to behold. Iliad 18.54 (emphasis added)

Color variation can distinguish freshly ploughed from unploughed parts of a row, but how does a blacksmith's art show that a field has been "thrice ploughed already"? It is possible that the shield's ploughmen making their turns and drinking their wine are mechanical? (Note that Hephaistos already has invented robots [18.410], and when Thetis arrives at his imperishable house he is working on automated cars [18.368].) Even if the ploughmen are mechanical, how do viewers see that the ploughmen, while working, are looking forward to the next turn? Do their expressions show it somehow? No painting that survives from Homer's time conveys such subtlety. Does Homer have motion pictures in mind?!? 

We can puzzle over the seemingly-impossible details of the shield, trying to explain them somehow, but Homer's point seems simple. The shield is miraculous--and in its mysterious animation most like our earth. Here, somehow, there is life, and intelligent responsive life. The sustaining field refreshes the ploughman who labors at it. There are joys and sorrows and a full range of emotions not evident elsewhere in the cosmos. There is celebration, ceremony, entertainment, pastime, music and delight.  

Offered to Achilles as he is soon to die, the shield is a great consoling vision that puts all of human life, and life itself, in perspective. The shield contains a probable reference to Achilles in its depiction of "Fate who was dragging three men after her, one with a fresh wound, and the other unwounded, while the third was dead, and she was dragging him along by his heel" (Iliad 18.509, emphasis added). Achilles will die by a wound to his heel. And yet this image is a tiny piece of a very much greater and harmonious picture. Death isn't the end of the world. In the collective view, it isn't even the end of life.

Sketch of Myron's statue, Discuss Thrower.The translation of a story or narrative into sculpture, painting or any kind of still art is a change of dimension from spaceless time into timeless space. All of these arts are abstract in that they lack at least one dimension of reality, but all of them can suggest the missing dimensions. Just as a painting or sculpture (like Myron's classic "discus thrower," figure left) can suggest motion or action through time, a story or narrative can suggest space through emphasis on "visual" qualities, such as physical description and imagery. Homer's shield of Achilles is an outstanding example.

The advantage of the visual arts has not been lost on story-tellers, for a painter or sculptor can show a physical thing in itself--always a challenging job for a worker in words, who so often seems to be trapped in the act of expression while the subject itself remains elusive. Eternity can be captured in a sculpture or picture, and this is particularly the job of funerary art--at which the Hellenes excelled, like the Egyptians before them. Images inspired by Homer are seen regularly in Hellenic paintings on funeral urns, sacrificial dishes, and libation vases and bowls that survive into our time. The Homeric songs lend themselves to this visual treatment because of their interest in timeless, universal themes.

In the description of the shield of Achilles Homer bridges the gap between words and things. He comes up with a verbal picture of reality, appealing mainly to sight, using artless-seeming grammar and common words, mostly nouns and simple verbs. Note, for example, how nearly everything in the following description is physical, and nearly all of the coordination or relationship between things is spatial:

He [Hephaistos] wrought also a field of harvest grain, and the reapers were reaping with sharp sickles in their hands. Swathe after swathe fell to the ground in a straight line behind them, and the binders bound them in bands of twisted straw. There were three binders, and behind them there were boys who gathered the cut grain in armfuls and kept on bringing them to be bound: among them all the owner of the land stood by in silence and was glad. The servants were getting a meal ready under an oak, for they had sacrificed a great ox, and were busy cutting him up, while the women were making a porridge of much white barley for the laborersí dinner. Iliad 18.550 (emphasis added to show spatial relationships)

The last sentence here breaks the spatial pattern by turning to a reliance on temporal relations: the ox was sacrificed and dinner will be served in the time outside of the present instant captured by the image depicted on the shield. The grammar underscores the idea of sacrifice as the organizing principle of time.

This is the talking picture, the spare disjointed style where words come as close as possible to things in themselves.


Achilles and Ajax play dice while Athena dances; image from a classical vase.

Agamemnon's madness:
Reconciliation of Achilles and Agamemnon

After Patroklos' death Achilles intends to forgive and forget his quarrel with Agamemnon (Iliad 18.97). His reunion with Agamemnon is an uneasy one, however. Achilles' anger is not appeased, but its primary target is diverted from Agamemnon to Hektor and the Trojans.

