(Adapted from Chapter 1
of “Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy,” Diss. CUNY, 1981
© Diane Thompson
Iliad 1 begins and ends showing people in a normal
state, before and after the wrath of Achilles has precipitated the plan of
Zeus. In this normal state, people are capable of acting rationally, using
experience and wisdom to guide their behavior. However, during the main
action of the Iliad, the wrath of Achilles and the plan of Zeus,
people live in an extraordinary state of human/divine crisis, because
human emotions have broken down those barriers which serve to protect them
from the gods.2 In such a human/divine crisis, the disorder of
human passion spreads outward, intensifying like a plague, affecting the
gods themselves and disrupting the normal order of the cosmos. The
resulting cosmic disorder is wonderfully represented in the Iliad
by the chaotic battle of the elements between the river Xanthus (water)
and the god Hephaestus (fire).
passions of the gods are stimulated and magnified by the emotions of human
beings, producing an interactive intensification of violence that can only
be ultimately controlled by the plan of Zeus, requiring the deaths of
Patroclus and Hector. These deaths, carefully orchestrated by Zeus, serve
to reestablish boundaries and distance between humans and the gods: their
relationships are normalized; the barriers are restored; and the contacts
between humans and the gods are once again carefully regulated by the
prudence and rituals which serve to protect people from the gods.
actions initiate events in the Iliad. However, once the gods are
involved, people become helplessly caught up in the terrible logic of a
system of rules that operate as relentlessly as the laws of physics. This
system is called the plan of Zeus; it is inexorable; it is deadly; it
works itself out by causing many human deaths. It is a balance of powers
rather than a system of morality. The golden scale expresses the
essence of the law of Zeus--balance. Human actions upset that balance in
the first place, causing the human/divine crisis of total war that governs
the action of the Iliad.3
is the emotion that disturbs the distance between human beings and the
gods in the Iliad. Uncontrolled anger destroys orderly social
relationships and upsets the balance of correct actions necessary to keep
the gods away from human beings. Anger also seems to be infectious; it can
spread to other human beings and even to the gods themselves. But anger
can and should be controlled, in order to preserve human society and
protect it from the wrath of the gods.4
1 provides several examples of situations involving anger, demonstrating
both correct and incorrect means of dealing with it. Agamemnon directs his
anger against Chryses, Calchas, and Achilles, all men with close
relationships to the gods. Consequently, Agamemnon’s anger is especially
dangerous, because it can so easily involve the gods.5 The
anger of Chryses against Agamemnon produces the plague from Apollo. The
anger of Achilles against Agamemnon sets off the wrath. Once Achilles
petitions Zeus for revenge, the plan of Zeus is put into action, which in
turn sets off the anger of Hera against Zeus, as well as the anger of
various other gods, each with his/her own agenda.
in the Iliad can be directed outward against the enemy, as in a
war, or it can be directed inward, against one's own social group. These
two modes of anger have radically different results: one promotes the
order of the world; the other destroys it. The anger of Chryses against
Agamemnon is actually constructive. Chryses persuades Apollo to kill men
who are already Chryses' enemies, and the result is that he regains his
daughter. But the anger of Achilles is purely destructive, since he
persuades Zeus, via Thetis, to destroy members of Achilles' own social
group and glorify the enemies of that group, purely for personal honor.6
the Iliad starts, a plague caused by Agamemnon's behavior is
killing many Greeks. Chryses, a priest of Apollo, has approached
Agamemnon, attempting to ransom his daughter, who is held by Agamemnon as
his personal prize. Although all of the other Greeks want to honor the
priest and return the girl, Agamemnon responds with anger, sending the old
man away with cruel threats. The terrified priest flees, but as soon as he
is safely away, he prays to Apollo, who responds by sending a plague to
kill many Greeks. This is the Iliad's first example of the
conjunction of human and divine anger creating a human/divine crisis.
Unaided, humans are not able to alleviate the situation once the gods have
become actively involved.
another god, Hera, takes pity on the Greeks, and she inspires Achilles to
call a meeting to investigate the causes of the plague. There is a general
awareness that the plague is sacred in nature, and Achilles suggests that
they inquire of a seer or priest as to its specific cause. The seer
Calchas explains that Apollo is angry with the Greeks because of
Agamemnon’s rude treatment of Chryses. Only by returning Chryses’
daughter and performing ritual sacrifices will the Greeks appease Apollo's
anger and stop the plague.
initiated this human/divine crisis of plague by his angry treatment of
Chryses. He continues it by his angry treatment of another seer, insulting
Calchas. Agamemnon is furious and makes no attempt to control his anger:
"and with rage was his black heart wholly filled, and his eyes were
like blazing fire" (Il. 1. 103-4). Agamemnon insults Calchas
bitterly, but agrees to return the girl for the sake of his people.
However, he demands that the Greeks provide him with another prize to
rises to the bait, calling Agamemnon: "'thou most covetous of all
men'" (Il. 1. 122). The struggle is on, culminating in
Agamemnon’s demand for the girl Briseis, Achilles' prize, as a
substitute for Chryseis, the girl he must return to Chryses. Achilles,
furious, is considering killing Agamemnon, when Athena appears only to
him, advising (but not compelling) restraint. Hera has sent her, since she
loves Achilles and Agamemnon equally.7 Athena promises that
Achilles will receive threefold rewards in the future if he controls
agrees to cooperate and sheaths his sword. However, he swears an oath to
Agamemnon that will become the core of the plan of Zeus: "'verily
shall a longing for Achilles some day come upon the sons of the Achaeans
one and all, and in that day shalt thou in no wise be able to help them
for all thy grief, when many shall fall in death before manslaying Hector.
