Reflections on Book IX of The Iliad

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Book IX of The Iliad can be read as an enucleation of Achilles’ wrath. In its construction, the book opposes Achilles’ fine cholos with precedents of greater yore. It is examination of Achilles heart, which opposes all reconciliation with men, and, to paraphrase the philosopher Eric Voegelin, oozed a great black void into the already fragile themis among men[1]. The peculiarity and the severity of the breech, I shall hold here, is drawn out and deliberately submitted to examination by the author in several stages: (1) Through the dramatic resolution of Agamemnon’s ate, culminating both in his proper “seeing” of his errors, and his offer to give proper restitutions and honors to Achilles; (2) Achilles’s refusal to be reconciled; (3) Phoenix’s appeal against the hard heart of Achilles, buttressed with a listing of precedents of formal reconciliations wrought under the most trying time (e.g., the wrath of Meleagros), and a cosmogony of Ruin and the Prayers which mythically ties wrath and return among men to the divine order of Zeus; (4) Ajax and Diomedes concise addenda, which go towards the purpose of suggesting that there is something bizarre and abnormal about Achilles’ thumos. I shall be following Eric Voegelin’s commentary in Order and History, v.2 – The World of the Polis in arguing that Homer is not simply telling an heroic tale of Achilles, but examining the causes of the Mycenean/Danaan disorder through the mythic form, and I shall be doing so through a particular focus upon Achilles and Book IX.

The ninth book of The Iliad commences with Agamemnon on center-stage, “stricken at heart with the great sorrow” as Panic “companion of cold terror gripped the Achaians” and ran amok among their ranks (0-10). Calling an assembly, Agamemnon publicly declares that he has belatedly seen past his ate. With disaster looming over the black ships of the Danaans, and god-like Hector of the Trojans readied to set flames among the vessels, the shepherd among men again ritually declares that he perceives no hope for the expedition but flight (15-30). Unlike the previous occasion, however the forms are kept, and no mutiny breaks out suddenly among the troops. Diomedes of the great war cry is the first to rebuff the offer of flight from death and battle, and his bold words are acclaimed by the sons of the Achaians (30-50). Nestor follows him in speech, and calls upon Agamemnon to let the Assembly give way to the evening meal (66). The testing of the men’s resolve having been met, the flow of matters turns to a division of the lords from the common troops, with the former putting their hands to the good things under the ritual hospitality of the son of Atreus (85-95).

Thus assembled, and when the gathered lords had put away their desire for eating and drinking, only then Nestor arises again to chide Agamemnon for his ate, and calls for them all together to turn their thoughts to repairing the damage wrought. And, indeed, the madness proves broken. Without rancor, the son of Atreus admits both his madness and his responsibility to make good what was done in his heart’s evil. What follows is a long and overwhelming listing – set publicly before all the lords – of the gifts and honors which the lord of men will heap upon the swift-footed Peliad – including the girl Briseis, in addition to twenty of the loveliest Trojan women, and one of his own richly-dowered daughters to have in marriage. The richness of the recompense is so overwhelming in magnitude, and beyond reproach in its generosity, that it requires no debate among the lords. Nestor puts a perfunctory end to the meeting, calling upon and naming the men who will take tale of Agamemnon’s abasement to Achilles. Phoenix, Ajax, and Odysseus are speedily appointed to the task, as are the heralds Odios and Eurylates (162-182).

The listing of the gifts and honors if quite careful. Subtly, it addresses all possible normal human motivations which may be blamed for driving Achilles’s wrath, if indeed is it of a normal and customary nature. Desire for wealth, for sexual gratification, for love, for standing among men, for family, for land, for honor, magnificence, and even leadership: all stand to be surfeited by Agamemnon’s gifts. Even pride itself stands to be satisfied by the humbling climb-down of the king. All of this already, together with Achilles’ refusal, goes towards suggesting that the matter of Achilles’ wrath is of a queer nature, and one in need of further investigation. The ritual demands of debts and reconciliation are being met: Agamemnon’s gods-sent ate and consequent blindness have been replaced with “seeing”. Seeing now his error and hubris, the shepherd of men acts to make good what was wrongly done. The proper conclusion to the affair should be the acceptance of honors, gifts and recompense, and a restoration of right order on earth, as in heaven. For, does not the Son of Chronos offer just recompense to the hearts of his brethren, though he is by far stronger than them all together? (VIII.16-30) Zeus Dike’s conduct in heaven sets a sort of paradigm for the philia proper to god-like, lordly men. And yet, much as the rape of Helen and the Odyssey of that man beloved by Athena tell the tale of failures in Zeus’ demands for xenia among men, so does Achilles’ refusal to be reconciled to the fold tell a tale of a failure to meet the demands of Themis and Dike.

