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The Iliad

THE STORY, continued


The Trojans move closer to the defensive wall of the Achaians. Notice how clearly Homer makes us see the battlefield layout; we're always conscious of that wall. We know from the opening lines that it's doomed to fall, but we're on the edge of our seats waiting for it to happen. At first the wall seems enormous- so large, we've been told, that it stood through the rest of the war and took the combined might of Apollo and Poseidon to bring it down. Its strength comes to stand for the strength of the entire Argive army. But as Hektor and his forces approach, the focus on the wall narrows.

Poulydamas suggests to Hektor that the Trojans dismount from their chariots and move on foot through the ditch, which is stuck with pointed stakes. Some readers have noted that Poulydamas is a foil for Hektor, showing by contrast his superior qualities. Poulydamas is Hektor's counterpart to Achilleus' comrade, Patroklos, but they aren't so loyal to each other. Though Hektor here agrees with the advice of Poulydamas, they seem to have been enemies somewhere in the past.

The Trojans arrange themselves in five companies to attack the wall from different directions. We skip around to various parts of the wall where the fighting is continuously furious. As Poulydamas, Hektor, and their men debate by the edge of the ditch, a sign from Zeus appears. A high-flying eagle clutches in its talons a blood-red snake that writhes backward and bites the eagle. The snake falls amid the battle as the eagle flies away, screaming in pain. This is serious. Omens were part of religion in those days; this isn't just a bad luck charm, like a black cat, but a definite warning of the gods' displeasure.

Poulydamas suggests to Hektor that the omen portends a turn of events for the Trojans even though things now appear to be going well. Hektor indignantly scoffs at the reading: "[O]ne bird sign is best," he said, "to fight in defense of our country." Thus Poulydamas' prudent counsel is contrasted to Hektor's impetuous and heroic nature.

The Trojans press against the fortifications from one side and another. The two Aiantes seem to be everywhere, fending off the attack for the Argives. Finally Hektor picks up a gigantic stone, hurls it at the main battlement gates, and crashes through them. Hektor's breach of the gates is achieved in a cinemalike montage: first the gate, then the stone, then the doors of the gate, the double door-bars, the holding pin, back to the stone, the gates groaning, door-bars breaking into splinters, and the face of Hektor following the stone through the broken doors. It's one of the most careful and artistic delineations of battle in the Iliad, and it is a decisive turning point for the Argive forces.

In through the wall pour the raging Trojans, eager to burn the Achaian ships. Hektor's dark face is like night, but his eyes gleam fire. The Achaians flee in terror among the ships. The Iliad has reached its halfway point.


While Zeus is preoccupied, Poseidon harnesses his underwater chariot and drives across the sea to help the Achaians. He appears to the Achaians in various disguises and inspires them. The book descends into a long and vicious battle, giving the second rank of Argive heroes a chance to shine.

The fighting in Book XIII is the most ruthless in the poem and is described by Homer in particularly bloody detail. There can be no doubt that we are in the midst of a terrible war, and constantly the hideous details of battle counteract the heroic struggle. Eyeballs pop out of a severed head, a head is thrown at the enemy like a bowling ball, and taunts are made over dead warriors in a way unlike other battle scenes. The combatants are vicious and merciless. But Homer's goals are always poetic. The vividness of the fighting makes war real, and just as the relentless mortality critiques the heroic code, it also brings it to life poignantly- and in deadly seriousness.

Hektor moves against his enemies like a great stone (remember he broke through the fortification wall also with a stone). The fighting all around is thick. Idomeneus, leader of the Kretans, is aiding a wounded comrade behind the battle lines. He runs into Meriones, his nephew, who is plucking out another spear, and the two engage in a long duel of taunts. Notice that much of the inspiration to fight in the Iliad comes from fear of shame; even the gods rouse the warriors by shaming them. Idomeneus defines courage and cowardice by talking about an ambush: while a coward would turn colors and chatter his teeth, a brave man would stand his ground, ready and eager for combat. Idomeneus and Meriones take an inventory of the battle positions around the wall and decide to enter on the left, where the Argive defense is weakest.

Idomeneus fights famously- this is his aristeia. We have another of Homer's graphic descriptions of death, as Idomeneus slays Alkathous:

He cried out then, a great cry, broken, the spear in him,
and fell, thunderously, and the spear in his heart was stuck fast
but the heart was panting still and beating to shake the butt end
of the spear.

The image of a spear throbbing with the last pulsations of a dying heart epitomizes the beauty and horror of war. Aineias leads the Trojans against Idomeneus until Idomeneus' age forces him to retire. The gruesome fighting continues. Menelaos fights several Trojans.

In the center of the fray Hektor continues his ravaging, while the two Aiantes defend the wall like yoked oxen. Poulydamas once again counsels Hektor, telling him to draw back temporarily and with his commanders devise a plan of attack. Hektor agrees with the plan of action but, battle hungry, he suggests that Poulydamas himself call the assembly while he, Hektor, fights on.

NOTE: As with most of the great fighters in the Iliad, Hektor's fighting frenzy borders on madness. In their aristeias, these warriors rise to a lunatic state of prowess. But this eagerness to fight is also at the root of the conflict that we will later see hurling a hero to his fated end.

Hektor ranges the ranks looking for several of his commanders, but all of them are dead. He does find Paris and once again rebukes him. Paris defends his fighting, and together the two enter the battle where it's thickest. They lead the Trojan advance like a tidal wave.