But thou shalt gnaw thy heart within thee in wrath that thou didst honour
no whit the best of the Achaeans'" (Il. 1. 240-44).
far there has been tremendous anger, the gods have been involved, but the
situation is not irreversible. Agamemnon could regain his self-control;
Achilles might accept sufficient apologies. It is at this point, when
correct action is still possible, that the master of correct action,
Nestor, rises to speak, giving good advice that could repair the
situation. Nestor's age and experience are sources of wisdom that can
teach men how they ought to behave. Nestor tells the two quarreling
"Neither do thou,
mighty though thou art, seek to take from him the girl . . . nor do thou,
son of Peleus, be minded to strive with a king . . . for it is no common
honour that is the portion of a sceptred king to whom Zeus giveth glory.
Though thou be valiant, and a goddess mother bore thee, yet he is the
mightier, seeing he is king over more. Son of Atreus, do thou check thy
rage; nay, even I beg thee to let go thine anger against Achilles, who is
for all the Achaeans a mighty bulwark of evil war" (Il. 1.
advice weighs the relative merits of the two angry men and shows the path
to a compromise that would benefit all of the Greeks. Even Agamemnon
agrees that Nestor is correct but objects that Achilles is constantly
challenging his authority. Achilles replies with more angry words and they
part. Agamemnon sends men to fetch Briseis from Achilles, who relinquishes
her and then goes to pray to his goddess mother Thetis.
has made a fatal error. Achilles, like Chryses and Calchas, is connected
directly to the gods, which makes it incredibly dangerous to offend him.
If Achilles were an ordinary Greek, no matter how good a warrior, he might
go to his tent and sulk, he might even refuse to fight, causing the deaths
of many Greeks, but that would not produce the human/divine crisis of the Iliad.
However, Achilles is not an ordinary warrior, he is semi-divine, and when
offended he is able to approach the gods directly, precipitating the
human/divine crisis that will result in the terrible wave of deaths that
constitutes both the wrath of Achilles and the plan of Zeus.8
seeks the payment of a debt that Zeus owes to Thetis. Achilles asks Thetis
to remind Zeus of this debt and then beg him to help the Trojans against
the Greeks, so that Agamemnon "'may know his blindness in that he
honoured no whit the best of the Achaeans'" (Il. 1. 411-12).
Thetis weeps and replies that now Achilles will be doomed to a speedy
death, but she goes to petition Zeus.
the Greeks return the girl to Chryses, perform the correct rituals of
sacrifice, and Chryses prays to Apollo to stop the plague. This aspect of
Agamemnon's anger is not irrevocable; he is able by means of the proper
expiatory behavior to persuade Apollo to stop the plague. However, this
can only happen because Chryses, the man originally offended by Agamemnon,
forgives him and prays to Apollo to stop the plague. Agamemnon has to do
several things to stop the sacred plague: expiate his offense to the
priest, Chryses, by returning the girl; expiate his offense to Apollo by
offering sacrifice; and gain the forgiveness of Chryses, who approached
Apollo in the first place. If Chryses had been hardhearted, one can be
sure that the Greeks alone could not have appeased Apollo sufficiently to
stop the plague, which was produced to honor Chryses rather than merely to
punish the Greeks.
theme of forgiveness will be echoed in the later stress on Achilles'
hardness of heart. The path to the god is via the man connected to the
god; consequently forgiveness, or the resolution of a human/divine crisis,
must be mediated by the emotions of human beings, just as the original
offense was produced by human emotions.
the twelfth day Thetis visits Zeus and asks him to honor her son Achilles,
who has been dishonored by Agamemnon. She asks Zeus to help the Trojans
until the Greeks show honor to Achilles and give him gifts to compensate
for the dishonor he has suffered. Zeus agrees reluctantly to do what she
requests and makes the promise irrevocable by bowing his head, saying
"'no word of mine may be recalled, nor is false, nor unfulfilled,
whereto I bow my head'" (Il. 1. 526-27). Now there can be no
forgiveness, no good advice, no easy reconciliation. Events have escalated
to a full human/divine crisis, and from this point until the final
resolution, human actions will be largely determined by the terrible plan
the distance between humans and the gods is collapsed, and the human anger
of Achilles and Agamemnon has involved the gods, many humans must die
until the wrath of Achilles and the plan of Zeus are fulfilled. Achilles
has initiated the mass killing of his fellow Greeks by his petition to
Zeus to give him honor. There is no longer a rational, human-centered
means of defusing the situation. Agamemnon was able to return the girl to
Chryses and end the plague. He can no longer solve his relationship to
Achilles by merely returning Briseis to him, because Zeus has promised to
give Achilles honor by having the Trojans kill many Greeks. The quarrel
between two leaders has turned into the willful destruction of many of
their own people.
has committed a terrible act by turning his anger from Agamemnon onto the
masses of Greek soldiers. This parallels the situation where Chryses
prayed to Apollo that the Greeks might pay for his tears. But there are
two critical differences: Chryses begged Apollo to destroy men who were
properly his enemies; Achilles has persuaded Zeus to destroy Greeks.
Strictly speaking, it is the Myrmidons who are Achilles' own people.
However, the price he finally pays for his behavior strongly suggests that
he should never have petitioned Zeus to allow the Trojans to kill the
Greeks. Furthermore, Apollo is not Zeus. Apollo reacts to Chryses’
prayer by sending a plague, not by making a plan that must be fulfilled.
the human point of view, the struggle between Agamemnon and Achilles
cannot be solved; both have grievances and both have power. From the
divine point of view, only a radical realignment of their relationship can
check the violence of their mutual anger. The anger of Agamemnon has
spread like an infection, first producing the plague, and then inflaming
Achilles, leading to the events of Achilles' wrath and the plan of Zeus,
paralleling the anger of Chryses and the plague of Apollo.
plan of Zeus centers on mass killing of Greeks until Hector kills
Patroclus, Achilles' best friend. The death of Patroclus is the price
Achilles pays for his wrath; the death of Hector is the price the Trojans
pay for the death of Patroclus; and Achilles' death will be the price for
the death of Hector. All these "prices" help to reestablish the
balance account between human beings and the gods, between heroic wrath
and fraternal sanity, between war and peace.