The public reconciliation ceremony is presented in scroll 19. All of the Achaeans from the camp, even the ships' helmsmen and the waiters, come to witness the show: 

  • Achilles publicly renounces his anger: "if we have been angry, necessity has schooled our anger. I put it from me: I dare not nurse it for ever" (Iliad 19.54). Yet clearly Achilles is still angry, and there is no personal reconciliation with Agamemnon. 

  • Agamemnon issues his "apology" to Achilles. Yet he doesn't say he's sorry for taking Briseis. He admits insanity (or demonical possession). The goddess Ate made him act blindly, he says. Agamemnon tells the story of how, once upon a time, even Zeus himself was afflicted by Ate.

  • Agamemnon offers to Achilles the gifts (including Briseis) that previously were offered to him during the mission to Achilles in scroll 9. Achilles admits Agamemnon's right to give gifts or to withhold them. He is impatient to fight and doesn't want to waste the day arguing over "trifles." Nevertheless, the gifts are brought out, in the view of all the Achaeans, and Achilles receives them.

  • Agamemnon swears a formal oath, sealed with the sacrifice of a boar, that he has not had sexual relations with Briseis. 

  • Achilles publicly accepts Agamemnon's insanity defense, which he uses to excuse his own desertion from the war: "Father Zeus, truly you give atÍ to men and bane to them. The son of Atreus had not else stirred me to so fierce an anger, nor so stubbornly taken Briseis from me against my will. Surely Zeus must have counseled the destruction of many an Argive" (Iliad 19.266). 

Both men seem to save face by blaming their actions on the gods. The public ceremony of reconciliation specifically recalls the opening of the Iliad, the council scene of scroll 1 where Achilles and Agamemnon first fall out. In that opening scene, Achilles' anger is traced back through Apollo and the priest Chryses to Agamemnon, but it isn't clear what's wrong with Agamemnon: he is seen only from a distanced point of view, the view of Achilles. [Recall Lesson 3] Now in scroll 19, Agamemnon provides a self-diagnosis. He blames Zeus, Hera, and their oldest daughter, a peculiar spirit of self-destruction called AtÍ

Agamemnon claims that he was possessed. He says that the spirits struck him with mental derangement, a state of mind for which the Homeric word is atÍ:

AtÍ, eldest of Zeusí daughters, shuts menís eyes to their destruction. She walks delicately, not on the solid earth, but hovers over the heads of men to make them stumble or to ensnare them. Iliad 19.74

Agamemnon doesn't apologize. Although he was out of control, the fault was not his but AtÍ's.

Where does this demon or mental disease come from? Why should it exist? Agamemnon tells the assembly at considerable length. To paraphrase his story about atÍ:

Zeus begets sons of mortal women in city-states all over the Hellenic world. These activities keep Hera busy because she is the goddess of childbirth: that is, she delivers Zeus' babies not as his wife but as midwife. So she does not love all of these little Zeus followers with a mother's love, and she is glad enough to see strife among them. It's quite a complicated arrangement.

One day, as if to establish a unified Hellenic nation for all time to come, Zeus announces that one of his sons will rule over all of his sons. This favorite son will be mighty Heracles who is scheduled to be born on that very same day in Thebes. Seeing her opportunity, Hera asks Zeus to re-word the great and irrevocable decree that he is about to announce: the ruler of the Hellenes, he should say, will be the infant who will be born that very same day (omitting to name names). Zeus rashly agrees to this small, seemingly meaningless revision of his commandment. Sure, why not?

Hera then goes to deliver babies. She takes a detour from Thebes and stops first at Argos where she delivers prematurely the infant Eurystheus (a great grandson to Zeus through the house of Perseus). Then she goes to Thebes where she postpones the birth of Heracles indefinitely. Returning to Olympus from her rounds, she mentions Eurystheus' birth to Zeus. Zeus is grief-stricken and furious that Eurystheus is to rule the Hellenes. Mighty Heracles now will have to perform a lifetime of hard labors for wimpy Eurystheus! In his anger over this matter, Zeus seizes AtÍ by the hair and hurls her down to earth where she must reside forever among humankind because Zeus won't let her back into heaven. 

Insofar as Agamemnon offers this story as an excuse for personal misconduct, it simply means that "everybody makes mistakes," even Zeus, at least when AtÍ is nearby. 

There is considerably more to the story, however. The relationship between Eurystheus and Heracles parallels that between Agamemnon and Achilles. What Agamemnon calls atÍ a psychoanalyst might call anxiety, driven by an inferiority complex or lack of self-esteem.