As Telemonian Aias defends the Argive position, an eagle appears, a good omen for the Achaians. Hektor again misreads the sign, claiming it predicts a Trojan victory. The hideous sound of battle rises to Olympos.


Behind the lines the Achaian ships, so numerous they can't all sit in the water, have been drawn up onto the beach. There, Nestor, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Diomedes gaze woefully at the ruined Argive defenses. For the third time Agamemnon suggests it might be time to head for home. Odysseus and Diomedes insist it's time to fight- even though they are wounded- and they reenter the battle. Agamemnon's continued desire to flee certainly makes us question his ability as commander-in-chief.

Poseidon gives a battle cry to rouse the Achaians (much the same yell as Ares gave when he was wounded in Book V). Hera, watching from Olympos, is happy with Poseidon's work but wants to make sure that Zeus, who's still distracted off on Mount Ida, doesn't notice that they're interfering again. Hera devises a plan to distract Zeus further. The ensuing passages, known to the ancient commentators as "The Deception of Zeus," offer some comic relief in the middle of this most hideous battle. Hera prepares to seduce Zeus by bathing, perfuming, and dressing herself up. It's almost a parody of the way we've seen the warriors arm for battle. She enlists the aid of Aphrodite to make her irresistible. Hera also calls on the allegorical figure of Sleep, brother of Death, to help her by visiting Zeus with his mind- dulling power.

Hera makes her way to Mount Ida. Before she's even finished with her flattery and lying, Zeus, struck by her sexy beauty, calls her to bed. Hera suggests going to her underwater chamber where they'll be safe from prying eyes (and also, she knows, safe from Zeus' eyes seeing anything at Troy), but Zeus can't wait. He catches her in his arms and lays her down. The earth spontaneously blossoms into a cushion of "fresh/grass, and into dewy clover, crocus, and hyacinth" beneath them. The whole scene provides not just comic relief (like most of the scenes on Olympos in the Iliad), but also a sweet and sympathetic reminder of the pleasures that go on far removed from the grim reality of war. This makes the war seem more tragic, especially when we remember that sweet love scenes like this between Paris and Helen started the war in the first place.

After the lovemaking, Zeus falls asleep, and once more Poseidon goads on the Argives. The fighting's as fierce and gruesome as in the previous book; wounds are portrayed in gut-wrenching detail. Telemonian Aias stops Hektor with a large rock, hitting him in the chest and bringing him to his knees. The Trojans quickly take Hektor away from the battle as he spits blood. The Argives, growing bolder during Hektor's absence, fight savagely, holding off the Trojan advance. Aias, son of Oileus, fights particularly well, chasing the retreating Trojan troops.


The Trojans are finally pushed back across the ditch. Zeus awakens and immediately discovers what's been happening. He scolds Hera, threatening to punish her; she offers a flimsy excuse that stops just short of lying. He commands her back to Olympos to summon Iris, his messenger, and Apollo to him. Then, in the most explicit terms yet, he explains to Hera the outline of his plan- that is, of course, the plot of the poem. Notice that Homer's drama doesn't depend on surprises: he pushes his characters toward a destiny we can easily foresee. It's the relentless approach of fate that provides the dramatic tension, as the characters draw closer to their tragic ends.

Hera does not tarry or meander. Homer tells us she goes fast as "the thought flashes in the mind of a man who, traversing/much territory, thinks of things in the mind's awareness,/'I wish I were in this place, or this', and imagines many things." This extraordinary image shows Homer's understanding of how the mind works- how complex our desires are, and how swiftly the brain functions. Hera arrives at Olympos and maliciously tries to goad Ares into interfering with the battle by telling him of the death of his son, Askalaphos. Only Athene's prudent hand stops Ares from getting involved.

Iris and Apollo go to Zeus, who's intent on manipulating the war again. Apollo wakens Hektor from his wound-stupor and breathes new strength into him. The Trojans attack once more, led by Ares brandishing the aegis. He stares straight into the eyes of the Danaans, shakes the terrible aegis, and raises a battle cry that terrifies them into a stampede. Like a child playing with sandcastles, Apollo kicks down the Achaian wall and bridges the ditch for the Trojans. They rush for the ships.

Patroklos, still tending the wounded Eurypylos, sees the rout taking place. He hastens to Achilleus to ask him to intervene.

The battle continues, with Hektor and Aias in the thick of things. Teukros aims his bow at Hektor, but Zeus causes the arrow to miss its target. It is now clear that the gods have abandoned the Achaians and are on the side of the Trojans.

Hektor urges his men to attack. This is the great assault of the Trojans, and Hektor is justly in his glory. Yet he is, like Ares, "insatiate of war," and while the beautiful horse goes to his sweet river and pasture, Hektor goes into battle, where the river is bloody. Following this simile comes another in which he is compared to a great lion that puts some hunting dogs to flight.

Another powerful series of similes attends Hektor's battle frenzy as he breaches the defense of the ships. First the Achaian defense is compared to a "towering sea cliff" that holds back the shifting winds and huge waves. Then Hektor is compared to a "storm-fed wave" that batters a ship and shakes its sails with a hurricane force. Finally Hektor is compared again to a lion that attacks a flock of oxen, and though the shepherd can tend to the first and the last he cannot keep the lion from devouring an ox in the middle and causing the rest to stampede. These wild and naturalistic forces add an almost mystic fury to the battle scenes, and they appropriately build up Hektor at the moment when he is most dangerous to the Achaians.