death finally deflects the wrath of Achilles away from the Greeks onto the
more suitable figure of Hector. Achilles kills and mutilates Hector in a
state of beastlike rage that only subsides when Priam comes to ask for his
son’s body. Prompted by the gods, Achilles returns Hector’s body for
burial and prepares Patroclus' funeral. Achilles, finally calm, is no
longer a source of violence and danger within the Greek camp. His wrath is
over, and the plan of Zeus has been fulfilled.
must die because he is a substitute for the deadly Achilles who has taken
a step far more destructive than the anger of Agamemnon, by praying to
Zeus to let the Trojans kill the Greeks.10 Patroclus dies
instead of Achilles. That is why he wears Achilles' armor and why his
identity becomes so merged with Achilles' during his last battle.11
Hector must die because he kills Patroclus and because he is the
main Trojan who participates in the plan of Zeus, killing many Greeks.
Patroclus and Hector are killed by the direct involvement of gods and
humans; both die wearing the armor of Achilles. Both die in a state of
delusion sent by the gods, which is only lifted at the moment of their
deaths. Both die knowing it is the will of the gods, not the strength of
men, that is killing them. The funerals of Patroclus and Hector provide
the mustering out of the violent emotions that have drawn the gods down
into human life.
must die because Achilles cannot cease from his murderous rage against the
Greeks. Even as he prepares to send Patroclus out to fight in his stead,
Achilles says: "`I would, O father Zeus, and Athene, and Apollo, that
no man of the Trojans might escape death, of all that there are, neither
any of the Argives, but that we twain might escape destruction, that alone
we might loose the sacred diadem of Troy'" (Il. 14. 97-100).
Achilles is just as dangerous to the Greeks as he is to the
Trojans, even though the wrath acts indirectly, by willing that the
Trojans kill the Greeks, rather than by killing the Greeks directly.
Achilles' wrath is violence run wild within the society of the Greeks.
finally sends out his troops to help the Greek army, because he pities his
friend's pity, not because he personally cares about the fate of the
Greeks. Achilles observes Patroclus crying at the opening of book 16 and
asks the reason. Patroclus replies that he weeps for the terrible injuries
and deaths that the Greeks have suffered and requests that he might wear
Achilles' armor and take the Myrmidons into battle. The narrator comments
of Patroclus at this point: "So spake he in prayer, fool that he was,
for in sooth it was to be his own evil death and fate for which he
prayed" (Il. 16. 46-47). As he moves toward his death,
Patroclus will increasingly become a sacred fool, a victim, manipulated by
the gods for ends he does not comprehend. Unknowing, he will fit into the
plan of Zeus and the ultimate fulfillment and cessation of the wrath of
is a kind, gentle man. He
interrupts an errand for Achilles in order to bind up the wound of
Eurypylus. He is the one who weeps for the dying Greeks. He is also the
man closest to Achilles; they are like brothers. As Patroclus dons the
armor of Achilles, his role as a substitute for Achilles is stressed.
Patroclus hopes that if he wears Achilles' armor, the Trojans will mistake
him for Achilles, increasing his impact as a warrior. Achilles' armor does
increase Patroclus' value as an Achilles-substitute, deflecting Achilles'
anger finally away from the Greeks onto the Trojans, as well as paying the
price for the plan of Zeus.
is not clear why Achilles lets Patroclus go out in his armor rather than
going himself. Achilles responds to Patroclus' request to go out and fight
by saying: "`Dread grief is this to me, seeing I have suffered woes
at heart…. Howbeit these things will we let be, as past and done. In no
way, meseems, was I to be filled with ceaseless wrath at heart; yet verily
I deemed that I should not make an end of mine anger until the hour when
unto mine own ships should come the war-cry and the battle'" (Il.
does not understand the plan of Zeus, nor the sacrifice that he is making
of his dearest friend in order to fulfill that plan. Before sending
Patroclus forth, Achilles makes a ritual drink offering to Zeus, praying
that Patroclus might drive the Trojans back from the Greek ships, and that
he might return safely: "So spake he in prayer, and Zeus, the
counsellor, heard him, and a part the Father granted him, and a part
denied. That Patroclus should thrust back the war and battle from the
ships he granted; but that he should return safe from out the battle he
denied" (Il. 16. 249-52).
in Achilles' armor, routs the Trojans who think that he is Achilles. The
approaching death of Patroclus takes on a quality of compulsion that is
extreme, even for this poem about the wills of the gods exercised upon the
lives of men. Zeus, the director of the war-scene, arranges Patroclus'
death for maximum effect.
[Zeus] ever looked down
upon them, and debated in heart, pondering much about the slaying of
Patroclus, whether in the fierce conflict even there over godlike
Sarpedon, glorious Hector should slay him likewise with the sword, and
should strip the armour from his shoulders, or whether for yet more men he
should make the utter toil of war to wax. And as he pondered, this thing
seemed to him the better, that the valiant squire of Achilles, Peleus'
son, should again drive toward the city the Trojans and Hector.
(Il. 16. 646-54)
had been warned by Achilles to drive the Trojans back from the ships, but
not to pursue them across the plain to Troy. However, we see him doing
just that, driven by Zeus, and yet somehow responsible for his behavior:
. . . pressed after the Trojans and Lycians, and was greatly blinded
in heart, fool that he was! for had he observed the word of the son of
Peleus, he would verily have escaped the evil fate of black death. But
ever is the intent of Zeus stronger than that of men, for he driveth
even a valiant man in rout, and robbeth him of victory full easily,
and again of himself he rouseth men to fight; and he it was that now
put fury in the breast of Patroclus."
(Il. 16. 648-91)
extraordinary passage sums up the paradox of the death of Patroclus. Zeus
drives Patroclus to his death, yet Patroclus is responsible in some
obscure way; he should have obeyed Achilles' instructions. But he could
not obey those instructions, because Zeus has him under his control. Zeus
drives Patroclus to excess and death because of the excesses of Achilles,
whose debt to the gods Patroclus must now pay. The odd blame attached to
him really belongs to Achilles, who is generally not blamed at all.