Achilles’ response to Agamemnon’s message flows roughly forth from his opening reply, “[As] I detest the doorways of Death, I detest that man, who hides one thing in the depth of his heart, and speaks forth another… Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honor, the brave with the weaklings. A man dies still if he does nothing, as one who has done much. Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle. For as to her unwinged ones the mother bird brings back morsels, wherever she can find them, but for herself, it is suffering, such was I, as I lay through the many nights unsleeping, such as I wore through the bloody days fighting striving with warriors for the sake of these men’s women.” (IX.318-328)

We are thus invited to take rather seriously Achilles’s declaration of his heart’s contents. The hero does not echo Diomedes’ acceptance of death and battle. Rather, he detests the doorways of Death as he does a lit. Affliction and battle, no matter the cause, are as equally meaningless as cowardice. Suffering on behalf of others does not inspire him, and the ten years of war are reduced, in his mind, to a squabble over another man’s woman. The punishment of hubris and of Paris’ breech of xenia, the gods’ wishes and intents, and Priam’s folly in maintaining the breech escape the hero’s notice. What has effectively become a war to uphold the tenuous themis of civilized life against gross outrages, is, to Achilles strangely blind and unmoored heart, a matter of purely personal suffering.[2]

Achilles’ self obsession is further magnified for the audience from lines 328-345. He recounts again the dishonor he suffered with the theft of Briseis, “the bride of his heart”, only to throw he to Agamemnon’s bed a moment later, directly after she has been offered back to him. “Yet why mush the Argives fight with the Trojans?” he cries, “And why has the son of Atreus assembled and led here these people? . . . Are the sons of Atreus alone among mortal men who love their wives?”

Having thus lamented, Peleus’ son audibly indulges in the fantasy of returning home to Pythia, of marrying another girl and living richly by the war prizes that he has already won. All the while, he punctures the bubble of his own imaginings with outbursts of rage over the theft of Briseis – the girl whom he has discarded and could easily have back. Nor, it is made clear, is there any volume of prizes and honors – not all the riches of Egyptian Thebes – that could satisfy his spirit. (335-400) “For not worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable were won for Illion, that strong-footed citadel, in the old days when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaens.” (400-403)

Abruptly then, the swift-footed Achilles’ speech veers back to the abyss that haunts his heart, “. . .  a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.” (410) Then, broodingly, he dwells upon the two paths towards death laid before him by his immortal mother, Thetis of the silver feet. The one leads to death beneath the walls of Troy and to everlasting glory. The second leads to a quiet existence, far from fame but blessed with long life. (410-416). Achilles then ends his speech by again indulging in the fantasy of escape, and advises the princes to come-up with a better plan to save themselves and their men, but invites Phoenix to stay behind by his side and to depart with him on the morrow with the rest of the Myrmonides. (410-430)

Homer’s careful construction of the scenario serves to systematically crack, just to the point of shattering, any illusions that Achilles’ is a customary or normal cholos. As noted above, Agamemnon’s offering had all of the qualities necessary to quench any recognizable desire for wealth, sexual gratification, love, honor, victory, standing among men, land, security, magnificence or leadership that may be imagined – and all in such proportions as to be completely unambiguous. Achilles’ cholos, however, knows not customary bounds and order. As Phoenix’s speech shall highlight, it is not right for men to refuse to be reconciled with the world, when even the immortal gods can be swayed to set aside their wrath. (492-502). Achilles’ wrath crosses the line of that which is proper to men, and transgresses even the limits recognized by the immortals.

Thus, it is only the specter of Death and the foreknowledge of Fate which remain to be considered as sources of Achilles’s abyssal wrath. And yet, as Voegelin points out, there is nothing peculiar to Achilles in the likely prospect of death in battle – particularly for one who hurls themselves into bloodshed with the ferocity of Thetis’ son. Many men, and many sons of immortals, have died beneath the walls of Illion, and it is a certainty that many more will. Diomedes’ speech at lines 30-50 of Book IX highlights that very matter, by displaying a proper attitude of acceptance and fortitude in the face of deadly Moira.