Patroklos, weeping at the Achaian defeat, comes to the hut of Achilleus and recounts the extent of their losses. He accuses Achilleus of being inhuman and asks to wear his armor so that the Trojans will think Achilleus has reentered the fighting and will lose heart.

This is the fatal turning of the plot for both Achilleus and Patroklos. Patroklos will take Achilleus' place and will, in fact, die for him. Achilleus' tragedy will take shape: he will move from shame over loss of honor to grief and guilt over the death of Patroklos. Achilleus repeats his reason for holding out against Agamemnon- he refuses to accept that rank (Agamemnon's) could eclipse honor (Achilleus'). Ask yourself- do you think Achilleus has held out so long that his anger makes him look petty? The price he'll soon have to pay- his friend's life- is extreme, and Achilleus himself will wonder if it was worth it. As he is hurled toward his fate, notice how Achilleus' public anger turns into a private sorrow, making him seem deeper, more human, and more of a tragic figure.

NOTE: Though he is sticking to his position, we can clearly see that Achilleus is being moved closer to a decision to fight. He's no longer standing aloof; he's watching the battle and is seriously concerned. That is why he goes along with Patroklos' scheme.

Achilleus is beginning to plot military strategy, too: he tells Patroklos to push the Trojans back from the ships but not to rout them all the way back to Troy. He offers two reasons: 1) so that he may still win honor when he reenters the battle and 2) because Apollo or another god may be aiding the Trojans and will break him if he pushes too far.

Meanwhile, Telemonian Aias is still valiantly defending the ships from the Trojans, but he's growing tired. Hektor shatters his spear, and the Trojans bring fire to the Achaian ships. Achilleus sees it happening and hastens Patroklos toward the fatal battle. Patroklos slowly and ritualistically arrays himself in the armor of Achilleus- all but the great spear, which only Achilleus can lift. Achilleus rouses his followers, the Myrmidions, from their fifty ships, fetches his sacred goblet, and makes a prayer to Zeus to grant Patroklos victory in battle and to send him safely back to him. Homer notes forebodingly that Zeus "granted him one prayer, and denied him the other."

Just as was planned, the Trojans tremble at the sight of Patroklos, thinking Achilleus has returned. Many are caught in the spiked ditch and slaughtered; others are penned in between the ditch and the beached ships. In the fierce combat Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, faces off against Patroklos. Seeing what's happening, Zeus starts to save his beloved son but Hera talks him out of it. She warns that if he interferes, other gods will want to do the same on behalf of their favorites. Death, after all, is the inevitable lot of all humans. That is summed up in the very words used to describe the two classes of beings: mortals (those who die) and immortals (those without death). Zeus relents.

Sarpedon is slain. Glaukos, magically healed of his wounds by Apollo, brings news of Sarpedon's death to Hektor, which reinspires him to fight. Apollo retrieves Sarpedon's body from the battlefield and brings it home for a proper burial.

Patroklos is on a rampage now and pushes the Trojans back to the wall; he's forgotten the warnings of Achilleus. He tries to take the wall but Apollo warns him back.

Finally Hektor heads directly for Patroklos, and the two battle over the body of Kebriones. The two sides rage into the afternoon. Three times Patroklos rushes the Trojans. On the fourth try, Apollo hits him in the back, then literally unarms him, striking off his helmet, spear, shield, and corselet. This process is the reverse of the ritualistic arming scenes, and you may feel that a new ritual is being proposed: preparation for death. The process is terrifying, and Patroklos himself is frightened. Stupefied, he is speared in the back by Euphorbos, and there's little left for Hektor to do but finish him off. In his dying speech, Patroklos points out to Hektor that the Trojan prince had little to do with his death. "No," Patroklos says, "deadly destiny... has killed me."

NOTE: We've seen many warriors killed in this poem, but Patroklos' death seems supremely unfair. That, of course, may be all to Homer's purpose. Do you find yourself sympathizing with Patroklos? Do you think Hektor's boasting is at best empty and at worst murderous? If so, you are probably feeling what Achilleus will feel and will be able to identify with his indignation and rage.


Menelaos stands astride the fallen body of Patroklos like a cow lowing beside its calf. A battle begins, both for Patroklos' armor and for his body.

The heavy fighting shows how deep a dishonor it was for a corpse to be stripped, and how great a prize it was for an enemy to carry off the armor. Patroklos, of course, was wearing the armor of Achilleus, which would have been especially valuable. The dishonor may be seen as reflecting on Achilleus as well.

The struggle finally centers around the body of Patroklos- as it will later around Hektor's- and how it is about more than honor. It was believed that a corpse must have proper burial rites in order for the soul of the dead person to pass through the underworld. In Book XXIII, in fact, we will see the shade of Patroklos appear to Achilleus and beg him for proper rites so he may pass through the gates of Hades. Forbidding this ritual would be like dealing a double death to an enemy.