Achilles petitioned Zeus for redress; Patroclus' death is the price of
by Zeus, Patroclus leads the Greeks in slaughtering the Trojans.
Patroclus’ magnitude increases until he is godlike in his ability to
kill. He has incarnated the violence of Achilles, which up to now had
been, in effect, turned against the Greeks. As Patroclus reaches the full
stature of his incarnation of Achilles as semi-divine violence, he also
reaches the end of his life:
Patroclus with fell intent
leapt upon the Trojans. Thrice then leapt he upon them, the peer of swift
Ares, crying a terrible cry, and thrice he slew nine men. But when for the
fourth time he rushed on, like a god, then for thee, Patroclus, did the
end of life appear; for Phoebus met thee in the fierce conflict, an awful
god." (Il. 16. 783-89)
is the "peer of Ares" the war god; he is like a god. He is the
violence of Achilles in a form that can and must be killed in order to
fulfill Zeus' plan. He is, in short, a victim, the price Achilles must pay
for his wrath. Patroclus, for all his glory as a warrior, dies the death
of a victim, struck down first by Apollo:
And Patroclus marked him
not as he passed through the turmoil, for enfolded in thick mist did he
meet him; and Apollo took his stand behind him, and smote his back and
broad shoulders with the flat of his hand, and his eyes were made to
whirl. And from his head Phoebus Apollo smote the helmet, that rang as it
rolled beneath the feet of the horses--the crested helm; and the plumes
were befouled with blood and dust…. And in the hands of Patroclus the
far-shadowing spear was wholly broken, the spear, heavy, and huge, and
strong … and from his shoulders the tasselled shield with its baldric
fell to the ground, and his corselet did Apollo loose--the prince, the son
of Zeus. Then blindness seized his mind, and his glorious limbs were
loosed beneath him, and he stood in a daze.
(Il. 16. 789-806)
Patroclus has been stunned and disarmed by Apollo, Euphorbus, a Trojan,
hurls a spear at him, and only after that does Hector thrust his spear
into Patroclus' belly for the final stroke of death. The dying Patroclus
realizes he has been killed first of all by the gods, and he tells the
foolishly boasting Hector: "`Nay, it was baneful Fate and the son of
Leto that slew me, and of men Euphorbus, while thou art the third in my
slaying. And another thing will I tell thee … thou shalt not thyself be
long in life, but even now doth death stand hard by thee, and might fate,
that thou be slain beneath the hands of Achilles'" (Il. 16.
and Hector are the two men whose deaths are required to fulfill the plan
of Zeus. Patroclus had to die to pay for the excesses of Achilles, and to
deflect the anger of Achilles from the Greeks to the Trojans. Hector must
die because he has been the murderous agent of Achilles' wrath, killing
the Greeks so that Achilles might receive honor according to the bitter
plan of Zeus. Hector’s death will complete the wrath of Achilles and the
plan of Zeus.
the final victim of the plan of Zeus, strips the body of Patroclus and
exchanges his armor for the armor of Achilles. This is essential so that
he may more perfectly be the final victim of the wrath, killed by a
conjunction of gods and men, as was Patroclus. Zeus observes doomed Hector
donning the armor of Achilles:
"Ah, poor wretch,
death verily is not in they thoughts, that yet draweth nigh thee; but thou
art putting upon thee the immortal armour of a princely man before whom
others besides thee are wont to quail. His comrade, kindly and valiant,
hast thou slain, and in unseemly wise hast stripped the armour from his
head and shoulders. Howbeit for this present will I vouchsafe thee great
might, in recompense for this--that in no wise shalt thou return from out
the battle." (Il.17. 201-07)
then makes the armor fit Hector's body, "and there entered into him
Ares … and his limbs were filled within with valour and with might"
(Il. 17. 210-12). Hector, like Patroclus, is enhanced and glorified to increase
the value of his death. Just as Patroclus had to become glorious in the
immortal armor in order to be killed as a substitute for Achilles, now
Hector, in the same armor, is glorified so that his death can better
absorb the force of Achilles' violence.12
anger against the Greeks is now redirected onto a more suitable
object--the leader of the enemy army, Hector, who has been acting out
Achilles' rage against the Greeks. Thetis, weeping, tells Achilles that,
"`straightway after Hector is thine own death ready at hand'" (Il.
18. 96). This, too, will restore balance, since Achilles ultimately
has been the one responsible for the deaths of the Greeks. The death of
Hector will be the next to final price for Achilles' wrath, since it is
the precondition for Achilles' own death.
tells Thetis that he is willing to die, since he did not help Patroclus in
his moment of need. Further, Achilles accepts responsibility for the
destruction his wrath has caused:
seeing I return not to my dear native land, neither proved anywise a light
of deliverance to Patroclus nor to my other comrades, those many that have
been slain by goodly Hector, but abide here by the ships a profitless
burden upon the earth . . . so may strife perish from among gods and men,
and anger that setteth a man on to grow wroth, how wise soever he
be.'" (Il. 18. 101-8)
acknowledging the destructiveness of his anger, Achilles finally exercises
self-control over his emotions, telling his mother, "`Howbeit these
things we will let be as past and done, for all our pain, curbing the
heart in our breasts, because we must. But now will I go forth that I may
light on the slayer of the man I loved, even on Hector; for my fate, I
will accept it whenso Zeus willeth to bring it to pass'" (Il.
accepted his responsibility and his fate, Achilles will dress in the
immortal armor made for him by Hephaestus and complete the violence of the
wrath, killing many Trojans in a bloody fury that leads up to the final
killing of Hector wearing armor that makes him look like Achilles, like
gods prepare Hector for his death, just as they arranged for his earlier
glory in battle. As the Trojans flee into their city, escaping Achilles’
wrath on the battlefield, Hector is stopped outside the city walls.