The Eurystheus-Heracles story is a political myth that explains the subordination of the Achaean city-states to Argos. Argos is identified with Hera. She was the principal goddess of Argos (the city of Menelaos and Helen, the city later known as Sparta), nearby Mycenae (Agamemnon's city), and the Argive plain between and around them. Hera's power derives not from physical strength, or from Zeus' favors, but through control of birthright. Eurystheus rules because he is older than Heracles, certainly not because he is stronger or better in the eyes of Zeus.

The modern name for Zeus' commandment (the Hera edition) is the law of primogeniture, which picks heirs without regard to power, merit or natural selection. Primogeniture settles succession always on the first born. Zeus doesn't like it because it does not guarantee that the fittest individual comes out on top. (More on Zeus' Darwinian leanings in the next lesson.) Primogeniture can make a premie more powerful than Heracles.

Primogeniture serves a useful social function, because open warfare and power struggles can be avoided, at least when everybody obeys the law. There's always friction, however, when "the best of the Achaeans" is a younger Achilles or Heracles, not an elder Agamemnon or Eurystheus. Superiority of the younger individual fosters envy in the younger, the sense that the elder heir is undeserving because inferior. Heracles and Achilles may be "the best" but they are burdened by their labors, their sense of life's unfairness. Obviously, the superiority of the younger also produces fear in the older individual whose nominal power always seems threatened. 

A fluke in the order of births, when Eurystheus was born prematurely before Heracles, has resulted in Argos' leadership of the Achaean league. It has made Agamemnon and Menelaos the Achaean leaders at Troy. The Trojan War expedition is conducted for their benefit (Helen is a queen of Argos). Achilles serves in this war, resentfully, only as a paid laborer or mercenary. He deserves better, he thinks, because he's the one who's doing most of the plundering. When he isn't paid (when Agamemnon takes Briseis away), he doesn't work. (More on the importance of birth order in the next lesson.)

Recognizing his inferiority to Achilles, Agamemnon has pulled rank to demonstrate that he's the boss. Seeing himself as "the best of the Achaeans" Achilles can't accept a subservient role. The interaction between the two powerful men is dysfunctional as both of them harm themselves while trying to hurt the other. (Again recall the favorite Homeric theme of identification, that the blow delivered is the blow received: Lesson 2.)

The restoration of Achaean unity seems to require the offering of fair gifts and fair words that Phoenix prescribes for heroic society in Scroll 9. (Recall Lesson 4.)  Yet the gifts given to Achilles are "trifles" since Achilles knows that he is about to die and lose all of them, including Briseis. And the words spoken to Achilles in the public reconciliation scene are not satisfying either, since Agamemnon can't bring himself to admit that he was wrong. 

Achilles is impatient with the ceremonies and masquerades of Argive unity. He won't eat with the Argives. He has found motivation only in the memory Patroklos and the spirit of revenge. The story now is in charge of him, and he has become the cult of the hero Patroklos

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Lesson Summary: In the reading for this lesson, Homer is at his descriptive best portraying battle, the rivalry of Agamemnon and Achilles, and the emotional development of Achilles following Patroklos' death. Perhaps the highlight of the entire Iliad is the description of the shield of Achilles with its image of life on earth, as seen from the eternal perspective of Hephaistos.


Additional related readings
 and journal topics

1. Achilles' shield: "the shield is a great consoling vision that puts all of human life and life itself in perspective." This part of Homer's song has inspired poets ever since. Perhaps the most famous example is the English poet John Keats whose Ode on A Grecian Urn (1819 AD) was composed as Keats was dying of tuberculosis at age 24. Grecian urns were used in ancient times as receptacles for human ashes; some of them could be seen in London in Keats' time, and still today, at the British Museum. Keats' ode is an extended play on this word "still" that appears in the poem's first line: the urn is "still" because its art is motionless and also because it remains through time.

2. Sustaining food: after the death of Patroklos, Achilles is sustained by ambrosia, the food of the gods (19.337, 349). He no longer eats meats, derived from animal sacrifices, as the other warriors do, but he does not hunger or lose strength. The same heavenly ambrosia also is an ointment that miraculously protects Patroklos' corpse from decay (19.28) and later Hektor's corpse as well. The mysterious food of eternal life and post mortem preservation seems to anticipate the Christian Eucharist. Another parallel is the Hebrew Bible's manna from heaven, described in Exodus 16:15-35.

How does ambrosia fit into Homer's themes of eating and sacrifice? 