The encounter between Menelaos and Euphorbos shows how powerfully Homer can bring emotion to a single character in the midst of a melee. In a few lines Euphorbos is brought before us and taken away, but because of Homer's detailed descriptions and simile, his death is extremely touching. He shows compassion in his retort to Menelaos- concern not just for his fallen comrade but for his grieving widow and parents back home. And when Euphorbos' lovely braided hair (Homer is careful to show us its "locks caught waspwise in gold and silver") is bloodied in his fall, Homer compares him to a

slip of an olive tree strong-growing that a man raises
in a lonely place, and drenched it with generous water, so that
it blossoms into beauty, and the blasts of winds from all quarters
tremble it, and it bursts into pale blossoming. But then
a wind suddenly in a great tempest descending upon it
wrenches it out of its stand and lays it at length on the ground;
such was Euphorbos of the strong ash spear . . .

Though Euphorbos had a hand in the killing of Patroklos, his youth and beauty are mourned in passing by the poet.

The fighting is furious, and Menelaos wonders if he should stay and fight. His soliloquy is much like Odysseus' in Book XI. This time, however, the warrior decides it is prudent to flee. Hektor, therefore, gets Patroklos' armor and proceeds to arm himself. Both sides clash over the body, and the tide turns again and again. Hektor and Aineias lead the attack for the Trojans; Menelaos and the great Aias put up a noble Achaian defense. The two sides have a tug-of-war over the corpse, like tanners stretching an ox hide. The divine horses of Achilleus weep over the death of their friend and will not be moved until they are inspired by Zeus.

The battle rises to a high pitch, emotional and unclear. Athene comes to rouse Menelaos in his warfare; Apollo comes to Hektor. The tide of victory shifts continually as Zeus rattles his aegis. Menelaos tells the news of the death of Patroklos to Nestor's son, Antilochos, and bids him bring the terrible news to Achilleus. The Achaians gain the corpse and Menelaos and Mariones carry it away from the battle. But the Trojans press against the weary Achaians like a roaring forest fire.


Antilochos comes to the hut of the worried Achilleus and delivers his message: "Patroklos has fallen, and now they are fighting over his body/which is naked. Hektor of the shining helm has taken his armour." This is his terrible moment of truth and Achilleus' response is instantaneous. He smears dust over his head and face, falls to the ground, tears at his hair, and cries hideously.

Realistically, at this emotional crisis there is no eloquent speech Achilleus can make. We must trace for ourselves what brought him to this point. This is the ironic fulfillment of his own wishes that the Achaians might be brought low before him; this is the result of his anger that began the poem. At his supposed moment of glory, he is hurled to the ground in agony. What started out as a stand for honor has become the torture of guilt and terrible responsibility. His honor is in the dust. Thetis hears his tortured cry; as she returns from the sea we remember the first time she undertook this journey, to set the plan in motion for Achilleus' revenge. Now the revenge has cruelly completed itself.

Achilleus bemoans the loss of Patroklos and curses the day he fed his anger. Yet Achilleus knows he must live by the code he has chosen. If he has nourished himself on anger so far, he will not turn to honey now. Instead, he will turn his wrath from Agamemnon to Hektor and avenge the death of Patroklos.

We must be careful not to lay an easy judgment on Achilleus, for this isn't an easy road to take. To reclaim his honor, he chooses death- he pursues Hektor even though Thetis tells him this will ultimately mean his own death. The tragedy of Achilleus is that he must play out the events he himself set in motion. Everything he does, he does on a heroic scale. just as he grieves to the fullest, so shall his revenge on Hektor be fought to the height of heroic glory.

Thetis goes to fetch new armor for Achilleus and urges him not to fight until she has brought it back from Hephaistos. But the Achaians are still struggling over the body of Patroklos, and Hera notices that Hektor is about to drag it back to Troy. Hera sends Iris to tell Achilleus to appear as he is before the Trojans. With the help of Athene, Achilleus makes his first appearance on the battlefield- unarmed! No one else, of all the heroes we've seen in the Iliad, matches this superhuman presence. Suddenly the full character of Achilleus reveals itself. The aegis thunders about his shoulders; a cloud cracked with flame circles around his head. Is he one man or a whole army? Follow the similes: he is likened first to an entire encampment blazing with fires, then to the trumpet-cry of attackers besieging a city. With the stormy aegis above him, his head flashing lightning, and bellowing a thunderous war cry, he resembles no one so much as mighty Zeus. It's no wonder the Trojans are stricken with terror. Such an entrance heightens by contradiction our feelings toward Achilleus. Perhaps, a moment ago, you were ready to lay the finger of blame on him; now he is simply awesome.

Poulydamas wisely counsels Hektor to return with the army to the safe walls of Troy, but once again Hektor refuses his friend's advice. Now that Achilleus is on the scene, Hektor's resistance to caution simply looks foolhardy. He is hurtling toward his own fate, with ate (delusion) attending him, hastening him along. Meanwhile, Achilleus and the Argives mourn the death of Patroklos, cleansing his body and wrapping it in sheets.

Thetis reaches the home of Hephaistos and tells him of Achilleus' predicament. In his smithy, with twenty bellows blowing the fires, Hephaistos creates new armor for Achilleus, particularly an extraordinary shield inlaid with gold and silver. The description of the shield of Achilleus is probably the most famous section in the Iliad. In this one extended image, Homer depicts his ideal social order and cosmic order, and places them both within a work of art. Scholars disagree as to whether the shield shows life during Homer's period or during the Mykenaian period; probably it has parts of both. But there is no doubting the shield's symbolic value and its importance to the poem.