"Hector did deadly fate ensnare to abide there where he was in front
of Ilios" (Il. 22. 5-6). Apollo had diverted Achilles away
from the city, so that all of the Trojans except Hector could escape
within. Priam is the first to see Achilles finally approaching Troy, and
he begs Hector to come within the gates, but Hector is "furiously
eager to do battle with Achilles" (Il. 22. 36).
resists Priam's tearful pleading--he is willing to die to pay the price
for his error in not properly leading the Trojans and debates within
"Ah, woe is me, if I
go within the gates and the walls Polydamas will be the first to put
reproach upon me, for that he bade me lead the Trojans to the city during
this fatal night, when goodly Achilles arose. Howbeit I hearkened
not--verily it had been better far! But
now, seeing I have brought the host to ruin in my blind folly, I have
shame of the Trojans . . . for me it were better far to meet Achilles man
to man and slay him, and so get me home, or myself perish gloriously
before the city." (Il. 22. 99-110)
parallels the blame attached to Patroclus, who should have obeyed the
instructions of Achilles, although he could not because Zeus drove him to
fury. But Patroclus and Hector must appear sufficiently guilty (or
responsible for disaster, if one dislikes the term guilt applied to
Homeric Greeks),13 so that their deaths can appear to be
appropriate to them, rather than to Achilles, for whom they are substitute
is in a state of confusion before the walls of Troy. He quickly vacillates
in his feelings from wanting to face Achilles like a hero to wondering if
he can offer to return Helen and much treasure, ending the war then and
there. Hector does not want to play the role of victim assigned to him,
and when Achilles finally draws close, Hector begins to run away.
scene takes on qualities of the funeral games, where the prizes are no
longer life or death--they celebrate a death that has already occurred.
This race is a game before the funeral, a rite made into a dramatic
situation. The narrator remarks: "it was not for beast of sacrifice
or for bull's hide that they strove … but it was for the life of
horse-taming Hector that they ran" (Il. 22. 159-61). Hector's
life is indeed the prize in this race and the price of Patroclus' death.
be worthy of this role, Hector must be excellent, the best available. So
at just this moment when Hector's race is most like a funeral rite, Zeus,
knowing full well that Hector must die, addresses his fellow gods, as if
Hector could be saved, and remarks on his excellence and piety:
"Look you now, in
sooth a well-loved man do mine eyes behold pursued around the wall; and my
heart hath sorrow for Hector, who hath burned for me many thighs of oxen .
. . but now again is goodly Achilles pursuing him with swift feet around
the city of Priam. Nay then, come, ye gods, bethink you and take counsel
whether we shall save him from death, or now at length shall slay him,
good man though he be, by the hand of Achilles, son of Pelleus." (Il.
correctly replies that Hector has been doomed by fate and cannot be saved.
excellence becomes that of a fleeing animal. First, he is compared to a
racing horse, then to a fawn chased by a hound. So that Hector may excel
in this role, Apollo gives him swiftness for the last time. This is
necessary because Achilles is swift-footed and requires a victim who can
excel at running, just as his violence requires a victim who can excel at
violence. Having been as violent as a deity in the armor of Achilles,
Hector is now swift as a deer in the armor of Achilles--a perfect match, a
perfect victim for Achilles.
death proceeds with the finality of a funeral race. On the fourth circuit
of Troy15 Zeus lifts his scales: "and set therein two
fates of grievous death, one for Achilles, and one for horse-taming
Hector; then he grasped the balance by the midst and raised it; and down
sank the day of doom of Hector, and departed unto Hades" (Il.
22. 209-13). The scale is a perfect image for deciding the death of Hector
because it functions to establish balance. The balance of human
emotions and of the right separation between humans and gods has been
disturbed by violence spreading outward from Agamemnon and Achilles; the
death of Hector will being to reestablish this balance and separation.16
must die to restore balance in the world. Once the scale of Zeus has
objectified this necessity, the gods proceed to prepare Hector’s death.
Apollo leaves Hector and Athena comes to Achilles. She will prepare the
victim to die in a dignified manner. Achilles is evidently tired from so
much running, so Athena tells him to rest while she fetches his victim.
She then goes to Hector, and disguised as his brother Deïphobos, urges
him to stand and fight Achilles. Deluded into believing he has help,
Hector prepares to meet Achilles, offering to fight according to the
covenants of civilized men.
rejects any talk of covenants, saying: "`No more is there any escape
for thee, but forthwith shall Pallas Athene lay thee low by my spear. Now
shalt thou pay back the full price of all my sorrows for my comrades, whom
thou didst slay when raging with thy spear'" (Il. 22. 270-72).
The death of Hector, killed by both a god and a man, will be the
price for the death of Patroclus, as well as for the many dead Greeks. Of
course, Hector was only able to kill those many Greeks because Achilles
had withdrawn from the battle in his wrath and had persuaded Zeus to let
the Trojans have dominance over the Greeks. Hector's death is the final
focus for all the violence and death caused by Achilles' anger and the
plan of Zeus. Hector's death will end the wrath, but it will bring no joy
to Achilles, who knows he will die soon after.17
mutilation is a critical element of his death, beginning when he asks
Achilles for covenants, and continuing throughout the rest of the Iliad.
Achilles' wrath has gone beyond all possibility of covenants. Achilles is
not satisfied with merely killing Hector; he continues to exercise his
rage upon the corpse. After Achilles, aided by Athena, has fatally wounded
Hector, but left the windpipe intact so that he can speak, Hector's one
concern is that his body be returned to his family unmutilated, while
Achilles' concern is that the dogs and birds shall rend Hector's corpse
while Patroclus receives proper burial. Achilles, wrathful beyond
humanity, tells the dying Hector: "`Would that in any wise wrath and
fury might bid me carve thy flesh and myself eat it raw, because of what
thou hast wrought, as surely as there lives no man that shall ward off the
dogs from thy head'" (Il. 22. 346-48).
continues to abuse Hector's body even after the funeral and games for
Patroclus. Every night he weeps for Patroclus, and at dawn every day he
fastens Hector's corpse behind his chariot, drags him three times around
the mound of Patroclus, and then leaves him lying in the dust.
