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BOOK SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
BOOK I: The Quarrel About Briseis
Like all epic poems, The Iliad begins with an invocation to the Muse, in which Homer calls for divine inspiration in the telling of his story and defining the theme as the wrath of Achilles. It is the tenth year of the Trojan War, Chryses, the priest of Apollo, is seeking the return of his daughter, Chryseis. In an earlier raid on Lyrnessus, she and Briseis had been taken captives by Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior. Achilles then gave Chryseis to Agamemnon, the King of Argos, as his share of the booty, keeping Briseis for his own. When the Greek king refuses to accept the ransom that Chryses offers for his daughter, preferring to keep her as his own consort, he is punished by Apollo, who sends a plague upon the Greeks. After enduring the plague of Apollo for nine days, the Greeks hold an assembly. Achilles suggests that the Greeks must consult Calchas, their seer, to learn the reasons for the god's anger.
When he is approached, Calchas is afraid that his reply will cause him harm. As a result, he asks and receives the protection of Achilles before he gives his explanation. The seer then explains that Agamemnon has dishonored Apollo by refusing to release Chryseis, and the plague will continue until the girl is returned to her father. When Agamemnon is told he must release Chryseis, he rages against Calchas and says he only prophesies evil. In the end, he agrees to give up the girl in exchange for another. Unfortunately, he demands Briseis, Achilles' prize, as a replacement.
Agamemnon and Achilles have already been at odds because of Achilles' withdrawal from active participation in the Greek cause. Now Achilles is really infuriated at the King for his demand. He calls Agamemnon shameless and profiteering and shouts that he has fairly won Briseis and does not want to part with her. If he has to give her up, he threatens to desert the Greek cause and return to his homeland with his army. In angry response, Agamemnon tells him to return to Phthia if he desires, for he is no longer needed. Achilles is so upset at the insult that he thinks about drawing his spear and slaying Agamemnon. He is stopped by Athena, who was sent by Hera. She tells Achilles to refrain from killing Agamemnon and promises him that he will later be avenged.
Since the tempers of both Achilles and Agamemnon are enraged, Nestor, the aged leader from Pylos, intercedes and offers his sage advice. He tells Agamemnon that he should not dishonor Achilles by taking Briseis; but he also warns Achilles that he should not challenge the authority of the sceptered king. Unfortunately, Nestor's advice falls on deaf ears. The angry Achilles gathers his friends and returns to his quarters to make plans for returning to his homeland.
Achilles turns to his mother, Thetis, the sea goddess. After explaining to her what Agamemnon has done to him, he asks her to intercede for him with Zeus, for she is favored by this king of the gods. Thetis promises her son to approach the king of the gods on his behalf as soon as Zeus returns from his sojourn in the land of the Ethiopians.
When Agamemnon releases Chryseis, he chooses a good ship and twenty men to take her home to her father. He then sends two heralds, Talthybios and Durybates, to take Briseis from Achilles and bring her to him. Achilles begrudgingly releases the girl to the heralds, but he promises to permanently desert the Greek cause.
As promised, Thetis goes to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, and pleads with Zeus on behalf of Achilles. Zeus nods in agreement and promises to aid the Trojans against the Greeks. Without the help of the brave and capable Achilles on the battlefield, Agamemnon and the Greeks will have great difficulty fighting the Trojans, especially with Zeus on their side.
When Queen Hera, the wife of Zeus, learns of her husband's pact against the Greeks, she is distressed. She tells Zeus that he has been duped by the silver-footed Thetis. He boldly tells her to mind her own business.
The first book highlights the quarrel between Achilles, the great Greek warrior, and Agamemnon, the King of Pyros and the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. Agamemnon is infuriated that he must return Chryseis to her father in order to end a plague sent by Apollo against the king and his people. As a replacement for Chryseis, Agamemnon demands that Achilles hand over his consort, Briseis. Achilles begrudgingly complies, but feels shamed by the action. In response, he promises that he and all his men will desert Agamemnon and completely withdraw from the war effort. He also has his mother, Thetis, intercede with Zeus on his behalf. In response, Zeus promises his support to the Trojans in their war against Agamemnon and the Greeks.
Agamemnon and Achilles had already been at odds, for the king had criticized the warrior for no longer being personally or actively involved in the Greek cause. The wise King Nestor understands the depth of the quarrel between the two when he points out that the conflict is really between the authority of the king and the honor of a Greek hero. Both these concepts carried great importance in the time of Homer. It was understood that a king was the chief warlord, judge, and priest, who could demand complete obedience on the part of his subjects, especially in matters of war; but a brave warrior on the battlefield was equally respected.
It is not surprising that the strong personalities of Agamemnon and Achilles are in conflict. Agamemnon is infuriated that Achilles, the great Greek warrior, does not bow to his power. Achilles is equally infuriated that Agamemnon takes advantage of his royal authority and steals Briseis from him, wounding his pride and honor. This is not the first time Agamemnon has shown himself to be a haughty leader. Filled with hubris (excessive pride), he even dared to challenge the gods. Although a ransom had been offered for the release of Chryseis, Agamemnon had refused the offer, retaining the girl and raising the ire of the gods, especially Apollo.
The gods, ruled by Zeus, live on Mt. Olympus, but they frequently descend to interfere in the lives and affairs of mankind. When the gods are on the side of a human, they actually become a part of him, providing him with superhuman power. When they are against a man, they can cause great damage. Although Agamemnon has incurred the wrath of the gods over his quarrel with Achilles, the Greek warrior is also a loser in the fight. To retain his honor and respect, Achilles needs to prove his bravery on the battlefield, but now he has withdrawn from the fight. In so doing, he fences himself in, for the time being, to a place where his heroic aspect cannot be sustained.
Thetis, the goddess of the sea and Achilles' mother, has been able to convince Zeus to avenge her son because she came to the aid of the king of the gods in the past. When the other immortals tried to dislodge him, she sent hundred-handed Briareus to save Zeus. Since that time, Zeus has always been partial to her and easily agrees to help her son. Hera, Zeus' wife, is obviously jealous of the hold that Thetis has on her husband. When she complains to Zeus about his decision to aid the Trojans against the Greeks, she is told to mind her own business. As a result, the gods are divided in their allegiance to the humans. Hera and Athena will aid the Greeks, while Apollo, Ares, and Aphrodite will offer sustenance to the Trojans. Zeus will be left in the position of trying to bring harmony to bear between gods, between men, and between gods and men.