The scenes drawn on the shield are so intricate, so full of life, it's hard to imagine how any single picture could show it all. Of course, the shield is an object of wonder: it was made by a god. The earth, sky, and sea are on the shield, and the constellations of the stars. Also on it are two cities. In one are festivities and celebrations, and though there's a dispute, it's handled within the context of the Law. But beside it is another city, besieged by war, attended by Ares and Athene in full battle gear. Here are ambush and massacre, women and children within a walled city, confusion and destruction in battle. Perhaps this reminds you of the city of Troy. And yet the other happy city is recalled in numerous similes throughout the poem, of farming and shepherding, of marriages and rich city life.

The shield is further elaborated with scenes of agricultural life and with a fabulous dancing celebration where young men and women perform elaborate maneuvers. Around these all runs the Ocean River, or primal Okeanos, the limits of the cosmos. Suddenly we are able to place the world of war within the context of total human existence. Some readers have felt the city at war on the shield seems out of kilter, implicitly criticizing the battle world of the Iliad. But others point out that two cities exist within the shield, and both must be seen together. Perhaps when Achilleus takes this shield into battle he is not simply fighting a battle, but protecting the values of an entire civilization and universe. What higher stakes could a poet propose for the actions of his characters?

The shield, even within the story, is proposed as a marvelous work of art. Perhaps you remember Helen's saying that the war of Troy is being fought for the sake of a poem. The shield of Achilleus is also a work of art within a work of art (the Iliad). What seems to be the divine craftwork of Hephaistos is actually the writing genius of Homer!


As dawn rises, Thetis returns with the divine armor for Achilleus, who is still mourning Patroklos. Before putting on his armor, Achilleus calls an assembly of the Achaians. He and Agamemnon begin to heal the wounds caused by their feud. Achilleus expresses grief over the outcome of events and questions whether the results were worth it. He resolves to put away his anger. Notice that Achilleus wraps up things quickly- he is impatient to begin the real fight. Remember, we have seen that he has already transferred his anger to Hektor in revenge for the killing of Patroklos. The feud with Agamemnon is old hat to Achilleus; his tragedy is taking him further than that.

Agamemnon also apologizes and admits that he was under the power of ate, or delusion. You can see from their respective speeches the different characters of Achilleus and Agamemnon. The king admits he made a mistake but blames it on a kind of outside influence that takes over someone. He proposes to give the gifts he offered before to Achilleus, worrying over technical details of his "contract" with Achilleus. Achilleus' response is entirely emotional: first grief and bitterness over the death of his comrade, then a desire to head right into battle, with no thought for the gifts, which, to him, are insignificant. To be fair, Achilleus never seemed to be holding out for more gifts; his was a stand for honor, not for gold. The physical, mortal world is not entirely his home (his mother was a goddess). He even suggests that the Achaians not eat, but just go ahead and fight.

Odysseus, showing his usual good judgment, explains that men must eat and will fight better because of it. He urges too that the gifts be delivered to Achilleus now, so that the affair can be properly wrapped up. After all, he says, the standoff between Achilleus and Agamemnon was not merely a personal quarrel. It involved all of the Argives, and it's fitting that they should all witness the healing exchange of gifts. Achilleus had been insulted in front of them- shamed by their eyes- and so he must be justified in the same social way. The exchange is made.

The girl Briseis is also returned to Achilleus. First she encounters the corpse of Patroklos and mourns his death. Homer once again brings a character to life in a flash. This woman who was previously a thing, a war prize, is suddenly revealed as a tragic figure, a terrible victim of war, an orphan many times (much like Andromache). Achilleus, too, mourns aloud for Patroklos, grieving his death more than if it were his father or even his son. Achilleus' lamentations are extreme; they border on madness, like his anger and his warrior rage. The closer we get to him, the larger he appears. Now the divine part of him becomes clearer, and you will see in the next book that it will take immortal power to counteract his seemingly immortal might. With his supernatural armor he readies himself for war. Mysteriously, one of his horses speaks to him, prophesying his death. "I myself know well it is destined for me to die here," Achilleus responds, "far from my beloved father and mother. But for all that/I will not stop till the Trojans have had enough of my fighting." This man who communicates with animals is more than human, and when he's in his fury he'll wage more than a human fight.


On Olympos, Zeus calls the gods together. Afraid that Achilleus will overpower the Trojans before the appointed time, he urges them now to join the battle on whichever side they choose. It's as though Achilleus' entrance raises the fighting to a new level so that the gods must participate; we're building up to a great combat of mighty forces and terrifying intensity. And though the battle of the gods does not really get underway until Book XXI, Homer gives us an advance picture of the forces ready. Hades himself, god of the underworld, is afraid the entire earth will crack open, "and the houses of the dead lie open to men and immortals,/ghastly and mouldering." Such is the tumult raised by the combating gods.

We may also see in this fury a foreshadowing of the battle to come between the avenging Achilleus and Hektor, but we have to wait awhile for it. Achilleus slowly works his way to his aristeia, killing numerous Trojan warriors along the way. Aineias meets Achilleus face to face, the two hurling insults back and forth. But Aineias is fated to outlive the Trojan war and take over from Priam the royal legacy.