"Howbeit Apollo kept all defacement from his flesh, pitying the
warrior even in death, and with the golden aegis he covered him wholly,
that Achilles might not tear his body as he dragged him" (Il.
continuing abuse of a dead body was beyond the pale of acceptable
behavior. On the twelfth day Apollo, the god of purification, speaks out
among the gods against Achilles' behavior. Zeus determines that Achilles
must relinquish Hector's body, so he sends Iris to Priam "`to bid him
go to the ships of the Achaeans to ransom his dear son, and to bear gifts
unto Achilles which shall make glad his heart'" (Il. 24.
118-19). Just as Patroclus and Hector paid the price for Achilles' wrath,
now Priam must pay the price even more literally, with ransom to recover
his dead son and release Achilles from his obsessive connection to the
corpse. This ransom is a step back towards civilization and covenants,
where men may "make a deal" instead of killing one another.
Achilles has killed Hector, other Greeks run up and gaze at the body; each
speaks and inflicts a wound on the corpse. Hector's death is a community
affair and the resulting funeral ceremonies will purify the entire
community, which has been polluted by an excess of death. The funeral of
Patroclus, with its human sacrifices, defuses much of the passion and
pollution of the Greeks due to the many deaths they have suffered during
plan of Zeus has been completed, but the reestablishment of normal
relations among men and between men and the gods requires careful rituals
and elaborately civilized behavior in order to succeed. The funeral games
for Patroclus are the focus for the reestablishment of human social order
as the passions of men calm down and the gods recede from human affairs.
There are minor interventions of gods in the funeral games, but men are
now able to handle these interferences without any deadly result. Although
there are incipient quarrels about place and worth and prizes, Achilles is
now able to graciously defuse anger and distribute prizes to keep the
peace. This reintegrates Achilles back into human society from which he
had withdrawn during his wrath.
plan of Zeus was a response to the wrath of Achilles. This plan shows a
pattern of cause and effect which operates with the logic of the sacred,
and the dual (or multiple) causation of a system that describes events as
occurring for not one, but for two or more reasons, such as anger being
produced by a man's emotions and by the influence of a god, or the
combination of god-sent delusion and human folly leading to a disastrous
are most vulnerable to multiple or sacred causation when their passions
are strong and their self-control weak. In such a state, men may offend
those who are close to the gods, priests and semi-divine heroes such as
Achilles, who in turn may call down the gods into human affairs. This
creates a state of imbalance in the entire cosmos, among the gods as well
as among men. This imbalance not only causes human suffering, but
discomfort to the gods, such as the wounding of Aphrodite and Ares and the
struggle between Hephaestus and Xanthus. It is the role of Zeus to create
plans to reestablish balance and the appropriate separation between gods
anger is the starting point for everything that happens in the Iliad.
The anger of Agamemnon and the responsive angers of Chryses and Achilles
are the events that initiate the plague and the wrath. The Iliad
was used for centuries much as the Bible has been used, as a source of
historical information that provides sacred and moral instruction.18
At first this is difficult for us to understand, as indeed it became
difficult for some Greeks to understand by the time of Plato. Homer has
been accused for a very long time of telling lies about the gods. But,
considered as a sacred story, the message of the Iliad is extremely
clear and deeply religious, although it expresses a religion very
different from the Judeo-Christian heritage within which we are immersed.
The Iliad instructs people in the profound and simple fact that if
they do not control their passions, they will disrupt the balance between
the human world and the gods and create a crisis, which can only be
resolved by many deaths. Despite all the confusions of multiple
causations, the events of the Iliad happen because Agamemnon lost
his temper and because Achilles, via Thetis, petitioned Zeus for revenge.19
Agamemnon and Achilles learn, by means of the tragic results of their
unleashed anger, that it is better for a man to exercise self-control. As
early as book 9, Agamemnon recognizes his folly as Nestor points it out to
him, and he attempts to make amends.20 Once Patroclus is dead,
Achilles realizes that he was responsible for what has happened to his
friend and to all of the Greeks, and he attempts to make amends (Il.
18. 101-8). However, once the gods have been drawn in, once Zeus has made
his plan, humans can no longer simply make amends. They must then act out
the complex sorrows of passion and death until the plan of Zeus is
fulfilled and normal life is restored.
Iliad not only shows the catastrophic results of unleashed passion,
but also gives clear examples of men exercising self-control and of an
entire complex technology of correct behavior that serves to channel the
sacred by means of proper rituals, thus keeping the gods at a safe
distance from humankind.21
and Diomedes provide models of religiously and socially correct behavior,
which are much the same thing in the Iliad, since anger can draw
the gods down into human affairs. Both men know exactly how to behave in
order to be excellent and yet not involve the gods in any improper and
dangerous manner. Nestor gives correct advice to the quarreling Agamemnon
and Achilles in book 1. Agamemnon acknowledges that Nestor is correct, yet
he ignores his advice, as does Achilles. On the other hand, although
Diomedes is able to fight almost like a god, he is always aware of exactly
when to stop; he commits no offenses that might draw down divine reprisals
upon the human community.22
funeral games portray the reestablishment of correct and normal human
community, after the violence of Achilles has been released by the deaths
of Patroclus and Hector. Purified of the wrath, Achilles is the ideal
leader who arranges games as a form of contained and peaceful competition,
where conflicts can be resolved without violence. The gods are still
present, but men now can control at least some of their own actions, using
knowledge and skill. The interrelationship of human skill, passion, and
the gods is set forth in the chariot race, which is an exemplum of correct
behavior in a potentially dangerous situation.