What does your cult have to say, if anything, about food and the do's and don't of eating? What's the reason for these regulations?

3. Achilles' war cry: "There did he stand and shout aloud. Athena also raised her voice from afar, and spread terror unspeakable among the Trojans . . . Thrice did Achilles raise his loud cry as he stood by the trench, and thrice were the Trojans and their brave allies thrown into confusion; whereon twelve of their noblest champions fell beneath the wheels of their chariots and perished by their own spears" (Iliad 18.217).  

Now that's magic! But what about you? Have you terrorized others with words? Have you been scared to death by threats or bullying language aimed by others at you?

Can you see why Homer's warriors talk before they join in one-on-one combat: why they identify themselves, boast to one another, speak sarcastically about their opponent?

4. Viet Nam, a personal note: the Iliad always has made its strongest impression during times of war. In the USA of 1965, when I read Homer in an all-boys high school, the class was well aware of each student's candidacy, after graduation, to be drafted into military service and sent to war half way around the world to a place called Viet Nam. The class was split over America's involvement in Viet Nam, with a majority in support of the war, but each student of course found complete support for his opinion in the Iliad. Classroom debate over whether Homer was pro-war or anti-war seemed only to factionalize the class, as if to anticipate the nationwide social divisions over the war in the later 1960's, the formative event of my generation. Oh, and yes, that was 1965 AD. --Dr. Gutchess

Do you have experience in combat? If so, what do you make of warfare in the Iliad?

How does Homeric warfare compare with the depiction of wars in modern novels and films?

5. Superstition: In the ancient world, the answer to the courageous fool problem in warfare was to look further ahead, to read the story before deciding whether to engage in battle. For Greek and later Roman commanders, military strategy ordinarily was dependent on prophets, augurs and soothsayers who could read the future to see which days would be auspicious and inauspicious for fighting. 

These story-tellers sold their services beyond the military, too. Ordinary people consulted them before important personal decisions of all kinds. Today we look back at this magical practice as complete superstition, and yet our world is as full of advisors as at any time in history. They tell us how to achieve personal happiness, how to win an election, how to forecast the stock market, how to relieve stress, how to succeed in businesses, how to live longer, and anything else we would like to do... These are our soothsayers. We think that their words have power over us and our circumstances.

Whose advice do you follow? What's the story that you're listening to? Why do you believe it?

6. Primogeniture: note how the rivalry of Achilles and Agamemnon makes both men unhappy, indeed bordering on insanity. Does Agamemnon's analysis of the problem, using the story of AtÍ, seem convincing? 

What personal rivalries are you engaged in? What's their purpose?

7. Half-answered prayer: why is it that prayers aren't answered or aren't answered in full?


Powers of Literature

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: Achilles with Athena in battle, scene from a classical bowl. Contrast this with the image of Athena's restraint of Achilles. described back in scroll 1, Lesson 3

 

 

 

 

Achilles wants to be a god: to receive gifts and keep them, to have both glory and life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chariot team, as described in Homer, is shown on this magnificent ancient vase. The vehicle is a mode of transport to and from the location of hand-to-hand combat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patroklos is the pattern or idealized heroic image for non-heroic Achilles to live up to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another image of Achilles with Athena in battle (image based on classical vase decoration). Achilles' posture is the same that is seen in countless images of Egyptian Pharaoh with upraised arm smiting the foe. The Hellenic touch is that Achilles is not a god, like Pharaoh, but the outcome of battle is decided by gods  who watch over the combatants. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: classical vase. Sacrificer and victim are transferred to the battlefield in classical art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: from a classical vase, Sarpedon's body taken away for proper burial. The story of the death of Sarpedon, son of Zeus, has invited comparison with the later story of the death of God's son, Jesus. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: Thetis and Hephaistos from a classical dish decoration. The making of Achilles' shield and armor was one of the most widely illustrated scenes in all of Greek art. It also became standard for later poets, imitating Homer, to include an elaborate description of the main character's battle gear and weapons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classical arts lacked full dimensionality. The graphic arts were "timeless" in missing the dimension of time. Their usual subjects were the dead, who were thought to be timeless also, existing "forever" in memory. Myron's discuss thrower statue (image reduced by me to two dimensions, left) is a participant in a funeral game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: Achilles and Ajax play dice, before setting off for Troy where both will die. Athena dances between them. Scene based on a classical vase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left: sculptors at work, a scene from a classical dish.