What is left carefully unaddressed, by contrast, is Achilles’ forthright declaration of his mother’s prophecy and his foreknowledge of his own doom. As Voegelin interprets it, the curious lack of acknowledgement by the emissaries is not accidental nor incidental. Rather, Voegelin holds that the silence of the other heroes is itself a dramatic action. More specifically, he claims that in the second volume of Order and History:

“The revelation of the fate [of Achilles] is not an event outside the personality of Achilles; to have such a revelation is part of his character… The prediction is known not to Achilles alone but to everybody in the army. If it were considered by the Homeric characters as a piece of reliable information, from a divine source, on the impending death of Achilles before Troy, it not only would affect the Pelide but also the conduct of his friends. But his friends and comrades act as if the prediction did not exist . . . And when he reminds the embassy of the reason why their offer can hardly interest him (9.412 f.), they continue their argument as if he had not spoken.

Achilles with his revelation lives in a private world; or rather, he lives in a private world insofar as he is preoccupied with this isolating revelation. The action of the Iliad becomes incomprehensible unless the prediction is understood as an obsession that a hero, insofar as he is [acting as] a public character, is not supposed to have. Some light will be shed on this Homeric problem by the earlier discussed dream of Agamemnon. The courteous answer of Nestor, in that instance, barely veiled the warning that kings are not supposed to have such dreams; that they come from the gods is no excuse; a man’s divine revelations are his personal affairs and do not create an obligation for others; if, in Agamemnon’s case, the elders obeyed orders they did not trust the dream but respected the authority of the king. The position of Achilles, however, is not that of the commander- in-chief; in his case no such respect is due. The injection of his predicted fate as an argument in the debate is a display of poor taste that the other lords are well-bred enough quietly to ignore” (152-55).

Voegelin’s interpretation thus premises that Thetis’ prophecy and Achilles’ fate is known to the Achaean kings and princes, at least in the same generalities that Achilles’ declared to Odysseus and his companions.[3] It could be alternatively be posited that the silence over Achilles’ fate is caused by a sort of delusion or ate spread over the party. However, no immortal presence makes itself felt in the scene as a cause of such blindness, nor are any emotive factors – such as outrage – depicted which could also serve to explain the odd deafness. It might also be posited that the passages in question serve only a literary purpose or as a compositional device. However, the construction is jarring. It lacks in helpful mnemonic devices and formulae, and Achilles speech veers wildly to and fro. To posit that the hero’s partial declaration of his fate serves only the mnemonic needs of the rhapsode or the audience would require us to flatten the pathos of the scene and assume that there is no meaning to any of its peculiarities: that it’s contents are merely an unusually clumsy recapitulation of knowledge well known to the hearers.

It thus behooves us to adopt Voegelin’s more fulsome interpretation of the silence and its meaning, for it leads us to explore for deeper understanding, rather to fall back on less engaging and more dubious assumptions. All of this leads us to further interesting questions. For, if the fate of Achilles is known to his peers and superiors, and his sudden declaration of it is being treated as unseemly by the companions and passed-over in polite silence, then of what conceivable purpose or import are Agamemnon’s gifts? Clearly they can be of no great benefit in the life of Achilles, and this surely would be known.

Potential answers are provided by Phoenix’s speech, two components of which we may focus upon: (I) The Myth of Ruin and Prayers (496-523), and (II) The Myth of Meleagros (524-600). The Myth of Ruin and Prayers raises into sight the fact that Achilles’ wrath is not simply an inopportune disturbance in the Achaean war-effort, but a dire disturbance in the comity of men and gods – it is a breech in the grounds of civilized life and order, no smaller than the rape of Helen and her continued possession by the Trojans. It is only proper, Phoenix warns Achilles, than men honor Prayers when they come to his door. Even the immortals can be moved by pity, and thus it is not meet for a man to deny those daughters of Zeus, who come as healers after Ruin has forced men astray. To dishonor Prayers, moreover, is to drive them in supplication to their father, there to beseech him to send Ruin to that man, that he may be overtaken, hurt, punished. Phoenix’s speech can be said to provide us with a concise cosmogony of order: immortal Ruin runs forth in the world on swift feet, whithersoever that she wishes or is sent. It is the fate of all to bear her visitations.

The Prayers, however, are given by Zeus as a means of healing the injuries wrought by Ruin’s touch. In the political affairs of men, the most immediate consequence of honoring them is the reestablishment of comity, or proper political order, and thereby a reestablishment of the grounds for effective political action (e.g. the prosecution of the war against Troy). Refusing the Prayers, however, comes as an insult to the cosmic order upheld by Zeus, and provokes punitive visits of Ruin. Achilles’ refusal of Agamemnon’s gifts is therefore not so much the refusal of an inadequate bribe, but an insult to Zeus’ order which invites Ruin. By this light, it matters not whether or not the gifts are good or if Achilles can be expected to enjoy them in life or death. The swift-foot one’s refusal to put aside his wrath is both a refusal to honor Prayers and to allow Ruin’s work (i.e. through Agamemnon’s earlier ate) to be healed. Even worse, it is an invitation for further Ruin – a foreshadowing of what is to come, not the least of which being the death of Patroclus.