Antilochus tries to claim the prize for second place in the chariot race,
Menelaus angrily demands judgment from the leaders of the Greeks:
"`Come now, ye leaders and rulers of the Argives, judge ye aright
betwixt us twain, neither have regard unto either," (Il. 23.
583-84). The world is now sufficiently normalized that human judgment can
be called for and applied effectively, which was definitely not the case
during the wrath, when whatever men did merely fulfilled the plan of Zeus.
Menelaus demands that Antilochus swear an oath that he did not use
trickery to pass him, instead of pursuing the conflict, Antilochus
graciously backs down, which is prudent, since he had in fact used
trickery to pass him. Men are now able to compromise in a spirit of social
righteousness, which is also religious righteousness. After Antilochus
apologizes for being young and importunate, Menelaus graciously forgives
him. This is the human social order, as it ought to function and can
indeed function so long as men control their passions and behave correctly
and in a lawful manner.
gods are always present as a potential for disorder. Athena broke the chariot of one man in the race, and caused
Diomedes' horses to win first place. This form of divine involvement,
while important, need not be lethal. One man suffers a spill; no one dies.
However, had Antilochus and Menelaus not been able to compromise and
control their anger, that escalation of anger from one to the other and
back again could have built up tensions that might have again shattered
the boundaries between men and the gods.
funeral games display a social order based on correct behavior, contained
competitiveness and self-control. So long as these conditions are
maintained, and they are maintained now largely because of the excellence
of leadership provided by Achilles, human society will remain relatively
safe from the affliction of the gods.
1. Homer, The Iliad, trans. A. T. Murray, 2 vols. Loeb
Classical Library (1925; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1967). Cited
as Iliad. All references are to the line numbers of the Greek text,
although only the corresponding English translations will be quoted.
2. W. C. Greene comments that “This instinctive feeling of a barrier
between man and god, this fear that any presumption on the part of man may
cause the gods to take offence, lines behind not only the ethical ideas of
the Homeric age but the prudential morality of the historic period. Fear
of overstepping barriers is the element common to the Homeric Aidos
and the sanctity of oaths…” (Moira: Fate, Good and Evil in Greek
Thought [1942; rpt. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968], 20). Walter
Otto remarks of Homer that “There is no doubt that all excess was
repellent to him, and most of all where it seemed to achieve its greatest
miracle: the removal of the bounds between the finite and the infinite,
between man and god” (The
Homeric Gods, trans. Moses Hadas [1954; rpt. New York: Octagon Books,
3. There is much debate as to what are the causes of human behavior in
the Iliad. Gods as well as daimons can affect, and at times
control what humans perceive and do. E. R. Dodds, in The Greeks and the
Irrational (1951; rpt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973), 13,
comments that in Homer, “all departures from normal human behavior whose
causes are not immediately perceived, whether by the subject’s own
consciousness or by the observation of others, are ascribed to a
supernatural agency, just as is any departure from the normal behaviour of
the weather or the normal behaviour of a bowstring.” According to
Greene, Homer recognizes two reasons for excessive human behavior, or hybris:
“…the abuse of human freedom of the will, resulting in a hardened
character, which is atasthalie; and … the heaven-sent power of
evil, which is Ate …” (20-21). Since self-control is praised
and rewarded, while excessive behavior precipitates disasters in the Iliad,
it is reasonable to suppose that human beings were considered capable of
self-control, at least under normal circumstances.
4. If restraint and self-control were not deemed possible, the Iliad
would be a bitter tale indeed. Helen North comments in Sophrosyne:
Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature (Ithaca: Cornell
U P, 1966), 6-7: “That the poet of the Iliad was himself keenly
sensitive to the need for such restraint, both to avert disaster in the
life of the individual and to prevent a society made up of self-assertive
heroes from destroying itself, is evident from the content of many
individual episodes and from the very pattern of the poem, determined as
it is by the sequence of cause and effect, beginning with the hybris
of Agamemnon and the unbounded wrath of Achilles, and culminating in the
scene where Achilles achieves a kind of tragic self-knowledge in response
to Priam’s appeal to his aidôs (Il. 24. 503).”
5. C. M. Bowra, in Heroic Poetry (1952; rpt. New York: St.
Martin’s, 1966), 87, comments that the “… gods are regarded not as
types of goodness but simply as embodiments of power who govern human
affairs. There is nothing wrong in opposing them, but it is extremely
dangerous.” If there is a wrong in this opposition, it lies not in a sin
against the gods, but in the damages the gods may wreak, if angered, upon
ones fellow men.
A. W. Adkins remarks in From the Many to the One, Studies in
the Humanities, ed. Max Black (Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1970) that “…in
Homeric society … the most powerful terms of denigration are applied
quite simply to failure to ensure the safety and well-being of the members
of the group of which one is the head. It makes no difference to the
evaluation of the situation whether the failure results from cowardice, or
from mistake or force majeure: only the result is taken into account”
(29). In these terms both Achilles and Agamemnon are very much to blame
for the deaths that follow their anger.
7. R. Girard, in Violence and the Sacred (1972, trans. Patrick
Gregory [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1977]), commenting on the qualities
of Greek tragedy, points out that the symmetrical equality of the
protagonists is a crucial quality: “Whether the violence is physical or
verbal, the suspense remains the same. The adversaries match blow for blow
. . . it is impossible to predict the outcome of the battle. … Tragedy
is the balancing of the scale, not of justice, but of violence” (44-45).
One can easily imagine that if Hera had not loved Agamemnon and Achilles
equally, the outcome of the quarrel would have quickly been settled by the
victory of her favorite. The very equality of Agamemnon and Achilles in
the eyes of the gods increases their ability to precipitate a state of
8. The deaths of masses of Greeks in the Iliad have a
sacrificial quality, as do the more important deaths of Patroclus and
Hector. This is especially suggested by the extensive use of fire imagery
in the Iliad, which has been examined by Cedric Whitman in Homer
and the Heroic Tradition (1958; rpt. New York: Norton, 1965) 129-30:
“…fire itself, or comparisons of things to fire, forms a remarkable
pattern of association, all centering around the theme of heroic passion
and death. … It begins naturally enough, with sacrifices and funeral
pyres. The first fire we hear of is in the prayer of Chryses, who reminds
Apollo of the sacrifices he has burned.