The fight between Achilleus and Aineias gives an interesting example of the way the passage of time is presented by Homer. His method is not strictly chronological. It can't be, because the swiftness of the gods' actions moves in supernatural, not mortal, time. (Remember the speed of a thought?) A whole conversation between Poseidon, Hera, and Athene takes place in the instant when Aineias raises a stone and Achilleus draws his sword. Again it may be helpful to think of movies. We are used to seeing in films simultaneous events placed in sequence, as in "meanwhile back at the ranch." This is Homer's method and, just as in movies, there is no intrusion of a narrator telling us what's taking place. The scene cuts back and forth as action is held in suspension. Before the fight really gets going, Poseidon snatches the Trojan from combat and places him down at the outer edge of the battlefield. His time for glory will come later.

Now it is Achilleus' time, and he continues his slaughter. When he kills Polydoros, Hektor's brother, Hektor moves in to face Achilleus. But once again a god interferes, delaying the climactic moment, as Apollo hides Hektor in mists Achilleus can't penetrate. So the great Argive warrior fights on, corpses in his wake, his revenge unfulfilled. Over fallen bodies and armor Achilleus makes his way, the wheels of his chariot splattered with blood and his hands covered with gore.


Achilleus drives the Trojans back across the plain toward Troy. Half of them fall into the river Xanthos (also called Skamandros) and in his war-frenzy Achilleus dives in, slaughtering in a circle around him. He chooses twelve live Trojans to take as captives; really they are live sacrifices to avenge the death of Patroklos. Shrink as you may, this should remind you that the Iliad portrays the values of its own age, not modern ones. Its society is still tribal, and its rites and rituals do not always fit within our concept of civilization.

But even Achilleus seems to have reached a turning point in his rage. When the Trojan prince Lykaon reaches out to him to spare his life, Achilleus won't listen, although he had spared Lykaon in a previous encounter. Achilleus is a changed man- changed by his wrath and changed by his destiny. As he moves through his tragedy the niceties of civilization drop away. In a famous speech Achilleus explains to Lykaon that his request for mercy is futile. Before the death of Patroklos such a thing might have been possible, but now no one can escape him. All are fated to die, even Achilleus, but sorrow over mortality cannot stand in the way of a heroic destiny. Lykaon is killed, sent to Hades. His poignant plea only emphasizes the warrior stature of Achilleus. In his rage Achilleus furiously taunts the corpse.

He fights on, killing many, stuffing the river with corpses. Finally the river god can stand it no longer and asks Achilleus to stop; his waters are being ruined. Achilleus agrees, but when the river god then calls out to Apollo to intervene on the Trojans' behalf, Achilleus dives into the water as if to slay the river god himself. In a fury the water rises, and a dramatic fight between Xanthos and Achilleus ensues. There is no other passage like it in the Iliad. Suddenly all the underlying forces of passion, rage, anger, and betrayal seem to be unleashed and become active partners in the conflict. As Achilleus struggles through flood and tidal wave you may feel he needed a god for a worthy opponent- mortals are not up to his level. Look at Achilleus now- caught in the furious current, battered by waves of corpses, losing his grip- and you can see the external manifestation of his internal conflict. Order has gone from his world, he is under sway of crazed passion, his "natural" world confounded. It takes the intervention of Hera and Hephaistos, who bring fire to the plain and make the river boil until it gives in, to calm things down. Really we might say Achilleus stands for his world, for the heroic values of archaic Greece, and in the midst of the Trojan War that world is being turned upside down. It is moving from myth and legend to tragedy.

After Hera and Hephaistos finish, all the gods join in the battle, fighting each other with an almost comic frenzy. Athene fights and wounds Ares and Aphrodite, Apollo and Poseidon taunt each other, and Hera smashes Artemis. Through it all Zeus remains impassive.

NOTE: This fight is known as the theomachia, literally the "battle of the gods." Some readers suggest it should be more serious, coming at this point in the story. A battle could hardly be more powerful, however, than the one we've just seen between Xanthos and Achilleus; perhaps we need a break at this point. Too, the idea of a mortal fighting a god is much more frightening than immortals fighting each other. They, after all, can't be killed, and so there is something naturally mocking in their actions. The theomachia, in fact, seems to mimic the horror of war, rather than heighten it. The gods are always amused at the foibles of mortals. Nevertheless, the gods fighting each other may show another example of the way war rips apart a culture's values.

At the gates of Troy, Achilleus meets the Trojan Agenor, who is being inspired by Apollo. While his attention is temporarily averted, the retreating Trojans stream through the open gates, gaining safety- for a moment.


Achilleus realizes he has been tricked by Apollo and returns to the battle. Priam sees him coming from the walls and sadly laments the fate that he fears awaits Hektor, his most princely son. This is the first of several speeches in this book that give us the human reaction to the events of the war. Priam may be a great king, but his grief makes us pity him. The order of his life has been turned inside out. He fears a horrifying and undignified end: that his own dogs will devour his body. Those who should be his domestic comfort will destroy him. Hekabe, Hektor's mother, also laments in anguish, both of them trying to convince Hektor not to fight Achilleus.

NOTE: In an action that is startling to our modern eyes, Hekabe pulls out her breast as if to show it to Hektor. Instead of having her say, "I am your mother, I love you," instead of telling us anything about their relationship, Homer presents the object in the simplest and purest terms: Hekabe nursed Hektor at her breast, and that says all that needs be said about the depth of their relationship.

This is a striking example of Homer's art of direct presentation. He doesn't talk about things; he shows them to us. Characters don't think; they speak. He uses similes, not metaphors. In other words, things are not presented figuratively; they are compared, one explicit thing to another explicit thing. The Iliad is a world of particulars- that is one of the challenges of reading it. You must draw the conclusions yourself.