As a contrast to Achilles’ actual behavior, Phoenix supplies us with the story of the wrath of Meleager – a paradigmatic tale of proper praxis, even under the extreme conditions. The practical situation of Melager’s wrath can be recapitulated briefly and starkly: a war prevailed between the Kouretes and the Aetolians, the latter of whom stood besieged and depended upon the strength of Meleager in battle for their defenses. As a result of the fighting, however, the hero came to kill his mother’s brother. His mother, Althaia, responds to the tragedy by calling down a curse of the Erinyes upon her son, thus sealing his fate. Meleager, in his wrath, withdraws himself from the defence of the city. His father and the city elders respond to the situation by attempting restitution – gifts paralleling those offered by the son of Atreus to Peleus’ son – and even Meleager’s mother, joined by his sister, deigns to humble herself in supplication to him. The hero, however, is not moved, and we may note that it is equally true of Meleager as it is of Achilles, that there is no great likelihood of the hero enjoying the gifts of restitution into old age: Death lurks inevitably at the heroes’ thresholds, under a brooding cloud. It is only when his wife’s Prayers are put to him that Meleager’s heart bends. He rejoins battle, accepting inevitable fate; tradition has is that he met his end shortly thereafter. The Ruin of the Aetolians is averted, and Meleager’s beloved one is spared – a fine contrast to the eventual fate of Achilles’ Patroclus.

Achilles remains unmoved, of course, and even goes so far as to both warn Phoenix not to anger him, and also to agree entirely with Telamonian Ajax’s words to Odysseus, that “Achilles has made savage the proud-hearted spirit within his body”, that he is without pity, and possessed of a bad heart. (608-620; 629-650). Book IX ends with the emissaries’ report to the assembled princes and kings, and with Diomedes’ curious addendum: “Son of Atreus . . . I wish you had not supplicated the blameless son of Peleus with innumerable gifts offered. He is a proud man without this, and now you have driven him far deeper into his pride”, (698-700) and Diomedes’ declaration to Agamemnon pairs well with Achilles’ own supplication to his mother: “. . . [Bid Zeus to] pin the Achaians back against the ships and the water, dying, so that thus they may all have profit of their own king, that Atreus’ son wide-ruling Agamemnon may recognize his madness, that he did no honor to the best of the Achaians.” (I.409-412)

What we are left to face is an inordinate wrath, motivated by a foreknowledge of death seen as intrinsically meaningless, and a hero’s heart strangely divorced from empathy and resonance with the common lot and thereby immune to Prayers and reconciliation. We may say that Achilles’ heart, unlike Meleager’s or Diomedes’, is demonically closed in on itself. It will remain so until the closing chapters of the epic, when the death of Patroclus shatters any illusions of a self-sufficient glory beyond the boundaries given to men or gods, when his wrath has been spent on the corpse of Hector, and when finally he hears the Prayers of Priam, bereaved king of Troy. The hubris of the man’s cholos, and his shunning of Themis and Prayers, however, have already been a cause of Ruin.

 

References

Eric Voegelin. Order and History, Volume 2: The World of the Polis, (University of Missouri Press: Columbia and London, 2000).

Herodotus. The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola. (Penguin Classics, 2003).

Homer. The Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

 

Notes

[1] Substantially, this reflection and subsequent essays will be addressing an interpretation put-forth by Voegelin in Order and History, Volume 2: The World of the Polis, (University of Missouri Press: Columbia and London, 2000), 145-160

[2] It is interesting to note that Achilles’ lament is amusingly echoed by the rather more rationalistic Herodotus, who decides over the course of his Histories that Helen must never been in Troy. This must be the case, he deduces, for it would be irrational – as his Persian, Phoenician, and Egyptian sources hold – for so many men to die over a single girl. See The Histories. I.1-6 and II.110-121.

[3] Note that Voegelin’s interpretation does not demand specific knowledge of the details of Achilles’ fate, such as the fact that said fate will unfurl with inevitability after the death of Hector at Achilles’ hands. Nor does said interpretation require any knowledge of Zeus’ plan to allow the Trojans to drive back the Achaeans, etcetera.

Colin Cordner

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Colin Cordner is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and completed his Ph.D. at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in 2016, where he is an instructor and occasional poet in the Department of Political Science. He is also owner of Fall's Edge Editing. His recent research focuses upon the works Plato and Michael Polanyi on scientism qua sophism, and the origins and therapies for the attendant spiritual crises and political disorders.