Shortly thereafter the pyres of the dead blaze in the Greek camp.
…” Fire, especially the fire of funeral pyres, provides a nexus of the
relationship between men, death, and the gods.
9. An example of this occurs in books 3 and 4 of the Iliad,
when the Greeks and Trojans try to end the war reasonably, by means of a
judicial combat between Paris and Menelaus, the contending parties in the
war. But Aprhrodite snatches Paris out of danger and the council of the
gods reinitiates fighting by sending Athene to provoke Pandarus, a Trojan,
into shooting an arrow, thus breaking the truce. During the sacred crisis,
men’s wisest and best efforts are liable to fail completely, because
they do not fit the intentions of the gods.
Heroes are extremely
dangerous, in life and in death. Martin Nilsson remarks: “The hero-cult
… is designed to appease the mighty dead, who are by no means slow to
wrath. … It is the rule, even in historical examples, that the [dead]
hero’s wrath sends disasters, plague, and famine, and that he is
appeased according to the instructions of Delphi” (A History of Greek
Religion, trans. F. J. Fielden, 2nd ed [1925; rev. ed.
1952; rpt. New York: Norton, 1964], 194).
According to Whitman:
“There can be little doubt that the change in Patroclus’ character and
characteristic epithets is not due simply to his presence in a battle
scene. … Patroclus is playing the role of Achilles. For the moment he
has become Achilles, and acts much more like the great hero than like
R. Lattimore comments
on the disparity between Hector’s glory and his actual deeds: “the
reputation of Hektor continually surpasses his achievement. … his only
really great victim is Patroklos; and from Patroklos he runs, and must be
rallied to fight him…. Much of what he does is by divine favour. Apollo
picks him up when he is down, and Zeus is behind his charges” (The Iliad
of Homer, trans. and intro. by R. Lattimore [1951; rpt. Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1961]. 35).
Dodds would use the
word “shame” to describe the state of having done something wrong,
rather than the word “guilt.” He argues that Homer’s society was a
“shame-culture,” not a “guilt-culture” (17). Whatever the term
used, the negative qualities of Achilles’ wrath are partially
transferred onto Patroclus and Hector, as a part of their deaths.
“guilts” or “shames” are the source of a long and confusing
tradition of the genteel or minor faults of Hector, which are those of an
otherwise blameless man, who yet consistently commits major errors
producing woes for the Trojans in many future Troy stories.
Patroclus had advanced
killing Trojans three times. On the fourth advance, Apollo struck him (Il.
Balance is a critical
structural property of the entire Iliad. Whitman has shown how the Iliad
is organized according to geometric principles of opposition and balance:
“Concentric circles are a universal device in Geometric art…and the
principle of balance around a central point which is implied in concentric
circles is far and away the dominating formal principle in the Iliad.
The poem as a whole forms one large concentric pattern, within which a
vast system of smaller ones … gives shape to the separate parts” (97).
These principles of balance seem to extend beyond the poetics of the Iliad
to its view of the cosmos as in a state of complex balance until
Agamemnon too is
responsible for the deaths of many Greeks because of his sacrilege against
Chryses and his uncontrolled anger against Achilles. Agamemnon, like
Achilles, received no direct punishment within the context of the Iliad,
but there are many stories outside of the Iliad that describe his
death, rather like the slaughter of an animal, at the hands of
Clytemnestra and her lover. Agamemnon was really the starting point of all
the murderous wrath of the Iliad, but he was too powerful to kill,
so others died for him. The same is true for Achilles, the next in the
chain of power and anger.
Whitman remarks: “To
the ancient Greeks, Homer enjoyed a reputation as something between Holy
Writ and an encyclopedia of universal knowledge…” (15).
Greene comments that
“the Hybris and still more the Atasthalie of Homer
represent the idea of sin, with the emphasis … on innate and growing
proneness to mischief, no a deliberate choice of evil. They are the result
of an aggravated willfulness, of a failure to observe Aidos; and
they lead to Nemesis and the punishment of the gods” (24). Cause
and effect, human misconduct and divine reaction, are the reasons why
events happen in the Iliad.
Nestor: “’Blind I was, myself I deny it not.… Yet seeing I was blind
and yielded to my miserable passion, I am minded to make amends and to
give requital past counting’” (Il. 9. 116-20). There is a real
question of whether Agamemnon’s excuse that he was “blind” is meant
to actually excuse him of responsibility for what he did, or merely to
represent his version of why he behaved as he did according to his best
self-interest. Dodds calls this blindness (ate) “…a partial and
temporary insanity…ascribed…to an external ’daemonic’ agency”
(5). Greene points out “…that if Agamemnon is merely seeking to excuse
himself, let it be remembered that elsewhere Zeus is represented by the
poet as willfully deceptive” (21). Yet Agamemnon and Achilles are not
represented in their original quarrel as being victims of externally
produced behavior, but as men unleashing their own rage, and Agamemnon
does indeed learn that it is better to exercise self-control, if possible.
remarks: “If we strike a proper balance, we must acknowledge that
Homer’s gods are effective and his religion real, but that his human
characters are free to decide and are responsible for their decisions” (The
Justice of Zeus, Sather Classical Lectures, Vol. 41 [1971; rpt.
Berkeley: U of California P, 1973] 10). This freedom and responsibility
are most critical when dealing with the gods, where any error can produce
Nilsson comments that
Homer deliberately contrasted “…the self-assertion and obstinacy of
Achilles with the loyalty of Diomedes to his suzerain and to the gods” (Homer
and Mycenae [1933; rpt. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1968]