The Rage of Achilles
Posted April 3, 2011on:
Here we go with the Iliad! Norton includes selections from several of the books, with summaries of the omitted parts. Today, I’m dealing only with Book One.
It is fitting that the first word of this epic poem is Rage, because just about everyone in this part of the poem is mad as hell. I actually made an “Angry List” in my margins. The list of the pissed includes: Achilles, Agamemnon, the priest of Apollo, Apollo himself, Hera, and Zeus. And probably quite a few of the non-speaking roles, as well.
Now, if you don’t already know, the vast Acheaen (aka Greek) army, is currently waging war on Troy in retribution for the “kidnapping” of Helen (the wife of Menelaus, one of their kings). In one of the many battles, the Greeks raid a city called Thebe and take a number of young women captive. These girls are distributed like the spoils of war, and Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus) receives a girl known as Chyseis (probably not her actual name, this is only a patronym). Chryses (her father) was a priest of Apollo, and he made a desperate plea to get her back. Agamemnon refused, and Chryses used his divine connections to call a great plague down on the Greeks.
Displaying a great deal of intelligence, the Greeks have no idea why they’re being punished (ugh), and get a seer to tell them which god is angry and why. The seer tells them that Agamemnon is an ass and Apollo isn’t happy about it, and even tells them how to fix it. Thus ensues a huge hissy fit from Agamemnon, who isn’t happy about losing his newest toy apparently. Achilles calls him out and we witness a knock-down, drag-out fight which nearly comes to fatal blows. Agamemnon finally agrees to send Chryseis home, but only if he is allowed to acquire Achilles’ war prize, a girl known as Briseis. Achilles quits the army, and goes off to mope and tell his mommy (Thetis) all about his woes. Thetis is a waternymph and has a special relationship with Zeus, so she promises to get some revenge on her son’s behalf, via Zeus. Hera of course isn’t happy about this (she never is), but Zeus agrees to enter the conflict on the side of the Trojans.
Now, I could make a whole post discussing the horrific treatment of women in this portion of the narrative. Kidnapping, rape, slavery… These obviously top the heap. Worst in my eyes, though, is the namelessness of these poor girls. Both of the human women mentioned herein are known only by a patronym (a name referring to their father). The only time we “see” them at all is when Briseis is taken from Achilles’ tent: “she trailed on behind, reluctant, every step.” This is surprisingly sympathetic and actually gives a glimpse at what she must have thought about all this – I am surprised that she’s permitted to have emotions at all. And it’s not only the human females who suffered in the Greek world. Hera herself, Queen of Heaven and wife of Zeus, is treated appallingly by her husband, and Hephaestus even hints that she’d be beaten if she didn’t give in to Zeus.
Moving away from that, let’s discuss the imagery in this piece. Remember, this was a tale from the oral tradition, and it was meant to be performed aloud by what we’d call a minstrel. The entire work displays the evidence of this origin, and none more beautifully than in the vibrant imagery. When you read this, you really must picture it in your head. A professional traveling poet, performing perhaps in the center of town, surrounded by passersby. His gestures are large and emotive. His voice changes for each character. Maybe he moves about and acts out the action as Achilles and Agamemnon fight. His whole body will transform from their powerful bodies into the frail wizened form of Nestor as he tries to reason with them. As Zeus, he will draw himself to his tallest height. Hephaestus probably limped around, drawing a laugh from the crowd. And in between these dramatic performances, there are simply some beautiful passages, meant to evoke memories and dreams in the hearers. The fragrant and graphic sacrifices to Apollo. Dawn rising over the Acheaen ships. The desperate plea of Thetis to mighty Zeus. Across the centuries, a careful reader might still be able to hear the silver tongue of Homer.