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Free Study Guide-The Iliad by Homer-Free Online Book Notes Summary
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Book XXI: The Battle by the River


Charging the Trojan ranks, Achilles forces Hector's troops to battle in the midst of the River Xanthus. He decides he will fight twelve individual Trojans, killing them as a sacrifice for the dead Patroclos. He first selects Lycaon, a son of Priam and half-brother of Hector. Achilles had previously captured and sold Lycaon on the island of Lemnos. Lycaon begs Achilles to spare his life, offering him a handsome ransom. He explains that he is not from the same mother as Hector and should not be blamed for Hector's actions. Achilles, however, has no mercy. He hacks the miserable Lycaon to pieces as partial payment for Patroclos.

Xanthus then sends Asteropaeus against the furious Achilles, who heaps verbal abuse on the Trojan before killing him. The Xanthus, now clogged with blood and the dead victims of Achilles' madness, calls upon the hero to stop his fury, but he refuses. In retaliation, Xanthus summons all his resources, buffets the shield of Achilles, and shakes the ground under his feet.

Athena and Poseidon, who have been watching the movements of the river, come to Achilles and urge him on in his fight. They want him to push the Trojans to the citadel, kill Hector, and return to the ships. Hera and Hephaistos act to stop the Xanthus, who has called upon his fellow stream, Simoeis, to aid him in overwhelming Achilles. The god of fire responds by sending upon Xanthus a burning fury. The river god pleads for mercy, promising to cease his interference on behalf of the Trojans.

The second section of Book XXI moves from the field of mortal combat to the divine conflict that Zeus unleashed when he lifted his restraint upon the battle-eager gods. Ares attacks Athena, but the goddess of wisdom knocks down her brother with a boulder. When Aphrodite tries to come to the rescue of the war god, she is sent tumbling to the ground by Athena. Poseidon picks Apollo as his opponent and tries to goad him. He says that both he and Apollo have a reason to resent the Trojans because of the wrong done to them by Laomedon, an early king of Troy. Laomedon refused to give the reward he had promised to the two gods after Poseidon erected the walls of his city; instead, the king expelled both gods from his kingdom. Despite Poseidon's taunting, Apollo refuses to fight. Artemis, hearing her brother's refusal, criticizes Apollo. In turn, Hera, who has heard Artemis berating her brother, boxes the ears of the huntress and sends her wailing to Olympus, where she tells Zeus of her mistreatment.

As the divine conflict ends, the scene shifts again to Troy, where Priam orders the gates thrown open to accept the fleeing Trojans. Agenor attempts to fight the pursuing Achilles, but he is unable to withstand the fury of the Greek warrior and must be taken from the battle by Apollo. The war god then becomes a mortal and chases Achilles around the plain to allow the Trojans time to safely enter the city gates.


In Book XXI Xanthus, the river god, takes part in the battle on the Trojan side. Hephaistos joins the battle on the Greek side. The result is a furious clash of fire and water with Achilles fighting in the middle. Achilles brutally kills one Trojan after another in an attempt to avenge the death of Patroclos. The river, filled with blood and the bodies of the Trojans slain by Achilles, fights back against Achilles. In order to save the hero, the fire god must suppress the raging water, turning nature upside down in ironic fashion.

In spite of his struggles in the river, Achilles soon takes complete control of the situation. Raging with anger and enjoying divine protection, the Greek hero emerges from Xanthus and marches heroically through the field, his attention now turned on Hector. He succeeds in pushing the Trojans back to Troy.

Although the primary war in this book is between Achilles and the Trojans, there is another battle. Because Zeus has lifted the restraining order against the lesser gods, a violent conflict emerges on the divine level. Ares attacks Athena, but she succeeds in knocking her brother down. When Aphrodite comes to aid Ares, Athena also knocks her down. Poseidon tries to pick a fight with Apollo, but is unsuccessful. Then when Artemis criticizes her brother for not fighting with Poseidon, Hera comes and boxes Artemis' ear for interfering.

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