There are four speeches in the Iliad that read like a character thinking to himself; we've read Odysseus' and Menelaos' already. Now Hektor ponders whether to fight or seek safety in Troy. But he must follow his heroic principles, defending his family and citizens, even though it seems that from the beginning the war and its cause were distasteful to him. He resolves to stand and fight- until he sees Achilleus bearing down upon him. As Achilleus blazes toward him, Hektor turns and runs. From what we have seen of Achilleus, that's probably an appropriate response. Hektor's running away doesn't make him look like a coward as much as it shows us how awesome Achilleus appears. After all, we have just seen Hektor come to the difficult but heroic decision to fight. Now, however, he's out of his mind with fear, no longer capable of logical thought. Just as Achilleus is out of control in his wrath, he sends others out of control from fright. Hektor's running makes Achilleus loom larger.

Around the city they run, Hektor escaping and Achilleus pursuing. They're like olympic runners racing for a prize, Homer tells us, except they aren't running for a trophy: "No, they ran for the life of Hektor." Yet, as at a mere race, there are spectators. Watching from Olympos, Zeus wonders whether he should save Hektor. Athene reminds him that Hektor's destiny is already written, and Zeus sends Athene on her way to speed things up.

Achilleus continues chasing Hektor, who can't find a place to hide and can't get help from his allies behind the walls. Homer tells us they run as though in a dream. The inevitable weight of fate has compressed their lives into this one suspended moment. But it can't last for long. Zeus raises his scales, and Hektor's fate pulls him down.

Appearing as Deiphobos, Hektor's brother, Athene tricks Hektor into stopping to fight Achilleus. Hektor faces his opponent and suggests they first swear not to defile each other's corpses. Hektor, as usual, has something civil about him. He is fighting for home and country, fighting in front of his people, and he wants to uphold the social virtues. But Achilleus is far from home, far from domesticity, far into the depth of his passions, his war mania, and his revenge for Patroklos. No, he will swear no oaths. Achilleus spears Hektor through the throat. With his dying breath Hektor again asks that his body be returned to Troy for proper rites, but Achilleus refuses. The other Achaians come forward, and all stab the fallen Hektor. Achilleus strips the body of its armor and brutally pierces holes in Hektor's ankles, stringing hide through the holes and dragging the corpse behind his chariot, its head dragging in the dirt.

Many readers- especially modern ones- have felt such sympathy for Hektor in this passage that they have taken him to be the hero of the poem. Certainly Homer means us to feel the pathos of Hektor's death, but don't you also feel pity for Achilleus? Pity and awe, perhaps. For he, too, is filled with grief- for the death of his dearest friend. His fighting Hektor is based on that revenge. If he is ruthless, he is ruthless in grief now, not merely anger. And yet his anger is terrible. We see the absolute depth of it.

At the same time, Achilleus' uncontrollable rage perfectly expresses the deadly spirit of war. As our sympathy is roused for Hektor, it's also roused for the city of Troy and all that it stands for- civilization, home, and family. The tragedy of Achilleus is also the tragedy of Troy.

So in the most dramatic and touching terms, Priam, Hekabe, and Andromache mourn the death of Hektor. Andromache faints at the news, then laments out loud. Hektor's death, they know, is the end of the line for Troy. Andromache speaks of her son, Astyanax, who should be in line to rule the city. Instead, he'll be an orphan with a grim future; Priam's Troy is finished.


Achilleus and the Myrmidons drive their chariots solemnly around the pyre of Patroklos and begin the funeral feast. In a dream, the ghost of Patroklos asks Achilleus to bury him quickly so that he may pass fully into the realm of the dead. In a touching plea, reminding Achilleus of their eternal bond of friendship, Patroklos asks that his bones or ashes be mingled with those of Achilleus in one gold vessel. A huge funeral mound is built and many sacrificial offerings are piled on it, including the bodies of twelve Trojan warriors. Patroklos is placed in the middle, and the pyre is lit, Achilleus mourning and lamenting all night long. In the morning Achilleus calls for funeral games.

NOTE: The scene reminds us that the world of the Iliad is one of ritual, from its repeated formula phrases through its stylized battle sequences and its code of honor and shame. This elaborate funeral and the rites of competition in the games show how valued Patroklos was, but they also show the importance attached to retrieving and burying the corpses of the warriors (as well as their armor, which may have been symbolic of the body itself). Though sometimes the gods in Homer seem frivolous, nevertheless mortals always give them their proper worship and respect. All must be done in specific order. The great funeral of Patroklos and the funeral games show us a formal world in which life is played out almost like theater. And we can assume that, as usual, the gods are watching.

A number of contests are waged: a chariot race, a boxing match, a wrestling match, a foot race, a fight with armor, a discus throw, an archery match, a spear throw. During these contests we are able, for the last time, to meet all the great Argive heroes: Odysseus, Diomedes, Aias, Menelaos, Idomeneus, Nestor, and Agamemnon. Though the proceedings are light and full of action, they may be seen as serving a function similar to a wake- easing the burden of death. We get to see Achilleus in a social role as leader of the Argives, and he thus appears human to us after the frenzy of his wrath. Throughout the games, Homer continues his vivid characterizations of the Achaian heroes: Odysseus the crafty; Nestor the long-winded, full of memories of youth. After the furious and bloody fighting of the preceding books, the formal contests and combats here return a sense of order to the poem, a hope for civilization after war.

At the last contest, the spear throw, Achilleus defers tactfully to Agamemnon. He gives the king first prize, not for winning the contest, but because they all know how much greater than the rest Agamemnon is with the spear. In a way, Achilleus is paying respect to Agamemnon's rank, not his ability, and this gesture- so opposite to the one that began all of the madness- begins Achilleus' healing journey out of anger.


After the games are finished, Achilleus still doesn't stop mourning the death of Patroklos. Tossing and turning, he seems at times to be mourning the past, the entire series of events that make up the plot of the Iliad. Perhaps this final bout of grief prepared Achilleus for his final reconciliation. But not yet: in a pathetic gesture, Achilleus continues to drag the corpse of Hektor around the tomb of Patroklos, as if that might bring back the dead friend or further hurt the dead enemy. The gods, however, preserve the body of Hektor from decay or injury.

Zeus, once more looking from Olympos, sees there's no point for either side in Achilleus' actions. They do Achilleus no moral good and simply make the Trojans sadder. He calls Thetis to him and has her tell Achilleus that now is the time for Priam to ransom the body of his son Hektor. For once the interference of the gods is soothing. Our final view of them, like the final view of the Argives, shows things moving toward a more peaceful and natural order.

At Troy, in the midst of weeping and sorrow, Priam is told of Zeus' decision. He prepares to make his dangerous way to the Achaian camp. Hekabe pleads for him not to put himself into the hands of the man who has killed so many of his children, but Priam is firm. Firm, but not without fear. His irritation as he orders his relatives out of his house shows how nervous he is- another glimpse of the subtle ways in which Homer understands human psychology.

The god Hermes, called Argeiphontes, is sent to guide Priam across the plain of Skamandros to the Achaian camp on the beachfront. (Remember the difficulties Dolon had navigating this territory, and he would not have been nearly so great a capture for the Achaians as Priam.) Hermes leads the Trojan king past guards and watchpoints and lands him safely in the tent of Achilleus. Priam clasps Achilleus by the knees, and Homer seems to stop the action for a moment to let us feel the intensity of this extraordinary encounter. All we have seen throughout the poem is the hideous gulf of anger and war horror that can consume these two people- actually two peoples, for Achilleus and Priam now stand for the Achaians and the Trojans. We can feel as well the challenge implicit in the scene; it is dangerous to both men. Can Achilleus truly overcome his rage and move toward peace? Homer, always the master of his scene, knows that Achilleus and Priam feel these questions and tensions, too. Priam, "caught the knees of Achilleus in his arms, and kissed the hands/that were dangerous and manslaughtering and had killed so many/of his sons." And Achilleus "wondered as he looked on Priam, a godlike/man."

Priam urges Achilleus to think of his own father and then pity Priam in his outrageous position, a king "who must put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children." The moment is not lost on Achilleus. Both the Trojan king and Argive warrior weep for their sons, fathers, and comrades. This sharing of common grief becomes a bridge back to human sympathy. In an extraordinary speech Achilleus soothes Priam's sorrow by painting a picture of their common misfortune and the inevitable limits of mortality. These, says Achilleus, cannot be changed by grieving. Though the human lot he portrays is grim, his actions show a human decency that somehow softens our sense of what it means to be human. Grieving as one, they reinforce their common humanity.

Priam asks not to be seated so he can more quickly attend to the return of Hektor. Suddenly Achilleus' anger flashes out- he could kill the man in a minute! Homer is no sentimentalist. The complexities of Achilleus' character don't disappear instantly. But Achilleus puts away his anger, the word of intemperate wrath that began the Iliad. A strange healing power surfaces. There is no pretty ending; Troy, we know, will soon be destroyed. Yet by reaching out to Priam, Achilleus, for a moment, brings these two bitterly warring nations into a zone of peace. The scene is uncompromisingly tragic: Patroklos is dead, Hektor is dead, Priam will soon be killed, Achilleus will soon be killed. Yet somehow, in the midst of suffering, moral beauty survives.

Priam returns to Troy with the body of Hektor. The three great women of Troy lament him. Andromache mourns on behalf of their son and, for herself, mourns the loss of love's intimate comforts; Hekabe mourns for Hektor's heroic purity; and Helen (the last and the first) mourns and yet celebrates his kindness and generosity. Again, grieving becomes a testimony of human virtue. The Trojans build a great funeral pyre, and the rites for the burial of Hektor are completed.

NOTE: Observe how the plot structure of the Iliad completes itself. In the first book, a father (Chryses) comes to Agamemnon to plead for the return of his child but is refused. In the last book, a father (Priam) also pleads to Achilleus for the return of a child; this time pity is shown. Though this symmetry is surely there, Homer is an artist who permits complexities and contradictions. As you begin to sum up your feelings about the Iliad, test all the threads. The question is not simply is Achilleus right or wrong, or are the Trojans or Argives the real heroes. Homer values both cultures. He sees meaning in the heroic code but he also sees its shortcomings. In that same way, he pictures the horrible sufferings of a world at war and yet shows us the human dignity that can shine through. In the beginning Apollo says that mortals maneuver through Destiny with "the heart of endurance." That is where the Iliad begins and ends.



ECC [The Iliad Contents] []

[Image of original transcript]

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